Jasika keeps Aussie flag flying in NY

Omar Jasika is the latest talent to emerge from Australia’s production line of junior tennis stars after storming into the semi-finals of the US Open boys’ singles as well as the doubles decider.

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The unseeded 17-year-old from Melbourne continued his giantkilling run at Flushing Meadows on Friday with a 6-4 7-5 quarter-final win over Korean seventh seed Duckhee Lee.

The victory came a day after he ousted American third seed Jared Donaldson – who has an impressive men’s ranking of No.303 in the world – in straight sets in the third round.

“It’s actually been my first time in New York so it’s been a good week so far,” Jasika said.

The teenager has a golden opportunity to qualify for his maiden grand slam junior final – and follow in the footsteps of Bernard Tomic, Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis – when he meets Germany’s unseeded Jan Choinski in the semis on Saturday (Sunday AEST).

“I’ve played him before in South America and lost in three sets. It was a long match,” Jasika said.

“It’s definitely going to be a good match tomorrow. He’s got a big serve, so I’m going to have to try and hold my serve and keep composed.

“I think I’m getting mentally stronger and physically stronger, which is kind of helping.

“It’s my first (grand slam) semi, which I’m pretty happy with.

“I’ll just try and keep pushing forward and see how far I can get to.

“Maybe if I win it or get to a final, both are still great.”

After a lean period, Australia have produced five junior grand slam champions in the past six years, including Tomic and Luke Saville, who both won two boys’ singles titles.

Tomic won in New York in 2009 as a 16-year-old and Kyrgios reigned in Australia last year, while Kokkinakis made both the singles and doubles finals at Flushing Meadows in 2013.

Jasika has the chance to at least match Kokkinakis after already reaching the final of the US Open doubles.

Backing up from his singles match, Jasika and Japanese partner Naoki Nakagawa beat Italy’s Filippo Baldi and Austria’s Lucas Miedler 6-2 1-6 (13-11) in the semi-finals.

“It feels pretty good to be honest, winning matches and just playing for Australia,” Jasika said.

“It’s a big honour.”

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Djokovic, Federer aim for title showdown at U.S. Open

Top-seeded Djokovic will face Japan’s Kei Nishikori and Federer, the number two seed, will play Marin Cilic of Croatia in Saturday’s semi-finals.

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In 2007, Federer beat Djokovic to win the fourth of his five U.S. Open titles but at Wimbledon two months ago, the Serb triumphed to win his seventh grand slam crown.

The top two seeds will be huge favourites to meet again in Monday’s final.

Having under-performed in the two warm-up events in Toronto and Cincinnati, Djokovic has found top form at the right time and saw off Andy Murray in a high-quality quarter-final.

“I was aiming to play my best tennis in the U.S. Open and I believed it was going to happen,” said Djokovic, who is chasing a second title in New York.

“Winning against Andy in a grand slam is definitely a confidence boost, and hopefully I can use it for the next match.”

Tenth seed Nishikori has shown enormous stamina and resilience to win five-set matches lasting over four hours in each of the past two rounds.

Having had two days off, Nishikori is confident he will be physically up for the battle as he tries to become the first Japanese man to reach a grand slam final.

“I always love to play five sets and I think I have a good record. I get more concentrated and my tennis is getting better playing in the fourth or fifth sets. So these two matches are going to help for sure.”

Djokovic said he was expecting nothing other than a tough battle.

“He’s a very, very good player (but) I think he’s playing best tennis of his life in the last 12 months,” he said.

“He serves very efficiently and he’s very, very fast, maybe one of the fastest on the Tour and back-to-back five sets is a great sign physically for him.”

Federer lost to Djokovic in successive semi-finals at the U.S. Open in 2010 and 2011, saving two match points on both occasions.

The 32-year-old Federer saved two match points himself in beating Gael Monfils of France to make the last four.

The Swiss has been working on his net game under the tutelage of Stefan Edberg and said he would be looking to come forward against Cilic, who ousted Czech Tomas Berdych in the previous round.

“I’m happy I’m spending some time at the net because that’s going to keep giving me confidence to keep on doing that as we move along in the tournament,” he said.

Cilic is into his second grand slam semi-final, four years after his first and 11 months after returning to the Tour following a four-month ban for failing a drugs test for a tainted supplement.

