AP Photo

Nadal pain-free in first-round win at Australian Open

Leave a comment

MELBOURNE, Australia — If Rafael Nadal gave the Australian Open a throwback feel last year with his straight-out-of-the-mid-2000s final against Roger Federer, he’s completed the retro effect this year with a return to his sartorial roots – a sleeveless T-shirt.

Matching the muscle-exposing Nike tank top with neon pink shorts, wristbands and headband, Nadal also found his championship form again in a 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 rout of 37-year-old Victor Estrella Burgos in the first round at Melbourne Park.

The top-ranked Spaniard, who made a splash as a teenager with his trademark sleeveless shirts and knee-length pirate pants, came into this year’s Australian Open with questions about his health and readiness to compete following a taxing season that saw him capture two Grand Slams and return to No. 1.

Nadal had been forced him to withdraw from the ATP Finals in November due to a lingering right knee injury, and when the pain persisted, he also pulled out of a season-opening exhibition event in Abu Dhabi and his first tournament in Brisbane.

With only a few exhibition matches last week to test his form, Nadal had doubts he’d be ready to go in time for the first major of the year. But a dominant performance against Estrella Burgos – he had 28 winners and saved five of six break points he faced – left him feeling positive about his start in Melbourne.

“If I don’t feel myself ready, I will not be here. So I am happy to be here, happy that I’m on court again,” he said.

With several top seeds falling on the women’s side, including 2017 Australian Open finalist Venus Williams and U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, the men’s draw was largely spared similar upsets.

Third-seeded Grigor Dimitrov advanced with a routine 6-3, 6-2, 6-1 win over qualifier Dennis Novak, while No. 6 Marin Cilic topped Vasek Pospisil 6-2, 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (5) and local favorite Nick Kyrgios looked sharp in a 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 victory over Rogerio Dutra Silva.

“Obviously I know I’m hitting the ball well,” Kyrgios said. “But to go out there in front of the crowd again, just trying to play well, I was a bit nervous going out there. (I’m) happy to get through.”

No. 10 Pablo Carreno Busta, No. 23 Gilles Muller, No. 24 Diego Schwartzman, No. 28 Damir Dzumhur, No. 30 Andrei Rublev and No. 31 Pablo Cuevas also advanced.

No. 8 Jack Sock, No. 11 Kevin Anderson and No. 16 John Isner were among the losers.

For Sock, who lost to Yuichi Sugita 6-1, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-3, it was a disappointing result given the impressive way he finished last season with a maiden Masters win in Paris and a first-time appearance at the ATP Finals. He came to the Australian Open sporting a career-high ranking of No. 8 and his highest-ever seed at a major.

The American said, however, that he felt the same as Nadal after a lengthy 2017 – physically spent and lacking enough of an off-season to recover fully.

“It’s just a weird feeling because you’re just on the highest of highs after making it (to the ATP Finals),” he said. “And then it’s back to reality and the grind of it.”

Like Nadal and other top players, he said he’s going to be smarter about his schedule now that he’s among the elite on the tour.

His goal for 2018? “Win a match would be a good start,” he deadpanned.

Tennis star Bouchard testifies about slip, fall at US Open

Getty Images
Leave a comment

NEW YORK (AP) Tennis star Eugenie Bouchard has taken the witness stand at a New York City trial to accuse the United States Tennis Association of negligence that led to her slipping on a locker room floor and hurting her head.

Bouchard testified Wednesday a wet floor caused her to slip and fall inside a locker room at the 2015 U.S. Open.

Her lawsuit contends the USTA should have done more to warn her the area had just been cleaned. The defense says she shouldn’t have entered without being accompanied by tournament personnel.

The lawsuit says the fall left Bouchard with a concussion and “serious head injury.”

Bouchard says she was forced to withdraw from the U.S. Open and tournaments in China and Japan. She’s seeking unspecified damages.

The 23-year-old Canadian player is ranked 116th in the world.

