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Australian Open Day 4 preview: Advantage Garcia or Fernandez?

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Which is more difficult: The fierce, furious journey to the top — or trying to stay there?

Caroline Garcia, the 29-year-old from France, has a better understanding of that conundrum than most. Twice, five years apart — against the great odds of professional tennis — she willed herself into the Top 10. And now, after winning last year’s WTA Finals in Fort Worth, she will try to defy gravity a little bit longer than last time.

“It’s obviously a new season, and I can keep all the positive of what happen last year, all the improvement I made,” the World No.4 told reporters before this Australian Open began. “Yeah, get experience I got from two years back, from that point, that place, the ranking and everything, to manage everything better and to keep improving.”

More from Day 3:

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On Thursday afternoon at Melbourne Park, Garcia faces Leylah Fernandez in a highly anticipated second-round match in Rod Laver Arena. Fernandez is still only 20 years old, but she, too, knows what it’s like to break through and take a few steps back.

In the wake of her 2021 US Open finals appearance, the Canadian reached as high as No.13. Currently, No. 40, this is a marvelous chance to show that she is, indeed, an elite player.

Australian Open: Scores | Draw | Order of play

Hard to believe, but Monday’s 7-5, 6-2 win over Alize Cornet was her first career victory at the Australian Open. Garcia, by contrast, has won 13 matches here, reaching the fourth round in 2018.

Australian Open: Garcia sails into second round

2023 Australian Open

“I see it as a great opportunity, to see where my tennis is at, and to see where I am mentally and physically,” Fernandez said after beating Cornet. “She’s a great tennis player. I feel like she has found her groove once again, and I think it will be an interesting matchup, and I can’t wait to play her.”

The 2022 season was a struggle for Fernandez. She suffered a stress fracture in her foot at Roland Garros, missed all of the grass events and never quite recovered her fitness — and her confidence. She’s healthy again, coming off a pair of victories in Auckland. She’d like to revert to the form of that 2021 US Open, when she beat three Top 5 players.

“I don’t know what my best level is,” Fernandez said. “I just know I want to improve and I want to get better every day and I want to see what my body and mind can do. I just feel ready for the challenges that’s coming in the next round.”

If aggressive, first-strike tennis is your thing, this should be fun. Both players like to step inside the baseline and swing hard.

Garcia looked sharp in a 6-3, 6-0 first-round victory over Canadian qualifier Katherine Sebov. It required only 65 minutes and featured 22 winners, compared to one for Sebov. Last year, ranked No.70, Garcia lost her first-round match to another overlooked qualifier, Hailey Baptiste.

Garcia has that retro look about her. Those three dropped games were her fewest in a major match since 2018 Roland Garros. And, with a win over Fernandez, she could advance to the third round in her third consecutive Grand Slam — a career first.

“It’s a great second round obviously,” Garcia said. “She did great in the Slams in the past, and she’s very young player, very talented lefty, so you don’t play as much as lefty. Yeah, it’s a good challenge. Try to take the second set of today, a good practice tomorrow, and then just go for it and try to be more aggressive than her.”

Here are some more notable second-round matches on Day 4:

No.2 Ons Jabeur vs. Marketa Vondrousova

Jabeur showed some rust in her opener, needing three sets (one of them a tiebreak) to beat Tamara Zidansek. Vondrousova — a former finalist at Roland Garros — also required the maximum, to prevail over Alison Riske-Amritraj. Jabeur holds a 3-1 head-to-head edge, including last year’s three-setter in Stuttgart.

No.5 Aryna Sabalenka vs. Shelby Rogers

Sabalenka began her 2023 season by winning her first four matches in Adelaide — and the first serve at the Australian Open was an ace. She’s the early Hologic WTA Tour leader, with 39 and counting. Sabalenka defeated Tereza Martincova, 6-1, 6-4 in the first round, while Rogers was a 6-4, 6-3 winner against qualifier Arianne Hartono. The head-to-head is 2-0 for Sabalenka, both last year, in S’Hertogenbosch and Cincinnati; two of those five sets went to a tiebreak.

No.9 Veronika Kudermetova vs. qualifier Katie Volynets

Kudermetova pulled out of the Adelaide semifinals a week ago with a left hip injury but managed to get past Maryna Zanevska in straight sets. Volynets, and American qualifier, defeated Evgeniya Rodina. They’ve never met.

No.19 Ekaterina Alexandrova vs. Taylor Townsend

Townsend won her first Grand Slam match in three years — and the first since she became a mother — defeating Diane Perry 6-1, 6-1. Alexandrova was a 6-2, 6-1 winner over Ysaline Bonaventure. The two have never met.

No.26 Elise Mertens vs. Lauren Davis

Mertens scored a nice three-set victory over two-time major champion Garbiñe Muguruza in the first round, while Davis came back to beat Danka Kovinic 1-6, 7-5, 6-1. The two have never met, but this could be interesting. In a span of eight days, Davis went 7-0, including qualifying, to win the title in Hobart. She’s already won nine of 10 matches this year.

