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NFL’s Cardinals Bench Jonathan Dwyer After Assault Arrest

By Rebecca Bryan

Los Angeles (AFP) — Another NFL team benched a player Wednesday over suspicion of domestic violence, deepening the woes of America’s richest and most popular sports league.

With the football season just two weeks old and the National Football League and some teams under attack from fans and sponsors, the suspect this time is Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer.

Dwyer was arrested Wednesday over two separate incidents allegedly involving a 27-year-old woman and 18-month-old child on consecutive days in July at a Phoenix residence.

Dwyer was booked into a Phoenix county jail and charged with one count of aggravated assault causing a fracture, one count of aggravated assault involving a minor, two counts of criminal damage, one count of preventing the use of a phone in an emergency, and assault, police said.

The Cardinals wasted no time in benching the player.

“Given the serious nature of the allegations we have taken the immediate step to deactivate Jonathan from all team activities,” the team said in a statement later Wednesday.

A police statement said Dwyer has admitted some kind of incidents happened, but denied any physical assaults took place.

In the past the NFL has suffered a long series of high-profile problems — over player injuries from the rough, head-bashing sport; debate of drug testing; and even charges of racism. Yet those have failed to dent the league’s popularity.

But charges of violence by players against women and children — and a clumsy response by the league and individual teams — have both sponsors and fans on edge.

Commissioner Roger Goodell has come in for particular criticism over his handling of Ray Rice, the running back who helped the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl title after the 2012 season.

Goodell initially banned Rice for two games over a February incident in a casino elevator in which Rice knocked his then-fiancee Janay Palmer unconscious with a brutal punch to the face.

After a video of the actual punch was posted online this month, Rice was promptly cut by the Ravens and banned from the league indefinitely by Goodell — a punishment the player’s union is appealing.

The case is made murkier by a report that Goodell or others in the league office knew of the video before issuing the two-game ban, which was derided as grossly insufficient by domestic violence advocates.

– Boss must go?-

The Rice case sparked a “#Goodellmustgo” campaign on social media. But the commissioner who has presided over continued growth of the NFL’s formidable fortunes continues to enjoy the support of team owners.

After the Rice case broke, others have come in swift succession.

Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is charged with child abuse for administering a whipping to his young son. He denies the punishment amounts to child abuse.

Carolina Panthers star defensive end Greg Hardy is appealing a conviction for assaulting a former girlfriend.

Hardy played the first game of the season for the Panthers after launching an appeal of his conviction. The Vikings had planned to welcome Peterson back to action after he missed one game, which the team lost badly.

But amid a growing public uproar, both teams negotiated deals with their players to place them on paid leave as their legal cases proceed.

David Carter, a principal of the Sports Business Group and executive director of the University of Southern California’s Marshall Sports Business Institute, said the league will have to prove to sponsors, as well as fans, that they can address such issues more effectively.

“They routinely also want to conduct business with organizations that reflect their values, as well as the values of their shareholders and customers,” he said.

“If sponsors believe that the NFL will ultimately and satisfactorily address this crisis they will remain behind the league. However, if they view the NFL to have a chronic problem, they may redirect their spending.”

AFP Photo/Christian Petersen

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Williams Downs Wozniacki For Sixth U.S. Open Title

New York (AFP) — World number one Serena Williams won her 18th Grand Slam title at last, overpowering Caroline Wozniacki 6-3, 6-3 on Sunday to capture her sixth U.S. Open crown.

The world number one, shut out in the first three majors of the year, ended a year of waiting as she joined Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova on 18 majors — trailing only the 22 of Steffi Graf on the Open era list and six behind the all-time record held by Margaret Court.

Williams, who turns 33 later this month, said the goal of an 18th Grand Slam had hung over her “because I was joining Chrissy and Martina, someone I never thought me, Serena Williams, would be in that name group.

“Who am I?” said Williams, who grinned with delight as Evert and Navratilova presented her with a gold bracelet bearing an “18” charm.

“I never thought you would mention my name with such greats and legends.”

Williams lifted the trophy at Flushing Meadows for the third straight year, joining Evert as the only woman in the Open era to win three titles in a row, and matching Evert’s six U.S. Open triumphs.