“Even though I had great success beginning of the year, I felt that I started to play really well somewhere from French Open,” he said.

“Since then I think the things are in good place for me and moving really, really good with everything.”

(Editing by Gene Cherry)

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Ebola-hit Sierra Leone face uphill struggle in qualification bid

Their task against the African giants was a daunting one before factoring in their threadbare squad and even eternally optimistic coach Johnny McKinstry stressed the situation was far from ideal.

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“A few of our players ultimately only arrived in the last couple days, and some today again for the game on Saturday. So those have been challenges,” 29-year-old Northern Irishman McKinstry said on Friday.

After initially refusing to host the match, the Ivorian government reversed its decision amid assurances from Sierra Leone’s Football Association that none of its European and American-based players and staff had visited the country in the previous 21 days, the incubation period of the virus.

However, several Sierra Leonean-based staff members were prevented from travelling to the Ivory Coast, which has banned air travellers and all incoming flights from Sierra Leone.

Of the affected countries, Sierra Leone has been the hardest-hit, with 1,107 confirmed cases – including 430 deaths as of Thursday – according to the World Health Organisation.

The outbreak also means Sierra Leone will be forced to play all their matches at neutral venues with Wednesday’s ‘home’ qualifier against the Democratic Republic of Congo to be held in the Congolese city of Lubumbashi.

McKinstry insisted his players would use the situation as motivation.

“We want to make sure that there is a positive image of Sierra Leone displayed,” he said.

“And there wouldn’t be a bit more positive image displayed than the Leone Stars being in Morocco in 2015 to bring the world’s attention on Sierra Leone for the right reasons.”

(Reporting by Aaron Ross, Writing by Tom Hayward, editing by Ed Osmond)

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USA and Spain to tip-off World Cup last 16

Defending world champions United States and hosts Spain will be amongst the teams tipping off as the FIBA World Cup last 16 begins.

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The high-octane, high-flying United States take on neighbours Mexico in Barcelona while Spain face off against Senegal in Madrid as the round gets under way on Saturday.

Neither are expected to be overly challenged as many feel they are destined for a rematch of the 2012 Olympic gold medal game in the final.

Australia will square off against Turkey in the final match of the round on Sunday.

The Boomers, who are the best three-point shooting team in the tournament, secured a spot on the opposite side of the draw to powerhouse USA after resting two of their top players in their final group game and suffering a shock loss to Angola.

An intriguing match-up on Saturday pits France against Croatia in a game of teams who were up and down in the group stage.

France limped into the knockout stage after being blown out in the second half against Spain in the penultimate Group A game.

Croatia meanwhile needed to beat Puerto Rico just to stay in the tournament – before eventually getting second place in Group B.

The winner of that game will take on Spain or Senegal in the quarter-finals.

On Sunday, Madrid hosts a European showdown between undefeated Greece and up-and-down Serbia, the latter who finished last in Group A but have the talent to finish on the podium.

The other Sunday game in Madrid has Argentina taking on South American rivals Brazil in a rematch of the same game at the 2010 FIBA World Championship, where Argentina won to reach the quarter-finals.

The Greece v Serbia winner will get the Argentina v Brazil victor in the quarters.

In Barcelona, the winner between the United States and Mexico will face the winner of the Dominican Republic v Slovenia game.

The first Sunday game in Barcelona has Group D winners Lithuania playing heavy underdogs New Zealand, who took fourth at the 2002 Worlds and are playing on house money as they barely made it to the knockout stage.

The quarter-finals will be played on Tuesday and Wednesday.

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Wanted: kung fu monks seek PR director

Help wanted: Ancient Buddhist temple famed for its kung fu monks seeks media directors to build brand.

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English and social media skills required. Not necessary to be a monk, practice martial arts or eat vegetarian.

That online ad placed by China’s 1,500-year-old Shaolin temple already has drawn a brisk response, reflecting the institution’s exalted place in Chinese history and popular culture.

Chinese state media reported on Friday that 300 people have already applied for the two positions available, including business executives, media professionals and recent graduates of top overseas universities.

Although the temple’s monks are all male, men and women are both invited to send in their resumes, reports said.

Installing a media director is the latest attempt by the enterprising abbot Shi Yongxin to exploit the temple’s fame in the name of propagating Buddhist thinking and culture.

