Defending champion Stephens upset by Maria at Miami Open

Defending champion Sloane Stephens was sent packing from the Miami Open on Sunday after a 6-3 6-2 loss to Germany’s Tatjana Maria in the third round.

Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open champion and world No. 6, had no answer to Florida-based Maria’s slices, chips and lobs and suffered a second consecutive early exit after losing her first match in Indian Wells to Swiss qualifier Stefanie Vogele.

Earlier on Sunday, second seed Simona Halep fought back from a set down to defeat Polona Hercog while Venus Williams reached the next round with a straight sets win over Daria Kasatkina.

Maria, ranked 62nd in the world, celebrated prematurely on her third match point with a lob shot that was called out, but won on the next one when Stephens sent a backhand long.

“I could not be happier right now,” the 31-year-old said. “I think I played at home, because I live here. It was helping me a lot.

“My game is pretty special, so I knew that tonight I had a chance. I played two times against Sloane, so I knew what to expect.”

Halep had nothing but praise for Hercog, who has a world ranking of 93rd, after dropping the first set and being pushed all the way in the second by the Slovenian.

The Romanian dominated the tiebreak to turn the match around and eventually triumphed 5-7 7-6(1) 6-2.

“It was not easy at all,” Halep said. “I think the level was very, very high. She played unbelievable. If she keeps playing like this, she can be top 20 easy.”

HIGH STANDARD

Halep grabbed the match by the scruff of the neck by winning five consecutive points in the second set tiebreak and after lucky loser Hercog pulled within 3-2 in the concluding set, Halep won the next three games to seal the match.

“I think in the end she got tired a little bit, then I was stepping a little bit forward to be more aggressive,” Halep said.

“She didn’t miss. So it was really difficult. It was a very, very high standard.”

World number three Halep avoided becoming the third major player to exit the women’s draw in two days after world number one Naomi Osaka was stunned by Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-wei and Serena William withdrew with a knee injury.

She next faces three-time champion Venus Williams in the fourth round after the American won 6-3 6-1 against Russian 14th seed Kasatkina, who failed to hold serve once

The seven-time Grand Slam champion broke Kasatkina eight times, losing just one game after trailing 3-2 in the opener.

“I think in a lot of the matches we played before, she was just on top of her game, couldn’t miss,” the former world number one said.

“I think today I was just able to control the points. Got a few more errors.

“I’m always at my best when I’m playing aggressive.”

The Russian did not save a single break point and lost every service game.

“I didn’t realise that until after the match looking at the stats,” said Williams, who was broken four times. “I’ve never had a match before like that in my life.”

In other matches, Latvian 11th seed Anastasija Sevastova lost 1-6 6-2 6-3 to Kazakh Yulia Putintseva, while 25th-seeded American Danielle Collins went down 7-5 6-1 to China’s Wang Yafan.

Djokovic beats Delbonis, stays on track for seventh Miami title

World number one Novak Djokovic staved off a spirited challenge from Federico Delbonis for a 7-5 4-6 6-1 win in the third round of the Miami Open on Sunday.

Like Roger Federer the previous day, top seed Djokovic found it tough going against an unseeded opponent before prevailing in two hours in the Florida twilight.

Eighty-third ranked Delbonis, a left-hander with perhaps the highest ball toss in the game, took advantage of some Djokovic errors in the second set.

“I managed to really play well last couple games of first set, put myself in front, then I played a couple of really bad service games,” Djokovic told reporters.

“Credit to Federico, he stepped in. He was the one controlling the pace. I backed up. I didn’t have that much depth and power in my shots, and he used it.

“I think first two, three games of the third set were crucial. (I was) really fighting, trying to be present, regain the positioning on the court more than anything.”

The result improved Djokovic’s impressive record against Argentine players. According to the ATP Tour, since 2007 only Juan Martin del Potro has beaten Djokovic, who is 36-3 against Argentines during the period.

Next up for the Serb is Spanish 22nd seed Roberto Bautista Agut, who prevailed 6-4 6-4 over Italian 15th seed Fabio Fognini.