She also offered words of encouragement to her beaten foe, her friend and confidant as both endured difficult months this year.

“Congratulations to Caroline, she knows the struggles I have had,” Williams said, adding to her friend: “You will win a Grand Slam title soon.”

But former world number one Wozniacki, owner of 22 WTA titles, still has that gaping hole on her resume.

The Dane was just 19 when she lost to Kim Clijsters in the 2009 U.S. Open final, and she hadn’t returned to a Grand Slam title match until Sunday.

With so much on the line for each woman, the first set was a tense affair with few fireworks.

After saving a break point in the first game with an ace, Williams made Wozniacki pay for a tight first service game, in which the Dane double faulted twice.

Williams seized the break and a 2-0 lead with a pair of stinging service returns.

“I was a little nervous going out there,” said Wozniacki, who found the noise in Arthur Ashe Stadium “overwhelming.”

“I just wanted to get a good start. I knew that against Serena, you have to have a good start, otherwise she starts going in and being even more aggressive. You know, you’re kind of done.”

Williams didn’t run off with it right away, but a run of five service breaks ended with the American holding for a 5-2 lead, heaping the pressure on Wozniacki to hold for the first time.

She did, fending off one break point to force Williams to serve it out.

With a set in hand, Williams was moving more freely. Even luck wasn’t going Wozniacki’s way, as a net cord bounce in Williams’ favor ended a 20-shot rally to give the American a break chance in the first game of the second — which she promptly converted.

– So much on the line –

Wozniacki’s vaunted defensive skills were on full display in the second set as she doggedly ran down balls, but she couldn’t match Williams’ power and ability to conjure winners from all areas of the court.

Williams finished with 29 winners to Wozniacki’s four, belting a forehand to give herself match point.

That was the first moment she felt sure of victory, Williams said.

“Other than that I was really tight and nervous the whole match,” said Williams, who didn’t drop a set in the tournament. “There was so much on the line.”

When Wozniacki’s last backhand went long, Williams dropped to her back onthe court, covering her face with her hands.

“I just felt so good,” she said.

Williams began the year boldly, with the possibility of achieving a rare calendar Grand Slam talked up by her coach Patrick Mouratoglou before the Australian Open in January.

That dream ended with a fourth-round exit at Melbourne.

An embarrassing second-round exit at Roland Garros was followed by a third-round departure at Wimbledon — where she also looked weak and disoriented in a bizarre exit from doubles.

Since then Williams had gone from strength to strength, winning two US hardcourt titles in the run-up to the Open.

Her strong showing on the hardcourts of America meant she claimed a $4 million jackpot on Sunday — $3 million for winning the title and a $1 million bonus as the winner of the U.S. Open Series points race.

“I think through this whole tournament I was really calm,” Williams said. “I practiced so hard. Not just this week, but for like six months. I think it’s now showing.”

AFP Photo/Stan Honda

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Djokovic, Murray Book U.S. Open Quarter-Final Showdown

By Rebecca Bryan

New York (AFP) — Former champions Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray booked a tantalizing U.S. Open quarter-final duel with straight-sets fourth-round victories.

World number one and top seed Djokovic didn’t let Philipp Kohlschreiber stand in the way of another Grand Slam last-eight appearance on Monday, defeating the 22nd seed from Germany 6-1, 7-5, 6-4 on another oppressively muggy New York day.

Eighth-seeded Scot Murray advanced with a hard-fought 7-5, 7-5, 6-4 victory over ninth-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, avenging a loss to the Frenchman in the Toronto Masters last month.

Djokovic and Murray boast a long rivalry in which the Serbian owns a 12-8 record.

They are 2-2 in Grand Slam finals, including Murray’s triumph over Djokovic in the 2012 final at Flushing Meadows for his first major crown.

“Tough match,” Murray said of the looming contest. “We’ve had a lot of long ones. We played a long one here a few years ago — I have great memories from that match.”

Djokovic reached his 22nd straight Grand Slam quarter-final, a run that stretches back to Kohlschreiber’s victory over him in the third round of the 2009 French Open.

