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Serena Williams ground down top seed Simona Halep in an epic three-setter to take her quest for a record-equalling 24th major into the Australian Open quarter-finals on Monday.


The 37-year-old American beat the Romanian top seed 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 in an epic three-setter to line up a last eight clash with Czech eighth seed Karolina Pliskova.


It was Williams’ first match against a world number one since returning after having a baby in September 2017 and the American showed why many already regard her as the greatest of all time.


She unleashed an early onslaught and Halep was in danger crumbling before the French Open champion regrouped for a stirring comeback.


“It was an intense match and there were some incredible points,” Williams said.


“She’s the number one player in the world and there’s a reason why… (but) I’m such a fighter, I just never give up.”


Williams won her 23rd Grand Slam Down Under two years ago while two months pregnant and is the bookies’ favorite to claim an eighth Australian title, despite being seeded 16th.


Another major would match Margaret Court’s tally and an intensely-focused Williams had not dropped a set in three matches before meeting Halep.


Williams’ started slowly when she allowed Halep to bring up three break points in the opening game, conceding with a double fault.


But the American broke back in the next, racing to the net for an overhead smash when one of her powerfully hit returns flew high off Halep’s racquet.


She then ran away with the first set 6-1 in 20 minutes, blasting 10 winners to three against the world’s top-ranked player.


Halep did better early in the second set, and when the American did break her in the third game she immediately broke back.


Standing well behind the baseline, she drew Williams into more rallies and began to find her range, hitting the corners to move the American around.


Halep broke again to take a set off Williams, celebrating with a fired-up double fist pump.


The turning point came in the sixth game of the third set when Halep clawed three break points but Williams held and took a decisive break in the fifth.


AFP

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Serena Williams sent an ominous Australian Open warning with a 49-minute first-round demolition of fellow mum Germany’s Tatjana Maria.

The American giant is bidding to match Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam crowns on her first return to Melbourne Park since winning in 2017 while eight weeks pregnant.

Now 37, she kept a low profile in the lead-up to the opening major of the year and came out of the blocks flying against fellow mum Tatjana Maria, pummelling her German opponent 6-0, 6-2.

Sporting a striking jade green jumpsuit and fine mesh stockings on Rod Laver Arena, the 16th seed wasted no time in getting out of the blistering Melbourne heat and said it was good to be back.

“The last time I was here I was pregnant and playing at the same time which is insane,” she said. “It’s weird walking back on -– by myself this time -– it feels good. I have so many memories from the last time I was here.”

Bidding for an eighth Melbourne Park crown, few are betting against Williams despite her lowly seeding and she next faces Canadian Eugenie Bouchard who eased past China’s Peng Shuai.

Williams played at the mixed teams Hopman Cup in Perth this month, but her appearance on Tuesday was her first outing on tour since a meltdown in losing the US Open final to Naomi Osaka in September.

Japan’s Osaka, seeded four, begins her campaign in the night match on Rod Laver Arena against Poland’s Magda Linette following Novak Djokovic’s first outing.

Czech seventh seed Karolina Pliskova, who has made the quarter-finals in her last two appearances at Melbourne Park, safely progressed, but 10th seed Darya Kasatkina slumped out, winning just three games against Switzerland’s Timea Bacsinszky.

American Madison Keys, who reached the semis at the French and US Open last year, as well as the quarters in Melbourne, ensured she too lived to fight another day, crushing local wildcard Destanee Aiava 6-2, 6-2.

Last year’s beaten finalist and world number one Simona Halep plays Kaia Kanepi later.

Like Williams, men’s world number one Djokovic is also gunning for a piece of history as he looks to win a record seventh Australian Open title.

The Serb starts against American qualifier Mitchell Krueger.

Young gun Alexander Zverev comfortably began his tilt at a maiden Grand Slam title. The fourth seed Zverev, who is hoping to establish himself as a serious threat to Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal, cruised past Aljaz Bedene 6-4, 6-1, 6-4.

