Wizards

Wozniacki's win is a dreamy result for McIlroy

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Wozniacki's win is a dreamy result for McIlroy

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) This was a first-round match so important for Caroline Wozniacki that it kept her boyfriend, Rory McIlroy, awake at night.

The former No. 1-ranked Wozniacki came back from 3-0 down in the final set to win the last six games of the match against big-hitting German Sabine Lisicki 2-6, 6-3, 6-3 on Tuesday at the Australian Open.

McIlroy got up at 3 a.m. to watch from Abu Dhabi, where he's preparing to play in this weekend's Abu Dhabi HSBC Championships. He was coming off a busy day himself after the announcement of his lucrative multi-year contract with Nike.

Of course, the multimillion dollar golf contract became a topic of conversation.

``It wasn't really a big surprise to me. I kind of knew,'' she said to laughter in the interview room. ``I felt bad for him because I think he went to bed at midnight their time and woke up at 3 and watched me and then back to sleep for a couple of hours. That's a true fan.''

And perhaps it was just the win Wozniacki needed to battle her way back into the upper tier of women's tennis.

``Today, I had to get my fighting spirit up and fight back,'' she said, ``and it paid off.''

Wozniacki had been on a serious slide after losing the No. 1 ranking she had held for two years with a loss in the quarterfinals at Melbourne Park last January. She lost in the third round at the French Open and then the first round at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, briefly falling out of the top 10 before finishing the year at No. 10.

But Wozniacki was the far steadier player Tuesday, patiently moving Lisicki around the court and playing superb defense to extend rallies and wait for Lisicki to make an error. The German made a lot of those - 57 to just eight for Wozniacki.

Lisicki was probably the most dangerous unseeded player in the draw. Currently ranked 36th, the German was a 2011 Wimbledon semifinalist and reached the quarters at Wimbledon last year. She has been ranked as high as No. 12.

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IRON WOMAN: Two-time major winner Svetlana Kuznetsova isn't used to sitting on the sidelines.

Kuznetsova, winner of the 2004 U.S. Open and 2009 French Open, saw her streak of 40 straight Grand Slam appearances broken late last year when a right knee injury forced her out of the U.S. Open. She had appeared in the main draw at every Grand Slam dating to the 2002 U.S. Open.

The Russian, who missed six months because of the injury, said after her first-round victory over Lourdes Dominguez Lino at the Australian Open that the extended break might have done her some good. She was feeling some burnout after playing for 12 straight years without taking any time off.

``It was new for me because I never stopped,'' she said. ``I never stopped for a long time. I played 40 slams, I never missed one.''

``It was a little strange for me,'' she added of the enforced break, ``but I think it was useful for my head.''

Kuznetsova's ranking has dipped to 75th, but she has beaten two top 20 players at lead up tournaments since her return at the beginning of this season - No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki and No. 18 Julia Georges.

Her section of the draw has opened up in Melbourne, too, with seventh-seeded Sara Errani's loss on Tuesday. But Kuznetsova isn't looking beyond her next match against the 26th-seeded Hsieh Su-wei of Taiwan.

``The first matches (back) were really complicated for me,'' she said. ``Your mind is a little afraid, your legs cannot go.''

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VIKA AND SERENA: Top-seeded Victoria Azarenka got some sympathy from her biggest rival, Serena Williams, after a bad pedicure forced her to withdraw before their scheduled semifinal at a tuneup tournament in Brisbane two weeks ago.

The Belarusian underwent a minor surgical procedure to remove part of her toenail after a pedicure caused an infection in her right big toe.

``I was talking to Serena that day,'' Azarenka said after her first-round Australian Open win over Romanian Monica Niculescu. ``She had the same thing happen to her before. I now understand what it is, and I'm going to be really careful next time.''

Azarenka didn't have much sympathy for Williams, however, when told after her match that the 15-time major winner had fallen and twisted her ankle during her 6-0, 6-0 drubbing of Romanian Edina Gallovits-Hall.

``I heard she won love and love, so what kind of injury are we talking about?'' she said, in jest.

Azarenka may be the defending champion, but Williams is considered by many to be the tournament favorite. Top-ranked Azarenka said she wasn't even recognized by an Australian Open security guard when she tried to enter the facility one day, until she pointed to her champion's portrait on the wall.

``I was walking, and he's like, `You got your pass?' There was my picture (on the wall). I said, `There is my pass. There it is,''' she said, laughing.

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Bradley Beal not buying into off-court drama: 'All I do is come in here and work'

Bradley Beal not buying into off-court drama: 'All I do is come in here and work'

WASHINGTON -- Bradley Beal held court with reporters following Monday’s practice and hours after a report emerged on ESPN about the sliding Wizards are perhaps open for trade discussions involving all their players. Washington fell to 5-11 Sunday after an “embarrassing” loss. The team hoped by now the skid would stop. It hasn’t.
Neither would the use of a power tool near the Wizards practice court where Beal tried answering questions about the report and offering explanations for this shocking season. With rumors swirling – including one about a highly emotional practice - and highly caffeinated opinions everywhere, a significant question is how the Wizards handle such buzz.

