Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James and Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant have been named as team captains for the 70th NBA All-Star game on March 7.

Serving as a team captain for the fourth straight year, James received the most votes to earn his 17th All-Star appearance, and is joined in the Western Conference starters pool by Golden State Warriors’ three-point specialist Stephen Curry, who is selected as an All-Star for the seventh time.

Kawhi Leonard of the Los Angeles Clippers is named an All-Star for the fifth time, while Denver Nuggets centre Nikola Jokic makes a third appearance, and the Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic is called up for a second time to round off the starters pool from the west.

Battling both Father Time and his opponent, LeBron James remains a nearly unstoppable force in his 18th season. 

Averaging 25.7 points, 8.2 rebounds and 7.9 assists, James is once again posting impressive numbers for the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers while playing every game so far this season.

With Los Angeles off to a 22-7 start, James appears to be the early favourite for MVP, which would put James in rarified air with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and Michael Jordan as the only players to win the award at least five times. 

James, who won his first MVP award after the 2008-09 season, would also secure the record for the most time between MVP honours if he were to win again – a fitting tribute for a player who has broken the rules of basketball longevity.

As good as James has been this season, his lead in the race is narrow, and perhaps his three most deserving rivals come from the center position, despite the league's embrace of "small ball". 

Whether it be the "seven seconds or less" Phoenix Suns teams of the mid-2000s, the perimeter-fueled Golden State Warriors teams that won three titles or the Houston Rockets' dramatic downsizing last season that left 6ft 5in P.J. Tucker defending 7-footers, the NBA has been trending small for the better part of the last two decades.  

Shaquille O'Neal is the last true center to win MVP in 1999-00, although Tim Duncan played plenty of center during his 2001-02 and 2003-03 MVP campaigns. Some pundits have even forecasted the extinction of the true center as the league leans toward perimeter play and positional versatility.  

Yet three centers – Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets, Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers and Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz – are assembling compelling cases to be voted this season's MVP.  

Jokic is the focal point of the Nuggets' offense, on pace to dish out the most assists ever by a player 7 feet or taller at 8.6 per game. He is also averaging a team-high 27.4 points, 11.1 rebounds and 1.57 steals.  

With Jokic on the court, the Nuggets score 117.2 points per 100 possessions – better than any team's full-season numbers – while shooting 49.9 percent from the field. When Jokic sits, Denver's offense operates with the efficiency of league-worst Cleveland, shoots just 42.5 percent, makes fewer 3-pointers and commits more turnovers.  

The Serbia native has helped the Nuggets navigate several absences due to COVID-19 protocols, but with a 15-13 start – eighth in the West – MVP voters are typically hesitant to vote for a team outside the top four in its conference. And while Jokic has improved on defense over the last few seasons, his weaknesses on that side of the floor are a fair argument against him being named more valuable than any other player.  

Embiid, on the other hand, is a two-time All-Defensive Team selection who is also turning in his best offensive season by a wide margin. His 29.7 points per game are on pace to be the most by a 7-footer since 1999-00 (Shaquille O'Neal, 29.7), while shooting career bests of 54 percent from the field and 39.7 percent from 3-point range.  

Embiid is also a tremendous free throw shooter, regardless of position, making 85.1 percent this season. He is even better in high-stakes situations, making 88.5 percent of his free throws in the fourth quarter and overtime, including a 19-for-20 mark in the last three minutes of a game.  

With Embiid on the court, the Sixers have a net rating of +11.2 points per 100 possessions but are -5.7 per 100 possessions when he is off the court. Embiid is vital to his team, with the 76ers going 18-5 when he plays and 1-5 when he rests.  

While Embiid's time off the court shows just how valuable he is when he plays, it also may keep him from winning MVP this season. At his current workload, he is on pace to miss 15 of the Sixers' 72 games, more than 20 per cent. Embiid has played just under 748 minutes this season, while James and Jokic have played over 1,000 each.  

Gobert has played nearly 878 minutes for the Jazz, appearing in every game and leading Utah to a league-leading 24-5 record.

While his 14.2 points per game fail to measure up to his competitors' numbers, Gobert slots perfectly into the "best player on the best team" role that Giannis Antetokounmpo has occupied over the last two seasons and has added 13.4 rebounds and a career-high 2.69 blocks per game.  