Serena Williams champions issues on, off court

AP Photo
Leave a comment

Moments after Serena Williams won her seventh Wimbledon title, she proudly raised her fist in a black power salute.

It caused a bit of frenzy at the All-England Club in 2016, but Williams’ action shouldn’t have surprised anyone: She’d already been one of the most vocal supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement. She was one of the first major athletes to decry the failure to indict a white officer in the death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri – while also condemning violence against police.

“What caused me to speak out? Just life,” Williams said. “That’s just who I am. I always believe in the greater good and doing what’s right.”

Williams isn’t alone in her activism. Female athletes – especially black women – have long been out there pushing for social change. Wilma Rudolph’s victory parade celebrating her three gold medals from the 1960 Olympics in Rome was the first integrated event in Clarksville, Tennessee.

But despite their efforts on the field and off, women athletes have to struggle to get the same attention as men despite having as much to say, said Harry Edwards, a scholar of race and sports who has worked as a consultant for several U.S. pro teams.

“We have this twisted, almost-demented obsession with women’s second-class status with their physical inferiority,” he said. “It prevents us from appreciating the great athletes that they are … but it also means that it shuts down a potential forum that these great athletes would have where they’re valued for their athletic prowess in the same way that Muhammad Ali was, that Bill Russell was, that Tommy Smith and John Carlos were, that Arthur Ashe was, that Curt Flood was, so that when they speak, people listen.”

While Williams has long been an advocate of Black Lives Matter, it was only after former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the 2016 season that the country really began to pay attention to black athlete activism. Kaepernick added his voice to a growing national movement, enveloping the entire league and starting an ongoing conversation that ventured outside football arenas.

Similarly, few people acknowledge that after the 2016 deaths of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and the killing of Dallas police officers, dozens of WNBA players wore shirts with the men’s names and kneeled for the national anthem.

It was a black woman, Knox College basketball player Ariyana Smith, who started the wave of athletic protest about the deaths of black men at the hands of police.

On Nov. 29, 2014, Smith made the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture during the national anthem before a game at Fontbonne University in Clayton, Missouri, before walking toward the American flag and laying prone on the floor for 4 1/2 minutes to symbolize the 4 + hours Brown lay in the streets of nearby Ferguson.

“We as black women are often invisible, so we don’t get that credit,” said Akilah Francique, a former athlete who cofounded the Sista to Sista program to foster a sense of connectedness among black female collegiate athletes.

Williams has been a presence on and off the tennis court, not shying away from opponents en route to winning 23 Grand Slam titles or social and political issues.

She spoke up in 2015, encouraging Black Lives Matter activists not to get discouraged: “To those of you involved in equality movements like Black Lives Matter, I say this: Keep it up. Don’t let those trolls stop you. We’ve been through so much for so many centuries, and we shall overcome this too,” she wrote in Wired magazine.

Since then, Williams has become the symbol for other causes affecting people of color, including medical issues. In February, she told Vogue that she dealt with a medical scare after the birth of her daughter. She had to insist on getting extra medical tests, overruling her nurse, before her doctors discovered several small blood clots in her lungs.

Women around the country related to her story, talking about similar difficulties in getting proper medical attention.

Female-led activism can also look different than men’s, Francique said, because of the unique positions and pressures women face in sports and in life. She pointed to the criticism black women athletes have to overcome about their body shapes, training regimens, skin color, clothing and even hair when they compete in sports – criticism that Williams has endured.

“For many of them just by merely being there and having a presence is activism,” Francique said.

Williams’ older sister, Venus, who has advocated for equal pay for professional tennis while winning seven Grand Slam titles, believes it is important to have a voice on these issues.

“I think more than anything, we see ourselves as Americans, and that’s what we want to be able to see ourselves as, regardless of color,” said Venus Williams. “I think that’s what everyone is fighting for, that one day we don’t have to see that anymore.”