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Naomi Osaka wins Australian Open for 2nd major, top ranking

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MELBOURNE, Australia — So close to victory, Naomi Osaka suddenly was letting the Australian Open final slip away. Three championship points? Gone. A sizable lead? Soon all gone, too.

She was playing poorly. She yelled at herself. Slammed a ball. Tugged at her visor’s pink brim. Trudged to the locker room between sets with a towel draped over her head.

And then, after returning to the court, Osaka turned it all around just as quickly as she had dropped 23 of 27 points. Refocusing and reasserting herself, Osaka edged Petra Kvitova 7-6 (2), 5-7, 6-4 on Saturday night to win the Australian Open for a second consecutive Grand Slam title.

“I felt like I didn’t want to have any regrets,” Osaka said. “I think if I didn’t regroup after the second set, then I would have looked back on this match and probably cried or something.”

On top of that, Osaka will rise to No. 1 in the rankings.

“Amazing achievement,” two-time Wimbledon champion Kvitova said. “Definitely she is a great one. We’ll see what the future will bring.”

Osaka added the Australian Open trophy to the one she collected in a U.S. Open final last September that forever will be remembered for the way runner-up Serena Williams was docked a game after arguing with the chair umpire.

Unlike that day, there was no jeering from the confused crowd. No controversy. No chaos. No sharing the spotlight.

Clearly marking herself as tennis’ bright new star, Osaka is the first woman to win two major championships in a row since Williams picked up four straight in 2014-15.

Almost didn’t happen.

Osaka held three match points in the second set at 5-3, love-40 as Kvitova served. But Osaka couldn’t close it out. Instead, she completely lost her way.

That allowed Kvitova to come back and make a match of it, reeling off five games in a row to take the second set and go up 1-0 in the third.

At that point, Kvitova would say later, she figured it was going to keep going her way.

“In the end,” she said, “it wasn’t.”

After Kvitova double-faulted to offer up a break point at 1-all, Osaka converted it with a cross-court backhand winner. There was still more work to be done, of course, and some additional drama when it began raining at the changeover right before Osaka tried to serve for the match at 5-4 in the third set.

This time, Osaka would not falter. She would not let this lead disappear.

“I knew that Petra couldn’t keep it up for that long if Naomi could just manage those emotions,” said Osaka’s coach, Sascha Bajin, “and she did that beautifully.”

Osaka was born in Japan — her mother is Japanese, her father is Haitian — and she moved to New York at age 3. Now she’s based in Florida and has dual citizenship. Osaka already was the first player representing Japan — female or male — to win a Grand Slam singles title. Now she also is the first to top the WTA or ATP rankings.

At 21, Osaka is the youngest No. 1 in nearly a decade; Caroline Wozniacki was 20 when she first ascended to that spot in 2010.

And to think, a year ago, Osaka was ranked 72nd.

What a climb. What a quick climb.

Kvitova was playing in her first Grand Slam final since winning Wimbledon in 2014 — and the first since she was stabbed in the hand by an intruder at her home in the Czech Republic a little more than two years ago.

Kvitova needed surgery, missed the first 4½ months of the 2017 season, including the Australian Open, and couldn’t be sure she’d ever get back to the top of tennis.

“You’ve been through so much,” Osaka told Kvitova during the trophy ceremony. “I’m really honored to have played you in the final of a Grand Slam.”

On a somewhat cloudy, rather comfortable evening, with only a slight breeze and the temperature around 75 degrees (25 Celsius), both women hit the ball as hard as can be. Exchanges were mostly at the baseline and filled with flat, powerful groundstrokes that barely cleared the net and made retrieving and replying as much about reflexes as anything.

Here’s one measure of how even it was: Each finished with 33 winners.

Points were swift and blunt; of 86 in the first set, only four lasted nine strokes or more. There was plenty of strong serving, clean hitting and good movement.

It was Osaka who was the first to get ahead, tearing through the tiebreaker by grabbing five points in a row — four via winners — to go up 5-1. When Kvitova sailed a backhand wide moments later, ceding a set for the first time all tournament, Osaka pumped her fist and screamed, “Come on!”

How pivotal was that moment? Kvitova had won her last 22 Grand Slam matches after winning the first set. Osaka, meanwhile, entered the day having won 59 matches anywhere after going up by a set.

When Osaka broke to lead 3-2 in the second set, and then got to 5-3, the outcome seemed to be a foregone conclusion. Turned out, that wasn’t the case. Not at all.

All that really matters, of course, is that Osaka righted herself in time to win.

“It didn’t really take that long,” she said. “I didn’t have a choice.”

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.”