“I’ve had about 86 injuries and the ankle is still a bit swollen,” said the 21-year-old.

“But I’ve done everything right in my preparation. Now I either play well or I don’t.”

Eighth seed Kei Nishikori, who won in Brisbane last week, looked down and out against little-known qualifier Kamil Majchrzak, losing the first two sets before the Pole began badly cramping.

He bravely fought on before calling it a day after winning just two of the next 17 games.

“I was trying to play but he was playing amazing tennis. I have to be happy that I didn’t lose today,” said a relieved Nishikori, who next faces Croat Ivo Karlovic.

Elsewhere, 15th seeded Russian Daniil Medvedev went through in three sets while 12th seeded Italian Fabio Fognini beat Spain’s Jaume Munar, who retired with cramps while two sets down.

South Korea’s Chung Hyeon, a giant-killer last year when he beat Zverev and Djokovic on the way to the semi-finals, demonstrated his fighting qualities again, coming from two sets down to beat American Bradley Klahn.

In other matches Tuesday, Australian hero Nick Kyrgios will have his work cut out against Canadian 16th seed Milos Raonic, a former world number three.

(NAN)

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Arsenal’s inconsistency has dealt a blow to their hopes of a top-four finish in the Premier League, manager Unai Emery said following a 1-0 defeat by West Ham United on Saturday.

Arsenal, which failed to finish in the top four in the last two seasons to miss out on Champions League qualification, has 41 points, six behind fourth-placed Chelsea.

“Now, its more difficult, its clear,” Emery told reporters after Arsenal’s third defeat in six league games following a 14-match unbeaten run earlier in the season.

“I think the most important thing for us is to recover our confidence and be more competitive. We need consistency over 38 matches. Now it isn’t enough at the moment.”

Arsenal has the opportunity to close the gap with Chelsea, which defeated Newcastle United last time out when they host Maurizio Sarri’s team on Saturday.

“The big opportunity for us is that we can take in our hands the possibility to be closer to them,” Emery added.

“This (Saturday’s) result makes that more difficult.”

Emery will also keep an eye on a resurgent Manchester United which drew level with them on 41 points.

United won their fifth Premier League matches in a row under caretaker boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

(Reuters/NAN)

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A tearful Andy Murray on Friday announced he would likely retire this year due to severe pain from a hip injury, saying next week’s Australian Open could be the last tournament of a glittering career.


The former world number one and three-time Grand Slam winner broke down at a press conference in Melbourne as he said the pain had become almost unbearable.


“I can play with limitations. But having the limitations and the pain is not allowing me to enjoy competing or training,” the emotional Scot said.


Thirty-one-year-old Sir Andy said he would like to finish at his home Grand Slam in Wimbledon, but ruefully admitted he might not make it that far.


He will be remembered as the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years and as a player who battled his way to the top in a golden era for the game alongside Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.


“Wimbledon is where I would like to stop playing, but I am not certain I am able to do that,” he said.


“I’ve been struggling for a long time. I’m not sure I can play through the pain for another four or five months.


“Pretty much-done everything that I could to try and get my hip feeling better and it hasn’t helped loads.”


He pulled out of last year’s Australian Open to have hip surgery and only returned in June at Queen’s Club in London.


He ended the season at Shenzhen in September after only a handful of appearances to concentrate on working his way back to full fitness.


But he was knocked out in the second round on his return at Brisbane last week and called it quits on Thursday after less than an hour of a practice match in Melbourne against Djokovic, with his movement clearly hampered.


“I think there is a chance the Australian Open is my last tournament,” he said.


While he intends to begin his opening-round match against 22nd seed Roberto Bautista Agut next week, how his body withstands potentially grueling five-set clashes in energy-sapping heat remains to be seen.


“I’m going to play. I can still play to a level, not a level I’m happy playing at,” he said.


One of the so-called Big Four, along with Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal, who has dominated the game for years, Murray’s ranking has slumped to 230.