In Sunday’s late match, Nick Kyrgios had more trouble with a heckler than his opponent Dusan Lajovic.

Kyrgios won a point with an underhand serve in the first set, and the Australian then engaged in a heated verbal exchange with a spectator that continued for several points.

The spectator was eventually escorted away by security.

Kyrgios also had a brief outburst at the chair umpire in a dispute over a line call early in the second set, but then settled down and played out a 6-3 6-1 win in less than an hour.

Next up for Kyrgios is Croatian 11th seed Borna Coric, who battled back to beat Jeremy Chardy of France 6-7(2) 6-2 6-3, closing out in style with an ace.

Earlier, defending champion John Isner unleashed 16 aces in a 7-5 7-6(6) victory over Spaniard Albert Ramos-Vinolas.

Ramos-Vinolas broke Isner to start the match but the American saved the next four break points he faced to advance.

“I did a lot of things well today,” Isner said. “I played a good first set, even though I didn’t start it off well. In the second, it wasn’t quite as clean.

“I’ll talk to my coach and try to iron things out. But I’m into the round of 16 of a big tournament and I’m happy.”

The seventh seed will face Britain’s 19th-seeded Kyle Edmund in the fourth round. Edmund beat Canadian 12th seed Milos Raonic 6-4 6-4.

Isner has practised with Edmund in Miami and they have split two meetings.

Also on Sunday, Canadian teenager Felix Auger-Aliassime continued his stellar form with a 7-6(5) 6-4 win over Pole Hubert Hurkacz.

Auger-Aliassime last month made his first career final at the Rio Open, where he fell to Laslo Djere.

O'Sullivan on top of the world after Tour Championship win

Five-times world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan reclaimed the world number one spot for the first time in nine years by winning the inaugural Tour Championship against Neil Robertson on Sunday.

The Englishman known as ‘The Rocket’ led 5-3 overnight in Llandudno, Wales but Australian Robertson stayed in the contest until 10-10 after which O’Sullivan pulled away to win 13-11.

The 43-year-old is level with Scot Stephen Hendry on 36 ranking titles and in top spot for the first time since May, 2010 - the oldest man to lead the rankings since Ray Reardon in 1983.

Asked about matching Hendry, O’Sullivan said: “That’s one of the records that’s nice to get, the centuries was nice, the 19 majors was nice. Those three records are great. The only one now is the world titles but I don’t see that happening.”

Earlier this month, O’Sullivan became the first player to compile 1,000 career century breaks en route to winning the Players Championship final in Preston.

As well as five world titles, O’Sullivan has won a record seven Masters titles and a record seven UK Championships — the sport’s Triple Crown tournaments known as the majors.

Hendry tops the list for world titles with seven followed by both England’s Steve Davis and Welshman Reardon on six.

O’Sullivan, who leapfrogged compatriot Mark Selby at the top of the world rankings, added: “It’s crazy, really, I’ve probably only played about half the events that everyone else has played in to get to number one. It seems quite weird, really.”

The Tour Championship is contested by the sport’s leading eight players with a top prize of 150,000 pounds.

All Blacks captain Read ready to return for the Crusaders

There was some good news for the Canterbury Crusaders after a difficult 10 days on Monday when All Blacks captain Kieran Read was declared available to play in Friday’s crunch Super Rugby match against the Wellington Hurricanes.

The reigning champions lost for the first time in a year when they went down 20-12 to the New South Wales Waratahs on Saturday in a match where the 50 victims of the March 15 mosque shootings in their home city of Christchurch were remembered.

Back-row powerhouse Read, who missed the start of the last Super Rugby season after back surgery, has not played since the All Blacks’ November tour of Europe as he rests up for a season that will climax with the World Cup defence in Japan.

“He’s trained really well,” assistant coach Jason Ryan told the New Zealand Herald on Monday.

“He’s been unbelievable for us off the field in getting the boys ready to play each week. He’s on his toes, he’s fresh and he’s looking forward to it. If he gets an opportunity he’ll definitely be an influence for us.

“His back is feeling good and he’s feeling good mentally as well which is just as important.”

