Casillas axed for easing Real-Barca tension – Del Bosque

Several matches between the two clubs during the combative Mourinho’s stint in Spain were marred by brawling, accusations of refereeing bias and play-acting although more recent meetings have been less controversial.

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“It’s true that in difficult moments for the national team, when the Real-Barca matches got a little strange, he (Casillas) … helped the team to move on and continue winning things like the (2012) European Championship,” Del Bosque told radio station Onda Cero.

“This did not go down well and perhaps had a detrimental effect also on Iker,” added the former Real coach. “He was a key figure in fostering harmony in the national team.”

The tension reached a low point in August 2011 when Mourinho, who returned three months ago for a second spell at Chelsea, jabbed a finger in the eye of Barca assistant coach Tito Vilanova as fighting erupted during a Spanish Super Cup game.

Real’s Spain contingent, including goalkeeper Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa, appeared to fall out with Barca internationals like Xavi and Carles Puyol, prompting concern it could affect the national team’s performances.

Casillas, the Real and Spain captain, sought to ease the tension by meeting Xavi and Puyol, and Del Bosque suggested this had contributed to Mourinho’s decision last season to replace his skipper with Diego Lopez.

Even under new Real coach Carlo Ancelotti, Casillas has been left on the bench this season.

Barca keeper Victor Valdes has been in excellent form and may start Spain’s World Cup Group I qualifier against Finland in Helsinki later on Friday.

(Reporting by Iain Rogers editing by Tony Jimenez)

Serena, Djokovic send warning shots to rivals

Djokovic said he played some of his best tennis on the Arthur Ashe Stadium court in trouncing Marcel Granollers 6-3 6-0 6-0, and Williams could not have done better, handing Carla Suarez Navarro a 6-0 6-0 beating at the National Tennis Center.

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Dominant performances are not out of the ordinary for those rankings leaders but fifth-seeded Li Na provided something special by breaking another barrier for Chinese tennis.

The 31-year-old Li became China’s first semi-finalist ever at the U.S. Open by beating Russian Ekaterina Makarova 6-4 6-7(5) 6-2 on Tuesday at a windy Flushing Meadows.

Li pumped both fists in joy after 24th seed Makarova sailed a backhand long to end the two-hour, 20-minute match at Arthur Ashe Stadium as the crowd showered her with cheers.

“For me, this is the first time to come to the semi-finals, so I’m very proud of myself,” said Li, who looked about to claim victory in two sets after winning the first three points of the tiebreaker but was extended to a third set.

Other winners were also tested as defending men’s champion Andy Murray worked hard to get past 65th-ranked Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan, 6-7 (5) 6-1 6-4 6-4, and women’s second seed Victoria Azarenka overcame Ana Ivanovic 4-6 6-3 6-4 to complete the women’s quarter-finals field.

The lone upset by rankings was registered by ninth-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland, who ousted fifth seed Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic 3-6 6-1 7-6 (6) 6-2

Wawrinka, who has now won five of his last six matches against Berdych, advanced to a quarters clash against Murray.

LOVE-LOVE

Li will not have too long to revel in her achievement as the win set up a semi-final date with defending champion Williams.

“I played really good,” acknowledged four-time U.S. Open winner Williams after her 52-minute rout of Suarez Navarro.

“I’m having a blast this week. For me, I have to stay in that moment of fun, but intensity, but calm. If I can try to do those three things, it works out.”

It was only the second love-love win in a U.S. Open women’s quarter-final dating back to 1968, and first since Martina Navratilova subjected Manuela Maleeva of Bulgaria to the embarrassment in 1989.

The 31-year-old Williams, aiming to become the oldest U.S. Open women’s winner since tennis turned professional in 1968, has lost just 13 games in her five matches.

Djokovic said his game was clicking just as planned.

“Today, the second and third set have been some of the best tennis that I’ve played on Arthur Ashe in my career,” said Djokovic, who won the title in 2011 and was a finalist last year and in 2007.