“I’m very glad obviously that I had so many consecutive quarter-finals of Grand Slams. It says that I do value these tournaments the most and try to always perform my best tennis in them,” Djokovic said.

The Wimbledon champion looked headed for a short day’s work when he raced through the first set in 25 minutes.

But Kohlschreiber dug in, keeping his nose in front on serve and forcing Djokovic to fend off a set point in the 10th game of the second.

Djokovic did so with a stinging forehand passing shot to end a rally that sent the Louis Armstrong Stadium crowd wild, then broke Kohlschreiber for a 6-5 lead.

Serving for the set Djokovic saved another break point with an off-speed service winner and having wrapped up the second set he broke Kohlschreiber to open the third and marched home from there.

“It doesn’t feel that it went very easily,” Djokovic said. “Philipp is a tough player.”

– Tough conditions –

Murray broke Tsonga in the final game of each set en route to his victory, first recovering an early break in both the second and third.

“It was extremely tough conditions, very humid and obviously windy,” Murray said. “It started to cool down at the end, but the first two sets were very long tough sets.”

Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka, the third seed, powered past 16th-seeded Spaniard Tommy Robredo 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (9/7), 6-2.

Wawrinka fired 18 aces and 75 winners — to Robredo’s 19 — saving two set points in the third-set tiebreaker and dominating the fourth set.

“It was a really tough battle today,” said Wawrinka, who also survived a tumble into the courtside seats in Armstrong Stadium when he hit the board surrounding the court at full stretch for a shot.

“From that I’m OK, I’m more tired from the running, from the match,” he said. “When you win, it’s always more easy to feel good after.”

Two of the ATP’s rising stars will duel under the floodlights as 23-year-old Canadian Milos Raonic and 24-year-old Kei Nishikori of Japan reprise their fourth-round clash at Wimbledon — won by Raonic on his way to a first Grand Slam semi-final.

The fifth-seeded Raonic is enjoying a career-best season, and at a career-best number six in the world is the second-youngest player, behind 23-year-old Grigor Dimitrov, in the top 10.

Nishikori, the 10th seed, became the first Japanese man to break into the top 10 this season with two titles.

While Raonic has the reputation of a big-server — with the second-most aces this year on the ATP tour, Nishikori has been impressive on his serve in reaching the last 16. He’s been broken only twice, saving 17 of 19 break points he faced in his first three matches.

The winner will face Wawrinka for a semi-final place.

AFP Photo/Stan Honda

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No Let-Down As Peng Reaches U.S. Open Last 16

New York (AFP) — China’s Peng Shuai and former world number one Jelena Jankovic led the way into the women’s round of 16 on Friday at the U.S. Open.

Peng, showing no sign of a let-down after her second-round upset of fourth-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska, dispatched 28th-seeded Italian Roberta Vinci 6-4, 6-3 in just an hour and a quarter on a sun-splashed Louis Armstrong Stadium.

“I was really nervous,” Peng said, afraid that the adrenaline would have her belting her groundstrokes to the back fence.

She managed to keep the nerves in check to equal her best U.S. Open showing — a fourth-round appearance in 2011.

“I have a lot of motivation,” said Peng, who knows she has the eyes of China on her with compatriot Li Na sidelined by injury. “I wanted to fight and I really enjoyed the play.”

Ninth-seeded Jankovic was runner-up in 2008 — her only appearance in a Grand Slam final to date and one she’s keen to repeat, if not improve upon.

“I feel hungry, I want to do well again,” said Jankovic, who called the bustling US Open her favorite tournament — even if it means coping with brash fans who ask mid-match for a quick photo pose.

Such distractions didn’t stop Jankovic from sweeping past Sweden’s 96th-ranked Johanna Larsson 6-1, 6-0 in just under an hour.

“It was nice to get off the court quite fast,” Jankovic said. “It was quite hot out there. I played a solid match. I was patient. I waited for my chance to execute, and that’s what I did.”

World number two Simona Halep, seeded second behind five-time champion Serena Williams, was also vying for a fourth-round berth Friday, along with fifth-seeded former champion Maria Sharapova and two-time winner Venus Williams.