He hasn’t reached a Grand Slam final since winning his second Wimbledon title in 2016 but has nevertheless enjoyed a glittering career since turning professional in 2005, with not only three Grand Slam titles, but two Olympic gold medals and 45 ATP crowns.


Notably, in 2013 Murray became the first British man to win Wimbledon for 77 years, ending the nation’s obsession with finding a champion to follow in the footsteps of Fred Perry.


Top Australian coach Darren Cahill, who until recently was mentoring world number one Simona Halep, said Murray was an example of the never-say-die attitude that separated the best from the average.


“When you search for examples of ’emptied the bucket to be as good as they could be’ there should be a picture of Andy Murray sitting under that quote,” he tweeted.


“Remarkable discipline for training, competition, sacrifice, perfection, a little crazy but a legend of a bloke.”


Former star Andy Roddick also paid tribute on Twitter.


“I tip my cap to @andy_murray! Absolute legend. A short list of best tacticians in history. Unreal results in a brutal era. Nothing but respect here. I hope he can finish strong and healthy,” he said.

Another Twitter user, Juan M. del Potro wrote;


Murray said he had an option of another operation on his troublesome hip, but it was more about his quality of life after hanging up his racquet.


“That’s something I’m seriously considering right now,” he said.

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JOSE MOURINHO is free to take charge of Real Madrid after Manchester United paid him £15 million compensation.


The Special One has been contacted by the La Liga side about making a sensational return to the Bernabeu this season.


But the 55-year-old was not able to accept a contract with another club until the pay-off negotiations were complete.


Mourinho has received the payment after his agent Jorge Mendes met up with United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward.


According to the Daily Mail, a source close to the manager said: "There are no issues over Jose's contract with Manchester United. Everything has been sorted.


"Jose is able to take on another job right now but is in no rush.


"He is very relaxed about it and would be happy to wait until the end of the season if he needs to."

That frees him up to talk to Real, and there are claims in Portugal that he will meet with Benfica in the coming days to hear what they have to say.


The Sun reports that United agreed to the payment after his disappointing two-and-a-half-year stint at Old Trafford following a meeting between Mourinho’s agent Jorge Mendes and United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward

Mourinho was in charge of Madrid from 2010 until 2013 when he guided them to La Liga glory and won the Copa del Rey.


The source added: "There has been no contact, but they did get in touch with Jose after Lopetegui was dismissed.

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Aaron Ramsey has agreed on a five-year deal with Juventus worth £36m and will join the Italian champions on a free transfer at the end of the season. The midfielder has been discussing a move for weeks and will leave Arsenal after 10 years at the club.


It had been clear the Wales international would move in the summer and Juventus had been the frontrunners to secure the 28-year-old’s signature. Ramsey will be paid around £140,000 a week (£7.2m a season), making him Juventus’s second-highest earner behind Cristiano Ronaldo but ahead Paulo Dybala and Douglas Costa.


Juventus, who have won the past seven Serie A titles, signed Ronaldo for €100m last summer and are nine points clear of Napoli in second place after 19 games. They have reached two of the last four Champions League finals, albeit losing both, to Barcelona in 2015 and Real Madrid two years later. They are in the last 16 of this season’s competition, where they face Atlético Madrid.


The Juventus manager, Max Allegri, and the director Fabio Paratici are huge admirers of Ramsey, who is likely to be given a place in the Juventus starting XI, most likely playing with Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi in a three-man midfield. He is likely to replace one of Emre Can, Rodrigo Bentancur and Sami Khedira, with the latter possibly leaving the club in the summer.


Ramsey signed for Arsenal from Cardiff for £4.8m. He has played 252 top-flight games for the club, scoring 52 goals. He won three FA Cups, scoring the winning goal in the 2014 and 2017 finals.


He played arguably the best football of his career during Euro 2016 when Wales reached the semi-finals, although he was suspended for the last-four game when Portugal beat Chris Coleman’s team 2-0.


Ramsey has had his injury problems but Juventus are delighted to have secured him on a free transfer, while Arsenal will regret seeing a player in the prime of his career leave under these circumstances.