The temple, its monks and their distinctive form of kung fu have developed into a lucrative business enterprise, raising controversy among some who accuse Shi of over-commercialisation. Shi says he’s just defending the temple’s reputation and promoting its values.

Located deep in the mountains of Henan province south of Beijing, Shaolin won fame for its monks’ martial exploits, including the rescue centuries ago of an emperor. It has since been the subject of countless books and movies, such as Steven Chow’s 2001 comedy “Shaolin Soccer.”

Since taking over as abbot in the 1990s, Shi has threatened to sue companies who use the temple’s name or image without permission and he has served as executive producer for martial arts films centred on the temple.

The temple takes in foreign students, runs month long executive martial arts retreats and maintains a website in both Chinese and English.

Shi has used the income made to upgrade temple facilities, bringing still more brickbats from traditionalists.

So deflecting media criticism and accusations of overexploitation will be a major part of the job for any media director.

Flexibility over candidates’ requirements shows the temple’s desire to attract top talent, although a knowledge of and appreciation for Zen Buddhist thought and culture is desired.

However, the position won’t be all glamour and glitz. While Shaolin is a high-profile name, it’s also an ancient temple where asceticism and removal from China’s fast-paced urban lifestyle underpins daily activities.

“If you work for Shaolin Temple, you need to be able to handle loneliness,” the South Metropolitan newspaper pointed out.

It quoted an unidentified person who has worked at the temple for many years saying: “Most young people will find this pretty dull.”

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Spain king to skip heir’s swearing-in

Spain’s King Juan Carlos will skip the swearing-in of his son Felipe as his successor on June 19 so as not to grab attention from him, the palace says.

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Dogged over recent years by scandals and health problems, Juan Carlos is abdicating in favour of his more popular son, after a historic four-decade reign.

Felipe, 46, will be sworn in by parliament, accompanied by his wife Letizia, their two daughters Leonor, eight, and Sofia, seven, and his mother Queen Sofia, a palace spokesman told AFP on Thursday.

“King Juan Carlos will not attend, so as to give more prominence to the new king,” the spokesman said.

He added that the king was expected to join Felipe afterwards on the balcony of the royal palace to wave to the crowds.

Felipe’s eldest sister Elena and his aunts Pilar and Margarita will attend the swearing-in at the lower house of parliament, he added.

But the king’s youngest daughter Cristina, who has been caught up in a corruption scandal centred on her husband, former Olympic handball player Inaki Urdangarin, was not on the list.

After being sworn in at the Congress in central Madrid, Felipe and Letizia will then be driven to the old royal palace in the west of the capital for a reception, the royal spokesman said.

Authorities announced tight security measures for the swearing-in.

The interior ministry said in a statement it had raised its terrorism alert level from grade two to three, out of four, as a “proportionate response” to the importance of the occasion.

As well as the royals, the ceremony will gather Spain’s full government, deputies and senators, but no foreign dignitaries.

The speaker of the house, Jesus Posada, said the swearing-in was expected to happen around 10.30am local time on June 19.

Felipe will take hold of the crown and sceptre, but unlike for Juan Carlos’s own swearing-in on November 22, 1975, there will be no religious ceremony.

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Australia backs away from China-Japan conflict

Australia has backed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s drive to expand the use of Japan’s military, hailing it as a “more normal defence posture”, a day after Tokyo and Canberra stepped up ties.

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Mr Abe is pushing to reinterpret Japan’s strict pacifist constitution to allow its well-equipped armed forces to fight in defence of an ally, something currently barred.

But he faces opposition at home from those attached to the decades-old constitutional ideal, as well as criticism from China, which accuses him of seeking to remilitarise Japan.

“Australia can see great benefits to our country and to our region, should Japan continue to play a greater constructive role in global and regional peace and security,” Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in Tokyo on Thursday.

“We certainly support Japan working towards a more normal defence posture to help it play a greater global and regional role,” she told a news conference.

Referring to military cooperation in past peacekeeping operations in countries including Iraq and South Sudan, Ms Bishop said “any decision by Japan to exercise that right to collective self defence would only help our cooperation grow stronger.”

The comments came hours after Ms Bishop and Defence Minister David Johnston met their respective opposite numbers Fumio Kishida and Itsunori Onodera and agreed to step up their alliance.

