Messi primed to thwart Atletico’s title ambitions

It has been almost 20 years since the Spanish capital’s second club mounted a genuine challenge for the La Liga crown as Barca and Real Madrid, the world’s two richest teams by income, have shared the spoils apart from brief flurries of success from Valencia and Deportivo La Coruna.

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Last season’s third place was the best Atletico had managed since they won a league and King’s Cup double in 1996 and they even spent two seasons in the second division at the start of the millennium.

Current coach Diego Simeone, a former Argentina midfielder who was in the 1996 team, has revived memories of those glory days since he took over at the end of 2011, honing a mean defence and getting the best out of players like forward Diego Costa and midfielder Koke.

Atletico, the King’s Cup holders, have won all their matches at their Calderon stadium this season apart from the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup in August when they drew 1-1 with Barca.

Victory on Saturday (1900 GMT) would put them three points clear of the Catalan giants with half the season played, while Atletico’s city rivals Real Madrid are five points behind in third and play at Espanyol on Sunday (1800).

Koke, who earned a call-up to the Spain squad last year, has played a key role in Atletico’s resurgence, developing a lethal partnership with Costa and netting some important goals himself, including the winner in Saturday’s 1-0 victory at Malaga.

However, beating Barca to head the standings at the halfway stage of the campaign would be a mere “anecdote” as what counted was the state of play at the climax of the season in May, he warned on Wednesday.

“It is irrelevant if you win this match if in the end you have not achieved your objectives,” he told a news conference that coincided with his 22nd birthday.

PAIN FREE

One man who will be itching to spoil Atletico’s party is World Player of the Year Messi, who came off the bench and scored twice on his return from injury in Wednesday’s 4-0 last 16, first leg success at home to Getafe in the Cup.

Messi was given a rousing ovation by the adoring home fans when he replaced Andres Iniesta in the 64th minute at the Nou Camp, the Argentina forward’s first appearance since straining a thigh muscle in November.

The injury was the latest in a string of problems that dogged him during 2013 but he said he was now “free of pain” and full of desire to help Barca in their bid for La Liga, Champions League and King’s Cup glory.

“I am as excited as ever,” he told Barca’s TV channel after the Getafe game, adding that he would consult coach Gerardo Martino and club medical staff to decide if he can start against Atletico.

“Before I had got used to playing with pain and today… I felt very good physically,” the 26-year-old said.

“Beyond the injuries I just want to play again. If I can be in the team (on Saturday) I will be there.”

Real have their King’s Cup last 16, first leg at home to Osasuna to negotiate later on Thursday before they travel to Barcelona to face mid-table Espanyol, while Monday’s game sees European hopefuls Villarreal, in sixth, hosting fifth-placed Real Sociedad (2100).

(Editing by John O’Brien)

Aussie tennis stars sweat on Open draw

Local tennis stocks are at a nine-year high heading into next week’s Australian Open but, like the dollar, threaten to crash at any time.

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Such as at Friday’s draw when long-time blue-chip performer Lleyton Hewitt and volatile speculator Bernard Tomic will be very much at the mercy of the tennis gods despite hitting their straps on the eve of the season’s first grand slam.

Hewitt, fresh off his Brisbane International final triumph over four-time champion Roger Federer, and Tomic, into the semi-finals in his title defence at the Sydney International are both unseeded.

Australia’s two big men’s hopes could conceivably run smack bang into world No.1 Rafael Nadal, three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic or other front-line contenders Andy Murray or Federer in the first round at Melbourne Park.

Samantha Stosur, through to the last four at the Hobart International, is Australia’s only seed in the singles events this year, at No.17 in the women’s event.

The 2011 US Open champion has yet to venture beyond the fourth round in 11 visits to Melbourne and, after falling outside the top 10 for the first time since 2010, Stosur will also be hoping for some luck in the draw.

Without a top-eight seeding, Stosur could potentially meet world No.1 and raging title favourite Serena Williams in the first week.

With some good fortune, Australia’s three stars could all go deep after displaying some strong form in the lead-up.