Gobert is second in the league in plus-minus per 48 minutes at +15.3 (min. 500 minutes played), trailing only teammate Mike Conley at +18.9. 

The Jazz have surrounded Gobert with a roster mostly consisting of average or worse defensive players yet still rank third in the NBA, allowing 106 points per game.  

When Gobert is on the floor, Utah holds opponents to 101.6 points per 100 possession, fewer than any team's full-season numbers this year. And while Gobert ranks second in the NBA in blocked shots, his defensive impact extends beyond traditional numbers.  

Utah's opponents have attempted just 18.8 free throws per game – second fewest in the NBA – and Gobert's intimidating presence in the middle appears to be why. With Gobert on the court, Utah's opponents are attempting just 15.2 free throws per 100 possessions. When Gobert sits, that number balloons to 24.2.  

Ultimately, though, Gobert's limited offensive role makes him an outside candidate for MVP unless the Jazz finish the season on a historically great run.  

Gobert's skew toward defense, Jokic's skew toward offense and Embiid's limited availability could all open the door for LeBron – a worthy candidate in his own right – to take home his fifth MVP after this season.   

This trio of centers, however, has proven that there is still room for the big man to dominate in the modern NBA.  

Carson Wentz is heading to the Indianapolis Colts after the team struck a deal to trade for him from the Philadelphia Eagles.

The quarterback, who was benched for Jalen Hurts towards the end of a miserable 4-11-1 season for the Eagles, is poised to join the Colts, according to widespread reports.

Indianapolis will give the Eagles a 2021 third-round draft pick and a conditional 2022 selection in exchange.

The pick in 2022 is provisionally a second-rounder, but can increase to a first-rounder if Wentz plays 75 per cent of the snaps next season.

It could also convert to a first if Wentz leads the Colts to the playoffs while playing in 70 per cent of snaps.

Wentz will be reunited with Colts head coach Frank Reich, who spent the QB's first two years in the NFL as the Eagles' Offensive Coordinator, with impressive results.

The 2017 season, Wentz's second in the NFL, saw him produce MVP-calibre form and throw for a franchise record 33 TDs before going down with injury and famously being replaced by Nick Foles, who took the team to Super Bowl glory.

Wentz signed a four-year, $128 million contract ahead of the 2019 season.

But he has struggled to replicate his early career form, culminating in the Eagles drafting Hurts in the second-round last year and benching Wentz after Week 13.

The 28-year-old averaged 218.3 yards per game last season, the lowest mark of his career, and threw a career-high 15 interceptions in 12 games.

Philip Rivers' retirement had left the Colts seeking a new QB to lead a roster that appears ready to contend in the postseason.

They narrowly lost to the Buffalo Bills in the Wild Card round in 2020 after going 11-5.

Wentz is the latest domino to fall in what is proving to be another dramatic offseason on the QB market.

Jared Goff was the number one overall pick in 2016 - one spot ahead of Wentz - but was recently traded by the Los Angeles Rams to the Detroit Lions in exchange for Matthew Stafford and draft picks.

Question marks remain over the future of Deshaun Watson with the Houston Texans and Dak Prescott is still unsigned by the Dallas Cowboys. 

Meanwhile, Trevor Lawrence – billed as a generational talent – leads a star-studded crop of QBs in the draft.

There are suggestions Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Justin Fields could go 1-2-3 in the draft.

Wentz had also been connected with the Chicago Bears, who now continue their search for a 2021 starter.

Novak Djokovic believes he is peaking at the perfect time at the Australian Open after feeling the best he has all tournament in the semi-finals.

Djokovic brushed past Russian qualifier Aslan Karatsev 6-3 6-4 6-2 on Rod Laver Arena on Thursday, reaching his ninth decider in Melbourne.

The Serbian has won the tournament every time he has been to the semi-finals, although worries over a suspected abdominal injury had cast doubt over his ability to win an 18th major title on Sunday.

But Djokovic, who has refused to detail the extent of his injury, said he was hitting top form at the right time ahead of facing either Daniil Medvedev or Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final.

"Well, first I want to give credit to Karatsev for a great tournament.  Maybe it wasn't his day today but he had big wins and debut, first grand slam semi-finals. Kudos for a great result," he told a news conference.

