Mikkelsen leads Rally Aust after 2 stages

Andreas Mikkelsen of Norway won the first special stage and was second in the other on Thursday to lead Rally Australia after the opening day.

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Mikkelsen had an overall time of two minutes, 45.3 seconds after the two 1.6km special stages. Kris Meeke of Northern Ireland, who led qualifying earlier in the day, was second in 2:46.2 and Jari-Matti Latvala of Finland was third in 2:46.7.

Sebastien Ogier of France, Mikkelsen’s Volkswagen Motorsport teammate who leads the World Rally Championship standings by 75 points and could clinch the 2013 title with a win this weekend, won the second stage and sits fourth overall in 2:46.8 – 1.5 seconds behind.

Mikkelsen, who leads a WRC event for the first time, clipped a barrier with the left-hand front corner of his car on the second loop of the course.

“The stage was OK but I think the organisers sprayed water on the road after the first pass and suddenly it was super slippery,” Mikkelsen said. “I think we’re OK; no damage.”

Ogier said he looked forward to Friday’s first full day on the gravel roads in the forests outside Coffs Harbour.

“I just tried to keep out of trouble here, but it was tricky because we decided to start with the hard (compound) tyres,” Ogier said. “Not the best in the slippery stuff – we didn’t expect more water on the stage. Tomorrow is the real start of the rally.”

Mikko Hirvonen is fifth overall, with Thierry Neuville, who is closest to Ogier in the standings, sixth.

Coffs Harbour resident Nathan Quinn ended the day 10th on his debut in a Mini.

“I’m learning a lot pretty quickly. Now I can’t wait to get out on the wide roads tomorrow,” Quinn said.

Seventh overall is Mads Ostberg of Norway (Qatar M-Sport), ahead of Russian Evgeny Novikov (Qatar M-Sport) and Khalid Al-Qassimi, United Arab Emirates (Citroen).

The 22-stage, 354km Rally Australia, 10th of 13 stops on the world championship, ends on Sunday.

Ferrari say Raikkonen not an anti-Alonso choice

“At Ferrari, everyone knows the interests of the team come first and only then those of the individual.

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Fernando is a key asset for this team and he will be for a long time.

“I’m sure he is the first to be happy with a choice made to strengthen the group, because he is too intelligent not to realise that a stronger team can only be an advantage,” added the Italian.

Double world champion Alonso had made clear before the appointment that he would be happy to continue with under-performing Brazilian Felipe Massa as his team mate.

In comments on Wednesday, after the announcement from Maranello, the Spaniard paid tribute to the departing Massa and welcomed his new “travelling companion” without mentioning the Finn by name.

Domenicali said the driver combination of Alonso and Raikkonen was the best Ferrari could have and both would start on equal terms.

The Italian also addressed concerns about Raikkonen’s ability to work as a team player and in helping to develop and improve the car technically.

“Everyone has their own ways and you can’t expect a Finn to start telling jokes in Italian or playing the clown,” he said. “Honestly, I think the combination of Fernando’s expressive and passionate Latin character and the cool style, to call it that, of someone like Kimi, seems to appeal to many.

“As for the technical side of things, not only do we know full well how much Kimi can contribute at an important time like this…but we also have first hand information from James Allison, as to how much the Finn has also progressed in this area over the past two years.”

Allison was with Raikkonen at Lotus, where he was technical director, before starting work with Ferrari this month.

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Alison Wildey)

No rest for Nadal as Spain pick him for Davis Cup singles

There had been doubt over world number two Nadal’s participation in the three-day tie in Madrid after his recent exertions in New York where he beat top-ranked Novak Djokovic in Monday’s U.

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S. Open final.

Nadal arrived in the Spanish capital early on Wednesday and after training at the “Magic Box” venue the 27-year-old was named in the team for Thursday’s draw by captain Alex Corretja.

“When I have been asked and have been free of injury I have always turned out to try to help the team win points and secure victories,” Nadal told a news conference.

“I have been playing at the maximum intensity for practically a whole month and obviously that has a draining effect,” he added.

“But I am ready for tomorrow and it’s just going to require another little bit of effort. I hope to be competitive even though I have spent very few hours on the court.”

Stakhovsky caused a huge upset at Wimbledon this year when he defeated seven-times champion Roger Federer in the second round but Nadal should have little trouble against the world number 92, especially as the tie is on his favoured clay.