Despite her well-documented home struggles, Stosur is seeded to make the title match in Hobart which, technically, would be the Queenslander’s fourth successive tournament final.

The 29-year-old reached three straight finals in Osaka, Moscow – where she lifted the Kremlin Cup – and Sofia to complete 2013 before opening her 2014 campaign at the Hopman Cup exhibition event.

Hewitt has climbed back to 43rd in the world after enjoying his first injury-free run in years, while Tomic has won five of his six matches this summer and revels playing on the big stages in Australia.

Not since 2005 when Hewitt was ranked No.2 in the world and ultimately made the final at Melbourne Park, and Alicia Molik was in the top 10 and charged to the quarter-finals, have Australian hopes been so high entering the Open.

“A lot of the players have been in really good form,” Stosur said on Thursday.

“Maybe that hasn’t happened so collectively for the last couple of years.

“I don’t know why maybe the change but it’s nice to be able to be part of that success and try keep boosting it along.

“I guess so far so good but I’m sure I can speak for all of us and say that we all want to definitely replicate it down in Melbourne.”

All up, Australia will have 15 representatives in the singles at Melbourne Park, with Marinko Matosevic, Matt Ebden, young guns Nick Kyrgios, James Duckworth and fellow wildcards Sam Groth and playoff winner Jordan Thompson also in the men’s draw.

Playoff winner Casey Dellacqua and fellow wildcards Ashleigh Barty, Storm Sanders, Jarmila Gajdosova and Olivia Rogowska join Stosur in the women’s event.

Postecoglou backs gay footballers

Socceroos boss Ange Postecoglou says he hopes gay Australian footballers would feel comfortable disclosing their sexuality if they wanted to.

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“What you want – in any form of life – particularly in our country, is that people feel comfortable to express themselves in any way they want to,” said Postecoglou on Thursday.

“If there is somebody that feels comfortable enough to do that – I don’t think as a society we’re closed-minded about these things.

“From our perspective, it’s about creating an environment that in our sport, in our nation, that allows people to feel comfortable in that space.”

Postecoglou was commenting after retired German international Thomas Hitzlsperger came out, announcing he is gay.

“I am declaring my homosexuality because I want the question of homosexuality in the world of professional sport to be out in the open,” said 31-year-old Hitzlsperger, who was capped 52 times by Germany between 2004 and 2010.

His statement came after he hung up his boots at the end of last season, having plied his trade in Germany, England and Italy with Aston Villa, Everton, Wolfsburg and Lazio among others.

Hitzlsperger said he had decided to come out because it was a good time for him and because he wanted to promote the discussion of homosexuality in professional sport.

“I’ve never been ashamed of the way I am,” he added, although it had not always been easy to cope with some of the comments dished out.

“In England, Germany or Italy, homosexuality is not taken seriously as an issue, at least not in the dressing room.”

His disclosure was met with strong support from the football community, including former teammates and clubs.

Arsenal and German forward Lucas Podolski called Hitzlsperger’s announcement, made in German magazine Die Zeit, “an important sign of our time”.

Ex-England captain Gary Lineker tweeted “Congratulations to Thomas Hitzlsperger on bravely being the first player to have played in the PL to ‘come out'” while former club Aston Villa also gave their support.

Molinari shares lead at Joburg Open

A “very happy” Edoardo Molinari confirmed his recent return to form by posting a second-round 68 on Friday to claim a share of the halfway lead at the Johannesburg Open.

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The injury-plagued Molinari’s round included four birdies, leaving him on 11 under par at the end of day two and tied in the lead with Scotland’s Craig Lee.

Molinari’s 68 on the Royal Johannesburg & Kensington West Course followed a 64 on the easier East Course on Thursday.

The field play both courses on the first two days, then switch to the East Course after the cut.

Molinari, who played in the 2010 Ryder Cup but had seen his world ranking slip to 220, last week recorded a top-10 finish in Dubai, and said his good form was continuing on the latest global leg of the European tour.