"I felt the best I felt so far in the tournament tonight. Physically, mentally, as well. I was hitting the ball very well, mixing the pace. Didn't give him the same looks at all. Always kind of kept him guessing and served well when I needed to get out of the trouble, you know, late in the second set. I'm just very pleased with the performance.

"It came at the right time. Before the last match in a grand slam, couldn't be a better timing for me to play my best tennis. But being in this situation before many times I think helps kind of gather all the necessary elements for me to peak at the right time, which is happening again, which I'm obviously very happy about.

"I'm also happy that I have two days off now. Still recovery is the priority.  I've played enough tennis. I'm feeling great on the court. Regardless of who I face on Sunday, I'm ready for the battle for the toughest match of the tournament, without a doubt."

As Djokovic prepares for his 28th grand slam final, he will face either Medvedev in his second or Tsitsipas in his first.

Djokovic said his incredible record at the Australian Open lifted his confidence, and potentially played on the minds of his opponents.

"Well, of course it contributes to more confidence, prior to coming into the finals knowing that I never lost in the finals or semi-finals just makes me feel more comfortable being on the court," he said.

"But each year is different, although it does have a mental effect on me, maybe on my opponents, I don't know, but on me it does definitely have a positive effect. It's not a decisive factor in the way the match is going to go forward, because as I said, each year is different. Surface is also different. You know, you play against also different opponents. So that's not gonna be decisive factor I think on Sunday.

"Regardless of my great record I think both Tsitsipas and Medvedev will want to get their first grand slam title. I'm sure that they are going to do their best, so I'll be ready for that."

Staples Center will stage a clash of heavyweights on Thursday as the Los Angeles Lakers host the Brooklyn Nets, though it might not be quite the spectacle once hoped for.

Of course, most sporting contests are not quite what they used to be, owing to the lack of spectators allowed in the arenas.  

But the absence of Lakers star Anthony Davis with a calf injury, along with Kevin Durant's hamstring problem, which may keep the Nets forward out of a third straight game, further depletes a matchup that could be repeated in the NBA Finals.  

Yet LeBron James is still performing at the peak of his powers and the Nets' guard combination of James Harden and Kyrie Irving is firing on all cylinders, with the former dropping 38 points in a comeback from a 24-point deficit against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday.  

Therefore, there will still be plenty to intrigue in this marquee showdown, even if the first meeting of LeBron and KD since Christmas Day 2018 is further delayed.  

TOP PERFORMERS

LeBron James - Los Angeles Lakers

James is the MVP frontrunner and he has maintained his remarkable levels of excellence this month, in which he has a pair of triple-doubles. 

He has successive double-doubles in his last two games, tallying at least 30 points for the fifth time this season in the win over the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves last time out. 

With Davis on the sidelines, LeBron will have to carry the bulk of the burden again if the Lakers are to claim their 23rd win.

Kyrie Irving - Brooklyn Nets

Despite sitting out Brooklyn's astonishing fightback against the Suns because of a sore back, no member of the Nets has been more prolific in the month of February than Irving.  

The man who helped LeBron deliver a title to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016 is averaging a team-high 29.8 points per game this month. Harden is next with an average of 24.4.  

He is shooting 55.5 per cent from the field and 48.8 per cent from three-point range, while his season-long average of 28.3 points a game is a career-high.  

Irving will, however, be hoping for a better performance than the one he produced in his sole game against the Lakers last year, when he went seven of 17 from the field in a 15-point loss.

KEY BATTLE - WHICH 'OTHERS' WILL STEP UP?

Though the Nets will still have the best backcourt in the league at their disposal, the injury issues surrounding Durant and Davis increases the spotlight on the lesser-heralded members of the two supporting casts.  

The Lakers will be looking for more of the same from Dennis Schroder, the guard rising to the challenge in Davis' absence against the Timberwolves and scoring 24 points.  

For the Nets, the onus may be more on Joe Harris, who has impressive numbers in terms of field goal percentage (57.5) and three-point shooting (51.1 per cent) for the month of February.  

This potential Finals preview could well be decided by which team's 'others' can best fill the void if Durant joins Davis in playing the role of spectator.

HEAD TO HEAD

It's the first meeting this season between the Lakers and Nets, though recent history suggests Brooklyn can afford to be confident even if they are without Durant. 

The two teams split the season series last term, but the Nets have won three of the last four games having swept the season series in 2018-19. 