Nadal has won 20 of his 21 Davis Cup singles matches, including a perfect 16 out of 16 on clay.

Spain number two Fernando Verdasco will play Ukraine number one Alexandr Dolgopolov in the opening singles, with the doubles to come on Saturday and the reverse singles on Sunday in the first meeting between the two nations.

Spain are in the playoffs after losing away to Milos Raonic’s Canada in the first round in February when Nadal, who had just returned from a seven-month injury layoff, did not feature. They had last fallen in the first round in 2006 when a team also missing Nadal was beaten 4-1 by Belarus on indoor carpet in Minsk.

In other World Group playoff ties Poland’s hopes of joining the elite for the first time have been dealt a huge blow after Wimbledon semi-finalist Jerzy Janowicz was ruled out with a back injury for the home tie against Australia in Warsaw.

Andy Murray will lead Britain’s attempt to return to the World Group and will face 16-year-old Croatian Borna Coric in the opening singles rubber in Umag.

(Reporting by Iain Rogers, editing by Martyn Herman)

Czech Stepanek faces Argentine Monaco in Davis Cup opener

World number five Tomas Berdych will then take on Argentine Leonardo Mayer in the second of the opening day’s matches in Prague as the Czechs play in front of a home crowd for the first time this season.

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Czech talisman Stepanek won the decisive match of the 2012 final against Spain to earn his country the Cup for the first time as an independent nation in Prague last November.

The 34-year-old, who had neck surgery in January, comes into the competition off the back of winning the men’s doubles title with Leander Paes at Flushing Meadows last weekend.

“Physically, I have no problem,” news website idnes.cz quoted Stepanek as saying. “Three days (of matches) have never been a problem. It won’t be a problem now.”

Argentina, runners-up to Spain in 2011, were beaten by the Czechs in Buenos Aires at the same stage last year and head into the semis without world number seven Juan Martin Del Potro.

For the second singles rubber, Argentine captain Martin Jaite has surprisingly turned to the lowest ranked player on the team, world number 93 Mayer.

“I had four good players and I believe that Leo will play great,” Jaite was reported as saying by news agency CTK.

For Saturday’s doubles match, Czechs Lukas Rosol and Jiri Vesely are pencilled in to face Carlos Berlocq and Horacio Zeballos.

However, the Czechs are likely to turn instead to Stepanek and Berdych, who played all key matches in last year’s title run.

“We are ready to play the role of favourites but nothing easy is expected,” Czech captain Jaroslav Navratil said.

The winners of the Prague tie will face either Canada or Serbia in the November 15-17 final.

The Czechs lifted the Cup last year for the first time since Czechoslovakia won in 1980.

Argentina have yet to win the Davis Cup despite four appearances in the final.

(Reporting by Jason Hovet; Editing by Alison Wildey)

Former athletes struggling with addiction and illness

More than 1,200 retired footballers, rugby union and league players, jockeys and cricketers were polled by the Professional Players Federation, an umbrella body of players’ unions who interviewed a wide range of former sports professionals aged from 22 to 95.

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Simon Taylor, the PPF general secretary, told Reuters some female jockeys may have been polled but 99 percent of the respondents were men.

The results showed that while 79 per cent said they were content with their lives, 32 per cent said they did not feel in control in the first two years after leaving sport.

Almost a quarter of them – 24 per cent – said they had suffered from physical and mental health issues or financial and addiction problems as they attempted to embark on second careers once their professional sporting days were over.

Many footballers have publicly struggled with their demons with former Manchester United and Northern Ireland great George Best the most notable example. Former England midfielder Paul Gascoigne’s problems have also been well documented over the last few years.

Some 16 per cent said they experienced depression or “feelings of despair”, 17 per cent had anxiety or stress issues and 16 per cent suffered a loss of self-esteem once they retired.

Brendan Batson, the PPF chairman said in a release accompanying the survey: “This important study emphasises the challenges professional sportspeople face in retirement and it is crucial we help them adjust to life out of the spotlight.”

Angus Porter, the chief executive of the Professional Cricketers’ Association, which initiated the study, added: “It is important that we continue to provide support, particularly in the crucial two year period after they stop playing.”

