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Blackhawks' DeBrincat, Boqvist in COVID protocol

Published in Hockey
Monday, 25 January 2021 15:57

CHICAGO -- The NHL has placed Chicago Blackhawks forward Alex DeBrincat and defenseman Adam Boqvist on the league's COVID-19 protocol list.

The NHL announced the decision on Monday. The move means DeBrincat and Boqvist won't be able to play, practice or travel with the team until they are cleared.

Chicago is coming off consecutive victories against Detroit, including a 6-2 win on Sunday. The Blackhawks are scheduled to play at Nashville on Tuesday night and again on Wednesday.

DeBrincat and Boqvist played in Chicago's first six games this season. DeBrincat has two goals and four assists, and Boqvist has three assists.

WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. – There’s no place like home. Unfortunately for Pepperdine, the friendly confines of North Ranch Country Club were anything but friendly to the host team Monday.

The Waves, currently ranked second in the nation by Golfstat, opened their title defense at the Southwestern Invitational by shooting 20-over 308 in blustery conditions. The score, 24 shots worse than Pepperdine’s first-round total a year ago here, has the defending champs in solo ninth, 16 shots behind leader Arizona State.

Pepperdine’s best individual scores Monday were the 4-over 76s carded by Dylan Menante and Joey Vrzich, who was competing in the lineup for the first time this season. First-team All-American William Mouw didn’t make a birdie and was the throw-out scorer after an 80, his worst score in college golf by four shots.

Meanwhile, three individuals led all Pepperdine players – Joshua McCarthy (72), RJ Manke (74) and Derek Hitchner (75). Manke finished fifth in the team's qualifier, just missing earning one of four available spots.

“You can’t get too down on today,” Pepperdine head coach Michael Beard said. “They already know they didn’t play well; usually we don’t have to do that, but yeah, frustrating. It didn’t seem like we were playing that well in the last week or so, so maybe just a little bit off in the wind today and then it turned into a little bit more off.”

Once his players finished their first rounds, Beard quickly huddled his team together for a few words. After that it was off not to the driving range but to the parking lot. After a cold and windy day, the Waves needed time to thaw.

“We know how to play the course and we know what’s up against us the next two days, we’ve just gotta figure it out,” Beard said. “They are clearly all capable. We’ll see if they wanna show up tomorrow, and I think they will. We’ll fight, for sure, just a little disappointed right now.”

Barca tops list but big clubs' revenue drops €2b

Published in Soccer
Monday, 25 January 2021 16:29

Europe's elite football clubs are expected to miss out on over €2 billion ($2.43 billion) in revenue by the end of the 2020-21 season due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Deloitte's Football Money League.

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The report published on Tuesday said the figure includes amounts missed in 2019-20 when the top 20 highest-earning clubs in Europe earned €8.2b of combined revenue, which was down 12% on the previous season.

That drop in income of €1.1b was primarily down to the deferral of broadcast revenue into the financial year ending in 2021, with all the major leagues brought to a standstill in March last year due to the pandemic.

With the majority of games being played without spectators since June, matchday revenue for top European clubs is likely to remain close to zero until the end of the 2020-21 season.

"Matchday operations are a cornerstone of a club's business model and help drive other revenue-generating activity," Dan Jones, partner in the Sports Business Group at Deloitte, said.

"The final size of the financial impact of the pandemic on football will depend, in no small part, on the timing and scale of fans' return."

The Money League standings for 2019-20 remained broadly consistent with previous years as Barcelona held the top spot with an annual revenue of €715.1m.

The Catalan outfit, however, suffered the second largest revenue fall among the clubs featuring on the list, having delivered a record-breaking year in 2018-19 when they became the first club to break the €800m revenue barrier.

Real Madrid reported an 8% increase in commercial income to retain second spot in the rankings (€714.9m), while European champions Bayern Munich moved up to third (€634.1m) following a Treble-winning campaign. Manchester United (€580m) and Liverpool (€558.6m) make up the top five with Liverpool moving up from seventh last year, replacing Paris Saint-Germain.