All three of those victories came by a single-digit margin.

Stephen Curry trusted the rhythm he found to propel the Golden State Warriors to victory over the Miami Heat would come despite setting a personal record for missed three-point attempts.

Through three quarters against the Heat at Chase Center, Curry had 14 points on 2-of-15 shooting from beyond the arc. He had attempted at least 15 three-pointers in 47 prior regular season games, but this was the first time he had made just two.

The two-time NBA MVP found his range with two minutes and 26 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and laid on two assists for Kent Bazemore to help the Warriors force overtime.

Curry missed his first three shots in the additional period but hit a go-ahead three with 1:15 remaining and made a phenomenal step back jumper from 28 feet to put Golden State up six with 17 seconds left.

He finished the game on 5-of-20 shooting from beyond the arc – the first time in his career he has missed 15 threes in a game in the regular season and playoffs. His previous worst came in the defeat to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 2 of the 2015 NBA Finals.

"I probably took five bad ones. I'd say, the rest of them were off the dribble in rhythm or catch and shoot wide-open, I just was missing," Curry said of his display against Miami, in which he finished with 25 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds.

"So, knowledge and confidence is huge, and understanding that eventually I'll find the right rhythm, the right look and make a big one, and thankfully it happened at the end of regulation and then in the two in overtime.

"I tried not to think of the percentages during the game when you know like, 'Damn, I missed about 17 of these.' That doubt can sometimes creep in, you've got to kick it out and just shoot with confidence and keep shooting."

He added: "You play enough games and go through enough experiences, you know what it's like to kind of feel a little lost when shots aren't falling, and you know how you mentally react to it and what you can do to keep your confidence and stick with it.

"It's just bread over time ... I've been shooting since I was nine. You got to be able to figure out how to get through some bad shooting games."

Warriors head coach Steve Kerr was unsurprised to see Curry still play a crucial role even when he was enduring an off shooting performance.

"This is so typical of Steph. He's just the kind of player and the kind of person who can be in the midst of one of his worst shooting nights of the year and still hit three enormous shots to help us win the game. So really an amazing team win and a lot of fun," said Kerr.

"I just think he hasn't just built up his body and his skill over the years, I think he's built up his mind.

"And he's so strong-willed that he doesn't let things bother him and he knows that the law of averages are going to play out. He has so much belief in his shot that he's going to keep shooting.

"It's the same reason he shoots three-quarter court shots when there's still time on the clock. He doesn't care about the percentage. He actually believes that's a shot he can make, so he takes it.

"And same thing applies when he's in the midst of a tough night, he always believes the next one is going in. He's got an incredibly powerful belief in himself."

Novak Djokovic ended Aslan Karatsev's dream run to reach his ninth Australian Open final on Thursday.

Djokovic, who has been dealing with an abdominal injury in Melbourne, brushed past qualifier Karatsev 6-3 6-4 6-2 in their semi-final on Rod Laver Arena.

The world number one has won the Australian Open every time he has reached the semi-finals, and he is on track again ahead of facing either Daniil Medvedev or Stefanos Tsitsipas in Sunday's decider.

Djokovic moved into his 28th grand slam final – a tally bettered only by Roger Federer (31) – as he targets an 18th major title.

Karatsev held his own in the early baseline exchanges and dug himself out of a 0-30 hole in the sixth game.

But he could not deny Djokovic in his next service game, broken to love when he pulled a backhand wide as the Serbian won 10 straight points and the set.

Djokovic broke again in the third game of the second set following a Karatsev double fault, and a fortunate net cord saw him into a 4-1 lead as he took complete control.

Karatsev got one of the breaks back and pushed for the other, but Djokovic – who had won all 19 of his previous meetings with qualifiers at grand slams – closed out the second set.

Just as Karatsev seemed to be working his way back into the contest and the duo exchanged breaks to begin the third, Djokovic took a 3-2 lead as he won the final four games of the match.

 

Data Slam: Age still no barrier for Djokovic
Djokovic became the first man in the Open Era to reach three Australian Open finals after turning 30. The 33-year-old has dominated in Melbourne, and his run continues.