Although Venus Williams won back-to-back titles in 2000 and 2001, she’s enjoying her best campaign since a semi-final run in 2010 was followed by three-straight second-round exits.

The 19th-seeded American will tackle 13th-seeded Italian Sara Errani, while French Open champion Sharapova will face a tough test against big-hitting German Sabine Lisicki.

Roger Federer’s quest for a sixth U.S. Open title continues Friday night against the big-serving Australian Sam Groth.

The 104th-ranked Groth is averaging more than 16 aces per match this season, but in his first match against a top 10 player he’ll be walking into the lion’s den.

Federer boasts a 23-1 record in night matches on Arthur Ashe Stadium court.

In other men’s second-round matches, fourth-seeded David Ferrer faces Australian wildcard Bernard Tomic.

The Spaniard, who fell to Federer in the final at Cincinnati this month, has won both prior encounters with Tomic.

Wimbledon semi-finalist Grigor Dimitrov, who was 0-3 at the U.S. Open before this year, seeks a third-round berth against Israel’s Dudi Sela and sixth-seeded Czech Tomas Berdych takes on Slovakian Martin Klizan.

AFP Photo/Kena Betancur

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Sharapova, Wawrinka Reach U.S. Open Third Round

New York (AFP) — French Open champion Maria Sharapova and Australian Open winner Stan Wawrinka survived some shaky moments Wednesday to book their third-round berths at the U.S. Open.

Sharapova, who lifted her fifth Grand Slam title at Roland Garros this year, fought back from a set down in a gritty 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 win over 95th-ranked Romanian Alexandra Dulgheru.

The fifth-seeded Russian was reluctant to blame the windy conditions in the cavernous Arthur Ashe Stadium court for her difficulties, which included 46 unforced errors.

And after two hours and 26 minutes on court — in a match that began in hot sunshine and ended under the floodlights — she had her 17th three-set win of the season, the most on the WTA Tour.

“It was difficult,” Sharapova said. “Obviously the conditions were tough. You start in the sun, you finish under the lights.

“Overall I felt like in the end I was in much better shape than she was and I could have played another few sets. Mentally that helped me a lot.”

Sharapova and Wawrinka were the day’s headliners as two-time defending women’s champion Serena Williams and the top men Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Andy Murray all had the day off.

Wawrinka, the third seed from Switzerland, turned back the challenge of Brazilian left-hander Thomaz Bellucci 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7/1) to become the first men’s seed into the third round.

Wawrinka was untouchable on his serve through two sets, not facing a break point until Bellucci broke him twice to take the third.

The Brazilian broke Wawrinka in the third game of the fourth, but the Swiss broke back to knot the set at 3-3. After holding at love for a 5-4 lead, Wawrinka had two match points against Bellucci’s serve in the 10th game but couldn’t convert either.

He grabbed the tiebreaker by the throat, however, and finished it off with a service winner after two hours and 36 minutes with the hands of the clock creeping toward 1 a.m.

“I was playing really well,” Wawrinka said of his sparkling start. “I was really aggressive and serving really well.

“When you drop your level a little against Bellucci, it’s tough. He starts to play better.”

The tension seemed to get to Wawrinka at least briefly when he told one loud courtside fan to shut-up.

But he was able to get back on the attack.

“The fourth set I tried to focus on my game,” he said. “I was more aggressive at the end of the match.”

Most of Wednesday’s men’s action was wrapping up the first round, and the exits of Steve Johnson and Ryan Harrison meant just three American men reached the second round — the fewest in U.S. Open history.

American women were keeping the home flag flying, and five-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams did her part.

The two-time winner, who hadn’t made it past the second round the past three years, reached the third round with a 6-1, 6-4 victory over Timea Bacsinszky.

Fourth-seeded Pole Agnieszka Radwanska became the tournament’s biggest upset victim, falling 6-3, 6-4 to China’s Peng Shuai.

Peng avenged a loss to Radwanska at the 2011 Australian Open where the Chinese player had held two match points.

