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Everyone loves Novak: how Djokovic became a star in the Olympic village

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Novak Djokovic refused to elaborate on his conversations with other athletes in the Olympic village: ‘I’m going to keep it a secret, just for athletes, athletes only.’ Photograph: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images
Tumaini Carayol at Ariake Tennis Park

After Novak Djokovic took his first small step towards a gold medal on Saturday, his defeated first-round opponent, the world No 140 Hugo Dellien of Bolivia, could not stop himself from speaking his heart as they embraced at the net: “It’s a dream for me,” he said to Djokovic. “I want to remember my whole life that I played with you.” Dellien asked Djokovic for his T-shirt and they later posed for a photo.

Only occasionally on the regular tour does Djokovic come up against an opponent starstruck enough to ask for photos or a souvenir of their encounter after being blitzed off the court. But in Tokyo, where everyone seems to want a piece of the best player in the world, Dellien simply blends in with the crowd. Since Djokovic’s arrival here, it is unlikely there has been a more popular athlete in the Olympic village.

The line waiting to take a picture or make a memory with him never seems to end. He was captured on camera deep in conversation with Turkey’s men’s and women’s volleyball teams, explaining how mental approach allowed him to maintain longevity. Giovanna Scoccimarro, a German judoka, nabbed a selfie with him and then ran away jumping for joy. Nina Derwael, the world champion gymnast, went viral after she posted a picture of them both in splits. A Lebanese physio managed to cajole Djokovic into sending a message to his country at a time of protests and unrest: “I want you to know that you are not alone,” said Djokovic in the video.

“I did speak with quite a few athletes, the first night was with Serbian female basketball players, judo athletes and from different sports,” said Djokovic after his second-round win over Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany.

“They were very interested to ask me about the mental strength and how to deal with pressure, what are the techniques and what are the ways to really understand how to bounce back if you lost your focus in that moment while you’re performing. I talked about that a lot but, I’m going to keep it a secret, just for athletes, athletes only.”

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It is an interesting counterpoint to the many discussions about Djokovic’s popularity, which is frequently contrasted to the reverence reserved for Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal even as he stands level with them in grand slam titles. Just a few weeks ago at Wimbledon, as is often the case, the crowds respectfully cheered for the underdog in most of his matches. But this week has underlined how respected Djokovic is among his peers.

The Olympics is also always a reminder of the size of the sport. Tennis can often seem relatively small for most of the year and talk on how to grow the game dominates. But for two weeks every four years (usually), tennis’s scale and reach are demonstrated by how other athletes treat its players.

“You’re trying to get the hype and the attention towards our sport as much as you possibly can, so we’re all contributing to that in the Olympic village,” said Djokovic. There’s a lot of attention towards the tennis players from the other athletes, which is very nice to see, very nice to experience.”

Djokovic said he is staying in a hotel during his time here, but only to sleep. He is otherwise spending as much time as he can in the village and among his fellow athletes. “I’m in a hotel for tennis seasons and this happens once in four years. I try to balance things out with keeping my own routines and things that make me feel good but I’m thriving on that wonderful energy in the village.”

On the court, too, Djokovic continues to thrive. He took the second step in his gold medal attempt, beating the dangerous Struff 6-4, 6-3 to reach the third round. He will next face the 16th seed Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, an unpredictable but ambitious young Spaniard still looking for a big breakthrough. No matter how it ends, there should be no shortage of autograph requests afterwards.

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It wasn’t supposed to go down like that “Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis on their ‘cozy’ moment in ‘…………..'”

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It wasn’t supposed to go down in the kitchen.

That was the one room in the Chatsworth home doubling as the Williams family Florida residence in “King Richard” that was off-limits to the filmmakers because the appliances and cabinet hardware hadn’t been switched out to reflect the movie’s mid-’90s period.

So naturally, Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis, the actors playing Richard Williams and Oracene Price, parents of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams, went straight to the kitchen when it came time to rehearse a crucial scene in the film. Where else would they go? Think about your own home and where people gravitate during parties, where family and friends hold late-night conversations and where loaded confrontations like the one in “King Richard” transpire.

“It is always the kitchen!” Smith says, punctuating the pronouncement, as he often does, with a booming clap of laughter.