WINNERS/UNFORCED ERRORS
Djokovic – 30/14
Karatsev – 24/30

ACES/DOUBLE FAULTS
Djokovic – 17/2
Karatsev – 6/2

BREAK POINTS WON
Djokovic – 6/7
Karatsev – 2/5

Joel Embiid led the Philadelphia 76ers to victory over the Houston Rockets despite a back issue but is not alarmed by the ongoing injury.

All-Star center Embiid has been dealing with back tightness since a fall in the win against the Los Angeles Lakers in January, though he has only missed two games.

With Ben Simmons sitting out against the Rockets due to illness, Embiid was keen to take part against the Rockets on Wednesday and he put up 31 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists.

It was the 26-year-old's 12th straight game with at least 25 points, joining Allen Iverson and Wilt Chamberlain as the only 76ers players to achieve that feat.

Philadelphia led by 26 points at halftime but Houston cut the deficit to four during the final quarter, meaning Embiid was on the floor a lot longer than he had initially planned.

"It was pretty tight, but I just wanted to make sure we got the win and that's all that matters," said Embiid.

"I wanted to give it a shot for five more minutes [in the second half], obviously things changed and I had to adjust to it but the whole game it was pretty tight. But I'll be fine.

"It's not alarming. As NBA players we're playing every single night and the body is sore, you've just got to take care of yourself. It's normal.

"It's tightness. Some days its tighter than usual, some days it's not. After the [Phoenix] Suns game it got tighter than usual and today when we started it was tighter than usual, so it's just some days and I've just got to go home and continue to do what I've been doing and I'll be fine."

The 76ers had 13 turnovers in the second half and Embiid accounted for five of those. It took the team's total for the game to 20.

"They started making some shots, we had a couple turnovers – especially me," Embiid said when asked to explain the Rockets' resurgence.

"We had a stretch where at least six possessions in a row we had nothing going on and they just came back down the other end and just started making shots.

"We've just got to learn how to close games when needed. There's a lot to learn but we got the win."

Head coach Doc Rivers added: "It just got sloppy. It happens. We had a big lead, probably didn't have a lot left in the tank.

"We really had some unforced turnovers, which you don't like. Teams like Houston are going to keep throwing the ball at the rim and if you turn the ball over you're going to allow them back in the game.

"I don't think it was the pressure it was more us and we had a lot of self-inflicted wounds."

Embiid also praised Matisse Thybulle, who thrived in the zone defense despite the absence of Simmons and had a game-high four steals.

"When you've got Matisse in the game, I feel like that's our best defense. He gets his hands on everything," said Embiid.

"I think he has the potential to be the best defender in the league, just the way he moves, the way he wins on defense. He's got great hands, so that's one of the reasons why we do it.

"We did it in Indiana in that fourth quarter and he completely changed the game and tonight we basically did it the whole game, he was all over the place.

"I think he has a chance, especially when it comes to All-NBA Defensive Teams."

LeBron James doesn't yet look close to being ready to end his basketball career, but he's already planning his next career move.

Los Angeles Lakers superstar James is considering moving into the music business.

The four-time NBA champion has a contract until the end of the 2022-23 season, by which time he will be 38 years old.

James is hoping he can move from producing the goods on the court to producing in the studio but is not planning on rapping himself.

The 16-time All-Star would instead look to rope in friends to help with vocals, but said he was just "thinking out loud".

"My love for music is INSANE!!! I think I'm going to do an album," tweeted James.

"Oh no I won't be rapping or anything like that. I'm not crazy, I know what I'm great at, but I tell you one thing I do have; so many friends that can [rap]!"

LeBron already has experience in the music business, having been an executive producer on 2 Chainz's album 'Rap or Go to the League'.

There is no doubt James' attention will be solely on basketball on Thursday, though, with the Lakers entertaining the Brooklyn Nets.

It remains to be seen whether Serena Williams returns to contest the Australian Open in 2022 but amid long-term doubts, Naomi Osaka said "I want her to play forever".

Williams' long-standing bid to equal Margaret Court's record of 24 grand slam titles was put on hold by three-time major champion Osaka, who overpowered the American superstar 6-3 6-4 in the blockbuster Australian Open semi-final.

Not since claiming the 2017 Australian Open trophy has Williams celebrated a slam crown, and the 39-year-old is not getting any younger as she faded into the Melbourne shadows on Thursday.

Williams broke down in tears and cut short her news conference post-match, having been involved in an emotional moment on Rod Laver Arena, where the seven-time Australian Open champion held her hand on her chest and waved to the crowd.