Spurs-Pelicans off; neither has required 8 players

Published in Basketball
Monday, 25 January 2021 16:45

Monday night's game between the San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans has been postponed, the league announced less than two hours before the scheduled tipoff at Smoothie King Center.

According to the NBA, "because of ongoing contract tracing within both the Spurs and Pelicans, neither team has the league-required eight available players to proceed with the scheduled game."

This marks the second postponement for the Pelicans this season. Their game two weeks ago against the Dallas Mavericks was postponed because of contract tracing within the Mavericks organization, leaving Dallas without the required eight players.

New Orleans also had a sca-re that same week when forward Zion Williamson had to miss a game in accordance with the NBA's healthy and safety protocols. Williamson ended up having an inconclusive COVID-19 test and missed only one game.

For San Antonio, this is the Spurs' first postponement of the season. They are coming off a win over the Washington Wizards at home on Sunday night. That game was Washington's first since Jan. 11, as the Wizards had six consecutive games postponed because of COVID-19 issues within the team.

Including Monday, the NBA has had 22 games postponed this season.

Five Three Tabs Bacon For Dirt Silver Crown Slate

Published in Racing
Monday, 25 January 2021 15:11

INDIANAPOLIS – Two-time USAC Silver Crown Series race winner Brady Bacon has landed a ride with Five Three Motorsports for the seven dirt races on the Silver Crown calendar.

The Broken Arrow, Okla., native has wheeled the Klatt Enterprises No. 6 for the past three seasons, securing both of his Silver Crown wins with the team in 2019 at Pennsylvania’s Williams Grove Speedway and Ohio’s Eldora Speedway.

On the same day as the announcement that Bacon and Klatt had parted ways, the Joliet, Ill., based Five Three Motorsports team was seeking a new driver for their No. 53.

The Five Three seat was vacated by Shane Cockrum after he joined the newly formed BLS Motorsports team for this season.

With both Bacon and Five Three as coveted free agents, the two found each other at the right moment at the right time to put a deal together for the new year.

“It was getting kind of close to the season and there probably weren’t that many owners looking for drivers,” Bacon noted. “Five Three happened to be looking for a driver at the same time I was looking for a car.”

Five Three’s Matt Schuck was ecstatic to bring a proven race winner and a three-time USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car Series champion to the team, which is looking to reach victory lane for the first time since joining the series in 2014.

“We weren’t expecting to be a part of the ‘silly’ season,” Schuck admitted. “But a deal came up for Shane (Cockrum) that he couldn’t pass up. We understood and wished him all the best. We feel that our program gets better and better every year, and with all the knowledge we gained last year from Shane, added with the obvious talent of Brady, we feel we will contend for not only top-fives but wins at every race this season.

“We look forward to not only competing for wins race-in and race-out, but also look forward to learning from one of the best in the business, which will make our program stronger for not only this season but in seasons to come.”

Five Three has fielded Cockrum, Robbie Ray, Robert Ballou and, most notably, Steve Buckwalter in the past.

Buckwalter competed for the team for five seasons between 2015-19, coming one lap shy of his and the team’s first victory at Williams Grove in 2019, a race that happened to be Bacon’s first series win.

“They have good equipment and a good motor, which will put us in a good position with a chance to win,” Bacon said of Five Three. “I have a little more Silver Crown experience now and can bring a little more to the table on setups and things like that. I think, if we do everything right, we should be in contention to win every dirt race.”

The 30-year-old Bacon has 28 career Silver Crown starts to his credit since 2014, the same year Five Three first fielded a team with the series. In that time, Bacon has grabbed a pair of wins, 13 top-fives and 19 top-10 finishes, as well as one pole position, in 28 starts.

Bacon’s accomplishments know no bounds, with 35 career USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car Series victories and eight USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget Series triumphs, but Silver Crown presents a different challenge that involves deep strategy with its longer races and its eclectic mix of venues.