“It was another good round of golf and I hit the ball very well,” the Italian said.

“Maybe not as well as yesterday, but I gave myself a lot of chances on the East Course, but all of the par fives are reachable, so you can make a good score.”

Molinari, who turns 33 next week, added: “I’m very happy with pretty much everything. I am very happy with my position and my game right now.”

Lee, who shot a 67 on the West Course to go with a 65 on the East on the first day, said he achieved his aim of not slipping back into the field, but conceded he “didn’t really capitalise on the back nine”.

One shot further back were England’s David Horsey and the home favourite, George Coetzee.

Horsey posted an eight-under-par 63, which included six birdies in the first 14 holes.

Despite his home backing, Coetzee has never won on home soil on the European Tour.

The four are being closely chased by a strong field. Seven players are just two shots off the lead on nine under, including Scotland’s Alastair Forsyth.

The winner of the Joburg Open will take home 206,050 euros ($A314,868.58) and one of three automatic qualifications for the British Open.

Flanagan situation ‘a tragedy’: Sharp

Interim Cronulla coach Peter Sharp declared Shane Flanagan’s exile from the Sharks a tragedy after steering the club to an impressive pre-season win over grand finalists Manly on Friday.

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Flanagan is under a year ban from the NRL, which he is understood to be appealing, over governance issues at the club in 2011, which remains the subject of an ASADA investigation.

Judging by the Sharks’ form in their 24-12 trial win over Manly in the first hitout of the year for both clubs, Sharp has the club primed for another finals assault.

But with the club also understood to be appealing a $1 million fine handed down by the NRL, the anti-doping issue looks set to drag into another season for the Sharks.

They progressed to week two of the finals last week dealing year-long with the issue and Sharp says it is business as usual in 2014.

“We are just trying to get on with it,” he told AAP.

“It is far from an ideal situation.

“It is a tragedy if the truth be known.

“Everyone wants Flanno back on board, it is his team but we have to get on with it because that is the business we are in.

“But we are still running his structures and his systems so we have almost carried on with that … but it is a tragedy.”

Cronulla and Flanagan delivered their responses to their NRL breach notices last week but it is not known over what timeframe the game’s governing body will make its final decision.

Sharp wants to see Flanagan back before the Sharks NRL season opener at home against Gold Coast on March 10.

“I will carry him up to the coaches box if he does come back and that is the way everybody talks in this place,” Sharp said.

“So hopefully he will win the appeal and be back as soon as possible.”

Regardless there was plenty for Sharp to like in the Sharks’ win, which was essentially a 12-8 second-half victory when both side ran close to full-strength teams.

“It was a nice hitout for us,” he said.

“With the footy we weren’t too bad, we certainly have some work to do in defence but I thought we had some nice structures when we had the footy so that was pleasing.”

Manly’s Steve Matai left the field with an ankle injury but coach Geoff Toovey said it was only a precaution and the Kiwi centre would be fine.

Mourinho happy to mess with rivals

Jose Mourinho is happy to play mind games with Chelsea’s title rivals because he believes it can help his side win the Premier League.

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Mourinho raised eyebrows last week when he claimed Chelsea were the “little horse” in the title race and should be regarded as third favourites behind leaders Arsenal and second-placed Manchester City.

The Chelsea manager stuck firmly to that line when asked if he had changed his verdict on his third-placed team’s title chances following their impressive 1-0 victory at City on Monday.

But Mourinho’s comments could be seen as a bid to take the pressure off his players and increase the scrutiny on Chelsea’s main competitors in the fight for the title.

And the Portuguese coach, whose team host Newcastle on Saturday, conceded that his reputation as a clever manipulator of the media meant many of his public comments would be taken as mind games, regardless of whether that was his intention.

“Everything I say is mind games. Everything I do is mind games. Everything is mind games,” Mourinho said on Friday.

“The only thing that is not mind games is the results. That’s not mind games.

“Do we dream to win the Premier League? Of course. If we don’t, we don’t play.