“King Richard” takes its title from Williams, the demanding and loving father and tennis coach, the man who wrote a 78-page plan that detailed how his two daughters would become tennis champions. He came up with this blueprint before Venus and Serena were even born, meaning that he needed more than a little help from his wife to realize it.

As Ellis puts it: “He had to convince her to use her body for 18 months to create the vessels for this dream. And she was, ‘OK. Bet.’ They were both crazy. They were co-conspirators in crazy.”

Adds Smith: “There has to be a little bit of crazy, because you have to believe something that there’s no evidence for, and then you have to devote your life to something that is not only invisible, but highly unlikely and potentially impossible. But you believe it wholeheartedly because you can’t achieve it if you don’t believe it wholeheartedly. So, yeah, there’s a sliding scale of naiveté to full insanity, and somewhere in there is the sweet spot for dream manifestation.”

But there’s crazy, and then there’s a selfish lack of awareness as to how other people feel. And, in the movie, that led to a confrontation between the parents over Williams’ refusal to consider letting Venus turn pro at age 14. It’s a conversation that takes place 90 minutes into the movie, providing Price with the opportunity to finally call out her husband’s ego and stubbornness in the ways he controlled his family’s life, not to mention his penchant for walking away from failed businesses and children he had with other women.

The scene was shot after production had been halted in March 2020 by a pandemic lockdown, a break that offered Smith and Ellis time to, as Smith puts it, “marinate in their characters.”

“When it came to this Ali-Frazier moment,” Ellis says, comparing the encounter to the famous heavyweight boxing matches between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali in the 1970s, “we felt we had lived enough with these characters to say how we felt without really even needing a script.”

Smith, who played Ali in the 2001 Michael Mann movie, was asked if he felt like Ali or Frazier in the kitchen scene.

“Well, it depends which fight,” he replies, laughing. (Frazier won their initial bout; Ali prevailed in the two rematches.)

Our conversations — the first with the two actors together around the November AFI Fest and then subsequent talks individually in the new year — would often circle back to this defining scene, during which Price tells her husband in no uncertain terms about the sacrifices she made to help their daughters achieve their tennis dreams. (The couple married in 1980 and divorced in 2002.)

“I carried them inside me and on my back,” Ellis, as Price, says at the beginning of this five-minute confrontation. “And I carried you too, working two shifts so I could put food on your table. I’ve been here dreaming and believing. Just like you. You just don’t want to see me.”

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Since they weren’t supposed to shoot in the kitchen, director Reinaldo Marcus Green grabbed a loaf of bread and some peanut butter from the craft services table, along with a carton of orange juice the home’s owners had left in the fridge. Ellis now had some props to use. “The whole thing was one happy accident,” Green says by phone.

Among its many notable accomplishments, “King Richard” makes a convincing case for Price’s crucial role in the development of the Williams sisters’ careers, both as a parent and as a coach. Smith remembers an early meeting at Serena Williams’ home when everyone was still sizing each other up and deciding if they’d make the movie. Price sat quietly for most of the afternoon, then after some coaxing, offered her thoughts.

“She’s so quiet,” Smith says. “She doesn’t feel a necessity to prove or defend herself. So when she speaks, it’s a powerful thing.”

“The thing I thought about that day,” Ellis says of the kitchen scene, “was what would Miss Oracene Price want the world to know about her experience? People see her in the stands, but they don’t know her. Nobody knows that she was their coach … but she was. So I just wanted to speak as well as I could for her and feel OK about it when I was done.”

Like Price, Ellis is a soft-spoken woman, modest and deeply caring. She didn’t talk with Price before playing her but did meet her during a press day before “King Richard” was released.

“She said, ‘Great job,'” Ellis recalls, laughing. “Just two words. But that was enough for me.”

Smith has been receiving praise too since “King Richard” simultaneously opened in theaters and premiered on HBO Max on Nov. 19. Though the film’s theatrical box office total has been disappointing (the movie’s worldwide gross is under $30 million), Smith says he has never experienced a more enthusiastic reaction to a film.

“I had resigned myself in my life that, as an artist, I would never make a film better than ‘The Pursuit of Happyness,'” Smith says, referring to the 2006 drama that co-starred his son Jaden and earned him an Oscar nomination. “That was the high-water mark. I figured I had reached my artistic pinnacle.”