Though any Silver Crown win would suffice, there’s one piece of the puzzle in particular Bacon would like to bring home.

“It’s a unique form of racing,” Bacon said. “You get to race on dirt miles, and anytime I can race on half-miles with anything on dirt, I’m all for that. Hopefully, we can better my finishes on the miles. We’ve been right there, knocking on the door and qualifying up front. It seems like things have to go a little more your way on the miles to get a win compared to the half-miles where we should be strong again like I’ve always been.

“Obviously, I’ve won Silver Crown races, but getting a win on a mile is my ultimate goal in a dirt Silver Crown car.”

Although the USAC Silver Crown Series season begins on the pavement, with the Rich Vogler Classic on May 9 at Indiana’s Winchester Speedway, Bacon will have full involvement as the promoter of the event.

His first appearance behind the wheel of the Five Three Motorsports ride will come in the 66th running of the Hoosier Hundred on May 27.

The biggest news in the soccer world on Monday involved the manager change at Chelsea, as club legend Frank Lampard was sacked and former Paris Saint-Germain coach Thomas Tuchel (who also coached Christian Pulisic at Borussia Dortmund) brought in to revamp the struggling Blues, who are ninth in the Premier League at the halfway point of their 2020-21 campaign.

- Report: Lampard sacked by Chelsea, Tuchel lined up

With a lot to unpack around the seismic switch at Stamford Bridge, ESPN's reporters James Olley, Mark Ogden, Julien Laurens, Gab Marcotti and Tom Hamilton break down the story.

Jump to: Why Chelsea made a change | Who is Tuchel? | Where Lampard failed | To-do list

Why Chelsea made a change

The prevailing view at Chelsea of Frank Lampard was that he had been the right manager to nurture the club's younger players, but the wrong one to maximise performances from last summer's six new signings that cost £220 million combined. In the end, the 42-year-old's return to Stamford Bridge only lasted 19 months and his tenure can still be split into two distinct periods: before and after the club's lavish spending spree.

- Marcotti: Chelsea definitely gambling with a coaching change
- How does Lampard compare to past Abramovich managers?

Lampard inherited a difficult situation in July 2019, with star attacker Eden Hazard departing for Real Madrid and the club unable to sign players due to a FIFA transfer ban relating to rule-breaches regarding the transfers involving youngsters under the age of 18. It should be pointed out he also inherited a team that won the Europa League and finished third in the Premier League, but Hazard's influence was such that repeating a top-four finish felt like a tall order for Lampard in his first season. Yet he achieved it on the final day of the 2019-20 league campaign, during which Lampard became the first Chelsea head coach to tap into the club's academy, promoting graduates Reece James, Fikayo Tomori, Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount to the first team.

His hand was forced to some extent by the transfer ban, but not as much as some have suggested: Mount started 32 league games, Abraham 25, James 16 and Tomori 15 often because they were simply favoured over more experienced options such as Ross Barkley and Olivier Giroud, which strikes at the heart of the problem.

Lampard's legendary status helped inspire the players who'd been at Chelsea when he was a player. He deserves credit for giving them both the confidence and freedom to develop, particularly at a club notorious for overlooking its own talent production line. But it quickly became clear he struggled to inspire the same buy-in from more senior players, along with those acquired at great expense.

ESPN reported last week that several players had become frustrated with the latter-day chopping and changing of team selection, while others complained about a lack of communication when left out of the team for long periods. The club's new signings, particularly Timo Werner and Kai Havertz, were used to more detailed tactical plans from their coaches, and a consensus grew with the squad that Lampard was passing too much responsibility to players when it came to their individual form.

Sources tell ESPN that Lampard struggled to consistently motivate Chelsea's veteran players, something that disappointed senior figures at the club. The hierarchy also grew frustrated at a lack of clear identity on the pitch and the failure of their big-money stars to hit the ground running, even if mitigation for Lampard should come in the condensed schedule and constrained environment resulting from COVID-19. In any case, the intensity of Lampard's training sessions led to complaints in some quarters that the players were unnecessarily fatigued.