“I’m not going to sit here and say I’m mad or frustrated or angry by it,” Beal said of the report. “All I can do is control what I can control, and that’s totally out of my control. I’ll allow [Wizards team president] Ernie [Grunfeld] and my agent [Mark Bartelstein] to deal with that. All I do is come in here and work, work my tail off every day and make sure we’re better and try to win ball games.”

Beal continued, as did the maintenance work.

“I mean, I’m not going to be naïve to it, you know,” Beal said of the report. “I have a phone just like everybody else does. There were rumors weeks ago. Then, I didn’t buy into them. Now, I’m still not going to buy into them because if that’s my main priority and focus then I’m going to be messed up on the floor.”

On cue, the power tool erupted. Beal, nodding in the direction of the worker joked, “I can’t control him.”

Opponents have largely controlled Washington, which ranks 29th in scoring defense. The Wizards entered this season something of an all-or-nothing team. There were reasons for optimism, namely Beal and fellow All-Star guard John Wall along with improved depth. This bunch also drew numerous skeptics following a frustrating 2017-18 campaign where team chemistry concerns mushroomed.

Experience from other slow starts since he joined Washington in 2012 helps Beal navigate such rough waters. There was a difference this time, an evident change in outlook provided by his son. “A different type of dribbling,” Beal told NBC Sports Washington in Orlando earlier this month.

“[He] makes me realize basketball isn’t my life. I’ll drop basketball right now to take care of my son. That’s a no-brainer. It’s definitely put a lot of things into perspective for me.”

Beal, 25, led Washington in scoring last season while playing all 82 regular season games for the first time in his career. His work led to more national recognition, eyes opening around the league. New reality kicked in from all angles with the family’s new arrival.

“I think the biggest thing for me is embracing. Embracing who I am as a player. The position I’m in. The years I’ve put in. Being an All-Star. Being one of the best [players] and being a father now. Just embracing what all of that entails, good and bad,” Beal said.

The bad is now a daily headline. Monday it was the possibility of a team teardown. Most often, what’s wrong with the Wizards. Beal is here for now and perhaps the entire length of his career, though he grasps professional basketball is a business. Worlds may change overnight. Beal is trying to figure out how to fix things immediately.

Monday Beal cited past Wizards teams that stopped responding during slides. “You know what that feels like when you just show up every day and go through the motions. We don’t have that [now],” he said. What they have isn’t attitudinally enough even compared to last season’s frustrations.

“Last year we kind of had a little more sense of urgency,” Beal told NBC Sports Washington in Orlando. “This year we’re a little too lax. We need to be more pissed off.”

Beal’s annoyance popped publically following a 116-112 loss at Sacramento on Oct. 26 by saying players on the court were letting personal “agendas” take over. The take wasn’t surprising, but Beal told NBC Sports Washington he wishes he could have skipped airing grievances through the media. 

The real takeaway from that moment was the recognition of a problem just five games into the season. The fix remains elusive. Beal leads Washington in scoring (21.5) and handles his business often, but like others at times can get caught up with watching on defense and making bad choices when the offense stagnates.

Finding solutions isn’t up to Beal alone yet he’s one of the clear team leaders. Part of Beal’s dilemma: How to lead when you’re not the only influential voice in the locker room.

“I’ve been struggling with that,” Beal told NBC Sports Washington in Orlando. “It’s not about scoring points. … It’s like, OK, what more can I do to help us win? What am I not doing enough of? I don’t even point at my teammates necessarily first even if I’ve had a great game. It’s like what could I have done more? If that’s what I need to do than I have to do it.

“It is a little confusing. I’m still trying to figure it out, honestly. … It’s not just one thing. The biggest problem if you want to call it a problem is how do you turn around? Win. How do you win? You defend, you rebound, you play your style of basketball. I put a lot of that on my shoulders. If there’s more I can do I’m going to go do it.
It’s definitely something I’m in the process of figuring it out.”

That process is ongoing. The Wizards enter Thanksgiving week in unwanted territory. The new report of potential trades adds another element to the potentially combustible scene.

Beal understands the core group that reached the playoffs in four of the past five seasons might be broken up. He knows there’s little he can do other than play his game, practice with passion and, when home, raise his son with joy. The drama and the outside noise isn’t for him.

“All the behind the scenes stuff, I don’t like worrying about it,” Beal said Monday. “I don’t like consuming my energy with it because basketball is my muse. This is my place of peace, my happy place. If that’s going to be taken away from me, then I’ll be totally messed up. I can’t allow rumors and the possibility of [changes] affect what I do on the floor. At the end of the day, it is a business. [Ernie] has a job. He’s protecting himself. He’s protecting the organization. Nobody can be mad at that.”

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Stand pat or hunt for replacements at second base?

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Stand pat or hunt for replacements at second base?

Mike Rizzo is wading through the offseason with two separate to-do lists. One covers everything Bryce Harper and the other three distinct gaps in his roster: catcher, second base and the third spot in the starting rotation.

The Harper list will ultimately be decided by ownership. Rizzo wants him back. It’s up to the Lerner family how much they are willing to spend on a return. They were the decision-makers on Max Scherzer’s contract. They will again be so with Harper, weighing many of the same things he will, such as legacy, winning and off-the-field futures.