Poland’s Radwanska, a former Wimbledon finalist who counts this year’s Australian Open among two other Grand Slam semi-final spots, was left to ponder why she has never made it past the last 16 in nine US Open appearances.

World number two Simona Halep needed less than an hour to book her third-round berth, with a 6-2, 6-1 victory over Slovakian Jana Cepelova.

Halep was broken early to trail 0-2, but won 12 of the next 13 games to secure the win.

Sixth-seeded German Angelique Kerber also advanced on cue, downing Russian Alla Kudryavtseva 6-2, 6-4.

Men’s sixth-seed Tomas Berdych of Czech Republic brought Lleyton Hewitt’s 62nd Grand Slam appearance to a quick end, downing the former world number one, and 2001 champion, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3.

– Dimitrov breaks jinx –

Seventh-seeded Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov finally ended his U.S. Open jinx. After coming up empty in three straight appearances, he defeated U.S. wildcard Harrison 6-2, 7-6 (7/4), 6-2.

South African Kevin Anderson rallied from a break down in the final set to defeat Uruguay’s Pablo Cuevas 6-3, 6-7 (3/7), 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (7/1) in just over four hours.

But three men’s matches were cut short by injury retirements.

Wimbledon quarter-finalist Marin Cilic of Croatia advanced when a right ankle injury forced Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis to retire while trailing 6-3, 3-1.

Spain’s Feliciano Lopez advanced when Croatian Ivan Dodig retired with cramping and muscle cramps also left Johnson unable to continue against Japan’s Tatsuma Ito.

AFP Photo/Stan Honda

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Djokovic At The Double As Former U.S. Open Champs Advance

By Rebecca Bryan

New York (AFP) — Novak Djokovic wasted no time in seeing off Argentinian challenger Diego Schwartzman as four former U.S. Open champions reached the second round with varying degrees of difficulty.

World number one and top seed Djokovic defeated 79th-ranked Schwartzman 6-1, 6-2, 6-4, wrapping up the marquee match on Arthur Ashe Stadium court minutes before midnight.

“I hope it was a midnight delight,” the reigning Wimbledon champion told fans, although in truth the contest offered little drama.

Schwartzman, playing just his second Grand Slam tournament and his first tour-level hardcourt event, pulled the Serbian star into rallies from the baseline, even breaking him for his only game of the opening set.

Trailing 2-3 in the third, Schwartzman broke Djokovic to knot the set at 3-3, but Djokovic, seeking to add a second U.S. Open title to the one he captured in 2011, promptly broke him at love for a 4-3 lead and sealed the victory on his second match point with a shot that clipped the net and fell his way.

“I thought I hit the ball very well throughout the whole match,” Djokovic said. “I’m very pleased. It’s never easy to start a U.S. Open smoothly.”

That was the common refrain on the opening day, as former champions Andy Murray, Maria Sharapova, and Venus Williams also advanced, taking center stage with two-time defending champion Serena Williams and five-time champion Roger Federer due to launch their campaigns on Tuesday.

Murray lumbered through a 6-3, 7-6 (8/6), 1-6, 7-5 victory over 70th-ranked Dutchman Robin Haase, battling painful muscle cramps that struck without warning.

“I could have easily lost that match,” said Murray, who thought he’d have been in real trouble in a fifth set. “I was very close to losing the match.”

Murray twice fought back from a break down in the fourth — Haase unable to press his advantage at 4-1 and again at 5-3 even as Murray could be seen clutching various areas of his body on shot after shot.

“I don’t know exactly why it happened today,” said Murray, who trains in the steamy heat of Miami and didn’t think the 30 C temperatures on Louis Armstrong Stadium were excessive. “At the time it happened I wasn’t exhausted.”

Murray finally gained the decisive break for a 6-5 lead and finished off the match after just over three hours.

– U.S. Open goosebumps –

Fifth-seeded Sharapova, who lifted the trophy in 2006, rallied with a vengeance from an early break against fellow Russian Maria Kirilenko.

Trailing 2-4, Sharapova won the next 10 games to take the match.

“It’s always tough to start here in New York,” said French Open champion Sharapova, who was just happy to be back under the lights on Ashe after missing last year’s edition with a season-ending shoulder injury.