Ultimately, the £220m transfer outlay heightened the pressure on Lampard. Chelsea wanted their former player to succeed; owner Roman Abramovich has never before been directly quoted in a statement regarding a sacked manager, but he was in Lampard's case, a sign of how uncomfortable they were with the situation.

The greatest discomfort was Chelsea's distance to the top. After a year regathering themselves following Hazard's exit and FIFA's punishment, the Blues remembered who they really are: a ruthless club that prioritises winning above any individual.

play
1:06

Would Pulisic benefit from a reunion with Tuchel at Chelsea?

Julien Laurens examines how Thomas Tuchel's expected arrival at Chelsea would impact Christian Pulisic.

The timing of Lampard's departure is down to achieving clarity over his successor. Sources say that the club began looking at options after Christmas for a summer replacement. As ESPN reported last week, the club was ultimately unsure of who to turn to next, a point underlined by a rebuffed approach for Ralf Rangnick on an interim basis (he wasn't interested in a short-term project) and Julian Nagelsmann as a permanent appointment (the RB Leipzig boss had reservations over the role and was also unwilling to change teams in midseason).

Though a group of Abramovich's advisors wanted Lampard to remain through the end of the 2020-21 season, the final green light to move on was given on Sunday afternoon following the Blues' 3-1 FA Cup fourth-round win over Luton Town. Over the weekend, Tuchel changed his original stance that he wasn't interested until the summer, and Chelsea chose to act. Sources indicate that Abramovich is lukewarm about Tuchel as manager, but did note that his biggest selling point is an ability to work with the existing squad. -- James Olley

What can Chelsea expect from Tuchel?

First and foremost with Tuchel, Chelsea are getting a Champions League runner-up, a French champion and domestic treble winner and, broadly speaking, one of the brightest minds in football. The German, 47, was always touted as the next big thing in management, dating back to his five seasons (2009-14) in charge of Mainz, and his career trajectory (Borussia Dortmund, PSG, Chelsea) has mirrored that hype.

In theory, Tuchel comes with his own ideas, philosophies and tactical knowledge. He's capable of versatility when building his teams, often keeping multiple tactical plans for various opponents. He also has a reputation for being innovative, bold and intense, though sometimes it can be too much. In fact, sometimes his tactics are counter-productive: Before Tuchel was sacked by PSG earlier this season, he ended up losing some credibility among the players by playing defender Marquinhos and midfielder Danilo Pereira out of position, in midfield and at center-back respectively.

The biggest issue for Tuchel in France was his failure to build a real identity. He adapted to the environment that he found there. He wanted to be loved so much by his players and his dressing room that he disowned his own principles. To put it simply, he took the path of least resistance whenever PSG struggled: give the ball to Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. There were no patterns of play, and no real structure to speak of. His excuse (or defense) is that he never really felt that he could be himself in Paris because the club and the dressing room were too political, though many around didn't buy that line of reasoning.

That, in a nutshell, is the main criticism you can aim at Tuchel: in practise he just wants to be a football coach, but top clubs around Europe demand a lot more.

Tuchel fell out with French media during his time in Paris because he said they were too critical. He fell out with Leonardo, the sporting director, because he didn't agree with his opinions, a feud that eventually cost him his job. He fell out with some of his players who struggled at times to understand his decisions, too, all of which is similar to what we heard out of Dortmund after he left that club in 2017. (Tuchel joked with friends that his time at PSG won't prepare him for Chelsea despite the size and stress levels at both clubs.)

If he's learned from what went right (and wrong) in Paris, there's no reason why he can't succeed in Chelsea. But it's a big if. -- Julien Laurens

Where Lampard went wrong

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1:29

Frank Lampard's biggest mistake as Chelsea manager

Steve Nicol identifies one key issue he believes was critical in Chelsea's decision to sack Frank Lampard.