“If we have the chance to win we are not going to say we don’t want to, but we have not the same responsibilities (as Arsenal and City), that’s for sure.”

Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger has challenged Arsenal to seize control of the Premier League title race as the leaders kick-off a vital period with a trip to Liverpool.

Wenger’s side regained pole position last weekend and the Gunners can cement their spot on top of the table with a victory at Anfield.

Arsenal, who are two points clear of City and Chelsea, have repeatedly been written off by pundits who don’t believe they have the mental strength to end the club’s nine-year trophy drought.

But Wenger is confident his players are ready to finally put some silverware in the Emirates Stadium trophy cabinet and sees their next two fixtures against Liverpool and Manchester United as the perfect opportunity to send a message to their title rivals.

“This is a massive month for us,” said Wenger, who hopes England midfielder Jack Wilshere can return from an ankle injury.

“When you are in a good position to fight for something, the closer you get to the end of the season, every game becomes vital and every point is important.

“We have fought very hard up until now to be in this position, so let’s enjoy it and do our best.”

Liverpool’s potent attack will provide a significant test to Arsenal’s title credentials however.

Uruguay forward Luis Suarez has bagged 23 league goals this campaign and although none have come in matches against Arsenal, Chelsea or Manchester City, manager Brendan Rodgers expects his star to shine on Saturday.

“I think he has made an impact; he may just not have scored but he certainly scored in those games last season,” Rodgers said.

Manchester City defender Pablo Zabaleta is confident his side will get back on track at Norwich City as they look to erase the bitter taste of that loss to Chelsea.

“We can learn from mistakes and we see how difficult the Premier League is at the moment. Every game is very difficult,” said Zabaleta, whose team routed Norwich 7-0 in November.

“We need to keep calm. I think the manager is clever enough to work during the week and show to us on video what we did wrong and try to do well in the next game.”

Swansea City begin life after Michael Laudrup with a south Wales showdown against bitter rivals Cardiff City at the Liberty Stadium.

Laudrup was sacked by Swansea in midweek after just 18 months in charge and Garry Monk will take over on a temporary basis as the Swans look to avenge their 1-0 defeat at Cardiff earlier this season.

Vidic decision was mutual, says Moyes

Manchester United manager David Moyes has revealed that the departure of captain Nemanja Vidic at the end of the season was a mutual decision.

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The Serbian defender will be out of contract at the end of June and will walk away from the club after eight years at Old Trafford.

Vidic, who made his United debut shortly after he joined from Spartak Moscow in 2006, has already confirmed he will not move to another Premier League club.

And Moyes admitted that the decision to allow the 32-year-old to leave the club was in the interest of both parties.

“It was something that we all mutually agreed together,” Moyes said. “Nemanja and I think it was the right decision for club and player.

“He has been a brilliant servant for Manchester United and he is captain, it will remain that way until the end of the season and he has been a great player for us and we will continue using him.

“This is a decision which has been mutually decided together. He felt it was the right time for him so we will get on with it and we will move on.”

Vidic skippered United to their 20th top-flight title last season – his fifth and the last under former manager Alex Ferguson.

He also helped United clinch the Champions League in 2008, secured by a penalty shoot-out victory over Chelsea in Moscow, as well as three League Cups.

And Moyes also admitted that he does not have any concerns about playing Vidic in United’s remaining games this season even though he will leave at the end of the campaign.

“Will there be any trust issues in the remaining games with Nemanja? Not with somebody like him, with the type of man he is and the leader he is,” Moyes explained.

“He has been a great leader for the club, he has served the club brilliantly well and I would expect that to continue right until the end of the season.”

United are set to be boosted by the return of defender Phil Jones for the visit of the Cottagers on Sunday after he recovered from concussion.

However, centre-back Jonny Evans (calf) will miss out while midfielder Marouane Fellaini has picked up a groin injury having only recently returned from a broken wrist and is doubtful.

French Dieudonne cleared

French comic Dieudonne has been acquitted on charges related to a video in which he calls for the release of a self-styled Islamist serving life for the kidnap and murder of a Jewish phone salesman.

