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Nadal reaches French Open final, closes in on Federer's Grand Slam record –



Novak Djokovic seemed well on his way to yet another ho-hum victory, yet another French Open final, yet another matchup against rival Rafael Nadal. And then, suddenly, what had been a gallop became a grind.

Slightly more than two hours into his semifinal against Stefanos Tsitsipas on Friday night, Djokovic was serving for the match, one point from ending things in straight sets. Just. One. Point. But a down-the-line backhand veered a tad wide, Djokovic rolled his eyes and, eventually, he was stuck in a serious situation, somehow pushed to five sets.

As is usually the case, though, he was up to the task when it mattered the most. Djokovic got back in gear down the stretch to hold off the much younger, much less accomplished Tsitsipas 6-3, 6-2, 5-7, 4-6, 6-1 to reach his fifth title match in Paris.

“Yes, I stayed calm on the surface, but deep down, it was a totally different matter,” Djokovic said. “But I think that when I lost the third set, I stayed mentally strong.”

WATCH | Djokovic escapes Tsitsipas in semis:

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic blew a match point chance in the third set, but rebounded to defeat Stefanos Tsitsipas in five sets, 6-3, 6-2, 5-7, 4-6, 6-1 and advance to the final of the French Open. 1:25

Standing in the way of No. 1 Djokovic, a 33-year-old from Serbia, on Sunday at Court Philippe Chatier — he is pursuing a second trophy there and 18th from all Grand Slam tournaments — will be, as it’s been so often, No. 2 Nadal, a 34-year-old from Spain.

It will be their 56th meeting, a record between two men in the professional era (Djokovic leads 29-26), 16th at a major (Nadal leads 9-6) and eighth at Roland Garros (Nadal leads 6-1).

“It’s his house, with all the titles he’s won here,” Djokovic said.

In addition to closing in on an unfathomable 13th French Open championship with a 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (0) win Friday over 12th-seeded Diego Schwartzman, Nadal now gets a chance to tie Roger Federer for the men’s record of 20 Slam titles.

As has been the case for quite some time, Nadal didn’t want to address the idea of pulling even with Federer, saying it’s fine for others to talk about such matters, but his focus remains squarely on the task at hand.

“I’m playing the most important tournament of the year — that’s what motivates me,” Nadal insisted.

WATCH | Nadal cruises into his 13th French Open final:

Rafael Nadal of Spain is through to a 13th French Open final after beating Diego Schwartzman of Argentina 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (0) in the French Open semifinals. 0:58 

In the women’s final Saturday, Sofia Kenin of the U.S. faces 19-year-old Iga Swiatek of Poland.

While Nadal only dealt with the slightest tension late in his third set Friday, that’s when everything became more interesting for Djokovic against Tsitsipas, a 22-year-old from Greece in his second Slam semifinal.

Djokovic broke to lead 5-4 in the third and served for the win, holding that match point at 40-30. He would require another 1 hour, 45 minutes to finish the job.

That one misstep left the door a bit ajar, and Tsitsipas barged through. He got his first break all match when Djokovic sent a forehand long, making it 5-all. Tsitsipas then broke again to steal that set and force a fourth when Djokovic netted a forehand. Tsitipas then got things to a fifth.

What changed? Tsitsipas began pushing forward more, taking the action to Djokovic, whose misses began to increase with less time to properly calibrate himself.

And there was a massive swing in who had greater success at key moments.

Djokovic started by converting 4 of 5 break points, then went through a stretch where he was 1 for 13.

Tsitsipas, in contrast, began 0 for 10 on his break chances, then cashed in 4 of 5.

A lengthy changeover after the fourth set — when Djokovic changed socks and shoes, and Tsitsipas got a medical visit for a check of his left leg — offered time to examine their respective histories in such situations.

Djokovic not only was 31-10 in five-setters, but he came into the day with a 215-1 record when taking the opening two sets of a Grand Slam match. Tsitsipas? He was 2-3 in five-setters, his only comeback from two sets down happening last week in the first round.

Maybe it made sense, then, that Djokovic, so reliant on drop shots all match and all tournament, used a perfect one to claim a 10-stroke exchange and finally get his fifth break for a 2-1 lead in the fifth. Then it became 4-1, when Tsitsipas double-faulted.

Djokovic never let up and is now 37-1 in 2020, the only setback coming via a disqualification at the U.S. Open last month.

WATCH | Djokovic defaults from U.S. Open after striking line judge:

Novak Djokovic’s U.S. Open was cut short after he hit a line judge with a discarded tennis ball during his fourth-round match against Pablo Carreño Busta. 4:17

Nadal improved to 99-2 at the French Open — go ahead, read that again — including a combined 25-0 in semifinals and finals, as he seeks a fourth consecutive title in Paris. That would add to his previous streaks of four in a row from 2005-08 and five from 2010-14, to go along with four trophies at the U.S. Open, two at Wimbledon and one at the Australian Open.

He has won all 15 sets he’s played over the past two weeks, making a mockery of the supposed explanations for why this year, so different for so many reasons, might be different for Nadal in the City of Lights.

The shift in dates from May-June to September-October, bringing cooler weather. New, slightly heavier, tennis balls. Nadal’s decision to skip the U.S. Open, leaving him with only three matches since tennis resumed in August. Then there was this: Schwartzman upset Nadal in straight sets on clay at the Italian Open last month.

“He improved,” Schwartzman said, comparing these past two encounters, “and I just played little bit worse.”

The late-afternoon sun at Court Philippe Chatrier created awkward shadows over much of the court and blinding brightness at one end, prompting Schwartzman to flip around his backward baseball hat so the brim could shield his eyes.

