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Coco Gauff vs. Naomi Osaka Could Be a (Friendly) Rivalry in the Making

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Maybe, some years in the future, if Coco Gauff goes on to fulfill the destiny that some have predicted for her, her win over Naomi Osaka, 6-4, 6-4, on Thursday night will serve as a torch-passing moment.

Or maybe it will just be Chapter 4 in a rivalry that will stretch for decades. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova played 80 matches during the 1970s and 1980s, 60 times in finals. Plenty of tennis fans are hoping for something like that from Gauff and Osaka, especially after Gauff’s nervy win in San Jose, Calif., at the Silicon Valley Classic, one of several tuneup tournaments for the U.S. Open.

Gauff, who is still just 18 even though she seems like she has been around for a while now — because, well, she has been — surged to the lead, pounding her powerful serve, especially as she sealed the final game of the first set. She looked like she would cruise to the victory, building a 5-1 second-set lead. Osaka was serving at 0-40.

But then Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion who is coming back from an Achilles injury she suffered in the spring, came alive. She saved four match points in that game and then three more over the next two as she closed the deficit to 5-4 before Gauff finally put the match away.

“You know certain players, no matter what the score is, it’s going to be tough,” Gauff said afterward. “It’s Naomi. She could have easily threw in the towel, but she didn’t.”

After it was over, Osaka said she had a realization during the match that for a long while now she has been letting people call her “mentally weak.”

“I forgot who I was,” said Osaka, who is 24 and took several months off last year to address her mental health. “I feel like the pressure doesn’t beat me. I am the pressure.”

There are plenty of professional tennis tournaments during the year that are eminently skippable for any number of reasons — low stakes, a lack of star power, not much money on the line. But this year’s Silicon Valley Classic has punched far above its weight. A stacked draw — top women could choose to play this week in steamy Washington, D.C., or temperate Northern California — has delivered matchups worthy of the later rounds of Grand Slam tournaments from the start.

Gauff vs. Osaka was a round-of-16 match. Gauff, ranked 11th, lost on Friday night in the quarterfinals, 7-6 (4), 6-2, against the fourth-ranked Paula Badosa of Spain, the winner of last year’s BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif. But it was a matchup Gauff relished for a number of reasons.

“Tough players and playing high seeds like this in warm-up tournaments for the U.S. Open is what I ask for,” she said Thursday night.

Because Gauff is still so young, her every match is both a singular sporting event and part of a larger process. She reached her first Grand Slam singles final at the French Open in June, where she lost to the world No. 1, Iga Swiatek of Poland. She fell in the third round at Wimbledon in a tough battle against Amanda Anisimova, another young rising American.

Gauff said Thursday night that she had learned from the loss to Anisimova that even against a powerful baseliner she needed to remain aggressive and not assume the role of the counterpuncher. She spent the past three weeks training as long as eight hours a day in Florida to get ready for the summer hardcourt swing in North America. She said she felt the work paying off against Osaka, one of the game’s greatest baseliners.

“I was winning the rallies more than she was,” she said of Osaka. “A lot more to go before the U.S. Open, but this is a good start for me.”

At the same time, there were several moments on Thursday night when Gauff said she got a healthy reminder that she is about more than just wins and losses. Gauff and Osaka both regularly speak out on social issues, including human rights, gun violence and abortion rights. As they walked onto the court, the players saw a fan holding a sign that showed pictures of both of them and the words “Thanks for being you.”

“Those kinds of messages are really important to us,” Gauff said. “It shows that people are not just supporting us because of our career but because of what we do off the court as well.”

And for what it’s worth, Gauff and Osaka are now all even at two wins apiece.

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Knicks vs. Bulls prediction: NBA picks, odds

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The NBA’s longest win streak is finally over after the Knicks suffered their first loss in nine games on Wednesday. Expect New York to start a new streak Friday against a team it dominated the last time they faced off.

The Knicks were playing like the best team in basketball during their lengthy win streak, posting the league’s best net rating (+17.3) with six double-digit victories in that eight-game run. That included a 23-point beat-down of the Bulls exactly a week ago, when New York drained 17 3s and saw three players score at least 22 points in an easy win.

Knicks vs. Bulls (7:30 p.m. Eastern) prediction: Knicks -5.5 (Caesars Sportsbook)

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That game marked the worst offensive showing of the season for Chicago (91 points), which has struggled with chemistry and spacing issues all year long. The Bulls rank dead last in 3-point attempts per game (28.8) and third-worst in offensive rebounding rate (23.6%), which leaves very few easy scoring chances for one of the NBA’s worst offenses.

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It’s the opposite story for the Knicks, who boast three legitimate shot-creators and also rank among the league leaders in points in the paint. Julius Randle (31 points) relentlessly attacked this Chicago defense in their first meeting before allowing RJ Barrett (27 points) to lead the way in the second affair — his fourth of five straight games with at least 22 points. 

I don’t see this Knicks attack slowing down against one of the league’s most inconsistent defenses. And until Zach LaVine returns to his All-Star form, I’m skeptical of the Bulls’ offense showing up on Friday, too.

Knicks vs. Bulls pick: Knicks -5.5 (Caesars Sportsbook)

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Devils vs. Bruins prediction: Bet on New Jersey to end slide on NHL Friday

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After starting the season 21-4-1, it looked like the New Jersey Devils were going to run away with the Metropolitan Division as one of the very best teams in the NHL.

Not only were the Devils cruising, but their underlying metrics were elite. New Jersey was the best 5-on-5 team through the first quarter of the season.