With Arsenal choosing to renew the contract of Mesut Özil – another star whose deal was due to expire this summer – they put themselves in a position where they could not re-sign Ramsey too. The Arsenal manager, Unai Emery, also had major reservations about both Özil and Ramsey fitting into his plans and the style he wants to play.


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Chelsea is on the verge of signing Gonzalo Higuain, Marca reports.


Maurizio Sarri is desperate to bolster his attacking options in the January transfer window and Higuain is his top target.


The Argentine thrived under Sarri’s guidance at Napoli and broke the Serie A record with 37 goals in the 2015/2016 season.


The pair will now be reunited once again as Higuain has reportedly “said yes” to Chelsea’s offer.


The deal could now be finalized “in the coming hours”, as Chelsea are willing to pay Higuain’s salary, as well as a potential €40million (£36m) transfer fee to make the loan move permanent in the summer.


Higuain is currently on loan at AC Milan, but the 31-year-old has struggled for form, with just eight goals in 20 appearances this season.


Higuain’s arrival could also pave the way for Alvaro Morata’s exit at Stamford Bridge. The Spain international’s agent has held talks with Sevilla’s sporting director over a potential return to La Liga on loan.

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Former Barcelona midfielder, Andreas Iniesta, has admitted a return to the club for Neymar, will be “difficult”.

Brazilian Neymar has been linked with a return to Barcelona ever since he moved away from the Nou Camp.


There was even reports last month that the sensation was so desperate to come back his staff made 'constant calls' to his former club.


The 26-year-old megastar left Spain to link up with the French champions Paris Saint-Germain in a world-record €220million move.


Since then he's constantly linked with a move away from Paris. Real Madrid was a mooted destination, but his heart was said to be in Barcelona .


But any deal to return will be extremely complicated due to the way he left the Nou Cam, however, with his father pushing hard for a move away.


And this view is shared by Barcelona legend Andres Iniesta.


 The midfielder was asked his view on the Brazilian's return during a recent interview with RAC1's Tu Diràs programme.


"I personally see it difficult for me to return even though in football we have seen a hundred thousand things, years ago and nowadays.


"He is one of the best but I can not visualise it".


But Iniesta did hail Neymar's compatriot Arthur, who joined the club in the summer.


"He has the profile that this club or this team likes and has personality," said Iniesta.


"He has left to continue growing but it will be important because he also has Busquets, Rakitic next to him".


And Arthur is not as sure Neymar won't be joining him at the Nou Camp.


When asked last month about the frontman's possible return, Arthur told Mundo : "I personally am praying for him to come. "I think that the better players the team has, the better.


"Personally, I'm doing a lot of work to get him back.


"He knows what he's doing and I do not know how deep those negotiations are, if there are options for him to come or not.


"But he is a personal friend and a professional that I admire a lot and would be very happy if he could come back here."


IrishMirror

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Ronaldo, the former Brazil striker and current majority shareholder of Real Valladolid, has said he would be in favor of the club playing La Liga games outside of Spain.


Ronaldo bought a 51 per cent stake in Valladolid in September, with the stated aim of establishing the team in the top flight after they were promoted last season.


Staging fixtures abroad has become a controversial issue in Spanish football. La Liga were keen to hold a fixture between Barcelona and Girona in January in Miami but Barca have withdrawn their support due to a lack of consensus on the idea.


Ronaldo, however, has said he would be in favor if Valladolid was asked.


“I am in favor but our fans are the ones who decide,” said Ronaldo on Thursday.

“If it’s good for the fans that we go to play a match abroad, to me it would seem a very interesting project for our club and our brand.”


La Liga want to develop Spanish football in the United States but their plan has encountered strong opposition, primarily from the Spanish Football Federation and the players’ union, AFE.


“Everything we do is for the progress of our project and Valladolid has to be recognised nationally and internationally,” added Ronaldo.