If he does play, the nine-times Super Rugby champions will certainly welcome Read’s leadership after looking a little rudderless as they chased the game in Sydney at the weekend.

Prop Owen Franks, who had been scheduled to play his 150th Super Rugby match, was a late withdrawal because of a shoulder problem, while lock Scott Barrett and flyhalf Richie Mo’unga were rested under All Blacks player management protocols.

It was the second week in a row that Franks had missed out on the milestone after the March 16 south island derby against the Otago Highlanders was cancelled in the wake of the Christchurch shootings.

All three of the All Blacks should be available along with number eight Read for Friday’s clash in the New Zealand capital against the 2016 champion Hurricanes.

“We’re looking forward to this game, it’s come at a good time for us, we believe. It’s another good New Zealand derby and it’s something we need,” Ryan added.

“We’ve had a bit of adversity, as you know. Not all of it was planned ... It’s a chance for us to bounce back and see what we’re made of.”

New-look Germany edge Dutch in Euro thriller as Croatia stumble

Germany's Nico Schulz sealed a thrilling 3-2 win over the Netherlands in a see-saw Euro 2020 qualifier as Joachim Loew's new-look line-up survived a severe test on Sunday.

Elsewhere, World Cup finalists Croatia stumbled to a 2-1 defeat in Hungary, and Eden Hazard celebrated a century of caps with the opening goal in Belgium's 2-0 win over Cyprus.

A revamped Germany raced into a 2-0 lead in Amsterdam with thrilling strikes from Leroy Sane and Serge Gnabry but the hosts struck back with a second half header from Matthijs De Ligt before Memphis Depay pounced for an equaliser on 63 minutes.

The four-time world champions were put under immense pressure from a Netherlands side seeking a winner but the visitors, who were booed by their own fans in a 1-1 friendly draw against Serbia last Wednesday, snatched victory in the 90th minute through 25-year-old Schulz. The Hoffenheim midfielder, who made his international in August, tapped home a loose ball after a tireless Sane had taken the defence with him on a run into the box.

The win comes after Loew took an axe to Germany's squad ahead of the qualifying campaign in the aftermath of last year's calamitous World Cup elimination, when he told Bayern Munich trio Thomas Mueller, Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels they had no future in the national side.

Bayern stopper Manuel Neuer may also come under pressure for his place after De Ligt beat him with a flying header just after the restart. Neuer, 32, was also slow to react as Depay pounced for the equaliser.

Dutch 'keeper Jasper Cillesen was left with little chance after Gnabry ended his mazy run by outwitting Virgil Van Dijk before sending a rasping long-range effort into the bottom corner in the early action.

- Modric powerless -

 Chelsea star Hazard celebrated his 100th cap by scoring the opener in their 2-0 win over Cyprus in Group I with Michy Batshuayi grabbing the second as Real Madrid's Thibaut Courtois went largely untested in the Belgian goal.

Ballon d'Or winner Luka Modric was powerless to stop beaten World Cup finalists Croatia from slipping to a 2-1 defeat to Hungary in Group E on Sunday as Mate Patkai notched a 76th minute winner in Budapest.

Croatia had struggled against Azerbaijan in their opening qualifier last Thursday before escaping with a 2-1 win, but they made the perfect start in the Hungarian capital when Ante Rebic put them ahead on 13 minutes.

 But Hungary pulled level through Adam Szalai's fifth goal in as many games and with a quarter of an hour left, 31-year-old Patkai scored his first international goal to pull off a famous victory.

Scotland got back to winning ways with an uninspiring 2-0 win at perennial makeweights San Marino, following an embarrassing defeat at Kazakhstan in their opening qualifier.

"It was a wee bit nervy, it's been a tough few days for everyone," admitted Scotland coach Alex McLeish.

Minnows Israel made it four points from their opening two qualifiers as they swept past Austria 4-2 thanks to a Eran Zahavi hat-trick, setting them up nicely for a tilt at qualification.