“You feel the goosebumps when you go out in a night match on Ashe,” Sharapova said.

Venus Williams, the winner in 2000 and 2001, punched her second-round ticket with a 2-6, 6-3, 6-3 win over Japanese veteran Kimiko Date Krumm.

Other notable names in action included Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka, the men’s third seed who defeated Czech Jiri Vesely 6-2, 7-6 (8/6), 7-6 (7/3).

Big-serving Canadian Milos Raonic, the fifth seed, pelted Japanese qualifier Taro Daniel with 20 aces in a 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (7/1) victory.

Women’s second seed Simona Halep shook off first-round jitters to defeat unranked U.S. wildcard Danielle Collins 6-7 (2/7), 6-1, 6-2.

Romania’s Halep, who has quietly risen to number two in the world, admitted she was a bit intimidated to find herself the first match of the tournament on the imposing Ashe court.

“It’s not easy to manage the situation, but I think after first set did I very well,” said the 22-year-old who was runner up to Sharapova at Roland Garros.

Agnieszka Radwanska showed no sign of big-tournament nerves, but the fourth-seeded Pole said she felt them nonetheless in a 6-1, 6-0 drubbing of Canadian Sharon Fichman.

“First match is always tricky,” Radwanska said.

AFP Photo/Don Emmert

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Djokovic, Sharapova Set To Shine In New York

By Rebecca Bryan

New York (AFP) — World number one Novak Djokovic, seeking to consolidate his Wimbledon win, is one of four former champions in action Monday on the first day of the U.S. Open.

The Serbian star ended a maddening spate of near-misses in majors with a five-set triumph over Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final.

With his seventh Grand Slam title in hand, the 27-year-old will be trying to claim a second title at Flushing Meadows, where he won the title in 2011 but finished runner-up in 2007, 2010, 2012, and 2013.

“It’s going to be a long two weeks’ journey for all of us,” said Djokovic, who will play 79th-ranked Argentinian Diego Schwartzman under the lights on Arthur Ashe Stadium court.

The two have never met, and Djokovic said he’d be relying on scouting reports from his team to prepare.

“Obviously it’s never easy when you play against somebody you have never played against,” Djokovic said. “He’s a young player from Argentina, and, sure playing on the center court for him is a great experience. He has nothing to lose.”

The absence of defending champion Rafael Nadal with a right wrist injury has opened up the men’s draw somewhat, but many reckon the second-seeded Federer stands to benefit the most from the Spaniard’s absence.

The Swiss great, who claimed the last of his 17 Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon in 2012, is enjoying a resurgence that included a picture-perfect build-up to the U.S. Open.

“Favorites? I leave it to the people to really judge who is the one, two, three, or number four favorite,” said Djokovic, who on paper faces a tougher path to the final with 2012 champion Andy Murray, French dangerman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and big-serving American John Isner in his quarter.

“I know that there is one thing for sure,” Djokovic said. “Everybody is starting from scratch. Everybody starts from Monday.”

Murray, seeded eighth, hasn’t reached a final of any kind since his Wimbledon triumph last year, but he says he has at last regained the level of fitness he had before back trouble slowed him late in 2013.

He was pleased to be getting underway on Monday with a potentially tricky first-round match against Dutch veteran Robin Haase on Louis Armstrong Stadium.

Former women’s champions Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams are also in action on Monday, along with reigning Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka, Tsonga, U.S. hope Sloane Stephens, and rising Canadian star Milos Raonic.

While younger sister Serena Williams manages the pressure of expectations as the two-time defending champion, Venus Williams — who lifted the trophy in 2000 and 2001 — will be trying to make it past the second round for the first time since 2010.

The 34-year-old American, ranked 20th in the world opens against a veteran she has beaten in three past encounters — 43-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm.

– Dangerous opponent –

Sharapova won the title in 2006 but missed last year’s U.S. Open with a shoulder injury. The reigning French Open champion will take on fellow Russian Maria Kirilenko on Monday night.

Kirilenko, 27, is a former top-10 player who is currently ranked 113th and has endured an injury-plagued season.