Lampard was heading for trouble at Chelsea before Monday's dismissal; it was just a matter of time as to when his players needed more than his status as a club legend to make a difference on results. Once the initial feel-good factor evaporated, Lampard had to prove his credentials on the training pitch, and that's when the clock started ticking on his reign as manager.

Football dressing rooms can be an unforgiving place at every level of the game, and players quickly switch off if they believe their coach is incapable of making them better, either individually or as a team. That is the fate that befell Lampard. Among the players, sources have said, there was a view that Lampard lacked the elite ability of a top coach to identify and solve the problem and that his inexperienced coaching team -- former Chelsea teammate Jody Morris and ex-Chelsea development coach Joe Edwards -- proved similarly out of their depth when working with top players who expect their coaches to make them better.

"Frank did well in his first few months as manager," a source close to the Chelsea squad told ESPN. "He put his trust in young players like Mount, Abraham and Tomori, and they responded, because he is Frank Lampard and they idolised him as kids. Smart managers tap into that kind of thing and Frank benefited from his status as a former player, no question about that. But if you look back, the problems started midway through last season. The young players lost form, results suffered and the more experienced players wanted more direction and expertise from Frank and his coaching staff.

"It didn't come. Frank has never been a tactical coach, somebody with a clear philosophy, but big players want the details and the tactical brilliance that you get from a Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp or Jose Mourinho. That's where Frank fell short."

Behind the scenes at Stamford Bridge, sources have told ESPN that concerns over Lampard's handling of key summer signings Kai Havertz and Timo Werner, combined with recent results, ultimately led to the change being made. Both players arrived from Germany (Havertz from Bayer Leverkusen and Werner from RB Leipzig) with reputations as two of the brightest attacking talents in Europe, but both have so far dismally under-performed, with Werner scoring just once in his last 16 games -- against League Two Morecambe in the FA Cup.

Lampard has been unable to devise a tactical plan to get the best out of either player, using them both in a variety of positions with little success.

There were also disagreements between Lampard and those in charge. Sources have told ESPN that Lampard's determination to sign England midfielder Declan Rice from West Ham -- a target not universally agreed upon within the club's power structure -- was regarded as a negative by senior players, who saw the interest as evidence of the manager relying on his status as a former player to motivate a young Englishman, rather than attempting to identify a more technical player from overseas. -- Mark Ogden

play
1:41

Laurens: Chelsea's recruitment a poisoned chalice for Lampard

Julien Laurens feels Frank Lampard was too inexperienced to handle the overhaul of Chelsea's squad in the summer.

Biggest issues for Tuchel to address

Top of Tuchel's to-do list will be to work out why Havertz and Werner are misfiring. Neither have brought their impressive Bundesliga form to the Premier League or lived up to their chunky transfer fees (£72m for Havertz, £47m for Werner).

Havertz has looked a shadow of the player we saw at Bayer Leverkusen last season. There, he was most useful either in the creative No.10 role, behind the main striker, or on the right of the attack in a "No.8" position. He hasn't settled into either role at Stamford Bridge, with Lampard playing him deeper in midfield instead. Whenever Havertz ventured forward, usually at the same time as Mason Mount, it left the side open at the back.

Last season, Havertz's xA (expected Assists, or the likelihood of a key pass becoming one that leads to a goal) was 5.26 in the Bundesliga while his xG (expected Goals, which measures the quality of a shot to determine how many goals a team or player should be scoring) was 10.01; this season, his xA is at 0.83 and xG is at 1.35. Lampard said in December that Havertz took time to recover from having the coronavirus, but Tuchel will be greeted by a fully-fit 21-year-old who will be excited to learn from his fellow countryman.

The same goes for Werner, who has scored just four in 19 league games this season. He was used more as a winger by Lampard, whereas at RB Leipzig he was deadly from the inside-left forward slot, playing through the half-spaces off the back of a main center-forward and timing his runs into the box with perfection. He did work well against Luton alongside Tammy Abraham, only to miss a late penalty.