PARK BENCH

The most recent example of a former sportsman struggling to cope is Kenny Sansom, the ex-Arsenal defender who played 86 times for England and took part in two World Cups. His alcoholism was so bad he admitted to sleeping on park benches.

“When you come to the end of your career you obviously have more time on your hands and you drink three or four times a week, then it becomes every day, and at one stage I was drinking eight or nine bottles of wine a day, ” he told Sky Sports News on Thursday.

“I was drinking to forget problems and I didn’t mind sleeping rough because I’d get miserably drunk and then just fall asleep somewhere on a park bench,” he added.

The PPF was organising a one-day conference in Birmingham to help former professionals cope with the trials of life as they embark on a second career.

The research found that almost half retained a link to their sport in some capacity, and the average salary among those surveyed was between 30,000 pounds ($47,400) and 40,000 pounds, above the average national wage of 26,000 pounds.

(Reporting by Mike Collett, editing by Alan Baldwin)

Ozil says Wenger’s trust was key to Arsenal move

Arsenal smashed their transfer record to sign the Germany international for 42 million pounds ($66.

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42 million) and the playmaker was quick to insist it was not a step backwards despite widespread surprise that the Spanish giants agreed to let him go.

“The most important thing was (the manager’s) plans for me and what he thinks about me,” Ozil, who created 92 chances for his team mates at Real last season, told reporters at his first news conference since his switch.

Speaking in German through a translator, Ozil said Arsenal provided the perfect environment for him to improve.

“I had a good time at Madrid and had good moments there,” he said. “You can see the reaction of the (Real) players and fans that they didn’t understand (why I left) but this is football and you have to look ahead.

“I want to continue developing here and I feel that I’m at the right club. I know how successful Arsenal have been. I know the step here is the right one.

“Many young players came here and got better. I’m happy to play under a great coach. I have a new task here, we have big goals and will work very hard to reach those goals.”

Ozil is in line for a Premier League debut at Sunderland on Saturday, especially as Wenger will be without Tomas Rosicky who was injured in midweek playing for the Czech Republic.

Wenger, who said the process of bringing Ozil to north London had been “complicated”, said the 24-year-old would become one of the leaders in the team.

“He has a style of play that will integrate with our style of play because his game is based on movement and technical ability. He has all the attributes to be one of our leaders.”

($1 = 0.6324 British pounds)

(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Alan Baldwin)

Djokovic fired up to recapture Davis Cup glory

Looking upbeat and raring to go just a few days after a crushing U.

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S. Open defeat by Rafael Nadal, Djokovic was named to play singles on the opening day of the semi-final against Canada in the cavernous Belgrade Arena.

Any fatigue from his New York battles and the long-haul flight home will be soothed by the prospect of playing in front of the partisan home crowd, the world number one said.

“I am tired and jet-lagged but also as inspired and motivated as ever to play for my country,” Djokovic told a news conference after Thursday’s draw which pitted him against Vasek Pospisil in Friday’s opening singles rubber.

“It’s not the first time I’ve had only two days to recuperate for a Davis Cup tie after the U.S. Open and the fact that we will be playing at home for the first time in two years will galvanise us to perform.

“The 2010 triumph was a stepping stone for all of us in terms of our individual careers and that’s why we are really looking forward to it.”

Following their epic 3-2 win over France in the 2010 final, which produced a football-like atmosphere in a jam-packed arena, Serbia suffered their first loss at the venue in the 2011 semis.

An ailing Djokovic, who was nursing a ribcage injury, retired against Juan Martin del Potro in the reverse singles, handing Argentina an unassailable 3-1 lead as he collapsed to the ground in anguish.

It was an anti-climax to his memorable U.S. Open final win against Nadal that season, the most successful in the Serb’s career as he also claimed the Australian Open and Wimbledon to go with a myriad of Masters Series titles.

“I am fit this time and I don’t think adapting to red clay will be a problem because I’ve done it before,” he said of the specially-prepared clay surface.

“Canada are a very strong team but our home fans can help us prevail in what promises to be a delicately balanced tie.”

Janko Tipsarevic has returned to the Serbian squad after a 16-month absence and faces big-serving Milos Raonic in Friday’s second singles rubber.

Nenad Zimonjic and Ilija Bozoljac play Belgrade-born Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil in Saturday’s doubles, while Djokovic locks horns with world No. 11 Raonic and Tipsarevic clashes with Pospisil in Sunday’s reverse singles.