Sharapova, who has won five of her seven career meetings with Kirilenko, said it was nevertheless a potentially awkward match-up.

“You never know because I think it’s also an opportunity for someone like that to come in and have no expectations because they haven’t really played a match and (they can) go out and swing away,” she said.

“Sometimes that’s a very dangerous opponent.”

The glamorous Sharapova has long been a favorite of the New York crowds, whose boisterous behavior is part of the fabric of the U.S. Open.

Fifth-seeded Raonic thrives on the hectic atmosphere at the final Grand Slam of the year.

“I like the rowdiness here particularly,” said Raonic, who was warily looking forward to a meeting with Japanese qualifier Taro Daniel on Monday.

“Especially being the first match for me and he’s already played three matches, it’s going to be about finding myself in that first match, figuring out what I need to do, and sort of finding my range and keeping it very simple and not really trying to do much,” Raonic said.

AFP Photo/Carl Court

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Ledecky Edges Franklin For 200m Free Title At U.S. Swim Championships

By Rebecca Bryan

Irvine (United States) (AFP) — Katie Ledecky edged world champion Missy Franklin to win the 200m freestyle Thursday in a rare meeting of America’s teen swimming queens at the U.S. championships.

Ledecky clocked the second-fastest time in the world this year of 1min 55.16secs, just a day after winning the 800m free.

Only Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom at 1:55.04 has gone faster this year.

The 17-year-old Ledecky lowered her own world records in the 800m and 1,500m free in June, but with her performance on Thursday she showed she’s not just a distance star.

Franklin, a four-time Olympic gold medalist who claimed the 200m free as part of a six-gold haul at the world championships last year, had no answer when Ledecky powered home on the final lap, taking second in 1:56.40.

Leah Smith in 1:57.57 and Shannon Vreeland in 1:57.73 rounded out the top four, who all booked berths for the Pan Pacific Championships August 21-25 in Gold Coast, Australia.

Results at this week’s California meet and the PanPacs will determine the U.S. team for the 2015 World Championships in Russia.

Olympic great Michael Phelps, on the comeback trail after a near two-year retirement, will try to qualify for the PanPacs on Friday in the 100m butterfly.

Ledecky said the chance to compete for the United States internationally in the 4x200m free relay was the main reason she set her sights on the 200m.

Racing Franklin is an added benefit.

“I was trying to think how many times I’ve gotten to race her, it’s probably only four or five times,” Ledecky said of the 19-year-old Franklin.

– Friendly rivalry –

Don’t look for any trash talking between the young rivals.

“No! We don’t talk smack,” said Ledecky, sounding sincerely shocked. “No way! That’s not what we’re about.”

Instead they are a mutual admiration society.

“Watching Katie in the 800m and 1500m is a treat for everyone,” Franklin said. “But to be able to race her in the 200m is awesome.

“I’m still learning how to swim against her,” Franklin added. “I’m really excited to have her in that event pushing me.”

Franklin came out on top in the second half of a demanding double with a victory in the 200m backstroke.

She’s the world record-holder as well as world and Olympic champion in the event, but had focused in her first collegiate racing season more on freestyle.

So the win was a confidence builder, as was finding she had the “mental strength to tackle a day with four 200s.”

– Lochte hurting –

Five-time Olympic gold medalist Ryan Lochte opted out of a similar double, scratching from the men’s 200m free final to focus on the backstroke.

Swimming in unfavorable lane one after qualifying seventh-fastest, world champion Lochte took the race out fast but was overhauled by Olympic gold medalist Tyler Clary, who won in 1:54.73 — third-fastest in the world this year.

Ryan Murphy was second in 1:55.99 and Lochte third in 1:56.47.

“That was probably the stupidest way to swim a 200 back,” Lochte said. “I felt good the first 100. After that it kind of hit me — it’s going to get ugly.”

Matt McLean won the men’s 200m free in 1:46.93, with Conor Dwyer second in 1:47.35, Reed Malone third in 1:47.41, and Michael Weiss fourth in 1:47.87.

While the top four in the 100m and 200m freestyles booked their Pan Pacific Championship spots, only the first-place finishers of Thursday’s other events were assured of a trip to Australia.

