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Serena, Sharapova to meet in Australian Open quarterfinals

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Serena Williams is convinced that a loss makes her a better player. A really upsetting loss – like missing out on an oh-so-close calendar-year Grand Slam loss – may have her primed for an Australian Open quarterfinal against Maria Sharapova.

Williams and Sharapova have confirmed their quarterfinal date with straight sets on Sunday, ensuring a rematch between last year’s finalists at Melbourne Park.

Fifth-seeded Sharapova fired a career-high 21 aces and hit 58 winners in her 7-5, 7-5 win over Belinda Bencic in the first match of the day on Rod Laver Arena, converting her second match point with a successful challenge after her forehand was initially called long.

Six-time champion Williams followed it up with a 55-minute, 6-2, 6-1 win over Margarita Gasparyan.

Williams has won 18 of her 20 matches against Sharapova, including the last 17.

Williams won 26 matches in a row at the majors last season, capturing the Australian, French and Wimbledon titles and reaching the semifinals at the U.S. Open before a stunning loss to Roberta Vinci ended her run for the season slam.

That’s the driving factor here.

“For my whole career I have been motivated by losses. So that’s just been my thing,” she said. “So each time I take a loss, I feel like I get better.”

Asked if her unbeaten run against Sharapova gave her extra confidence, the 21-time major winner said it didn’t matter who she was playing.

“I just feel like I’m really confident in my game right now, not against her or against any other opponent,” in particular, Williams said. “I’m just really looking at me right now, and I feel like if I can just continue to play well, then it could be good.”

Margaret Court, the Australian great who won 24 Grand Slam singles titles and has a court named in her honor at Melbourne Park, was in the crowd watching Williams.

Under bright sunshine after the roof was opened following morning rain, Williams was broken in the opening game – her only point coming from an ace – but quickly found her groove and won 12 of the next 14.

“Well, gosh, I didn’t know she was here, I feel honored to be able to play in front of her,” Williams said when told Court was in the stands, then looked up to the VIP area and added: “Thank you.”

“Obviously 24 is close, but yet it’s so far away,” Williams said of Court’s career record.

Williams was keeping an eye on an earlier match, too, noting that Sharapova “had a really good win today.”

Sharapova won consecutive matches against Williams in 2004 at Wimbledon and the season-ending championships, but hasn’t won since. It’s a statistic she tries to block from her mind.

“It’s not like I think about what I can do worse. You’re always trying to improve,” she said. “I got myself into the quarterfinal of a Grand Slam. There is no reason I shouldn’t be looking to improve and to getting my game in a better position than any other previous round. It’s only going to be tougher, especially against Serena.

“I look forward to playing the best in the world and that’s what she’s proven in the last year.”

Sharapova, the 2008 champion and four-time finalist, had to play under an indoor match because play started while it was lightly raining, but the roof was open for Williams.

Kei Nishikori was the first male player through to the quarterfinals, beating No. 9-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 in front of a partisan crowd filled with flag-waving Japanese fans.

The seventh-seeded Nishikori, the 2014 U.S. Open finalist, will next play the winner of the fourth-round match between five-time champion Novak Djokovic and No. 14-seeded Gilles Simon.

Duckhee Lee downplays deafness, wins ATP tournament debut

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Duckhee Lee tossed the ball into the air for his first serve in an ATP tournament match, and blasted it past his opponent with a loud pop.

The 21-year-old South Korean never heard it. He was born deaf.

The tour’s first deaf professional player says he doesn’t want to be defined by the disability that he has overcome well enough to play at the sport’s highest level.

His first appearance in a top-level tournament will last at least until the second round. Lee beat Henri Laaksonen of Switzerland 7-6 (4), 6-1 in the first round of the Winston-Salem Open on Monday, earning a matchup with No. 3 seed Hubert Hurkacz of Poland.

As much as the opening-round victory meant to Lee and his career, it might have meant even more to hearing-impaired athletes in all sports.

“Don’t be discouraged and if you try hard, you can do anything, you can achieve anything you want,” Lee said through an interpreter, adding that he “doesn’t want people to get discouraged and get down about their disability.”

The ability to hear carries a particular importance in tennis. Players often insist on silence during points so they can hear the ball off their opponent’s strings and identify the spin in a split-second.

Lee makes up for it with his eyes, sharpening his focus on his opponent’s swing, how that player makes contact and the speed and spin of the ball as it’s racing toward him.

Complicating things further, he also doesn’t speak English, reads lips instead of using sign language, and relies on hand gestures from umpires making calls.

Because he can’t hear the score announcements, he keeps track of points and games in his head – which can be more difficult in smaller events that don’t have courtside scoreboards. It led to a hiccup early during his main-draw debut when he lined up to serve after a game had been decided.

“I think (the umpire) forgot to give the signal” at times during the match, he said, adding that he “was hoping he would give in and out signals.”

The debut in Winston-Salem marked the next step up the tennis ladder for Lee, who started playing tennis at age 7 – the year after he realized he was deaf, though doctors had diagnosed his condition as a toddler.

“People made fun of (me) because of the disability and said (I) shouldn’t be playing,” Lee said, adding that his motivation was to “enjoy (my) life by overcoming my disability.”

Lee made his debut on the ITF Futures Tour at 14 and won eight titles before he turned 18, then reached three finals of the ATP Challenger Tour, including one in June, falling to Dudi Sela at the Baptist Health Little Rock Open in Arkansas. He brought a No. 212 world ranking to the central North Carolina hardcourts.

He’ll always remember his first ATP-level victory – and not just because of the result. Lee was two points away from sealing the victory when thunderstorms forced a weather delay of nearly 5 hours. He and Laakonsen came back to the court at roughly 10:15 p.m. – and wrapped up their match in 87 seconds.

When he was asked how he spent the delay, Lee got his point across with pantomime, mimicking someone playing table tennis and shooting basketball, because there was both a pingpong table and pop-a-shot machine in the players’ lounge. He smiled as his translator said how “he loves the facility here.”

Amanda Anisimova out of U.S. Open after father’s death

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NEW YORK — American teenager Amanda Anisimova withdrew from the U.S. Open on Tuesday because of the recent death of her father and coach, Konstantin.

A statement from family members, released by Anisimova’s representatives, said: “We are shocked and saddened by the sudden passing of our father. We appreciate the outpouring of love and support during this difficult time and ask that you respect our privacy.”

The U.S. Tennis Association announced that Anisimova had pulled out of the year’s last Grand Slam tournament, where main-draw play begins Monday.

Anisimova, who was born in New Jersey to Russian parents and moved to Florida when she was 3, is currently ranked 24th and would have been seeded for the U.S. Open.

She is an up-and-coming star in women’s tennis who reached the semifinals at the French Open in June at age 17.

Anisimova upset defending champion Simona Halep in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros, before losing to eventual champion Ash Barty in three sets.

Her first WTA title came in April at Bogota, Colombia.

As a junior, Anisimova won the 2017 U.S. Open girls’ title, beating Coco Gauff in the final.