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The controversial performer, who has a string of convictions for anti-Semitic hate speech, was cleared of defamation and illegally defending a convicted criminal because the judge ruled that it had not been proven that Dieudonne was behind the distribution of the video.

As a result, the court could not consider the content of his remarks, the judge added in a ruling greeted with dismay by France’s Union of Jewish Students (UEJF), which had initiated the case.

UEJF lawyer Stephane Lilti said he would appeal in the hope of persuading another judge to “punish this recidivist anti-Semitic militant as he deserves”.

“The judicial system has done democracy a disservice today,” he added.

Dieudonne’s lawyer, Francois Danglehant, welcomed the decision.

“For once, the court has applied the law correctly,” he said.

In the video, Dieudonne complains about the “power of the Jewish lobby” and calls for the release of Youssouf Fofana, currently serving a life sentence for the 2006 kidnapping and murder of Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old of mixed French-Moroccan-Jewish heritage.

Fofana, a self-styled “barbarian” from the Ivory Coast, was convicted in 2009 of being the ringleader of a gang that abducted Halimi in the Paris suburbs three years earlier.

After failing to extract a ransom, the gang released their captive after 24 days. Halimi, who was found naked and handcuffed to a tree, died on his way to hospital and the trial heard that he had been repeatedly tortured during his detention.

French authorities are currently trying to force Dieudonne to pay more than 65,000 euros ($A100,000) in outstanding fines for his race-hate convictions.

They are also investigating the comic for suspected money laundering and misuse of corporate assets in a crackdown that has intensified since the government decided to ban him from touring his latest show.

Dieudonne was banned from entering Britain earlier this week after authorities there declared him a threat to public order because of the racist nature of his act.

French comic Dieudonne cleared

French comic Dieudonne has been acquitted on charges related to a video in which he calls for the release of a self-styled Islamist serving life for the kidnap and murder of a Jewish phone salesman.

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The controversial performer, who has a string of convictions for anti-Semitic hate speech, was cleared of defamation and illegally defending a convicted criminal because the judge ruled that it had not been proven that Dieudonne was behind the distribution of the video.

As a result, the court could not consider the content of his remarks, the judge added in a ruling greeted with dismay by France’s Union of Jewish Students (UEJF), which had initiated the case.

UEJF lawyer Stephane Lilti said he would appeal in the hope of persuading another judge to “punish this recidivist anti-Semitic militant as he deserves”.

“The judicial system has done democracy a disservice today,” he added.

Dieudonne’s lawyer, Francois Danglehant, welcomed the decision.

“For once, the court has applied the law correctly,” he said.

In the video, Dieudonne complains about the “power of the Jewish lobby” and calls for the release of Youssouf Fofana, currently serving a life sentence for the 2006 kidnapping and murder of Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old of mixed French-Moroccan-Jewish heritage.

Fofana, a self-styled “barbarian” from the Ivory Coast, was convicted in 2009 of being the ringleader of a gang that abducted Halimi in the Paris suburbs three years earlier.

After failing to extract a ransom, the gang released their captive after 24 days. Halimi, who was found naked and handcuffed to a tree, died on his way to hospital and the trial heard that he had been repeatedly tortured during his detention.

French authorities are currently trying to force Dieudonne to pay more than 65,000 euros ($A100,000) in outstanding fines for his race-hate convictions.

They are also investigating the comic for suspected money laundering and misuse of corporate assets in a crackdown that has intensified since the government decided to ban him from touring his latest show.

Dieudonne was banned from entering Britain earlier this week after authorities there declared him a threat to public order because of the racist nature of his act.

Hackers may have used US firm on Target

The hackers who stole millions of customers’ credit and debit card numbers from Target might have used a heating and refrigeration business as the back door to get in.

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If that was how they pulled it off – and investigators appear to be looking at that theory – it illustrates how vulnerable big corporations have become as they connect their computer networks to other companies to increase convenience and productivity.