 

U.N.-backed Semenya optimistic of CAS success in battle with IAAF

Double Olympic 800-metres champion Caster Semenya is “optimistic” of success in her appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) over eligibility regulations in athletics for female classification.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) contends that Semenya and other female athletes that are classed as having differences in sexual development (DSDs) gain an unfair advantage due to their higher testosterone levels, but only in races between 400 and 1,000-metres.

Under its new rules, which are currently suspended pending the outcome of the CAS case, athletes classed as having DSDs must medically reduce their blood testosterone level for a continuous period of six months before they can compete.

“Caster Semenya remains optimistic that CAS will declare the IAAF’s Regulations unlawful, invalid and of no effect,” Semenya’s lawyers said in a statement on Friday, confirming at the same time that the athlete had made additional submissions to CAS following “post-hearing communications from the IAAF”.

They did not go into detail as to what those submissions were in relation to.

Semenya received support from the United Nations this week as they adopted a resolution tabled by South Africa “aimed at eliminating discrimination against women and girls in sport, giving significant global weight from a human rights perspective to Caster Semenya’s case”, according to a media release from the South African government.

The resolution was co-sponsored by Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland), Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Burundi, India, Iceland and Canada.

“The international campaign to preserve Caster’s right to participate in global sports is a struggle for all women in the world against discrimination, sexism, and patriarchy,” South Africa’s minister of international relations and cooperation, Lindiwe Sisulu, said.

CAS has called the hearing one of its most pivotal cases that could have a wide reaching consequence, not just for the future of athletics, but sport in general.

The court postponed its verdict from the five-day hearing in February, due to be delivered next week, until the end of April, with no fixed date set.

The IAAF has said that, given the delay, it would alter the six-month rule for the world championships in Qatar in September and introduce a “special transitional period” so that affected athletes could still compete.

It added that, assuming its new regulations were upheld, affected athletes who comply with the new limit from one week after the final CAS decision until the start of the world championships in September would be allowed to take part.

Team Sky deal should motivate chasing pack, says rival boss

Not everyone has been celebrating Team Sky’s impending takeover by Britain’s richest man but it must not be regarded as a negative, according to one person tasked with trying to beat them on the road.

When British broadcaster Sky announced last December it was pulling the plug on the outfit set up by Dave Brailsford in 2010, it seemed like good news for teams with lesser budgets.

Tuesday’s announcement that billionaire Jim Ratcliffe, owner of British chemicals giant INEOS, had stepped in to buy the star-studded team that has dominated cycling in recent years means the status quo is likely to remain.

Sky pumped 34 million pounds into Brailsford’s team last year around twice as much as their biggest rivals spend annually.

It was a year when Geraint Thomas won the Tour de France — the sixth time Sky have won the Tour since 2012.

Add in Froome’s 2017 Vuelta victory and his Giro d’Italia triumph last year and Sky boast eight Grand Tour titles.

With Ratcliffe, whose wealth is reported to be 21 billion pounds, bankrolling the outfit that will morph into Team INEOS on May 1 to at least the same level, maybe more, no wonder Jonathan Vaughters, boss of rival team EF Education, believes they have an “impenetrable wall of money”.

But Richard Plugge, manager of Dutch outfit Jumbo-Visma, formerly Lotto NL-Jumbo, believes rather than cast envious glances, teams should regard taking on Sky as a challenge.

“A team can only have so many riders,” Plugge told Reuters. “They also have to train, prepare and race, the same roads et cetera. It is up to the competition to beat them.

“In every sport there is always a ‘best’ team for a couple of years, whether it is football, tennis, F1 or cycling. The moment these moguls are beaten by smaller teams, is satisfying for everybody. The sport is not less interesting to the fans.”

With Thomas, Froome, young Colombian Egan Bernal, plus a host of “super-domestiques” who would be leading men in other teams, INEOS will be formidable this year.

But Plugge, who is also vice-president of the International Association of Professional Cycling Teams (AIGCP) which has demanded a fairer deal from world governing body the UCI, says they are not unbeatable.

“Whether they are even bigger or not, they will set the pace in terms of quality, level of their riders and innovation, but of course we can compete!” he said.

