LOS ANGELES (AFP) — Serena Williams shrugged off the absence of fans to make a winning return from her six-month coronavirus layoff on Tuesday, defeating lowly ranked Bernarda Pera in three sets at the WTA Top Seed Open tournament in Kentucky.
Williams, who before Tuesday had not played a competitive game since a Fed Cup appearance in February, came from behind to defeat American world number 60 Pera 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 in two hours and 15 minutes at the Top Seed Tennis Club in Lexington.
The former world number one’s first round victory played out to an empty arena. This week’s tournament — the first WTA event in the US since the COVID-19 pandemic — is taking place without spectators.
Williams, 38, later revealed that the sedate surroundings had suited her game.
“It was a really calm atmosphere, it was really chill,” Williams said.
“I can’t say I disliked it. I didn’t mind it at all. I’ve been through so many things in my career and this was totally different. I think I won today because I was calm for once in my career.
“Kind of reminds me of junior days. Something nostalgic about that. I kind of enjoyed it.”
The 23-time Grand Slam singles champion looked to be flirting with an early exit in the second set, but recovered from 0-40 down at 4-4 before holding and eventually winning the set.
Swagger and Filipino athletes
Top Filipino athletes should learn a thing or two on how to conduct themselves while training and competing.
Through the years, typical Filipino athletes, even those who are touted as world-class, tend to be soft-spoken and shy.
Ask them even about the simplest of things, you would likely end up wondering how on earth you will come up with a story.
Here’s a typical convo between a scribe and a Filipino athlete:
Scribe: So how do you see yourself performing this week?
Athlete 1: I will do my best, sir.
Scribe: Uhm… you’ve been a long-time national team member. Do you feel that you will win again since you have been training overseas and have been getting lots of support?
Athlete 1: God-willing, sir. (His right index finger pointing upwards)
Scribe (turning to another athlete): How about you?
Athlete 2: Training was great. But, it’s going to be hard because we feel a lot of pressure performing before hometown fans.
Scribe: First place again?
Athlete 2: I can’t say that. But anything can happen. Depends on the draw.
Scribe: You won the last time and you are the favorite to win your event. Another gold?
Athlete 2: It’s hard to say. I don’t want to predict, but in sports, it is not always about winning but how you play the game. Taking part is already an achievement in itself.
Scribe (looks at the two and stares blankly on his pad and recorder): Okay. Thanks.
So, what seems to be wrong here? The attitude, I guess.
This is precisely one reason why the Philippines has yet to win an Olympic gold all these years.
Winning starts from within.
So, why is Manny Pacquiao great? Again. Attitude.
While Pacquiao doesn’t talk trash, he has provided me countless unforgettable quotes.
One time in San Antonio, Texas, in his first fight with Marco Antonio Barrera in 2003, Pacquiao walked inside the hotel room and looked at his manager Rod Nazario.
Pacquiao asked Nazario, slumped on a chair, why he looked nervous.
Nazario snapped back at him: “You are fighting Barrera, that’s why.”
Pacquiao returned fire: “If Barrera wants, we can fight without gloves.”
Instantly, Nazaro’s face glowed, his fears vanishing into thin air.
Here’s another story, this time in Los Angeles for the Erik Morales rematch in Las Vegas. Pacquiao said: “Morales doesn’t give me the creeps.”
Which brings me to Casimero, who just beat up Ghanaian foe Duke Micah few days ago in the United States.
Asked about Micah’s willingness to slug early, Casimero’s eyes lit up.
“He wanted action so I gave him what he wanted and I felt it would be a waste of time if I allow the fight to last long,” he said.
Addressing Japanese icon Naoya Inoue, Casimero then said: “You scared, you Japanese turtle!”
As you see, Filipino athletes need not to mimic Casimero all the way.
But the sad thing is, Filipino athletes have opted to keep silent and be glad with merely participating.
How many times have we heard them say, “At least I was able to go to the Asian Games or to the Olympics.”
Perhaps, it’s all because we were not brought up to be vocal and boastful.
Mind you, taking something from the mindset of Pacquiao and Casimero will go a long way. It builds up confidence, something that fires you up into reaching a goal.
Many of those who barely say a word are often the vanquished, the guy who gets knocked out and the poor chap whose only time to sweat is during the round robin.
It’s rather heartbreaking to keep on hearing them sound as if they are competing in a beauty pageant.
PBA catches FIBA attention
The bubble concept that the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) had formulated to restart its 45th season just gained a big fan – the International Basketball Federation (FIBA).