It's no coincidence Chelsea opted for a German manager who learnt his trade in the Bundesliga. They will hope he can bring out the best in both Havertz and Werner, while the appointment is also good news for Pulisic. Tuchel knows Christian Pulisic well from his days in charge of Borussia Dortmund and Pulisic will look forward to linking up with his old mentor.

Tuchel must also crack what Lampard never quite mastered this term: figure out the Blues' best XI. Key to this will be finding the answer to their problem position: the defensive midfielder who can be the catalyst for their transitional play. West Ham's Rice has long been linked with a move across London to fill this spot, but Tuchel will probably have to find an option within the club for the rest of the season. Billy Gilmour offers an attractive prospect, but would need to be paired with someone more physical, while Jorginho remains an underwhelming fix.

Chelsea and Tuchel will also need to continue shifting some of the peripheral players out of a bloated squad. Marcos Alonso has barely featured this season, while Kepa Arrizabalaga could benefit from a fresh start judging by the goal he conceded against Luton on Sunday.

With five defeats in their last eight league games, Tuchel must hit the ground running. Chelsea are a club with no room for sentiment, and results are king. Ninth in the league, Tuchel must find a winning formula quickly to steer them back into the top four, and he likely won't be given much of a honeymoon period in which to do it. -- Tom Hamilton

Clips' Leonard, George out due to virus protocols

Published in Basketball
Monday, 25 January 2021 14:49

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have been ruled out for the LA Clippers' game against the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday due to the NBA's health and safety protocols.

The two stars did not join the team on its flight to Atlanta on Monday, sources told ESPN.

The Clippers will be without their two best players and starting point guard Patrick Beverley (right knee soreness) as they carry a seven-game winning streak into Atlanta for the start of a six-game road trip.

Depending on the extent of the NBA protocols, Leonard or George could potentially join the team on this trip, sources said.

Leonard, George and Beverley played during Sunday's 108-100 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. However, George was held out of the final 4-plus minutes with hamstring tightness and Beverley did not play in the second half due to the knee injury.

Beverley also did not make the trip to Atlanta, sources said.

Leonard has been playing his best basketball of the season, averaging 32.3 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals in the Clippers' last three wins.

George is enjoying a bounce-back season averaging 23.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.4 assists.

Cactus League exec: We'll be ready, delay or not

Published in Baseball
Monday, 25 January 2021 15:19

After sending a letter to Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred that suggested delaying spring training "to allow for the COVID-19 situation to improve here," Cactus League executive director Bridget Binsbacher told ESPN on Monday that the 10 Phoenix-area facilities that host teams will be ready to open if games start as scheduled.

"If it is determined that spring training is going to start on Feb. 27, we're prepared for that," Binsbacher told ESPN in an interview. "Our focus is having a safe, secure experience for all involved. We believe we can do that on the 27th. We believe we can do that a month from the 27th."

Binsbacher's letter, which was co-signed by six mayors, two city managers and a president of a tribal community, cited the Phoenix area's high COVID-19 infection rate and a model that "projects a sharp decline in infections in Arizona by mid-March." Fifteen teams are scheduled to arrive in Arizona around mid-February, with games slated to begin Feb. 27. The Cactus League has no authority to change the schedule.

The letter comes as MLB and the MLB Players Association attempt to juggle a series of issues, including the viability of starting games on time, in a continuation of their strained relationship that manifested itself last season with Manfred's implementation of a 60-game schedule. The union is insistent on playing a full 162-game season this year and continues to chafe at the notion of anything less.

In a statement, the MLBPA said: "While we, of course, share the goals of a safe spring training and regular season, MLB has repeatedly assured us that it has instructed its teams to be prepared for an on-time start to spring training and the regular season."

The league, in a statement, said: "As we have previously said publicly, we will continue to consult with public health authorities, medical experts and the players association whether any schedule modifications to the announced start of spring training and the championship season should be made in light of the current COVID-19 environment to ensure the safety of the players, coaches, umpires, MLB employees and other gameday personnel in a sport that plays every day."