Micah Lawrence triumphed in the women’s 200m breaststroke, withstanding the fast early pace and powering past Breeja Larson on the final lap to win in 2:23.05.

Kevin Cordes, who clocked a U.S. Open record 2:07.86 in Thursday’s heats, backed up that swim with a wire-to-wire victory in the 200m breaststroke, although his winning finals time was a slower 2:09.48.

AFP Photo/Harry How

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Swim Star Phelps Comeback Hits Wall

By Rebecca Bryan

Irvine (United States) (AFP) — Olympic great Michael Phelps suffered the first big setback of his return to competition as a poor turn left him seventh in the 100m free at the U.S. Swimming Championships.

In a finals field on Wednesday, loaded with Olympic medalists, the 18-time Games champion made a mess of his turn at the 50m wall, and had no chance to challenge coming home in the race won by 2012 Olympic gold medalist Nathan Adrian.

“When I literally took a couple kicks and I barely passed the flags, I knew there was very little chance that I was going to run anybody down,” Phelps said.

“It just kind of stinks that I missed the first wall.”

Phelps ended a near two-year retirement in April, and the U.S. championships are just his fourth meet since then and his first chance to qualify to represent the United States at an international event — the Pan Pacific Championships August 21-25 in Gold Coast, Australia.

He is slated to swim the 100m butterfly on Friday — the event he has raced the most since his return — and the 100m backstroke and 200m individual medley on Saturday and Sunday.

“I’m just trying to get a spot on the team and go from there,” Phelps said. “I am ready to have a day off and get ready for the 100 fly.”

The top four 100m free finishers earned PanPacs berths, and results from these championships and the meet in Australia will determine the U.S. team for the 2015 World Championships in Russia.

Adrian won in 48.31sec. Ryan Lochte, whose own collection of 11 Olympic medals includes five golds, stormed to second from lane eight in 48.96.

Jimmy Feigen was third in 48.98 and Conor Dwyer was fourth in 49.06. Phelps clocked 49.17.

“I’m pretty sure he just straight up missed the wall,” Adrian said of Phelps, whose epic Olympic campaigns never included the individual 100m free but who has been a key part of American 4x100m free relay teams.

“I said ‘Hey, good thing you’re the best swimmer of all time, you’re going to make the team anyway,” Adrian added of his post-race chat with Phelps.

Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman said there were some encouraging signs in Phelps’ performance Wednesday night.

“I think we both felt good because he actually swam well tonight,” Bowman said. “He looked good in warm-up. This morning he looked terrible.”

– Franklin wins 100m free –

Missy Franklin, who followed up her four-gold performance at the London Olympics by winning a record six golds at the 2013 World Championships, used a late surge to win the women’s 100m freestyle in 53.43.

Franklin powered past halfway leader Simone Manuel, who settled for silver in 53.66 — unable to match the career-best 53.60 she posted in the morning.

Shannon Vreeland was third in 54.14 and Abbey Weitzeil fourth in 54.38.

“I knew that Simone was right next to me and she always goes out so fast,” Franklin said. “I knew I was going to have to come home hard and I just tried to put my head down.”

Natalie Coughlin, owner of 12 Olympic medals, faded on the final lap and finished seventh.

While the top four finishers in the 100m and 200m freestyles earn PanPacs berths, only the winners of Wednesday’s remaining events were assured of spots.

World record-holder Katie Ledecky duly punched her ticket with a victory in the 800m freestyle in 8:18.47. The 17-year-old was well off the world mark of 8:11.00 she set on June 23, but easily out-paced runner-up Cierra Runge (8:24.69).

Tom Shields led from start to finish to win the men’s 200m butterfly in 1:55.09 — third-fastest time in the world this year.

He held off a late charge by Olympic backstroke gold medalist Tyler Clary, who finished second in 1:56.00 with Chase Kalisz third in 1:56.50.

Cammile Adams won her third straight national title in the 200m butterfly in 2:07.12 and Connor Jaeger won the men’s 1,500m free in 14:51.06.

AFP Photo/Harry How

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