The strengthening of relations is part of a wider regional pattern as countries warily eye China’s growing assertiveness, including in rows that have flared with Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan.

Mr Johnston said on Thursday that security and defence cooperation was “very, very important to Australia. In fact it is the central pillar of our bilateral relationship.”

But he brushed off suggestions that Australia, Japan and the United States are looking to control the Asia Pacific region, saying humanitarian and disaster relief operations were the ultimate aim of collaborations.

“We have a very close and productive relationship with China and I will be in China later this year … discussing many of the issues that we’ve also discussed here,” he said.

“The relationship between China and Australia is not mutually exclusive. Australia … has a very strong and successful relationship with China and with Japan,” he said.

“One thing I should emphasise is that we do want to see territorial disputation resolved according to international law, that is fundamentally, very, very significant.”

“In the South China Sea and the East China Sea, things must be resolved through negotiation, disputation must be resolved around the table and pursuant to the international law,” Mr Johnston said.

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Bad Day at Pinehurst

Rare is it Jason Day shoots three-over and is relatively pleased but, after battling his swing throughout the opening round of the US Open, the Queenslander felt like a survivor.

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Day’s usual crisp and high ball flight was missing at Pinehurst No.2 from the opening tee shot when he flailed a four-iron way right into a waste area and all but topped his second shot.

Despite the struggles, the 26-year-old two-time US Open runner-up rode his short game to a round of 73, certainly not good, but also not bad enough to be discounted from contention.

After the end of the morning wave Day was five shots off the clubhouse lead of two-under par.

“If I didn’t have my short game I would have been in the 80s somewhere,” he said.

“I’m glad I got up and down a lot and there’s still three days ahead of us.

“I was a little loose pretty much throughout the whole round. I just didn’t hit it as good as I needed but the short game was actually solid.

“I’m not too disappointed with how the round went considering how bad I hit it.”

Day bogeyed the opening two holes but was back level par after birdies on the fourth and fifth.

Then the misses started adding up.

He made clever par saves on six and seven but couldn’t do it on the eighth after missing the green.

Six fighting pars on the trot followed, including a couple from waste areas and another from the crowd before he left the ball well short of the 15th green and made bogey.

A brilliant drive down the 16th fairway seemed to have steadied the ship but his approach from the short stuff was a shocker, going well long and leading to another dropped shot.

“You have to have consistent ball flight and consistent distance control and I had none of those,” Day explained before heading to iron out the kinks on the range.

“It felt like my timing was out. When I was trying to hit high soft shots they were coming out low and left and going 20-30 yards longer than they should.

“I am definitely going to have to keep working hard and tighten the long game up a little bit but who knows, if you go out and shoot even par over the next three days, you might win the whole thing.

“That’s the great thing about US Opens you just have to keep surviving and put yourself in contention.”

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Hunt thanks Johns after Qld call-up

Either way, NSW legend Andrew Johns has a lot to answer for if Queensland’s halfback inspires an against-the-odds State of Origin game two win in Sydney next week.

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The progress made by first choice Maroons No.7 Daly Cherry-Evans since his NRL club grabbed exclusive access to “Immortal” Johns as a consultant has been well documented.

But few knew the impact Johns had made on Cherry-Evans’ Queensland understudy Ben Hunt.

Broncos halfback Hunt may yet be pitched into a must-win Origin II clash for the injury-hit reigning eight-time series champions as Cherry-Evans battles to overcome a knee complaint.

And Hunt admitted Johns would be the man he would aspire to be after watching him tear his beloved Queensland apart as a wide eyed 15-year-old in 2005 – the last time NSW savoured an Origin series success.

“One of my biggest Origin memories was coming down to watch Andrew Johns absolutely towel Queensland up himself,” Hunt said.

“He was one of my favourite players ever.

“I was supporting Queensland but to see him tear us apart was something I will never forget.

“I have met him (Johns) a couple of times but never really had a lot to do with him.”

Unlike Cherry-Evans.

The Manly playmaker could not rave enough about Johns’ influence at the Sea Eagles – skills he hopes to display in game two if he overcomes his nagging knee complaint.

“He’s been huge. There’s no secret to how good Joey was – he’s an Immortal,” Cherry-Evans said.

“Anything he says at training I am more than welcome to try and listen and learn and hopefully take into the next game I play.”