Binsbacher said the Cactus League had worked with spring-training facilities, other local sports and MLB since September -- and that MLB did not specifically request the letter. The concern from officials expressed in it goes against the actions taken by sports franchises and others in the Phoenix area. The Arizona Coyotes and San Jose Sharks are playing regular-season NHL games in Glendale, the Phoenix Suns are having regular-season NBA games downtown, and high schools across the area are participating in all sports.

One issue with baseball, Binsbacher said, is the influx of tourists -- six in 10 who attend spring-training games are from out of state, she said -- and the packed schedule teams play. "The big difference here," she said, "is we've got 32 to 36 days straight of spring training."

Further, Binsbacher said, the likelihood of the COVID spike in Arizona abating is greater with every day delayed. Arizona leads the United States in COVID case rate and death rate, a position it has held for most of January. The state is averaging nearly twice as many cases per 100,000 people than the average in the United States.

"We know that there's a vaccine and that it's going to have been administered," Binsbacher said. "The projections say that the cases will plummet by mid-March. That makes it absolutely more manageable to do this with every additional day."

A December executive order by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey limited the number of people at a public event to 50 "unless the city, town or county in unincorporated areas has determined that adequate safety precautions which are consistent with the guidance issued by both the CDC and ADHS for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 are documented as part of the request." If the mayors or other leaders insist spring training will not come to Phoenix, it could scuttle the Cactus League -- though sources doubt they have the political will to do so, particularly as other sports are held in the area.

The Grapefruit League in Florida, meanwhile, saw its first ballpark, Roger Dean Stadium, start ticket sales Monday for St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins games in February and March.

Any spring training delay could theoretically have an effect on the regular season -- something the MLBPA is treating as a nonstarter and MLB understands would cause regular-season games to move into October and postseason games to November. Already the discussions between the union and league about potential playoff expansion and the implementation of the universal designated hitter have gone nowhere. The MLBPA, sources said, rejected and didn't counter an MLB proposal to expand the playoffs this year to 14 teams, fearful that a diluted playoff system would disincentivize teams from spending in free agency.

With the current collective-bargaining agreement set to expire in December, the relationship between the sides has remained frosty. Whether the letter is simply much ado about nothing or the first salvo in the latest fight between the two remains to be seen.

The WTA has created a tournament exclusively for the players unable to leave their rooms during quarantine for the Australian Open.

The 28-player draw will start on 3 February, allowing players four days of practice before the main tournament.

Victoria Azarenka, Bianca Andreescu, Angelique Kerber and Britain's Heather Watson are among those eligible.

The ATP events scheduled for the week before the Australian Open will be pushed back 24 hours.

Seventy-two players are currently confined to their rooms after positive cases on the chartered planes that brought them to Australia.

"This has been a particularly challenging time for the athletes in hard lockdown and we, along with the WTA and ATP, aim to do everything we can to help," said Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley.

"These changes to the lead-in events have been made to give the 72 players a little bit of extra time to help them prepare. We also will prioritise them for things like practice sessions, gym and ice baths."

WTA chief executive Steve Simon added: "It will allow for our athletes coming out of the respected quarantine period to properly focus on their preparation in a return to competition."

Meanwhile, one case of Covid-19 among those in quarantine before the Australian Open - the first Grand Slam of the year - has been re-classified as negative.

There are now nine active cases among the 970 players and staff in two-week isolation in hotels in Melbourne. Spain's Paula Badosa is the only player to have publicly said she has tested positive.

Health officials in Victoria had previously revealed they were investigating positive cases for evidence of "viral shedding" - where those who have had the virus continue to shed non-infectious remnants.

On Saturday, officials said three of the nine positive cases - not players - were the more transmissible variantexternal-link first discovered in the United Kingdom.

Portugal's Joao Sousa has withdrawn from the tournament despite testing negative, saying he will not travel to Melbourne "due to the strict rules of the Australian government".

Yastremska's provisional ban upheld

Dayana Yastremska's bid to have her provisional doping suspension lifted has been rejected by the International Tennis Federation (ITF).

