Nationals

Williams vs No. 1 Azarenka in Brisbane semifinals

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Williams vs No. 1 Azarenka in Brisbane semifinals

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) Serena Williams had a tough win over the woman she's predicting will one day top the rankings, setting up a semifinal match at the Brisbane International against current No. 1 Victoria Azarenka.

The reigning Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Olympic champion showed plenty of emotion on key points in a heavy-hitting duel with Fed Cup teammate Sloane Stephens on Thursday before winning 6-4, 6-3.

Williams converted both break points and fended off one break chance against her in each set, later saying Stephens had the potential to be ``the best in the world one day.''

Stephens was hitting the ball hard and cleanly, and got the better of some powerful rallies, but lacked experience in the two key moments - giving up a set point after wasting a game point on her own serve in the first and dropping serve in the eighth game of the second set.

The 19-year-old Stephens accepted the warm praise from Williams, her childhood idol.

``To have someone like that who I think is one of the greatest players to ever play the game say that about you is really nice,'' Stephens said. ``I lost to the best player in the world today, so, you know, it's good.''

Williams has an 11-1 record against Azarenka and was 5-0 against the 23-year-old Belarussian in 2012, including the U.S. Open final.

Olympic and U.S. Open champion Andy Murray was pushed before winning his opening match 6-1, 5-7, 6-3 against Australian qualifier John Millman, who finished last year ranked No. 228.

The third-ranked Murray, the defending Brisbane champion, clutched at his stomach after missing a forehand in the third game of the second set and later had to save four set points before Millman tied the match at one set apiece.

Murray recovered from his lapse, got the only break in the deciding third set and finished off by holding serve at love. He'll meet Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan, a 7-5, 7-5 winner over former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, in the quarterfinals.

``For a first match of the year, that was a perfect match in many ways to go through some tough moments, a lot of long rallies, close games, and important points,'' Murray said. ``It was great to play in an atmosphere like that for the first match of the year, to get back into the swing of playing in front of large and loud crowds.

``No matter how much you practice, you can't replicate those sorts of atmospheres.''

In the other men's second-round matches, Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria upset No. 2-seeded Milos Raonic of Canada 6-3, 6-4 and No. 7 Jurgen Melzer of Austria had a 6-5, 7-6 (4) win over David Goffin of Belgium.

The women's semifinals are set for Friday, with Williams getting the least recovery time.

She seemed to have trouble with her right calf muscle midway through the second set against Stephens, knocking her lower leg three times with her racket before she served at 40-0 in the fifth game, but later said she didn't have any injury concerns.

Azarenka started 2012 on a run, winning the Sydney International and the Australian Open - her first major - and gaining the No. 1 ranking during a 26-match winning streak.

But after a first-round exit in the French Open, Williams finished 2012 as the most dominant woman on tour. She has won 34 of her last 35 matches, including titles at Wimbledon, the London Olympics, the U.S. Open and the WTA Championships.

With the Australian Open starting on Jan. 14, and neither Azarenka nor Williams playing another tournament before then, Friday's semifinal shapes up as a classic.

``I'm going up against the world's greatest tomorrow. She had a fabulous year,'' the third-ranked Williams said of Azarenka. ``I feel like I have nothing to lose. She's playing so well, she won I think in 20 minutes today. I have a lot of work to do tomorrow.''

Azarenka actually took 68 minutes to win her quarterfinal match. And she was looking forward to a chance to beat Williams, a 15-time major winner, before the first Grand Slam event of 2013.

``Well, it's a tough match, there is no question about it,'' Azarenka said. ``It's going to be a great test for the Australian Open.''

Azarenka and Williams are the only two seeded players still in contention in Brisbane after No. 36-ranked Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia beat No. 4 Angelique Kerber of Germany 7-6 (3), 7-6 (3) in the first of the quarterfinals, her second win over a top 10 player this week after defeating 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in the first round.

Pavlyuchenkova will play Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine, the lucky loser from qualifying who got into the main draw when No. 2-ranked Maria Sharapova withdrew because of a sore right collarbone. Tsurenko had a 6-3, 6-4 win over Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia.