The three-time FIFA World Player of the Year, who played for Real Madrid, Barcelona and Inter Milan, said he had looked in England as well as Spain for a potential club to buy.


“I had been looking for a team to buy for two years,” Ronaldo said.

“I studied the Spanish and English markets and some other markets and Valladolid came as a perfect gift.”

He added,  “We have a simple challenge and that is to stay in the first division, it is our one and only goal this season.”


(AFP)

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It's been a dramatic week of Champions League action, but football is not the only matter of intrigue in Europe right now, with the January transfer window fast approaching.


Our friends at Football Whispers are here to round up the latest news from the continent's sports pages.


Germany

Bayern Munich have stepped up their pursuit of Thorgan Hazard. The Belgian has shone for Borussia Monchengladbach this season and has also attracted interest from the Premier League. With Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery set to leave Bayern at the end of the season, the winger would be a natural replacement for one of the veterans. Monchengladbach, however, are determined to extend Hazard's contract, which expires in 2020. (Kicker)

Related image

Manchester City and Barcelona are monitoring German 19-year-old Kai Havertz. The Bayer Leverkusen attacking midfielder has scored six and assisted six goals in the Bundesliga this season and is valued at €55m. (SportBild)


Spain

Real Madrid have nearly lined up their first signing of the winter window. They're close to finalizing a deal for River Plate's Exequiel Palacios, who will join after the FIFA Club World Cup. (Marca)


Inter Milan's failure to qualify for the knock-out rounds of the Champions League could give a boost to Real Madrid. They may renew their interest in Mauro Icardi, hoping that the 25-year-old striker's vision of Inter's future has been dented by the exit and that he is more open to a departure. (AS)


Frenkie de Jong says he hasn't made a decision on his future, despite reports that he will be joining Paris Saint-Germain. The Ajax 21-year-old is also a Manchester City and Barcelona transfer target, but said "I still haven't taken a decision," after the club's Champions League game against Bayern Munich on Wednesday. (Mundo Deportivo)


Ivan Rakitic might be set to leave Barcelona. Or he might not be. Catalunya Radio claim there is an agreement in place to sell him in the summer for below his €125m release clause, with PSG very interested, while Mundo Deportivo deny the truth of this rumour. (Catalunya Radio and Mundo Deportivo)


Italy

Paul Pogba is wanted by Juventus and might try to buy him back for less than he was sold for. The Italian club have €80m they're willing to spend and are weighing up Pogba or Real Madrid's Isco. (Tuttosport)


Inter are considering hiring a new coach next season following the club's exit from the Champions League group stage. Luciano Spalletti is being held responsible for Inter's failure to progress from Group B and, as a result, the Zhang family owners are weighing up approaches for Antonio Conte and Diego Simeone. (Corriere della Sera)


Chelsea are keen to close a deal for highly-rated Cagliari midfielder Nicolo Barella. The Blues are willing to pay £40m for the 21-year-old and there is a hope that Gianfranco Zola's personal relationship will help bring the player to Stamford Bridge. Atletico Madrid are also interested. (Unione Sarda, via Sport Witness)


Andorra

Gerard Pique may soon be a club owner. He's in talks to buy FC Andorra, who currently play in the Spanish fifth-tier. Pique, as part of his investment company Kosmos, is also heavily involved in tennis, where he is behind a revamped Davis Cup. (Diari d'Andorra)


France

Liverpool target Nabil Fekir has been coy about his future at Lyon. The club wants to extend his contract, and he doesn't envisage himself leaving in the summer "but, you know, in football. "Am I leaving? No, not for now, but you never know in football," he said after Lyon's 1-1 draw with Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League. (L'Equipe)


Karim Benzema has emerged as a possible replacement for Edinson Cavani at PSG. The Uruguayan has been strongly linked with an exit and, should he leave, the club will target the Real Madrid forward. However, if they fail to lure the Frenchman back to Ligue 1 10 years after leaving Lyon for the Spanish capital, the French champions will turn their attention to Inter striker Mauro Icardi. (France Football)

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