PBA commissioner Willie Marcial said FIBA had shown willingness to pattern its tourneys after the bubble setup that the league will use in resuming its coronavirus-wrought season on 11 October in Clark Freeport Zone in Pampanga.
Marcial said the international cage body is mulling to use this kind of setup in the FIBA Asia Cup Qualifier this November and in February 2021.
“What I heard is that FIBA is also looking at us as a pattern in holding its own bubble,” said Marcial in a virtual press briefing Tuesday.
“If we emerge successful, then I think FIBA will hold at least its 3×3 tournament in Clark as well.”
No less than Bases Conversion and Development Authority president Vince Dizon and Clark Development Corporation president Noel Manankil welcomed the 12 competing teams when they make their entry in the PBA bubble at Quest Hotel.
First to check in where Magnolia, Talk ‘N Text, Meralco, Phoenix Super LPG and Terra Firma on Monday while San Miguel Beer, Ginebra, NLEX, Alaska, Blackwater, Rain or Shine and NorthPort followed suit on Tuesday in which they underwent strict health and safety protocols, including testing and mandatory quarantine.
Dizon, who covered the testing kits, said they would apply all protocols to everybody – from players to coaches, team staff, PBA personnel, league officials and even media representatives.
“This bubble is specifically designed for the safety of everyone in the bubble,” Dizon, who also sits as the government’s testing czar against COVID-19, said.
“Whether you’re a staff, driver, security, hotel attendants, the same protocol applies.”
With all of these protocols in place, it’s no wonder that FIBA is looking to copy the league’s best practice.
Dizon said they would be very open to host an international tournament, especially since they are coming from a successful staging of the 30th Southeast Asian Games last year.
“We are just ready to host here,” said Dizon.
“We are proud to be hosting the first bubble. We will do everything to support it and make sure that it is a success.”
Butler finally at home as Heat prepare title tilt
Jimmy Butler’s journey to the NBA Finals began when he was thrown out of home by his mother as a teenager.
The 31-year-old Texan with a taste for country and western music will lead the Miami Heat on Wednesday as they take on LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals in Orlando.
For Butler, it is the biggest sporting test yet in a life spent battling — and often prevailing — against the odds.
At the age of 13 growing up in the Houston suburb of Tomball, his mother told him he had to leave home. “I don’t like the look of you. You gotta go,” is how Butler recalls his mother’s parting words.
For years he was homeless, spending a few days or weeks at a time sleeping on the couches of friends before moving on.
In high school he finally found a permanent home, being welcomed into the family of a friend, Jordan Leslie, also a talented athlete who would later go on to become a wide receiver in the NFL.
With a stable home life, Butler was free to concentrate on his basketball, and although not regarded as a prized recruit out of high school, would eventually win a scholarship to Marquette University in Wisconsin.
Don’t feel sorry for me
Despite his troubled youth, Butler dislikes his unusual backstory being framed as the classic sporting narrative of triumph over adversity.
“Please, I know you’re going to write something,” he told an ESPN interviewer in 2011 shortly before the NBA draft. “I’m just asking you, don’t write it in a way that makes people feel sorry for me. I hate that.
“There’s nothing to feel sorry about. I love what happened to me. It made me who I am. I’m grateful for the challenges I’ve faced.”
Those challenges have molded Butler into the ferocious competitor who has helped carry Miami into their first NBA Finals appearance since 2014.
It has taken Butler the best part of a decade to find his preferred environment.
Selected by the Chicago Bulls with the 30th pick in the draft nine years ago, Butler spent six seasons in the Windy City before being traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2017.
But tension with teammate Karl Anthony-Towns left Butler heading for the exit, and after a single season in Minnesota, he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers in November of 2018.
In theory it should have been a perfect fit for Butler, a high-quality addition to an emerging power complementing the likes of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Yet after the Sixers exited the playoffs in the second round last season, Butler was also packing his bags.
In July last year he was signed by Miami in a multi-team trade. In Florida, where he has clicked with Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and franchise president, Pat Riley, Butler is finally at home.
Happy to be home
“I think that’s what this whole thing comes down to is being wanted, being appreciated for what you bring to the table, as I’ve said time and time again,” Butler said of his move to Miami.
Spoelstra says his and Riley’s mission to lure Butler to Miami was wrapped up swiftly, recalling a dinner the three men shared last June as “one of the most amazing recruiting visits we’ve ever had.”
