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No. 1 Djokovic to face No. 2 Nadal for Australian Open title

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic was about as perfect as can be in his semifinal at Rod Laver Arena. Didn’t miss much. Almost couldn’t, really.

It was a performance so flawless, so fantastic, that it was easy to feel as if only one man on the planet might have a chance of preventing Djokovic from claiming a record seventh Australian Open title: Rafael Nadal. As it happens, that is who he’ll face in Sunday’s final.

Djokovic never relented, not for a moment, while making an unheard-of total of five unforced errors against an overmatched Lucas Pouille en route to a 6-0, 6-2, 6-2 semifinal victory that lasted less than 1½ hours.

“I guess you’re driven by some force that takes over you, and you feel divine. You feel like in a different dimension,” Djokovic said. “It’s quite an awesome feeling that we all try to reach and stay in. Probably the biggest challenge, I think, is how to repeat that, how to stay there for as long as you possibly can.”

This was as good as he gets. As good as it gets.

“When he’s playing like this,” the 28th-seeded Pouille said, “yeah, he’s the best in the world, for sure.”

Now Djokovic will line up against his old rival, Nadal, for the 53rd time on tour, eighth in a Grand Slam final.

It will be the No. 1-ranked Djokovic — owner of 14 Grand Slam titles, including the past two — against No. 2 Nadal, who’s won 17 majors. Roger Federer, with 20, is the only man whose total is higher.

“I would definitely want to buy a ticket,” Djokovic told the crowd.

He holds a 27-25 edge over Nadal in their head-to-head series; Nadal leads 4-3 in Slam finals. The only other time they met with the Australian Open trophy on the line, in 2012, Djokovic won 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 in 5 hours, 53 minutes, making it the longest Grand Slam title match in history.

“Once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Djokovic called that one, “and hopefully the outcome can be the same for me.”

Given how well both men are playing at the moment, this showdown shapes up as another potential classic.

“Rafa,” Pouille said, “looks pretty amazing, too.”

Indeed, Nadal was superb while beating Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 on Thursday night and has yet to drop a set in the tournament as he seeks his second title in Melbourne.

A day later, Djokovic played as if setting out to say, “Anything you can do, I can do better.”

This was Djokovic’s 34th Grand Slam semifinal and he’s now won his last 10. Pouille, a 24-year-old Frenchman coached by former women’s No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo, was making his debut at this stage.

The plan, Pouille explained afterward, was to try to be the aggressor and take charge of points.

So much for that.

“I was trying to find a solution, but couldn’t find any,” Pouille said. “I couldn’t put a strategy in place.”

The wide gulf in experience and accomplishments showed on a cloudy, breezy evening as Djokovic improved to 7-0 in semifinals at Melbourne Park.

He is also unbeaten so far in Australian Open finals, sharing the men’s mark of six titles with Roy Emerson and Federer.

“Everything worked the way I imagined it before the match,” Djokovic said. “And even more so.”

Other than one face-down pratfall he took when he slipped while trying to change direction, what didn’t go right for Djokovic on Friday?

He won 25 of 34 points on Pouille’s second serve and broke the guy seven times.

He won 45 of 53 points he served, never facing a single break chance.

Even managed to deliver a second-serve ace.

That he made so few mistakes while taking enough risk to accumulate 24 winners was remarkable.

It took Pouille more than a half-hour to merely grab one game, and spectators roared, likely relieved at the prospect of a more competitive, not to mention longer, match.

Never materialized.

It’s a far cry from the 2018 Australian Open, when Djokovic lost in the fourth round while dealing with pain in his right elbow.

Soon after, he had surgery. Then began the climb back to the top.

“It was highly unlikely 12 months ago that I would be where I am today, a year later,” Djokovic said. “I’ve said it before, but I always have plenty of belief in myself, and the self-belief always prevails.”

Althea Gibson honored at U.S. Open

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NEW YORK — Althea Gibson basked in a ticker-tape parade in New York a decade before Arthur Ashe won the 1968 U.S. Open.

Gibson won 11 majors in three years from 1956-58, including the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open singles titles. She integrated two sports – tennis and golf – during an era of racial segregation in the United States.

“She’s our Jackie Robinson of tennis,” said Billie Jean King, who at 13 watched Gibson play. “I saw what it meant to be the best.”

One Love Tennis is an athletic and educational program for youth in Wilmington, North Carolina. During a rainy day in 2017, the girls watched the documentary “Althea and Arthur.” They learned Ashe has a stadium named for him at the U.S. Open on the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York.

The mood in the room grew somber afterward, according to program director Lenny Simpson. The girls realized there wasn’t even a “dag-gone hot dog stand” named for Gibson.