Three weeks and one six-game losing streak later, and the Devils have fallen back to earth and are now two points behind the Carolina Hurricanes in the Metropolitan Division. 

The Devils were able to get off the schneid with a win over Florida on Wednesday, but the task doesn’t get any easier with the league-leading Boston Bruins in town.

New Jersey is a slight +102 home underdog against Boston starting at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN+ and the NHL Network.  

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Tomas Tatar #90 of the New Jersey Devils
Tomas Tatar #90 of the New Jersey Devils
NHLI via Getty Images

Bruins vs. Devils prediction

Even though the Devils have struggled to get results over their last 10 contests, their underlying numbers don’t suggest there’s all that much wrong with how they’re playing. New Jersey isn’t posting the pace-setting numbers it did through Thanksgiving, but it’s still skating to the fifth-best expected goals rate and high-danger scoring chance rate in the league over its last 10 contests.  

Those numbers should help ease any sense of panic that New Jersey could continue to fall back further into the pack as we head toward the New Year. 

So if New Jersey is still tilting the ice in the right direction, what is the issue for the Devils? 

For one thing, the Devs are struggling to find the back of the net like they did when they were rolling. New Jersey has scored just nine goals in its last five games, and four of those tallies came in a 4-2 victory over Florida on Wednesday. Over their last 10 games, the Devils rank 25th in the NHL with a 6.56% shooting percentage. 

Additionally, the Devils are not getting the goaltending needed to stabilize them. New Jersey’s netminders were always thought to be the team’s biggest weakness, and that has started to show lately as the Devils rank 23rd in the NHL in 5-on-5 save percentage over the last 10 games.

Hampus Lindholm #27 of the Boston Bruins
Hampus Lindholm #27 of the Boston Bruins
NHLI via Getty Images

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The Bruins, meanwhile, continue to roll. Boston is 7-1-2 over its last 10 contests and ranks third in the league over that span in expected goals rate and fourth in high-danger chance percentage. The Bruins pace the NHL with a +54 goal differential, which is 25 goals better than the team in second (Toronto). 

But as impressive as Boston has been over its first 31 games of the season, the Bruins are playing on a back-to-back on Friday, while the Devils were off on Thursday night. 

The Bruins are the better team in a vacuum, but this is a good buy-low spot on the Devils, who are still playing solid hockey but are just not getting the results.

Devils vs. Bruins pick

New Jersey Devils +102 (FanDuel)

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At the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, a Female Crew of Two

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Kathy Veel has come a long way since 1989, when she first sailed in the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race with an all-female crew on the Belles Long Ranger.

“It started off with four of us women — we figured, let’s give it a shot,” said Veel, 70, a retired teacher who lives in Bullaburra, about 60 miles west of Sydney, Australia. “We didn’t have a boat. We didn’t have any money. It was a real start from scratch. No one took us seriously.”

Not anymore. Veel is now back for her third Sydney Hobart, which starts on Monday, this time also breaking ground. She will be part of the only all-female crew competing in the race’s two-handed division on the Currawong, at 30 feet long the second smallest boat in the fleet. She will be sailing with Bridget Canham, 62, of Sydney, a veteran of several Sydney Hobart races.

Veel said that in 1989, there were doubts the crew of women could handle the grueling conditions of the race.

“We were kind of a token gesture,” she said. “There were a lot of people who didn’t think we were up to it. They would ask, what we were going to do when it’s blowing 30 knots and the boat is swamped? We’ll be doing pretty much what they’ll be doing — putting up sails and racing the boat.”

Their goal was to simply finish the race, which they did. “It opened the door for us,” Veel said.

“Women in sailing have come so far,” she said. “Most boats these days have got women on them. And that’s great.”

Canham, a retired nurse who volunteers as an emergency boat pilot, said sailing had indeed changed.

“Sailing is more of an integrated sport now,” she said. “Now, it’s just by coincidence that we are just two women on a boat. We’re just sailors. We don’t think of ourselves as anything different.”

The two-handed division, where a boat is raced by two sailors — as opposed to a large crew ranging from 6 to 25 — is now in its second year at the Sydney Hobart. For Veel and Canham, the draw of two-handed racing is access.

“Having a fully crewed racing yacht was way outside of my resources,” Veel said. “I’m retired. But now that they have the two-handed, we can do the race. It gives people the opportunity to sail in the race who aren’t on a fully crewed yacht.” Yearly maintenance on two-handed boats might be $10,000, while much larger yachts require millions of dollars to maintain.

Canham also said the sailors in the two-handed division were a tightknit group. “The two-handed community is just so supportive; it’s like we are all on the same team,” she said.

Veel and Canham generally split duties on the boat, taking turns on the sails and at the wheel, with Canham focusing on sails and Veel on navigation and race tactics.

“Bridget knows the wind and is good at getting the best out of the boat,” Veel said. “She’ll have every sail tweaked and tuned. She never takes her eye off the ball. She’s also extremely gutsy and strong-minded and determined.”

Veel and Canham have prepared for the event by sailing in four other races this year. Over that time, they realized the boat, a Currawong 30, built in 1974 with beaten 20-year-old sails, needed upgrades, but they’ve accepted its limits.

“We’ve been able to test out our boat in these previous races, but it really has felt that 90 percent of this race has been just getting to the start line,” Veel said. “We’ve just been focused on getting the boat ready. Now that we are there, and there are no more obstacles between us and the race, that’s when I’m starting to wonder what have I got myself into. Now it’s real.”

Canham heads into the race committed, but knows their limitations.

“No one is expecting us to do anything,” she said. “But I don’t think they realize just how determined we are.”

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