“It was so conversational, and you just felt like after 20 minutes we were so aligned in how we viewed competition and work and culture, everything,” Spoelstra said.
“We were talking shop and he interrupted Pat and I after dinner, probably five minutes into just a conversation, and he said, ‘By the way, I’m in.’ We’re like, ‘What? We haven’t even given you our pitch yet.'”
Butler, who had been tipped off about the team culture by Heat legend Dwyane Wade, says he needed little persuading.
“D-Wade told me about it. I wanted parts of that, the work; the culture, the word that everybody uses,” Butler said.
“More than anything, they wanted me to be here. They told me, like, ‘Yo, you’re the guy that we want. We’re coming after you.’ It was like, say no more.
“To be wanted, that’s what anybody wants in the world, not just basketball. I’m happy to be home.”
Lakers, Heat prepare for battle as NBA odyssey reaches climax
LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers begin the final challenge in their bid to return to the summit of basketball on Wednesday (Thursday, Manila time) when they take on the Miami Heat team in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
A full 11 months after the 2019-2020 NBA season first tipped off, a marathon campaign plunged into crisis by Covid-19 and tumultuous social unrest finally reaches its climax in Orlando.
The fact that the NBA season has managed to reach the home stretch is itself a triumph of sorts, a testament to assiduous planning by league officials to create a secure “bubble” at Disney World in Florida.
Since July, teams have been housed at the sprawling entertainment park in Orlando, largely sequestered from the outside world and the raging coronavirus crisis which has claimed more than 204,000 American lives.
Even then, the season has not been immune from external forces. A month ago, the season threatened to unravel as a tide of anger against racial injustice prompted teams led by the Milwaukee Bucks to boycott games.
The Lakers, who will be chasing a 17th NBA championship against Miami in the finals, were one of two teams who reportedly voted to abandon the season altogether on August 26 following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha.
That walkout threat was only headed off by the intervention of former President Barack Obama, who reportedly counseled James and other players against a season-ending boycott.
A little over one month later, and the 35-year-old James is now girding himself for a 10th appearance in an NBA Finals, a tally bettered by only two players in the history of the league.
It also marks the vindication of James’ decision in 2018 to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Lakers, a faded superpower of the NBA who were floundering before his arrival two years ago.
Although James first season in Los Angeles ended in disappointment, with injury restricting his appearances and the team once again failing to make the playoffs, the bolstering of the squad with Anthony Davis last year, who has formed a superb partnership with James, returned the team to dominance.
“This is what I came here for,” James said on Saturday after the Lakers defeated the Denver Nuggets to clinch the Western Conference championship and book a place in the finals.
“I heard all the conversations and everything that was said about why did I decide to come to LA (that) the reason I came to LA, it was not about basketball.
“All those conversations, just naysayers and things of that nature. I understood that, with the season I had last year and my injury, it just gave them more sticks and more wood to throw in the fire to continue to say the things that they would say about me.
“But it never stopped my journey and never stopped my mindset and never stopped my goal.”
The Lakers’ odyssey back to the finals has also been marked by tragedy. In January, the team was plunged into mourning following the death in a helicopter accident of franchise legend Kobe Bryant.
A determination to honor Bryant’s legacy has driven the Lakers into this year’s finals.
“Every time you put on purple and gold, you think about his legacy,” James said. “You think about him and about what he meant to this franchise for 20-plus years, and what he stood for both on the floor and off the floor.”
Standing in the way of James’ bid for a fourth NBA championship is a Miami team who are happy to be cast in the role of underdogs.
The Heat have excelled through the playoffs with Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic outstanding, routing the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks 4-1 in the Eastern Conference semi-finals before accounting for the Boston Celtics 4-2.
Butler, who joined Miami in 2019 from the Philadelphia 76ers, says the team must neutralize James to have any chance against the Lakers.
“The main key, and it’s been like this for a very long time, if you want to win, you’re going to have to go through a LeBron James-led team,” Butler said.
“At the end of the day, that’s what it normally comes down to.
“That’s what we got to focus in on. Obviously, you can’t focus in on him because he has so many really good players around him, but you’re going to get the same test over and over again until you pass, and that test is LeBron James.
“We’re just going to have to play hard. We’re going to have to play damn near perfect because they are such a good team. They do so many things well. Obviously, you know the star power that they have.”
Doc Rivers confirms his exit as Clippers coach
Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers has parted company with the franchise in the wake of the team’s latest playoff flop, the coach confirmed Monday.