Varvara Gracheva vs. qualifier Lucrezia Stefanini

Gracheva, ranked No.97, pulled off the biggest upset on the women’s side so far, beating No.8 seed Daria Kasatkina by the emphatic count of 6-1, 6-1. Stefanini also had a surprising win, over Tatjana Maria, a Wimbledon semifinalist last year. They’ve never met in a main-draw match, but Stefanini has a 2-0 career edge, going back to a 2017 ITF event in Tunisia and 2018 qualifying for Prague.

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Bedard earns attention, rave reviews at CHL

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LANGLEY, British Columbia — Connor Bedard was the center of attention during the 2023 CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game at Langley Events Centre on Wednesday.

The 17-year-old forward with Regina of the Western Hockey League, and projected No. 1 pick in the 2023 Upper Deck NHL Draft, had a bit of a home-ice advantage. He grew up about 30 minutes away in North Vancouver.

“I’ll have a good amount of people there,” Bedard said before the game. “I think some relatives. Obviously, my sister, my parents and some buddies for sure. I should have a decent crowd.”

Tom Bedard, Connor’s father, was relishing the rare chance to see his son in person; Regina is a 20-hour drive.

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“My wife (Melanie) actually is in Regina with Connor, so she gets to go to a few more games,” Tom said. “I get out five or six times a year but it’s difficult. It’s nice to have things close to home.”

It was a good show for family and friends. Bedard had a game-high six shots on goal for Team Red in a 4-2 loss to Team White.

The only people watching Bedard as closely as his family was the opposition.

“Keeping him off the scoreboard, that was kind of a team goal,” Team White goalie Scott Ratzlaff said. “Just making sure he’s always covered, making sure we’ve got eyes on him. It was good.”

There was a fair amount of physical play aimed at Bedard, including Team White defenseman Lukas Dragicevic taking a cross-checking penalty against him 20 seconds into the first period. Bedard also had a game-long, trash-talking conversation with Team White defenseman Oliver Bonk.

The frustration led to Bedard taking a penalty for cross-checking Bonk at 16:30 of the third. Bonk said the back-and-forth wasn’t anything malicious, more about the respect for Bedard’s ability to take over a game.

“He’s the best [2005-born player] in the world right now,” Bonk said. “It was good to get him off the ice for two minutes for our guys.”

Bedard (5-foot-10, 185 pounds) is used to physical play and won’t shy away from it. He was a presence in front of Team White’s goal on most of his shifts and had no problem battling in all areas of the ice.

“It’s hockey,” Bedard said. “It’s competitive and you’re allowed to hit so you’ve always got to expect that. It’s a contact sport and you’re going to get hit and you’re going to give hits. That’s part of it and it was good.”

Despite the physical play, Bedard still displayed his game-breaking ability. With Team Red on the power play in the first period, he wheeled through the high slot and fired a shot on net that Ratzlaff saved. Midway through the second, Ratzlaff had to make a spectacular pad save to stop Bedard at the net on a give-and-go with Zach Benson.

“The goalies played well and obviously it would have been nice to see a few go in, but it didn’t happen,” Bedard said.

Ratzlaff also plays in the WHL, for Seattle. Though it was his first time facing Bedard in a game, he knows exactly what he’s capable of doing.

“He’s just so dynamic, and he’s just good from anywhere,” Ratzlaff said. “You think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to commit because he’s going to shoot,’ and then he makes a pass backdoor right on the guy’s tape. So, I think just being ready for anything because he’s just so good and just patient with the puck so he can really create, turn nothing into something.”

Bedard said his focus now returns to Regina, where he leads the WHL in goals (39), assists (42) and points (81). Since being held off the score sheet in the season opener, he has a point in 32 straight games. He’s No. 1 in NHL Central Scouting’s midterm ranking of North American players presented by BioSteel and almost a certainty to hear his name called first at the 2023 draft at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville on June 28.

“When you look, you can see his similarities with his quickness, offensive smarts, that go up to the Connor McDavid level, but then just the pure substance and overall makeup of his game is reminiscent of Sidney Crosby,” said Dan Marr, vice president of Central Scouting. “He’s right up there with those players that are going to be all stars and win a lot of hardware moving forward.”

Bedard has said the draft is something he’ll worry about down the road. Now that all the attention from the Top Prospects Game has passed, he’s focused on helping Regina reach the WHL playoffs.

“I want to win in Regina,” he said. “We’ve been playing well of late, [won] four of the last five, so we want to keep that going and I’m excited to get back and get to work.”

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Quick Reaction: Raptors 113, Kings 95 – Raptors Republic

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S. Barnes38 MIN, 7 PTS, 6 REB, 10 AST, 2 STL, 3-8 FG, 0-2 3FG, 1-2 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 22 +/-

Scottie was finding his teammates all night long, one of the stronger defensive performances from Scottie tonight as well, first game without double digit points in quite some time but he impacted the game in other ways.

O. Anunoby31 MIN, 11 PTS, 3 REB, 2 AST, 2 STL, 4-9 FG, 3-6 3FG, 0-0 FT, 1 BLK, 1 TO, 24 +/-

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Solid shooting night for OG who was able to really impact this game defensively by being a menace in the paint, did some great stuff against Sabonis.