Fazio Mechanical Services Inc, a contractor that does business with Target, said on Thursday it was the victim of a “sophisticated cyberattack operation”, just as Target was.

It said it was co-operating with the Secret Service and Target to figure out what happened.

The statement came days after internet security bloggers identified the Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania, company as the vendor through which hackers penetrated Target’s computer systems.

Once inside, the hackers installed malicious software in the company’s checkout system for its estimated 1800 US stores.

Experts believe the thieves gained access during the busy holiday season to about 40 million debit and credit card numbers and the personal information of as many as 70 million customers.

Cybersecurity analysts had speculated that Fazio might have remotely monitored heating, cooling and refrigeration systems for Target, which could have provided a possible entry point for the hackers.

But Fazio denied that, saying it used its electronic connection with Target to submit bills and contract proposals.

The new details illustrate what can go wrong with the far-flung computer networks big companies increasingly rely on.

Chester Wisniewski, a senior security adviser for the computer security firm Sophos, said that while it might seem shocking that Target’s systems were that connected, it was a lot cheaper for a company to manage one network rather than several.

He said he was surprised to hear the hackers might have entered via a billing system, saying those kinds of connections were supposed to provide extremely limited access to the other company’s network.

As a result, while the hackers were clearly talented, it’s obvious something went wrong on Target’s end, he said.

“If normal practices were followed, they wouldn’t have been able to get access,” Wisniewski said.

Since Target disclosed the breach, banks, credit unions and other card companies have cancelled and reissued cards, closed accounts and refunded credit card holders for transactions made with the stolen data.

Wong gives Heat ABL upper hand

Joey Wong laced a game-winning double in the bottom of the 14th inning, and his Perth Heat outlasted the Canberra Cavalry to draw first blood in an epic opening to the Australian Baseball League Championship Series.

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The Heat triumphed 4-3 in a thriller on Friday night that had began as a pitcher’s duel and ended deep into the night.

Wong’s heroics didn’t seem like they’d be possible early.

Canberra jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the second inning and tacked on a third run in the fourth, taking advantage of an error by Wong.

Cavalry starting pitcher Brian Grening operated methodically with the lead, silencing Perth at the plate through his first five innings.

In the sixth, the Heat rose to the occasion behind three Kennelly brothers in the lineup. Catcher Matt drove in his brother Tim with an RBI single to get Perth onto the board.

Two batters later, the youngest Kennelly, Sam, was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded to force in another tally.

Down to their final six outs, the Heat drew even in the eighth. Allan de San Miguel cashed in Brandon Tripp’s leadoff double with an RBI single to level the score at 3-3 and send the game to extra innings.

For four extra digs, neither team’s pitching staff would blink, working out of various tough spots in the process.

With Grening and Perth starter Jack Frawley long since departed, five combined relievers held the line at 3-3 until the 14th when the home team broke through.

Following a leadoff strikeout, Perth centre fielder Corey Adamson walked, and Wong made it count.

The Colorado Rockies import drove his walk-off hit to left field, and the fleet-footed Adamson streaked all the way around from first with the game-winning run. Cavalry closer Sean Toler took the defeat in his third inning of work.

Perth now stand one win away from their third Claxton Shield premiership in four ABL seasons. They’ll attempt to recapture the crown in Saturday’s game two.

Figure skating: Davis and White seek gold finale

However, it was just as well it did not take her long to overcome the embarrassment because an adventure that began rather tentatively in 1997 can culminate with a glittering finale on February 17 as Davis and White are favourites to become the first American ice dancers to win Olympic gold.

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While Davis could still recall their first meeting as if it were yesterday, White’s memories of that first ‘dance date’ are not as gushing.

“I definitely remember feeling awkward looking into Charlie’s eyes, and having to hold hands with a boy at that age was a little awkward,” Davis told Reuters in an interview as her partner started laughing.

“We were so young, and I in particular was really shy when we were that age. We didn’t have witty banter going back and forth at the ages of eight and nine. It took us a couple of years before we developed a personal relationship.”