With the 5-foot-7 Schwartzman jumping to reach for two-handed backhands in reply to his formidable foe’s high-bouncing topspin forehands, Nadal was content as ever to engage in long, energy-sapping exchanges. The opening game required 14 minutes to complete merely 14 points, six of which lasted at least 10 strokes, with a high of 28, before Nadal held.

That established how things would go in that set: 22 of 69 points included double-digit shot counts. And Nadal’s 16-6 advantage in total winners in that set made the difference; the numbers were 38-24 by match’s end.

Only 1,000 spectators are being allowed on the grounds daily, owing to the rising COVID-19 cases in France, and the sparse crowd on hand was cheering for Schwartzman late in the third, likely not so much because they really were invested in a victory for him but because they wanted to watch more tennis.

By the end, fans were chanting, “Ra-fa! Ra-fa!” as they have so many times in the past.

“It’s important to go through all the process. You have to suffer. You can’t pretend to be in a final of Roland Garros without suffering. That’s what happened there,” Nadal said about the tight third set. “But I found a way, no?”

So, too, did Djokovic.

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Pacers hire Raptors assistant Nate Bjorkgren as new head coach –



The Indiana Pacers have hired Toronto Raptors assistant Nate Bjorkgren as their new head coach, the team announced Tuesday.

Indiana has been looking for a new head coach since firing Nate McMillan back on Aug. 26, only 14 days after strangely agreeing to a contract extension with him. McMillan’s dismissal came shortly after the Pacers were ousted from the playoffs in the first round for the fifth-straight season.

Evidently looking to shake things up and with a roster that contains its own plethora of questions, Indiana settled on Bjorkgren, who’s been a valuable member of Nick Nurse’s staff since joining the coaching ranks as an assistant in 2018.

“We are very pleased and excited to have Nate as our new coach,” said president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard in a press release. “This was an extensive and thorough search, and when we reached the conclusion, we felt strongly Nate is the right coach for us at the right time. He comes from a winning background, has experienced championship success, is innovative and his communication skills along with his positivity are tremendous. We all look forward to a long, successful partnership in helping the Pacers move forward.”

A coach with NBA championship experience following Toronto’s 2019 run, Bjorkgren also served as an assistant with the Phoenix Suns from 2015-17 and spent a lengthy period of time in the then-D League, a space in which he was given his first pro-coaching job by Nurse with the Iowa Energy and in which he built a relationship with current Pacers forward T.J. Warren as head coach of the Bakersfield Jam.

“Nate and I have known each other for 30 years, and I will miss having him next to me on our bench, and I know the Raptors players and staff will miss working with him every day,” Nurse said in a statement. “With Nate, the Pacers are getting someone who is ready to lead an NBA team, who is always prepared and is super-positive, who knows what it takes to win a championship, at any level, and is willing to put in the work to get there.”

The Pacers now join the Brooklyn Nets as the only two teams with coaching vacancies to go with a first-time hire.

“I am honoured to take on the role as head coach of the Indiana Pacers,” said Bjorkgren. “This is something I have prepared for during my career. I want to thank Kevin, Chad (Buchanan), Kelly (Krauskopf), Larry Bird, Donnie Walsh and Herb and Steve Simon for this opportunity. I also want to thank Nick Nurse for giving me my first professional coaching job 14 years ago.

“I’m looking forward to working with this great team to achieve our goal as NBA champions.”

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FTB: Kyle Dubas moves on to Travis Dermott – Pension Plan Puppets



Kyle Dubas cleared out his calendar today by signing Ilya Mikheyev to a new two-year contract last night. Mikheyev requested salary arbitration with the Maple Leafs to settle his contract, and the hearing was scheduled for today, but the two sides managed to come together and strike a deal last night before the arbiter got involved.

Mikheyev was in an unusual position with only one season of NHL experience, much of that a write-off from a major injury, but he is 26 years-old and has five prior years of professional playing history in the KHL before the Leafs signed him and brought him over to Canada in 2019. That KHL experience was ineligible for discussion in the arbitration, so the arbiter would have had a tough job to make a proper comparison to his peer players, but none of that matters now. He’s signe with the Leafs for another two years.

I do have to say, I am quite happy with Mikheyev back. What price can you possibly put on scoring against the Habs only 30 seconds into a game?

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Dubas will now turn to the remaining two restricted free agents left that need new contracts; defenceman Travis Dermott, and winger prospect Joey Anderson who was acquired from the Devils as a oart of the return for Andreas Johnsson. I wouldn’t be surprised if one or both contracts are announced today. Dubas doesn’t have much room under the salary cap left so these contracts are essentially fait accompli.

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The complete Maple Leafs prospect rankings, autumn 2020 edition – The Athletic



With the NHL draft and free agency (mostly) finished, the Maple Leafs prospect pool looks far different than it did even a few months ago.

A once thin pool now has another key piece acquired through trade and 12 new players added through this year’s draft. The theme that ran through the draft for the Leafs has all but become the identity for their prospect pool: tons of skill, not a lot of size and an emphasis on European players who are already playing their 2020-21 seasons.

But where do all these new prospects stand within the organization?

Like Leafs prospect ranking OG Scott Wheeler and his previous lists, I’ve included players aged 22 or younger right now.

But I’ve broken from Wheeler’s tradition to not only include players who are signed to NHL contracts or whose rights have not expired, but also players on AHL contracts. I’m doing so because of what I’m calling The Rubins Rule™: in 2018-19, Kristians…

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