Why wasn’t there a monument to the first African American to win a major title (1956 French Open) before winning both the U.S. Nationals (precursor to the U.S. Open) and Wimbledon in 1957-58?

Simpson suggested the girls be part of the solution by writing letters to his friend and then-U.S. Tennis Association President Katrina Adams. King and Adams had been working on the Gibson project for years. King’s advocacy before the U.S. Tennis Association board resulted in a unanimous vote. Adams later read letters to the board from the girls, including Xerra Robinson, to reinforce the importance of a tribute.

“I know she would be proud to see the progress that’s been made with so many women of color leading the pack in professional tennis,” Adams said of Gibson, who died in 2003 at 76. “Her bravery, perseverance and determination paved the way.”

On Monday, the USTA will unveil a statue in her honor at the U.S. Open. The girls and boys of One Love Tennis will attend the ceremony, along with Gibson’s 85-year-old doubles partner, Angela Buxton of Britain.

“It’s about bloody time,” said Buxton, who won the 1956 French and Wimbledon titles with her friend.

More things to know about Gibson, who made the covers of Time and Sports Illustrated and was voted AP Female Athlete of the Year in 1957-58:

EARLY YEARS

Gibson traveled the hard road from Harlem to Wimbledon, but she had a community of support. The oldest of five children, Gibson was born in Silver, South Carolina, before her sharecropper parents relocated to Harlem. At 18, Gibson moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, to live with Dr. Hubert and Celeste Eaton. She honed her tennis and social skills on Dr. Eaton’s court at his home, called “the black country club” because African Americans couldn’t play at public courts or white country clubs.

“Culturally, it was a tough adjustment,” said Simpson, who met his coach and mentor on that court at age 5 when Gibson gave him a racket and called him “champ.” “(In Harlem), she didn’t see the signs of white and colored water fountains and white and colored bathrooms. The prejudice and discrimination certainly was there, but nothing like the Jim Crow days of the South.”

She spent summers in Lynchburg, Virginia, training on the court of Dr. Robert Walter Johnson, who later nurtured Ashe, a winner of five Grand Slam titles. Both were forced to play in segregated tournaments early in their careers. Barred by the precursor of the USTA, Gibson won 10 straight American Tennis Association women’s titles starting in 1947.

After lobbying by the ATA and a withering editorial from four-time champion Alice Marble, Gibson became the first African American to compete in the 1950 U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills on her 23rd birthday. A graduate of Florida A&M, Gibson taught physical education and considered quitting tennis because she couldn’t make a living in the low-paying amateur days. But in 1955, she was tapped by the State Department for a goodwill tennis tour of Asia. That’s how she met Buxton in India.

ALTHEA YEARS

Both were looking for a doubles partner in 1956. Buxton was denied membership at the club in London where she practiced after she listed Jewish for religion on the application. She grew up in England and South Africa and understood Gibson’s struggle.

“No one spoke to her, let alone played with her,” Buxton said by phone from London. “(Her playing style) was like a young man. She wore little shorts, a vest and hit the ball hard, even her second serve. She came charging up to the net. She bamboozled people with her attitude.”

They won at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but the “powers that be” were not thrilled and “you needed a spy glass to see the headline `Minorities Win,”‘ Buxton said. Both were denied membership at the All England Club despite being Wimbledon champions. (Buxton is still waiting).

Nonetheless, Gibson got the royal treatment with a ticker-tape parade in July in New York after receiving the 1957 Wimbledon trophy from Queen Elizabeth II. A month later, she won the U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills.

“That was an incredible joy for her,” Simpson said.

She duplicated those feats and retired from tennis at No. 1 in 1958 – a winner of more than 50 singles and doubles titles – because there was no significant prize money until the professional era began in 1968. The men’s and women’s 2019 U.S. Open winner will each receive a check for $3.8 million.

No other African American woman won the U.S. Open until Serena Williams in 1999 or Wimbledon until Venus Williams in 2000.

AFTER TENNIS

Gibson played exhibition tennis before Harlem Globetrotters games, signing a $100,000 contract, and joined the LPGA full-time in 1964.

In 1975, she became state commissioner of athletics in New Jersey. She served on the state athletics control board, and the governor’s council on physical fitness until 1992.

The twice-divorced Gibson’s health failed in her late 60s after a stroke and she struggled to make ends meet. Buxton said Gibson reached out to a handful of tennis friends without much success. Gibson was on the verge of suicide in 1995 when the tennis great called her, she said. Buxton provided financial support and visited her friend in East Orange, New Jersey.

“Angela Buxton saved her life, literally,” Simpson said.

Buxton also wrote a letter to Tennis Week magazine, and donations flooded in from all over the world. The WTA currently has a hardship fund to help former players.