The other list is more mundane. However, it may be more important. The Nationals have multiple quality solutions if Harper signs elsewhere. And no matter where he ends up, they needed to work on the secondary list. Monday, the Nationals reportedly agreed to a two-year deal with catcher Kurt Suzuki, making headway there. So, let’s first take a look at second base before checking on the third rotation spot later in the week:

The in-house option: Split time between Wilmer Difo and Howie Kendrick

Rizzo told reporters at the general manager meetings he felt good about using the above combination to take care of second base next season. Kendrick would, theoretically, provide a steady bat. Difo would, theoretically, provide athleticism the lineup needs and solid defense at a spot where it did not exist the last three seasons with Daniel Murphy.

The platoon line appears clean: Kendrick would be a right-handed option, Difo, though a switch-hitter, a left-handed choice since he is better against right-handed pitching. Difo could also carry more of the load early in the season assuming the Nationals slow play Kendrick in his age-36 season when coming back from an Achilles tendon tear. Nationals medical staff informed Kendrick he would be “back to normal” if he followed the post-surgery protocols.

“And that’s very refreshing to hear something like that, especially if you have an injury of this caliber,” Kendrick told me in September. “Years ago, it might not have been the same. But now with the advancement of technology and the way they do surgery I feel really confident I’ll be back to normal and playing. Just the process, I’ve got to stick with the process and trust it. “Mentally, I really don’t have a problem with it. I know it just takes time because I’ve had injuries before. So, it’s like, all right, just follow the protocol and I’ll be where I need to be when it’s time.”

Kendrick is doing most of his rehabilitation work at Banner Health in Tempe, Arizona. The facility is just down the road from his house. It also allows him to work with physical therapist Keith Kocher, who Kendrick knows from his time with the Los Angeles Angels. Kocher also knows Nationals director of athletic training Paul Lessard and athletic trainer Greg Barajas. Barajas previously worked for Kocher.

Difo, entering his age-27 season, is nearing the end of the line with the organization. He had just a .649 OPS last season in 408 at-bats. There’s little to indicate an offensive uptick is forthcoming. Both he and Kendrick, who will become a free agent, are likely gone after this season.

Should the Nationals choose this platoon path, they would have to live with Difo’s lack of offense and occasional in-field brain freezes. Davey Martinez likes to hit him ninth when he plays, bumping the pitcher in front of him. He would like Difo to calm his swing and have a more measured approach at the plate.

Relying on Kendrick following the injury is a gamble. But, this pair is an option if the organization believes everything else is in place. A team .723 OPS at the position would qualify for middle of the National League pack last season. Kendrick and Difo combine for a .703 career OPS.

The free agent choices: Old, but reliable

Two of the six Gold Glove finalists at second base in 2018 are on the market. Jed Lowrie, who reinvented his offensive effectiveness during the last two seasons, and DJ LeMahieu, who won his third Gold Glove this year.

LeMahieu is the top option for the Nationals if they want to make a hefty investment. He’s 30 years old, a two-time All-Star, the league’s best defender at the position and the 2016 National League batting champion (hello, Coors Field: .391 at home and .303 on the road that season).

What’s interesting is his career OPS-plus, which is adjusted for a hitter’s park, is well below that of Kendrick. Kendrick has a 107 career OPS-plus, LeMahieu 92. And Kendrick didn’t earn the gap only earlier in his career. He put together a 118 OPS-plus in 2017 when being used properly by both the Phillies and Nationals in a reduced role. However, LeMahieu would be a significant fielding upgrade for a team that needs to be better at cutting 90 feet here, 90 feet there from the opposition.

Lowrie is going into his age-35 season. He delivered two of the top seasons of his career in the last two years. Both earned a 120 OPS-plus. He’s shown more power and more patience at the plate. The question is how much to pay him for those last two seasons, the usual paying-for-past-performance risk. The significant dips in Lowrie’s average and slugging percentage following the All-Star break last season can be viewed as red flags.

Asdrubal Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Brian Dozier and Murphy are also among the lot available. None are getting younger.

The trade options: Limited.

To reiterate: Limited. First, the Nationals’ assets have dwindled in recent years. Second, Carter Kieboom could be ready to play second in 2019 if he is still in the organization. Third, there’s no reason to burn an asset to fill this spot now.

A recommended path

Signing Suzuki will help patch catcher. Another move is likely coming there. Perhaps a second low-cost veteran. Remember, the Nationals allotted roughly $11 million to the position last season. Suzuki will cost half that, which leaves room for further investment without increasing the year-over-year payroll in regards to the Competitive Balance Tax. The salary cost stays the same, the tax threshold rises, you find savings at that spot.

Resolving the catcher position, at least in part, delivers second base as one of the few remaining uncertain spots on the roster. Which in turn provides the Nationals wiggle room when making a decision this offseason. So, the recommendation is to stick and wait. Shoring up this spot could be a move for July or even August at a much lower cost. In the interim, the Difo-Kendrick platoon is surrounded by enough current talent to hover near league average without being a significant hole.

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