Asked what it means to face Williams as the clock ticks on a legendary career, Osaka – who topped the veteran in the 2018 US Open final – told reporters: "It definitely means a lot.

"Every time I play her, I feel like it's something I'll definitely remember a lot.

"I don't know, it's kind of sad when you say it like that because for me, I want her to play forever. That's the little kid in me."

Japanese star and third seed Osaka will now face Jennifer Brady in Saturday's final as she eyes her second Australian Open crown.

Osaka has gone on to win the title each time after advancing past the round of 16 at a slam – 2018 US Open, 2019 Australian Open and 2020 US Open, while she is in the midst of a 20-match winning streak.

Asked what makes her so hard to beat in finals, Osaka added: "For me, I have this mentality that people don't remember the runners-up. You might, but the winner's name is the one that's engraved.

"I think I fight the hardest in the finals. I think that's where you sort of set yourself apart. It's the other person who won as many matches as you did. It's something that I think, it's like the biggest fight."

Joel Embiid's return fuelled the Philadelphia 76ers' to a drought-ending 118-113 win over the Houston Rockets in the NBA on Wednesday.

Embiid had scored 35 points in back-to-back games before back tightness caused him to miss Monday's defeat to the high-flying Utah Jazz – a third straight loss – but the three-time All Star came back in style.

The star center claimed a 31-point, 11-rebound double-double, adding nine assists, as the 76ers dug deep against the Rockets to condemn Houston to a seventh defeat in a row midweek.

Philadelphia's win improved the 76ers to 19-10 atop of the Eastern Conference, while Western Conference leaders the Jazz extended their winning run to nine games with a 114-96 triumph against the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Jazz have won 20 of their past 21 games to set the pace in the NBA this season.

Elsewhere, the Portland Trail Blazers made it a 3-0 road trip with a 126-124 win against the New Orleans Pelicans as Damian Lillard scorched to 43 points and 16 assists after dropping the winning three-pointer in the final seconds.

Pelicans star Zion Williamson hit back with a career-high 36 points for the hosts, but Portland snatched a sixth consecutive win.

Jennifer Brady will contest her first grand slam final after outlasting Karolina Muchova at the Australian Open.

A beaten semi-finalist at last year's US Open, American Brady took down fellow seed Muchova 6-4 3-6 6-4 in Melbourne on Thursday.

In a nervy finish, Brady wasted four match points before converting the fifth to secure a showdown with former world number one and three-time slam champion Naomi Osaka in Saturday's decider.

Brady (26) had dropped the fewest games en route to the semis and the 22nd seed looked like the player to beat in the opening set on Rod Laver Arena.

Despite Muchova recovering from a slow start to level the set at 2-2, Brady was not to be denied behind a strong first serve, even though her unforced-error tally reached 17 compared to just eight on her opponent's racquet.

Just like she did when upstaging world number one Ash Barty in the quarter-finals, 25th seed Muchova composed herself against the high-octane Brady.

Settling into a rhythm, Muchova was almost flawless in the second set, which only featured once unforced error, while the Czech won all of her second-serve points as she only dropped one point on first serve.

Muchova's measured aggression troubled Brady as the semi-final clash headed to a tense decider.

But Brady managed to slow down and settle back into her stride, an early break securing the advantage that the 25-year-old never relinquished in an engrossing finish.

 

Data Slam: ​Another finals debutant
Brady is the seventh woman to make her debut in a grand slam final in the past nine majors, after Osaka (won 2018 US Open), Barty (won 2019 French Open), Marketa Vondrousova (lost 2019 French Open), Bianca Andreescu (won 2019 US Open), Sofia Kenin (won 2020 Australian Open) and Iga Swiatek (won 2020 Roland Garros).

WINNERS/UNFORCED ERRORS
Brady – 20/38
Muchova – 21/29

ACES/DOUBLE FAULTS
Brady – 8/2
Muchova – 1/2

BREAK POINTS WON
Brady – 3/3
Muchova – 3/7

Serena Williams refused to confirm whether she made her last Australian Open appearance after breaking down in tears and leaving her news conference following a semi-final defeat to Naomi Osaka.