“Thank you Clipper nation for allowing me to be your coach and for all your support in helping make this a winning franchise,” Rivers wrote.
“When I took this job, my goals were to make this a winning basketball program, a free agent destination, and bring a championship to this organization.
“While I was able to accomplish most of my goals, I won’t be able to see them all through.”
Six of the team’s playoff campaigns under Rivers ended in the first round.
Rivers, however, insists he believes the Clippers, who had high hopes of reaching the NBA Finals this year after recruiting Kawhi Leonard in 2019, are close to competing for championships.
Celtics can’t stand Heat
MIAMI (AFP) — The Miami Heat poured it on in the fourth quarter to beat the Boston Celtics, 125-113, on Sunday and book a NBA Finals showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Heat, NBA champions in 2006, 2012 and 2013, reached the championship series for the sixth time in club history with a four games to two victory over the Celtics in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals in the NBA’s quarantine bubble in Orlando, Florida.
When the Finals start on Wednesday they will be up against a Lakers team led by LeBron James, who reached the title series four times with Miami and won two titles before departing as a free agent in 2014.
Bam Adebayo scored 32 points and pulled down 14 rebounds for the Heat, who trailed by six with 9:18 remaining.
Midway through the fourth quarter Adebayo was fouled on a layup and made the free throw put the Heat up 101-100 and they wouldn’t trail again.
It was a vindication for the player who blamed himself for the team’s failure to clinch the series at their first opportunity in Game 5.
“I couldn’t let my teammates down like I did in the game before,” Adebayo said.
“I just went out there and tried to execute and make plays and I did that tonight.”
Jimmy Butler added 22 points and eight assists and rookie Tyler Herro scored 11 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter for the Heat.
Duncan Robinson and Andre Iguodala scored 15 points apiece and Goran Dragic added 13 for Miami.
“This group, more than anything, they just love to compete,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said as the Eastern Conference trophy was presented.
Herro contributed two baskets in a 9-0 scoring run that put the Heat up by 10 with 3:31 to play and Adebayo’s pass set Butler up for a layup that made it 116-102 with 2:40 remaining.
Fittingly, it was Adebayo who capped the scoring when he jammed in a reverse two-hander.
Jaylen Brown led the Celtics with 26 points, Jayson Tatum had 24 along with career-high 11 assists and Marcus Smart and Kemba Walker both scored 20 points for Boston.
But it’s the fifth-seeded Heat headed to the finals, the lowest seeded team to reach the championship series since the eighth-seeded New York Knicks lost to the San Antonio Spurs in 1999.
The Heat had emerged from a close first quarter with a 33-27 lead.
Tatum missed his first seven shots but warmed up with 12 points in the second quarter.
His driving layup with 1:56 left in the first half put Boston up 56-55 — their first lead since the first quarter.
Both teams were clicking offensively and they traded baskets and the lead to the break with Miami leading 62-60 at halftime.
Two days after the Celtics seized control of game five with a 41-point third quarter, it stayed close in the third.
The Heat led by as many as eight in a quarter that featured two lead changes.
Brown was fouled on a layup and converted the free throw to pull the Celtics within 86-4-84 with a minute left.
Matt opts out of bubble
Reigning champion San Miguel Beer lost a major piece in its title hunt when Matt Ganuelas-Rosser decided to opt out of the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) bubble inside Clark Freeport Zone in Pampanga.
According to a reliable Daily Tribune source, the Filipino-American swingman begged off from playing inside the bubble starting 11 October for fear of contracting coronavirus.
In fact, Ganuelas-Rosser remains in the United States, where two of his relatives fell prey to the deadly virus that already killed millions worldwide.
“He will not be included in the lineup because he is still in the United States right now,” said the source, a team insider who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“He wrote the management a letter that he will not be joining the bubble. He opted out.”
Ganuelas-Rosser is not the first to player to opt out of the PBA bubble.
First to signify intention to sit out was Larry Fonacier of NLEX followed by veteran teammate Cyrus Baguio and injured June Mar Fajardo of San Miguel and Robert Bolick of NorthPort.
Of course, Sonny Thoss of Alaska also made it clear that he will not see action unless a vaccine has been made available.
The 30-year-old Ganuelas-Rosser has played a key role in the Beermen’s rise to power.
He helped the Beermen cop four titles — the 2017 and 2019 Commissioner’s Cup crowns and the 2018 and 2019 Philippine Cup diadems.