P. Siakam35 MIN, 26 PTS, 11 REB, 7 AST, 2 STL, 11-24 FG, 2-8 3FG, 2-2 FT, 2 BLK, 1 TO, 15 +/-

Great night for. Pascal, defense was very impactful as he mucked up a lot of Sacramento’s acts through Sabonis, he was hitting his teammates all night, cleaned up on the glass, and kept the pressure up late with his scoring.

G. Trent Jr.36 MIN, 16 PTS, 5 REB, 3 AST, 1 STL, 7-15 FG, 2-6 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 13 +/-

Gary’s shot wasn’t all the way there tonight but he still managed to get a couple down, had some good looks in transition.

F. VanVleet38 MIN, 17 PTS, 4 REB, 5 AST, 4 STL, 7-16 FG, 2-9 3FG, 1-1 FT, 2 BLK, 2 TO, 20 +/-

Fred didn’t shoot the ball well tonight but he still put up 17, had a game high 4 steals tonight which is a testament to his impact on that end tonight.

P. Achiuwa28 MIN, 19 PTS, 5 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 9-12 FG, 1-3 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 3 TO, 3 +/-

Great night on both ends for Precious, really impactful defensively, had some great finishes as a roll man and see created.

C. Boucher22 MIN, 16 PTS, 6 REB, 0 AST, 1 STL, 7-11 FG, 2-4 3FG, 0-0 FT, 3 BLK, 0 TO, -3 +/-

Great spark off the bench and made his presence felt at the rim on both ends of the floor, great energy tonight.

J. Hernangomez12 MIN, 1 PTS, 1 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 0-2 FG, 0-2 3FG, 1-2 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, -4 +/-

Didn’t really standout tonight.

Nick Nurse

Great game plan for Sacramento, never let Sabonis get comfortable, great minutes for Precious and Boucher.

Things We Saw

  1. One of, if not the strongest defensive performances from Toronto this season holding this high powered offense to 50 at halftime and 95 for the full game, really encouraging.

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Russia’s path to 2024 Olympics takes shape, Ukraine objects

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — Russia’s path to sending a team to the Paris Olympics next year became clearer on Thursday amid fierce objections from Ukraine.

The International Olympic Committee indicated on Wednesday it favors officially neutral teams from Russia and its ally Belarus at the 2024 Olympics despite a plea from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to exclude them entirely.

A day later, Russia and Belarus were invited to compete at the Asian Games, a key Olympic qualifier.

Russia typically competes as part of Europe but has a tense relationship with many of the countries set to host qualifying events there. Russia and Belarus have been barred from almost all international competitions in Olympic sports following the invasion of Ukraine.

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Zelenskyy has said he told French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country is hosting the Olympics, that Russia should have “no place” there. Ukraine is seeking to rally support against the IOC-brokered plan.

“IOC has been disregarding Russian war crimes, claiming that ‘No athlete should be prevented from competing just because of their passport’, while Ukrainian athletes continue to be killed by Russia because of their passports. I urge all sports figures to make their stance known,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter on Thursday.

Ukraine boycotted an Olympic qualifier in judo last year when Russians were allowed to compete as neutrals.

In Russia, there was praise from the IOC plan from Igor Levitin, an aide to President Vladimir Putin who holds influential government and sports posts.

“I think it is already a success. Olympic society understands that the Olympic Games cannot be staged without Russia,” said Levitin, who is the senior vice-president of the Russian Olympic Committee, in comments reported by state news agency Tass.

Some Russian officials expressed unhappiness at the IOC declaring it would not allow athletes found to be “actively supporting the war in Ukraine.” Russian Olympic Committee president Stanislav Pozdnyakov said on Wednesday he opposed “any restrictions, extra requirements or sanctions.”

The IOC statement on Wednesday referenced the civil war in the former Yugoslavia at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. The country was under United Nations sanctions so Yugoslav athletes were allowed to compete individually only as “Independent Olympic Participants.” They didn’t take part in team sports such as soccer and basketball.

That would be stricter than previous IOC measures against Russia in the years-long fallout from one of the largest doping cases in sports history. Russians competed under the name “Olympic Athlete from Russia” at the 2018 Winter Olympics and as ROC — short for Russian Olympic Committee — in 2021 and 2022, without their country’s anthem or flag but with national colors on uniforms.

The Asian Games will be in Hangzhou, China, in September and October, and function as Olympic qualifiers in several sports including archery and boxing. Some other sports host their own Asia-specific qualifying competitions.

“The OCA believes in the unifying power of sport and that all athletes, regardless of their nationality or the passport they hold, should be able to compete in sports competitions,” the OCA said in a statement.

The long-time director general of Kuwait-based OCA, Husain al-Musallam, is also the president of World Aquatics, which is overseeing the core Olympic sport of swimming in the IOC home city Lausanne.

“The OCA has offered to give eligible Russian and Belarusian athletes the opportunity to take part in competitions in Asia, including the Asian Games,” the organization said.

The OCA added it “remains on standby” until the IOC and the individual sports’ governing bodies finalize the conditions for Russia and Belarus to compete.

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