Bidding to equal Margaret Court's record of 24 grand slam titles – having last won a major in 2017 – Williams was overpowered 6-3 6-4 by third seed Osaka in Melbourne on Thursday.

It was Williams' first semi-final defeat at the Australian Open following eight consecutive victories in the final four of the year's opening slam.

The 39-year-old American star cut an emotional figure afterwards on Rod Laver Arena, where she held her hand on her chest and waved to the crowd after fans were allowed to attend following a five-day coronavirus shutdown.

Asked about the moment, seven-time Australian Open champion Williams told reporters: "The Aussie crowd is so amazing, so it was nice to see."

When pressed if it was a Melbourne farewell, Williams replied: "I don't know. If I ever say farewell, I wouldn't tell anyone."

A tearful Williams then suddenly ended her news conference after being asked about the match.

Williams was visibly and vocally frustrated against Osaka after seeing an early 2-0 lead slip.

Osaka reeled off five consecutive games and six of the next seven to close out the set before taking complete control against the former world number one.

Williams finished with 24 unforced errors against the three-time slam champion and 2019 Australian Open winner.

At the start of her post-match duties, Williams said: "I wouldn't say I was nervous. The difference today was errors. I made so many errors today.

"Honestly, it was opportunities where I could have won. I could have been up five-love. I just made so many errors."

"I felt like I was hitting well," Williams added. "I was hitting well this whole tournament. Even the first couple games I played well. Even then I had so many opportunities.

"I don't know. Just made too many mistakes there, easy mistakes. Not like I was on the run or anything, they were just easy, easy mistakes."

Melbourne Storm great Cameron Smith will not play for Gold Coast Titans in the 2021 NRL season, according to Mal Meninga.

It remains to seen what the future holds for Smith, who is yet to publicly confirm his plans after guiding the Storm to premiership last year.

Out of contract following 18 years in Melbourne, Smith reportedly relocated to Queensland at the end of the season and the 37-year-old has been linked with the Titans as well as Brisbane Broncos.

With speculation mounting over Smith's status, his former State of Origin and Australia head coach Meninga – now head of performance and culture with the Titans – insisted the ex-Kangaroos skipper will not be moving to Gold Coast.

"I've not talked to Cameron. He's the hardest bloke to get hold of in the world," said Meninga.

"I've not spoken to him – not has anyone from the club.

"Everyone assumes he's coming to the Titans. I haven't talked to him, he's not on the radar.

"You should ask Kevvie [Broncos head coach Kevin Walters] about Cameron so I don't have to answer these questions anymore."

Broncos coach Walters could be an interested party were Smith to delay his retirement plans, but Meninga rubbished reports that emerged last week linking him with the Titans.

Meninga told the Courier Mail: "I don't have any idea what Cam is doing. I don't know if he's retiring.

"I'm in the dark like everyone else. But I know he won't be at the Titans."

Serena Williams' quest for a record-equalling 24th grand slam title has been delayed again after being overpowered 6-3 6-4 by third seed Naomi Osaka in the Australian Open semi-finals.

Stuck on 23 slam championships since reigning supreme at Melbourne Park in 2017, Williams was hoping to move within a step of matching Margaret Court's record.

But the 39-year-old former world number one was taken down by three-time major champion Osaka in a blockbuster battle of the big hitters on Thursday.

Japanese star Osaka will now face either Jennifer Brady or Karolina Muchova in Saturday's final as she eyes her second Australian Open crown.

Osaka – the youngest player remaining in the draw – initially struggled under the beaming Melbourne sun as fans returned to Rod Laver Arena following a five-day state-wide lockdown after a coronavirus outbreak.

She was in all sorts, struggling on serve and tallying five unforced errors through two forgettable games as Williams raced out to a 2-0 lead.

Osaka – boasting a 3-0 record in grand slam semis – faced a 30-40 deficit and potential 0-3 hole before digging deep to hold for the first time.

It proved to be a turning point for Osaka, who went on a roll by reeling off five successive games and six of the next seven to take complete control.

The tables turned on Williams, who saw her unforced-error count balloon out to 16 while only hitting four winners in the opening set.

Williams – the oldest woman to reach the semis in Melbourne in the Open Era – carried a flawless Australian Open semi-final record into the contest, having won all eight of her previous final-four showdowns.

But Williams cut a frustrated figure at the start of the second set as she yelled at herself "make a shot" amid her demise – Osaka breaking in the first game before consolidating.