“I was wishing to be more aggressive as the tournament progresses,” added the Serb, who won the first 25 points on his serve and 28 of 30 points he contested at the net.

FIGHTING PRIDE

Djokovic moved into the quarters against Russia’s Mikhail Youzhny, who ended the magical run of 2001 U.S. Open winner Lleyton Hewitt by escaping a 1-4 hole in the fourth set and a 2-5 stranglehold in the fifth for a 6-3 3-6 6-7(3) 6-4 7-5 win.

Youzhny, the 21st seed, took pride in outbattling renowned fighter Hewitt in the nearly four-hour match.

“I know he’s a great player and he’s great fighting player, who is fighting for every point, every match. For me, this way that I beat him today, it’s really important,” he said.

The 32-year-old unseeded Hewitt, who had upset sixth-seeded former champion Juan Martin del Potro in the second round, gave credit to the Russian.

“In the end, he played the big games when he needed to,” said the Australian.

Earlier, women’s second seed Victoria Azarenka overcame Ana Ivanovic, the 13th seed, 4-6 6-3 6-4 to complete the women’s quarter-finals field after their contest was postponed from Monday due to nearly five hours of rain delays.

Azarenka, runner-up last year to Serena Williams, will play unseeded Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia in the last eight.

LAST BARRIER

The U.S. Open had been the last grand slam where Chinese women had stalled before reaching the final four.

Zheng Jie was the first Chinese player to reach a grand slam semi-final, making the last four at Wimbledon in 2008 and the Australian Open in 2010, but Li has enjoyed even greater success.

Two years ago, Li became the first Chinese to make a grand slam final when she finished runner-up in Australia and a few months later she won the French Open to become China’s first grand slam champion.

Li smashed 44 winners against just 15 for 25-year-old Makarova, though the Chinese struggled with eight double faults.

Azarenka and former world number one Ivanovic had even more trouble serving in a match where holding serve was the exception rather than the rule.

The 29-game match had 16 service breaks with Azarenka ending it by breaking Ivanovic for the ninth time.

“It was a big battle. That’s what I was expecting from Ana,” said Azarenka of Belarus.

Ivanovic tried to see the bright side.

“It’s very encouraging, because I know I’m right there,” said the Serb. “It’s definitely a lot of positives to take from this week and this match. But it still doesn’t change. It’s disappointing and it hurts.”

(Reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes/Patrick Johnston)

British grand slam hopes get surprise boost at U.S. Open

After years of shouldering his nation’s grand slam hopes, the Scotsman is no longer fighting a lone battle.

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On Monday at the U.S. Open, there were two other British winners.

With Murray not scheduled to play his opening round match until Wednesday, Dan Evans briefly took over the spotlight for British men when he stunned Japan’s Kei Nishikori 6-4 6-4 6-2.

Evans, ranked 179th in the world, had to come through the qualifiers just to reach the main draw and was given little hope of beating Asia’s highest-ranked man and the 11th seed.

But the 23-year-old, who has spent most of his career on the Futures Tour, played the match of his life to claim his biggest victory.

“It’s definitely a good one,” said Evans. That was pretty good out there to play so well and against someone so highly ranked.”

Laura Robson, Britain’s top female player, beat Spain’s Lourdes Dominguez Lino 7-5 6-0, though that was not much of a surprise.

A former Wimbledon junior champion, she teamed up with Murray to win a silver medal in mixed doubles at last year’s London Olympics then made the last 16 at the U.S. Open.

This year, she reached the fourth round at Wimbledon, and is seeded 30th in New York, making her the first British woman in more than a quarter of a century to be seeded at a grand slam.

The teenager has been steadily improving over the past few years but has her sights set on bigger things.

“I’m only in the second round now, so I have a long way to go,” she said.

Evans lost his funding from the Lawn Tennis Association last year and has admitted to not always training hard but is now starting to reap the benefits of a harder work ethic.