“We will chase them, we will hunt them and see where we can beat them by being smarter. There will always be a ‘biggest’ team. The ones behind have to fight them wherever they can.”

Vaughters said Sky had “purchased” the ability to win by collecting all the best riders and this week UCI president David Lappartient told Reuters that budget caps could be discussed as a way of preserving fairness in the Grand Tours. [nL8N2172FI]

But Plugge does not agree, saying Sky’s new deal was proof that pro cycling is an attractive investment and that the real problem is the failure to tap into the huge commercial revenues that have brought such riches to other sports.

“Salary caps? Why?” he said. “We should look at growth of the sport. There’s a world to win if teams and organisers work together in a better fashion.

“The professional road discipline lacks the commercial knowledge, expertise and skills to lift the sport to its potential. Cycling is a sleeping giant, we should wake him up and ride the future.”

Sterling downs Czechs as France sweep past Moldova

Raheem Sterling showed that he is coming of age on the international stage as his hat-trick saw England start their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign by hammering the Czech Republic 5-0, while Antoine Griezmann inspired France to a battering of Moldova.

Manchester City attacker Sterling had scored just two goals in his first 45 caps, but he now has five in his last three international appearances following Friday's treble, which helped England storm to the top of Group A ahead of Monday's trip to Montenegro, who drew 1-1 at Bulgaria.

Sterling opened the scoring in the 24th minute when he tapped home Jadon Sancho's cross, and struck twice more in the second half to put the result beyond doubt after Harry Kane fired home his 21st England goal from the penalty spot.

"It was a beautiful team performance and I was happy to help the team get the win," Sterling said.

Sterling has 24 goals for club and country this term and his impressive form is a fry cry from the dark days when he was vilified as England crashed out of Euro 2016.

"I'm just being confident in myself, I'm trying to get in areas and take shots, not to worry about anything," he added.

England carried the momentum from a run to the World Cup semi-finals and qualification for the last four of the Nations League into the Euro qualifiers and blooded young hopeful Sancho, who impressed on his full England debut.

The 18-year-old who has shone in the Bundesliga for Borussia Dortmund, gave England fans further cause for excitement, with his potential adding to that of Sterling and Kane coming into their prime.

"I thought Raheem was electric. He has looked like that all week in training. I'm pleased for him, it is a special night for him," coach Gareth Southgate said.

"I think he's really matured as a person and a footballer. He's hungry for goals and hitting things instinctively without thinking too much."

- Griezmann shines for France -

 France also got off to a perfect start after an older head in Antoine Griezmann spurred the world champions on to a comfortable 4-1 victory at Moldova.

Griezmann opened the scoring with his 27th France goal in the 24th minute of their Group H encounter before crossing for Raphael Varane to double the scores three minutes later.

Olivier Giroud equalled David Trezeguet as Les Bleus' third highest scorer of all time with his 34th international goal nine minutes before the break and Kylian Mbappe completed the rout with three minutes left, before Vladimir Ambros claimed a late consolation for Moldova.

Griezmann would have had two more assists had Giroud and Paul Pogba been more clinical in front of goal, but France's display was easily enough for the three points and top spot in the group ahead of Iceland and Turkey, 2-0 winners against Albania and Andorra respectively.

"We played a very consummate first half in terms of control and attacking organisation. The second half was less fulfilling due to substitutions," said coach Didier Deschamps.

"We've opened our campaign well and the second game comes around quickly. In three days we have do it again."

Cristiano Ronaldo drew a blank on his return to international football after nine months away, as Ukraine battled to a goalless draw in Lisbon.

The draw was the first time Santos' side have failed to score at home in 19 matches and leaves them second in the group behind Luxembourg, who beat Lithuania 2-1.

William Carvalho had a fine header ruled out for offside in the 16th minute and Ronaldo, Pepe and Andre Silva all went close to opening the scoring, but Ukraine stopper Andriy Pyatov was on fine form to deny them.

 In the end the away side could have snatched the three points through Junior Moraes, only for the debutant to fluff a golden chance to grab a shock win.

"We didn't play as we wanted to. We started slowly, not pressing the way we wanted," said Manchester City midfielder Bernardo Silva.