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If teams start 19-31 like the Nationals, it really is over in a 50-game season

If teams start 19-31 like the Nationals, it really is over in a 50-game season

To put 50 games in context, just flashback to last season. It’s easy enough. Say it: 19-31. If the Nationals could, they would trademark those numbers together.

Fifty games is a flash. Almost a death knell to the eventual 2019 World Series champions. That’s a season over in late May. Think of it this way: Teams play around 30 games in a normal spring training alone.

The owners have pushed this number into the public with their non-counter-counter to the players’ suggestion of 114 games. Commissioner Rob Manfred is trying to use the March agreement between players and owners as a cudgel. Players are refusing to take a further pay cut on top of the one already negotiated. Manfred in turn is saying, “Fine. Then we will schedule the amount of games that are in line with what you are being paid.”

In play now is the 48-game season, according to ESPN. A smidge under 50. A full blitz that would be looked back at as a farce if it’s attempted to be played in the regular way. Playing half a season in the traditional manner is probably the minimum for any legitimacy. Even then, 2020 will be awash in caveats.

The Nationals’ 2020 recovery came against restrictive odds. The manager was supposed to be fired. Some suggested trading the best players, and to do it sooner than later. Season simulations said the Nationals were done. Or as close to it as possible.

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A 50- or 48-game season would cook anyone who has a bad two weeks. Lose a frontline starter? It’s over. Have your shortstop and leadoff hitter hit on the finger by a pitch and miss three weeks? It’s over. Half a season feels like a baseball sprint. Fifty games or less defines the league’s desperation to put some pennies back in its pocket in 2020.

There is one fun idea around a 50-game season. It was hatched at Fangraphs. The premise is one big 50-game tournament. Not the usual three-game series in this town, and four-game series in that city.
Fangraphs makes the on-point mathematical argument that 50 games determines next to nothing when comparing the best in the league to the mediocre. It’s just games for the sake of games.

Since baseball is trying to wade through extraordinary times, why not attempt something extraordinary, such as the tournament?

The model used at Fangraphs included 32 teams, all 30 major-league clubs plus two futures teams, one from each league. Let’s use that premise.

Stage the whole thing in the Texas Rangers’ new park -- Texas is already saying it will allow fans. Have a loser’s bracket. Make the final a five-game series. Pay the players what was already negotiated. Pin more money to the outcome. Run it from early July to the end of September. That way, you still play through much of the summer but duck under a possible fall coronavirus spike the owners are so wary of.

No caveats about if the season was long enough for an authentic champion. This is a complete outlier. The tournament year. Players wore microphones. Some kid from Double-A struck out Bryce Harper in a big at-bat. No leagues. Everyone in the same pot. Have some fun amid an historically troubling time.

What’s not working is the public whining from both sides. The inability to make a deal. The lack of common ground. Both groups are working toward one idea: loss mitigation. A 50-game season does little of that and carries even less validity. Just ask a team that opened last year 19-31.

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Maryland announces plan for football players to return to campus, resume workouts

Maryland announces plan for football players to return to campus, resume workouts

Maryland football players will be allowed to report back to the team’s facilities as soon as Monday, the athletics department announced in a press release Friday.

After the players each undergo a complete physical exam, mental health screening and COVID-19 education session, the team will hold voluntary individual workouts starting June 15 to begin preparing for the 2020 season.

“Our gradual, phased approach prioritizes the health and well-being of our student-athletes, coaches and staff,” Athletics Director Damon Evans said in a statement. “We remain optimistic about the return of fall sports, and this plan will serve as our cautious and considered roadmap to the resumption of athletic competition.”

The state of Maryland and Prince George’s County have each begun loosening the health protocols they were forced to enact in order to combat the spread of the coronavirus. As a result, Maryland officials decided they could begin “Phase 1” of reopening the school’s athletics department.

Workouts will be held outdoors with players subject to daily wellness checks, which include a “symptom questionnaire” and temperature checks. All players, coaches and staff will be required to wear facemasks with the team providing them if needed. None of the players will be required to attend the workouts and opting out would not have any affect on a player’s scholarship status.

The press release noted that “the plan is subject to change as health conditions and guidance from health officials continues to evolve” but there is no timetable in place for when the school would take the next step in further reopening the athletics department.

There was no mention of any plan for when fall student-athletes outside the football program would be able to resume team activities as well.

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