The world number 29 was provisionally banned earlier in January for failing an out-of-competition doping test.

The Ukrainian denied using performance-enhancing drugs despite testing positive for mesterolone metabolite, an anabolic agent, in November.

Despite the ban, she had travelled to Melbourne for the Australian Open.

Yastremska, who has been ranked as high as 21 in the world, previously suggested the positive test was the result of a "contamination event".

The ITF's decision to dismiss Yastremska's application is subject to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Competition returning to the scene, Singapore was very much at the helm of promoting events. Under the auspices of the Table Tennis Federation of Asia, replaced in 1972 by the Asian Table Tennis Union, in 1952 the city-state hosted the first ever Asian Championships. Later they organized the tournament in both 1954 and 1967.

Notably, competing on home soil, Singapore enjoyed success; in 1954 Loh Heng Chew and Poon Weng Hoe won the men’s doubles. To this date the only title ever won by Singapore at an Asian Championships.

An impact over six decades ago but it is in more recent times at the Olympic Games when the Singapore Table Tennis Association has made the greatest impact.

Overall, they have secured five medals at the quadrennial event; the first was in weightlifting in 1960 in Rome when Tan Howe Liang claimed silver in the lightweight division. More recently at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games Joseph Schooling won gold in aquatics, he won the men’s 100 metres butterfly.

Otherwise, the remaining three medals have been won by table tennis; the most successful sport of all!

At the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games Jing Jun Hong came close, she was beaten by Chinese Taipei’s Chen Jing in the bronze medal contest; four years later in Athens, the same fate befell Li Jiawei, she lost to Korea Republic’s Kim Kyungah.

So near yet so far; in 2008 represented by Feng Tianwei, Li Jiawei and Wang Yuegu, silver was secured in the women’s team event, the 48 year drought had ended!

Fast forward to London 2012, with the same three players on duty in was women’s team bronze and for Feng Tianwei, with victory over Japan’s Kasumi Ishikawa, the same colour in the women’s singles event. Thus, for the first time in 52 years, Singapore had won an individual medal at an Olympic Games.

Memorable results but the most memorable of all arose at the Liebherr 2010 World Team Championships in Moscow, when Singapore recorded a 3-1 win in the final against the Chinese trio comprising Ding Ning, Guo Yan and Liu Shiwen. Remarkable but even more remarkable was the fact that Li Jiawei, the backbone of the Beijing success did not play in the final. She was recovering from giving birth, Sun Beibei was the replacement.

An incredible effort by Feng Tianwei beating Ding Ning and Liu Shiwen was the mainstay of success, the Singaporean spearhead in modern times. Amongst her many achievements she won the women’s singles title at the ITTF World Tour Grand Finals in 2010 in Seoul, the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi in 2010 and Glasgow in 2014, before securing the Asian Cup in 2015 in Jaipur. In addition, she has nine ITTF World Tour women’s singles titles to her name.

When Singapore famously held the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in 2010, it was Li Isabelle Siyun who brought pride to the host nation, winning silver in the women’s singles event.

Meanwhile for the men, Gao Ning has very much set the modern day standard. Most recently, he claimed the top step of the men’s singles podium at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games, having earlier gained three men’s doubles titles at the ITTF World Tour Grand Finals. He partnered Yang Zi to gold in 2008 in Macao, before joining forces with Li Hu, achieving success in 2012 in Hangzhou and the following year in Dubai.

Success on the international stage but there is much more to Singapore; they have a very active domestic programme, local tournaments are full to the brim. the annual Crocodile Challenge attracts hundreds of young players.

An active association, without doubt, it is a fact underlined by Yu Mengyu. She has played more matches than any other female player on the ITTF World Tour; played 697, won 417, lost 280!

Indeed, Singapore and international table tennis go hand in hand. The city-state has been home to the ITTF’s Asia-Pacific Office since 2011.

The figures sum up Singapore, here’s to the next 90 years.

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