Frances Gray, a longtime friend and co-founder of the Althea Gibson Foundation, has kept her legacy alive. A self-described “born athlete,” Gibson said she wanted to be remembered as “strong and tough and quick.”

“If not for Althea Gibson, there would be no Arthur Ashe, no Serena and Venus, Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens and the list goes on,” Simpson said. “She opened it up for all of us.”

Serena vs. Sharapova set for prime time on Day 1 of U.S. Open

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NEW YORK — Serena Williams vs. Maria Sharapova is, not surprisingly, getting primetime billing at the U.S. Open.

The two tennis stars’ 22nd career meeting – and first at Flushing Meadows – will be the opening act in Arthur Ashe Stadium for the night session on Monday as the year’s last Grand Slam tournament gets started.

“Of course I’m going to watch it. I know you all are going to watch it. I think everyone in New York is going to watch it,” defending champion and No. 1 seed Naomi Osaka said Friday. “Yeah, I mean, for me, I’m not that surprised that that happened, because, like, at every Grand Slam, there is always some sort of drama. You know what I mean? Like a first round. Like, `Oh, my God!”‘

The U.S. Tennis Association announced the show-court schedules for both Day 1 and Day 2.

That includes 15-year-old Coco Gauff in action at Louis Armstrong Stadium on Tuesday.

The first match in the main stadium Monday will be French Open champion Ash Barty against Zarina Diyas, followed by defending men’s champion and No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic against Roberto Carballes Baena.

Then at night, Williams-Sharapova will be followed by 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer against qualifier Sumit Nagal.

Williams owns 23 major singles trophies, while Sharapova has five. Both have been ranked No. 1. They’ve met at every other major tournament at least once, including in a final at each, but never before at the U.S. Open. Williams has won 18 matches in a row against Sharapova, and leads their overall series 19-2.

In Louis Armstrong Stadium on Monday, the day slate includes Williams’ older sister, two-time U.S. Open champion Venus, 2016 runner-up Karolina Pliskova and No. 5 seed Daniil Medvedev, while the night program features three-time major champ Stan Wawrinka and 2017 U.S. Open runner-up Madison Keys.

Tuesday’s participants in Ashe include Osaka and two-time French Open finalist Dominic Thiem during the afternoon, with 18-time major title winner Rafael Nadal and 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens in action at night.

In addition to Gauff’s first-round match against Anastasia Potapova, Day 2 in Armstrong will include two-time major champion Simona Halep and Australian Open semifinalist Stefanos Tsitsipas in the afternoon, along with two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka and the combustible Nick Kyrgios against American Steve Johnson at night.

RULES RECAP

In an effort to avoid the sort of confusion that reigned over last year’s U.S. Open final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, the U.S. Tennis Association wants to make the sport’s rules – and chair umpires’ rulings – clearer to on-site spectators and TV viewers.

So when a player is warned by an official about a code violation – getting coaching during a match, say, or destroying a racket – that will be displayed on the scoreboard.

“It’s not a constant marker there,” U.S. Open chief umpire Jake Garner said Friday. “It’s just when the violation occurs, it will show up on the board at the moment it’s given.”

The USTA decided against allowing match officials speak to the media after a contest involving controversy or questions, but Garner or tournament referee Soeren Friemel – both are new appointees – might be made available.

Two other rules tweaks this year: The excessive heat rule will allow for 10-minute breaks for all men’s or women’s matches, whether or not they already were in progress when the weather reached a point of being dangerous to players; women can now only have one bathroom or change-of-clothing break per three-set match, not two.

TOKYO’S TEAM?

Host Japan might not get to field its dream mixed doubles team for tennis at the next year’s Summer Olympics.

That’s because Kei Nishikori thinks playing with Naomi Osaka might just be too much tennis in Tokyo.

The 2014 U.S. Open runner-up is planning to play singles and men’s doubles at the 2020 Games and for now isn’t thinking about adding mixed doubles to his plans.

“Very hot, very humid, playing singles and two doubles – I don’t know if I can,” Nishikori said at Flushing Meadows on Friday.

A Nishikori-Osaka duo not only would be expected to contend for a medal in Tokyo – it would be among the most popular pairings in Olympic tennis history.

Osaka, who moved from Japan to the United States when she was 3, is the No. 1 ranked women’s player and the reigning champion at both the U.S. Open and Australian Open.

Nishikori, who also left Japan to live in the United States, is No. 7 in the current ATP rankings. At last year’s U.S. Open, he and Osaka became the first Japanese male and female players to reach the semifinals of the same Grand Slam tournament.

They’re also friends who have played video games together.

But what about Olympic tennis together?

“I haven’t thought too much yet, honestly,” Nishikori said. “I don’t know. I will talk to Naomi later.”