He came to the United States early to play on the Challenger circuit and battled his way into the tournament. By reaching the second round he is assured of pocketing at least $53,000.

“I really want to be top 100, so that’s when the money will start to come in,” he said. “It is an added bonus but it would be a bit strange if I was just thinking about the money after I’ve just beat the 11th seed.”

(Editing by Frank Pingue)

U.S. endurance swimmer making progress on Cuba-to-Florida swim

Nyad, 64, was “swimming strong” on Sunday afternoon and “getting a little favorable push from the current,” according to blog updates on her website (www.

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diananyad.com).

The marathon swimmer is making her fifth attempt at the 103-mile (166 km) crossing, this time using a protective silicone mask to better protect her from the poisonous jellyfish that forced her to end one of two attempted crossings last year.

Nyad has said the custom-made mask slows her and makes it more difficult to breath, so it could take up to three days to complete the swim.

As of 12 p.m. EDT (1600 GMT), she had swum more than 47 miles (76 km), the blog said. At one point she floated on her back kicking and led a crew of 35 people keeping her on course through the strong Gulf Stream current in singing “Happy Birthday” to a crew member.

Nyad departed from the Cuban capital of Havana on Saturday morning accompanied by five support boats that also provide her with food and water.

Nyad was stopping every 40 minutes to eat, taking several bites of scrambled eggs and pasta, the blog said.

The treacherous body of water known as the Florida Straits is the holy grail for marathon swimmers.

It has been conquered only once, by Australian Susie Maroney, who used a protective cage at age 22 during her 1997 swim. The cage glided on ocean currents and enabled Maroney to make the journey in just 25 hours.

Nyad’s long-distance accomplishments include swimming around the island of Manhattan and a swim from the Bahamas to Florida in 1979.

(Reporting by Kevin Gray; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Arsenal will not panic buy, says Wenger

“We will not panic buy, that is for sure,” he told a news conference.

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“It’s not my strength to panic.”

Spurs, who visit the Emirates on Sunday (4 p.m. British time), have by contrast been very active in strengthening their squad while their Wales forward Gareth Bale is on the verge of a move to Real Madrid for a world record fee, according to media reports.

Asked if Bale, who could join the Spanish giants for as much as 100 million euros (85.35 million pounds), was as good as his price tag, Wenger did not exactly rush to put him in the same bracket as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

“I don’t think at all that the prices are linked with the quality of the players, during this summer especially,” he said. “The prices today are just linked with the financial power and the desire of the buyer.

“For me, there are very, very, very, very few players who are economically justifying, or (it) makes sense to pay, over 50 million pounds.”

FREE TRANSFERS

Arsenal’s only business so far in the close season has been bringing in French youth international forward Yaya Sanogo and re-signing midfielder Mathieu Flamini five years after the Frenchman left the club for AC Milan, both on free transfers.

The club failed with a 40 million and one pound ($61.97 million) bid for Liverpool striker Luis Suarez and were linked with Gonzalo Higuain before his move to Napoli from Real Madrid.

Spurs have splashed out on striker Roberto Soldado, midfielders Paulinho and Etienne Capoue and winger Nacer Chadli and on Friday announced they had reached an agreement to sign Romania centre back Vlad Chiriches.

Wenger declined to say how many offers he had on the table to buy players and said his mind was on Sunday’s derby.

“I’m completely happy with what we do and how we do things,” he said. “When you see our team play I think what is the most important is what is happening on the pitch and the way we play and we have good players so let’s focus on that.

“It’s a big game because it’s a special rivalry between the two teams but as well for me it’s three points that are vitally important because we want to play the top of the league and after our start it’s important of course that we win the game.”

Arsenal suffered a shock 3-1 loss at home to Aston Villa on the first weekend of the season before winning at Fulham last Saturday, while Spurs have maximum points from their two games.

(Reporting by Sonia Oxley; Editing by Ken Ferris)