However Osaka, who has gone on to win the title each time after advancing past the round of 16 at a slam – 2018 US Open, 2019 Australian Open and 2020 US Open, lost her way when serving at 4-3 as three double faults saw her broken by Williams.

Williams, beaten by Osaka in an infamous US Open final three years ago, regifted the compliment the very next game, Osaka hitting three stunning winners to break to love before sealing her place in the women's decider.

 

Data slam: Osaka stays hot
She has now won 20 consecutive matches since losing while on Fed Cup duty for Japan last February. A 21st successive victory would yield a fourth slam triumph.

WINNERS/UNFORCED ERRORS
Williams – 12/24
Osaka – 20/21

ACES/DOUBLE FAULTS
Williams – 3/1
Osaka – 6/8

BREAK POINTS WON
Williams – 2/7
Osaka – 4/4

Former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow has retired from baseball after five years in the minor leagues with the New York Mets.

Tebow switched to baseball in 2016, having played for the Denver Broncos and New York Jets following his first-round selection in the 2010 NFL Draft.

The 33-year-old hit a home run in his first at-bat in a game against the St Louis Cardinals in September 2016.

In three professional seasons, Tebow batted .223/.299/.338 with 107 runs, 48 doubles, three triples, 18 homers, 107 RBI and five stolen bases in 287 games.

"I want to thank the Mets, Mr. Alderson, the fans and all my team-mates for the chance to be a part of such a great organisation," said Tebow.

"I loved every minute of the journey, but at this time I feel called in other directions. I never want to be partially in on anything. I always want to be 100 per cent in on whatever I choose.

"Thank you again for everyone's support of this awesome journey in baseball, I'll always cherish my time as a Met."

In 2019 – Tebow's final professional season – he appeared in 77 games for the Syracuse Mets (AAA) before a laceration on his left hand cut short his season.

That season, Tebow tallied 25 runs, four homers and 19 RBIs while hitting .163.

"It has been a pleasure to have Tim in our organisation as he's been a consummate professional during his four years with the Mets," said team president Sandy Alderson.

"By reaching the Triple-A level in 2019, he far exceeded expectations when he first entered the system in 2016 and he should be very proud of his accomplishments."

San Diego Padres star Fernando Tatis Jr. has reportedly agreed a mammoth 14-year contract extension worth more than $300million.

Tatis is set to earn a guaranteed total of $340m with the Padres, according to The Athletic and ESPN.

The deal will be the third-largest contract in MLB history, only behind Mike Trout's 12-year, $426.5m extension with the Los Angeles Angels and Mookie Betts' $365m deal over 12 years with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Tatis – the 22-year-old shortstop – won a Silver Slugger award after hitting .277 with 17 home runs and 45 RBIs in the coronavirus-shortened 2020 MLB season.

He also finished fourth in the National League (NL) MVP race last season as the Padres returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2006.

The Padres, who earned their first winning record since 2010, topped the St Louis Cardinals in the Wild Card Series before falling to eventual World Series champions the Dodgers in the NL Division Series (NLDS).

In his debut season with the Padres in 2019, Tatis tallied 61 runs, 22 homers and 53 RBIs after hitting .317 in 84 games.

Since entering the MLB, Tatis has hit 111 runs, 39 homers, 98 RBIs while hitting .301.

Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant will sit out Thursday's clash with NBA champions the Los Angeles Lakers due to a left hamstring strain.

Durant will miss his third consecutive game, having also been sidelined for wins over the Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings.

The former NBA MVP also missed three games due to the league's health and safety protocols before returning for his reunion with the Golden State Warriors on Saturday.

Durant is averaging 29.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game for the star-studded Nets this season.

Fellow Nets star Kyrie Irving is also listed as probable to face LeBron James' Lakers due to lower back tightness after he was absent from Tuesday's 128-124 win against the Suns.

The Nets trailed the Suns by 21 points at half-time before rallying to win. It was the largest half-time deficit overcome to triumph in franchise history, per Stats Perform.

The Nets (18-12) are second in the Eastern Conference, behind the Philadelphia 76ers (18-10), following four consecutive wins.

President of the Bahamas Aquatics Federation Algernon Cargill was returned unopposed to the post at the federation’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) on Saturday.

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