"The second half we tried to create chances to go after the game but unfortunately we didn't score."

ISU clears Bell after on-ice collision with Lim

American skater Mariah Bell could meet with Lim Eun-soo later on Friday to apologise for making contact with the South Korean during a warm-up at the World Championships and leaving the teenager with a cut leg, the Korea Skating Union (KSU) said.

The International Skating Union has already issued a statement saying they are satisfied that Thursday’s incident, which for some fanned memories of the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan affair in the 1990s, was unintentional.

Video of the incident on social media showed Lim skating at the edge of the rink when Bell came up quickly behind her, leg outstretched in her routine, and just as quickly passed her by.

Photographs showed 16-year-old Lim wincing and holding her calf and she later performed her routine with a plaster on her leg. She finished fifth, one place ahead of Bell.

A KSU official said on Friday that Bell had expressed her lack of intent to harm and offered an apology, adding that the two skaters could meet sometime today, before or after the free skate part of the competition, for Bell to say sorry in person.

The ISU said the incident was “verbally reported” to the ISU by the Korean team leader but it had received no formal complaint.

“Based on the evidence at hand at this point in time, which includes a video, there is no evidence that Ms. Bell intended any harm to Ms. Lim,” the ISU said in a statement.

The KSU said Lim’s management agency All That Sports on Thursday had informed them they suspected the incident was “intentional” and that Lim intended to file a formal complaint, a message they conveyed to the ISU.

When asked for comment on Bell’s apology on Friday, All That Sports said they were unable to until they had checked with their official on site.

Rink collisions in practice and warm-ups are far from uncommon.

Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu once performed with a bandage on his face after coming into contact with another skater, while French pairs skater Vanessa James fell after colliding with an Italian competitor during their warm up on Wednesday.

James, who with Morgan Cipres had been favoured for gold coming into the worlds, later said the collision had rattled her and suggested it might have contributed to her falling during their short programme, an error that kept them off the podium.

American Harding became notorious after her ex-husband was involved in an outright assault on her compatriot and rival Kerrigan just weeks before the 1994 Winter Olympics, an affair fictionalised on screen in the 2017 movie “I, Tonya”.

Memories of that incident perhaps contributed to the social media frenzy surrounding Thursday’s collision and there were calls for calm ahead of Friday’s crucial free skate.

“It would be smart from all of us to let them BOTH focus on their competition and stop harassing them,” said French figure skater Mae-Berenice Meite. “And let the competent authorities do the job they need to do, in their own time.”

Russia’s Olympic champion Alina Zagitova leads the women after Wednesday’s short programme with Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto in second.

CAS delays decision on Semenya testosterone case

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) said on Thursday it would postpone its decision on Caster Semenya’s appeal hearing against the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) until the end of April.

South African 800-metres double Olympic champion Semenya is seeking to overturn a new set of IAAF regulations that are aimed at lowering the testosterone levels of hyperandrogenic athletes.

The IAAF contend that Semenya and other female athletes that are classed as having differences in sexual development (DSDs) gain an unfair advantage due to their higher testosterone levels, but only in races between 400 and 1,000-metres.

Under its new rules, athletes classed as having DSDs must reduce their blood testosterone level to below five (5) nmol/L for a continuous period of six months before they can compete. They must then maintain it below that level continuously.

CAS have called the hearing “one of the most pivotal CAS cases” that could have a wide reaching consequence not just for the future of athletics, but sport in general.

The body had been expected to announce its decision on March 26, six months prior to the World Championships in Doha.

It said on Thursday that since the Feb. 18-22 hearing, the parties have filed additional submissions and materials. No specific date for the decision has been set.

The IAAF said that, given the delay, it would alter the six-month rule for the world championships in Qatar in September and introduce a “special transitional period” so that affected athletes could still compete.

“The IAAF has decided that the delay should not prejudice the affected athletes,” it said in a statement.

It added that, assuming its new regulations were upheld, affected athletes who comply with the new limit from one week after the final CAS decision until the start of the world championships in September would be allowed to take part.

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