Nestor, Zimonjic’s former doubles partner on the ATP Tour, said he expected no empathy from a raucous Belgrade crowd although he called his birthplace “a home away from home.”

“Will they take it easy on me? Maybe they will early on but if Serbia find themselves on the receiving end they will do what they have to in order to help the home team win,” he said.

Frank Dancevic, the other player in Canada’s squad, also has Serbian roots and added: “I always felt very welcome here and it’s great knowing the city and where to go to have a Serbian burger.”

The winners of the tie will face either holders the Czech Republic or Argentina in the final.

(Editing by Martyn Herman)

Stuart farewells Parramatta fans

Outgoing Parramatta coach Ricky Stuart expects the assassination of his character to continue after explaining to the Eels faithful he made the decision to quit the club for family and career reasons.

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Stuart addressed fans, sponsors, past and present players, coaches and management at the Parramatta presentation night at Rosehill Racecourse on Thursday night.

It was less than 24 hours after Parramatta announced Stuart would not fulfil the last two years of his contract and would be taking over at Canberra.

He spoke to the playing group earlier in the night and said it was a decision that he hadn’t taken lightly because it affected a lot of people.

“It’s been very hard, it’s been very difficult, it’s a very big decision,” Stuart said.

“I’ve had a lot of criticism today. It’s not easy to take.

“I’ve had my character judged.

I made a decision that’s best for my career and my family and I’ll wear all the criticism.”

“I’ve been assassinated over the last day and I’ll be assassinated again tomorrow, but they are small-minded people.

“They don’t understand the big decision I’ve had to make.”

Stuart said he didn’t back down from his mid-season decision to cut several players, who won’t be at the club next year.

“I’m proud of the fact that I’ve had to make this decision and I’m proud of the fact I’ve got the courage to do it,” Stuart said.

“I’ll continue to get the criticism, but I will stand strong and I’ll cop the criticism and I’ll cop the punishment whilst everyone knows it’s the best decision for myself and my family.”

He said he would love to see Parramatta successful again and was upbeat about their future despite the Eels collecting back-to-back wooden spoons.

“They are not too far away from being a consistently competitive football team,” Stuart said.

“Why? Because I really do believe that the debutants we had this year are genuine first-grade football players.

“There’s a couple of players, debutants, that will be representative players.

“I believe Darcy Lussick and Kelepi Tnaganoa are representative players of the future and Jacob Loko who has been very unfortunate with injury, is a representative player of the future.”

Stuart received support from key players including co-captain Tim Mannah, who won three awards on the night, and fellow forward Lussick, who took out the main Players’ Player prize.

“He’s off to Canberra and he’s going with my support and my best wishes,” Mannah said.

Lussick, who was in his first season after crossing from Manly said: “I really appreciate what he’s done for me and I’m forever indebted to him for what he’s done for me this year.”

Real unlikely to overburden Bale

Soccer’s richest club by income, who like champions Barca have a perfect nine points from three matches, splashed a record 100 million euros (84 million pounds) to secure Bale’s services and he could make his debut at promoted Villarreal in Saturday’s late kickoff (09.

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00 p.m. British time).

The 24-year-old winger played the final half hour of Wales’s 3-0 World Cup qualification defeat at home to Serbia on Tuesday, his first competitive action since July, and coach Chris Coleman warned it would be unwise for him to play a full match this weekend considering his relative lack of fitness.

Bale told reporters on Thursday he was “feeling good” and hoped to get a run-out at the Madrigal.

“Obviously I am a bit behind the rest of the squad in terms of physical fitness but I think it’s possible,” he said at the presentation of Real’s new orange away kit.

“I have been training for a week with Wales and I have already trained a couple of times here,” he added.

“The coach has welcomed me and hopefully I can quickly win a place in the team.”

Bale had his first workout with his new team mates after arriving in the Spanish capital on Wednesday and although Real have a number of players injured, coach Carlo Ancelotti is unlikely to deploy him from the start on Saturday.

Portugal pair Cristiano Ronaldo and Fabio Coentrao, Spain’s Isco and Marcelo of Brazil all returned from international duty with problems of varying degrees of seriousness.

Ronaldo and Isco were back with Bale and the rest of the squad on Thursday after training apart on Wednesday, while Marcelo had treatment from medical staff along with Coentrao and long-term absentee Xabi Alonso.