Without him, San Miguel coach Leo Austria has to dig deep into his bench to come up with a solid bench crew.
The source, however, said Austria would be enlisting Louie Vigil as replacement.
After all, Vigil is a former Beerman who bannered San Miguel-Alab Pilipinas in the Asean Basketball League.
“Fortunately, Alab is also owned by San Miguel so the process of hiring him was easy,” the source said.
“Louie will be a great boost for the team, especially after losing to June Mar to injury.”
Nadal embarks on ‘difficult’ Garros
PARIS, France (AFP) — Rafael Nadal embarks on what he has described as his “most difficult ever Roland Garros” while Serena Williams launches another attempt to clinch an elusive 24th Grand Slam title on her least successful surface.
Nadal, the undisputed king of clay, needs one more major to match Roger Federer’s record of 20, but the Spaniard comes to Paris short of preparation and unhappy with the French Open’s choice of new balls.
“The conditions here are probably the most difficult conditions for me ever at Roland Garros for so many different facts,” said the world Number 2.
“The ball is completely different. It is super slow, heavy. It’s also very cold, slow conditions.”
Nadal won the first of his 12 French Open titles in 2005 and has been beaten just twice in 95 matches here, but now must adjust to the unusual autumnal chill due to the coronavirus-induced delay.
The event began Sunday amid steady drizzle in temperatures struggling to reach 10 degrees, conditions branded “ridiculous” by US Open finalist Victoria Azarenka.
The forecast is little better for day two with the new roof on Court Philippe Chatrier again likely to be closed although overcast weather could give way to clearer skies late in the afternoon.
The heavier atmosphere could negate some of Nadal’s lethal topspin as he heads into the event without a clay title under his belt for the first time.
The second seed is not pleased the French Open has switched to a new ball supplier and even believes it could pose physical problems for the players.
“I really believe that the organization needs to take a look at that for the next couple of years, for the health of the players, too, because the ball is super heavy and becomes dangerous for the elbow and for the shoulders,” said Nadal.
However a first-time meeting with Egor Gerasimov, the world No. 83 from Belarus, is unlikely to trouble him.
Pardon my French
PARIS, France (AFP) — Roland Garros got underway in the “ridiculous” chill and damp of Paris on Sunday with Victoria Azarenka walking off court, complaining that it was “too cold” to play, before Stan Wawrinka brushed aside fellow three-time major winner Andy Murray in the day’s marquee clash.
The French Open, which was pushed back from its traditional May-June slot due to the coronavirus, began in steady drizzle and temperatures struggling to reach 10 degrees (50F).
It was all too much for Azarenka, 31, who left the almost deserted Court Suzanne Lenglen after just three games.
“I don’t see the point of sitting on the court when it’s eight degrees,” fumed two-time major winner Azarenka.
On court she complained: “We are sitting like ducks. It’s too cold, it’s eight degrees, I live in Florida. This is getting a little ridiculous. I’m not waiting,” she said before storming off to seek shelter.
She returned to complete a 6-1, 6-2 win, playing in black leggings and a tracksuit top.
“Does it increase the risk of players getting injured? Absolutely, I think that it does,” she added ahead of a week in which the cold, wet conditions are forecast to continue.
That echoed fears expressed by 12-time champion Rafael Nadal who said the conditions combined with a new heavier ball could cause elbow and shoulder problems for players.
On Court Simonne Mathieu, Belgian 16th seed Elise Mertens and Russia’s Margarita Gasparyan twice left the arena after also halting play due to the slippery conditions.
At least the rain had cleared by the time 2015 champion Wawrinka and Murray walked out on to Court Philippe Chatrier with the retractable roof opened for the first time in the day.
Murray, playing his first clay court match since losing a five-set.
semifinal to the Swiss star in 2017, may have wished it had remained shut as 16th seed Wawrinka swept to a 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 win.
The 35-year-old fired 42 winners past wildcard Murray, now ranked at 111 in the world after being pushed to the brink of retirement by his lengthy battle with a hip injury.
“I should be analyzing that hard and trying to understand why the performance was like that,” said 33-year-old Murray after his joint-worst defeat at a Slam.
Wawrinka added: “I was really focused with a champion like Andy, even if the scoreboard is only one side like today, you have to keep focus. You never know what can happen.”
On a grim day for Britain, ninth seed and 2019 semifinalist Johanna Konta was knocked out by teenage sensation Coco Gauff having