Unfortunately for Queensland the biggest tip Johns has provided Cherry-Evans in recent weeks has not exactly been constructive.

“He actually asked politely if I could have a few weeks off,” Cherry-Evans laughed about Johns’ Origin advice.

He may still be sweating on Cherry-Evans’ fitness but Hunt still felt like an overnight success arriving in the Maroons camp – five years in the making.

Hunt has finally found his feet in the NRL, promising to deliver on the remarkable promise shown by pipping the likes of Ben Barba, Tony Williams and Chris Sandow to claim the inaugural under 20s player of the year award in 2008.

“It does feel like that,” said 2009 NRL debutant Hunt when asked if he felt like a five-year overnight success.

“All of the boys at the Broncos give me heat about it. Jack Reed reckons it is still my debut season.

“It was pretty tough (making the leap to the NRL). In the Under 20s, I was always playing halfback where I was very comfortable.

“To be back playing halfback is something I am enjoying.”

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Beaten Murray can’t be King of Queen’s again

Top seed Stanislas Wawrinka ousted American Sam Querrey 6-2 6-2 and will play Marinko Matosevic in the quarter-finals after the Australian overcame an ankle injury to spring another shock by defeating a below-par Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-2 6-4.

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World number six Tomas Berdych also progressed with a 7-6 (2) 6-4 win over Frenchman Adrian Mannarino.

The manner of Murray’s 7-6 (10) 6-2 defeat by Stepanek will do nothing to boost the British number one’s confidence as he squandered eight set points in the opener before tamely surrendering the second.

The result snapped the world number five’s 19-match winning streak on grass, a sequence that started in 2012 with his run to Olympic gold in London.

“I have only got myself to blame that I lost the first set. I don’t know how many set points I had but quite a lot of them were on my serve,” defending champion Murray told reporters.

“On this surface especially you shouldn’t really be losing sets like that. That’s what is disappointing really about the match.”

New coach Amelie Mauresmo, a former Wimbledon champion herself, kept a poker face as the match headed towards a disappointing conclusion but she would have noted the challenge that lies ahead over the next 10 days before Murray opens Centre Court proceedings at the All England Club on June 23.

Murray’s dropshots were off target, often falling short of the net, his backhands kept misfiring and there seemed to be a never-ending stream of forehand errors flying off his racket.

If such errors prove costly against a player he had beaten in five of their six previous meetings, the Scot’s chances of overcoming rivals such as Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer at the grasscourt major look rather perilous.

“I need to spend time on the courts practising some things,” admitted Murray. “Returning first serves, I wasn’t quite as sharp on that as I would have liked.

“I didn’t win that many points when he made his first serve. Normally that’s quite a strong part of my game.

“I’ll need to practice that a little bit over the next few days. I have played well on grass over the last few years so I would have hoped to have done a bit better,” said Murray.

OFF COLOUR

A year after completing a Queen’s Club-Wimbledon double, Murray was strangely off colour as he allowed Stepanek to steal the opening set with a delightful crosscourt volley.

Any hopes of a revival fell flat early in the second set when he surrendered the opening game with a forehand error and Stepanek made sure he made the most of his chances.

The wily Czech, who at times gave Murray the runaround, sealed an impressive victory when his opponent sliced a backhand into the net on match point, leaving the crowd stunned and the home favourite frustrated.

“When you play the best in the world you have to come up with the best … they bring the best out of you and it was a great win for me,” Stepanek said courtside after setting up a quarter-final with South African Kevin Anderson.

Wawrinka was impressive in dispatching Querrey for the loss of four games in 50 minutes but has spent little time on court this week after second-round opponent Marcos Baghdatis retired hurt after five games on Wednesday.

The 29-year-old Swiss said his performance was not paramount, adding the emphasis was on time playing on grass ahead of Wimbledon.

“It’s a faster surface so you don’t have that much time,” said Wawrinka. “You need to be ready to play more aggressive – you need to trust your game, you need to go for it.

“It’s never easy the first few matches because the grass is faster. Even if you lose you can still practice.”

In the final game on Centre Court, Tsonga never looked like imposing himself on Matosevic and was broken twice in the opening set against an opponent who produced a number of powerful groundstroke winners.

Berdych squandered 17 break points on the way to winning the first set against Mannarino but his extra class told in the second.

(Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, editing by Tony Jimenez)

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