ATTACKING FLAIR

Villarreal, along with Atletico Madrid the only other team to win their opening three games, are eager to test themselves against opponents of Real’s calibre after spending a year in the second division.

Under coach Marcelino they have shown real attacking flair and their performances so far this term suggest they are more likely to be challenging for a place in Europe than flirting with relegation come the end of the campaign.

“It’s a chance to show that we can compete with anyone and that we can fight against a team like Madrid,” captain Bruno Soriano told a news conference on Wednesday.

“Last year, we were dreaming about playing these teams and now the opportunity has arrived and we want to put in a great performance,” the midfielder added.

“Personally I prefer it if an opponent is at full strength and that the best come so we can take them on.

“Although even if Madrid has some players out, I am sure they will have the same level of quality.”

Barca had some positive news on the injury front as they prepare for Saturday’s match at home to Sevilla (1800) when midfielder Sergio Busquets and fullback Daniel Alves completed a full training session on Thursday.

Neymar and World Player of the Year Lionel Messi were also back after representing Brazil and Argentina respectively.

Barca coach Gerardo Martino has used Neymar sparingly in the early stages of their title defence although he did play 90 minutes of the 3-2 victory at Valencia in their last league outing before the international break.

The 21-year-old shone for his country in friendly victories against Australia and Portugal, scoring a goal in each game including a trademark sprint through the Portuguese defence followed by a clinical finish.

Messi helped Argentina secure qualification for next year’s World Cup in Brazil with two penalties in Tuesday’s 5-2 success in Paraguay.

He missed the 1-0 La Liga win at Malaga last month due to a thigh problem before notching a hat-trick at Valencia to take his tally for the season to five goals in two games including a double at home to Levante in the opening round of matches.

Atletico, who are at home to promoted Almeria (1400) on Saturday, made a couple of new signings this month, bringing in Belgium defender Toby Alderweireld from Ajax Amsterdam and France midfielder Josuha Guilavogui from St Etienne.

Fellow Champions League participants Real Sociedad, who lost 2-1 at home to Atletico in their most recent outing, play at Levante, also on Saturday (1600).

(Editing by John O’Brien and Justin Palmer)

McShane wins U23 world triathlon title

Wollongong triathlete Charlotte McShane timed her run to perfection to become Australia’s latest triathlon world champion in London on Thursday.

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Scottish-born McShane, who emigrated with her family when she was 15 to live in Bairnsdale in country Victoria, broke away from a group of five others to clinch the gold medal in the Women’s ITU Under 23 World Triathlon Championship.

“I knew I had a good sprint so in the end I just backed myself and I won, I can’t believe it, I’ve never won anything before,” said McShane, one of four Australian training partners in the race.

“I wasn’t prepared to go, I was just waiting for the other girls to make their move and when they did I knew I could pounce and match them.”

McShane hit the final 100 metres and stormed away to beat Canadian pair Ellen Pennock and Amelie Kretz.

Of the three other members of Jamie Turner’s Wollongong Wizards group, Tamsyn Moana-Veale finished eighth, Grace Musgrove 12th and Natalie Van Coevorden 14th.

Earlier, a mud-splattered Jacob Birtwhistle produced a brave performance to get back on his bike for a fast finishing sixth in the Junior Men’s race.

The 18-year-old Launceston schoolboy crashed on the first lap of the 20km bike course and was also hit with a 10-second penalty for not putting his wetsuit in the designated box.

“That didn’t go according to plan, that’s for sure,” said a frustrated and bitterly disappointed Birtwhistle, showing the muddy and bloody wounds from the Hyde Park.

“Whatever could have gone wrong did go wrong.”

European champion Dorian Coninx of France won from Scottish pair Marc Austin and Grant Sheldon.

In the Junior Women’s race West Australian Jaz Hedgeland fell just five seconds short of a podium finish.

She was fourth behind triumphant American Tamara Gorman, Georgia Taylor-Brown of Britain and German Laura Lindeman.

“I set myself the goal of winning the gold medal,” said Hedgeland.

“So I am disappointed to finish fourth but I left nothing out there. I’ll be back next year having another crack.

“I was well up in the swim and worked really hard on the bike but when it came to the run I just had nothing in my legs.”