White added: “Honestly, we really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into when we first started ice dancing. We both were single skaters and loved the sport.

“I had been doing solo dance for a little while just to work on my technique. So I was a little bit ahead of Meryl when we first tried out and I remember being kind of annoyed that I had to take a step back to try out with her.”

It is just as well White decided get over his irritation as their alliance has brought them unprecedented success and made them the United States’ main gold medal hope in figure skating at the Black Sea resort.

“It has been a really fun ride, but in the beginning we had no grandiose dreams or goals beyond enjoying ourselves,” White, who at 26 is a year younger than his partner, added.

“She was so driven that even though we might not connect all that well off the ice because we didn’t talk very much, on the ice we were both all business.

“While we did not crack jokes all the time, we definitely were always on the same page.”

DISTINCTIVE LOOKS

They were the first American ice dancers to win the world championships in 2011, a feat they repeated in 2013. They have captured a record six successive U.S. national titles, are unbeaten in 22 months, and are now within touching distance of winning a 12th successive title.

The duo’s ability to show off their art, be it complex fast-paced footwork, innovative lifts or synchronised twizzles and spins – all seamlessly woven together – has set the ice dance world alight.

Their distinctive looks have not only allowed them to role-play characters as wide ranging as Bollywood dancers and Scheherazade, it has also made them darlings of the sponsorship world.

White stands out with his mop of blond hair. Davis is brunette, has wide-set eyes, and her appearance has led some fans to puzzle over her ethnicity. For the record, she is of English, Scottish, German and Irish heritage.

Harnessing a combination of talent, glamour and success, it is little wonder brands such as Ralph Lauren, Visa, Kellogg’s and Procter & Gamble want to be associated with them.

If there was any fear the hype in the lead-up to the Games would throw them off course, the duo was quick to dismiss the notion.

“It definitely is not a fluke that we’ve been that successful in the last couple of years, and we’ve been working very hard for that success,” said Davis, who won Olympic silver behind Canadian training partners Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in Vancouver four years ago.

“That hard work isn’t going away any time soon, so we’re definitely excited about the position we’ve put ourselves in.”

White added: “We have such high expectations of ourselves that we don’t feel any external expectations can trump that and make us any more nervous.”

(Editing by Stephen Wood)

Rolling Crocs shock Wildcats

An inspired Townsville Crocodiles outfit have scored their second consecutive win, coming from behind to surprise the ladder-leading Perth Wildcats 88-75 in Townsville.

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For the home side, floor leader Steve Markovic was again brilliant, compiling a balanced 22 points and six assists and handling the intense pressure of Damian Martin all night.

Wildcats forward Jesse Wagstaff almost proved the Crocodiles’ kryptonite, notching a game high 24 points, backed up by James Ennis with 15 on 4-of-13 shooting.

With the first quarter an up-tempo encounter, the tone was set early in the second term when the visitors threatened to bust it open the same way they did last week against Melbourne – with defence.

An 8-1 mid-quarter run had them up 40-33 and looking to expand, but Crocs stalwart Markovic had other ideas.

A crucial triple then two free throws had the home side within two, who then converted to a 50-45 lead after a half memorable for Todd Blanchfield’s flying tip-jam.

But in the third stanza, where the home side could not afford to blink, they did – conceding a 16-2 run to a swarming Wildcats defence.

And when Wagstaff tripled, the visitors had turned a five-point deficit into a nine-point lead in just over five minutes.

Again, the Crocodiles didn’t fall in a heap, chipping the margin away to a 66-62 margin at three-quarter-time.

The Wildcats threatened to pull away once more with the first two buckets of the period, but something sparked the home side.

Aided by inspired play from Markovic, Blanchfield and Pace, the Crocodiles then put on an inconceivable 22-3 run to have them ahead 84-75 with under a minute remaining.

The cool headed home side then made their free throws and Brian Conklin put the exclamation mark on the win with an open-court dunk that had the raucous crowd out of their seats.