“And then we made ‘King Richard,’ and the amount of people — family, friends, foes, celebrities, politicians, athletes — who have been inspired to make it a point to get in touch with me to tell me that they enjoyed it has been overwhelming.”

What resonated with all these people? Smith, who has never encountered a subject he couldn’t bullet-point, says there are two things: The film’s story of a family triumph, specifically a Black family’s triumph, has been a needed source of uplift during a pandemic that has gone on nearly two years. And people have also commented on the “girl dad” relationships in the movie, what Smith calls a “delicious and uncommon thing to see depicted in cinema.”

“That was one of the things about Richard that I wanted to be able to capture,” Smith says, “that, as wild as he was and as much as he could rage, it was always in defense and protection of his daughters. And they knew it. They knew he would die for them and would kill for them. For all his faults, Richard Williams is one of the greatest girl dads that America has ever seen. To this day, those girls love that man. And that’s as much his legacy as all those tennis titles.”

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HELL OF A FIGHT – Kell Brook claims Floyd Mayweather wants to fight winner of his clash with Amir Khan as Brit talks down retirement

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Brook and Khan are finally set to fight on February 19 in a bitter clash several years in the making.

Amir Khan and Kell Brook ahead of their February 19 fight
Kell Brook claimed Floyd Mayweather wants to face the winner of his fight with Amir Khan

Defeat for either of the 35-year-old pair could leave them starring retirement in the face.
But Brook talked down leaving the sport, citing Mayweather, 44, and rising British star Conor Benn, 25, as future opponents if he beats Khan.

He told iFL TV: “I think a lot of people want me to say I’m going to retire and what’s happening after.

“Conor Benn’s been mentioned, Mayweather’s been saying that he wants the winner, Danny Garcia’s been saying that he wants the winner, Keith Thurman’s getting active again.

“My mojo is back sat here right now speaking with you. I still feel young, I still feel fresh. I fell good. But obviously this fight is on my mind.

“A fighter, many fighters with experience in this game overlook fighters and to look for next fights after what’s in front of them.

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“I’m just focused on Khan for this fight. Am I going to retire? Let’s see how I feel.”

But he has returned twice since, both in exhibitions, starting with a one round demolition job over featherweight kickboxer Tenshin Nasukawa, 23.

More recently, in June the American legend was taken the distance over eight rounds by YouTuber Logan Paul, 26, who weighed TWO STONE more.

But Mayweather – now in talks with 20-year-old YouTuber ‘Money Kicks’ – has previously ruled out ever coming back to traditional boxing.

Meaning Brook is unlikely to convince Mayweather into a fight, but he sent out a fierce warning to rival Khan.

He said: : “I don’t know if I hate him – that’s a strong word – but I’m close to the hate side.

“I really dislike the man and I really can’t wait to punch his face in.

“I can’t wait to get my knuckles to the nearest point of the gloves and drill it straight into his face.”

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Unimpressed Controversial Conclusion: Red Bull ‘played rough’ to help Max Verstappen win F1 title, Damon Hill claims

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Former F1 world champion Damon Hill has claimed Red Bull and team boss Christian Horner were “playing rough” as they looked to put the pressure on race director Michael Masi during the closing stages of Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Horner pleaded Masi to give championship contenders Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton “one more lap” following the safety car, with Mercedes counterpart Toto Wolff later criticising the “unacceptable” way in which the race unfolded.

Five cars were allowed to overtake the safety car, putting Verstappen directly behind Hamilton on a fresh set of soft tyres, and Hill said Red Bull were smart in how they argued for the drivers to be allowed to race for the line.

“I think these are the new rules,” Hill told Sky Sports. “I think it’s a new style of race directing, I think that Mercedes have struggled with the decisions that have been made.

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“Red Bull played rough, but they’ve persuaded the race director that cars should be allowed to race, and it should be a robust kind of formula, and they’ve prevailed.”

Hamilton had closed the gap by winning three of the four final races of the season but the 1996 champion said Verstappen had been the better driver over the course of the season.

“You can’t have them both win, unfortunately, I think Max has fought valiantly. I think the right man won – if there can be such a thing,” Hill said.

“I feel for Lewis, he’s fought with everything he’s had, and with Mercedes as well. But they’re up against a very formidable Red Bull team and driver.”

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