The U.S. women's volleyball team still has two matches left before getting down to serious business, but from where they stand the Americans can almost see themselves on the medal podium.
The U.S. blockers almost completely shut down Croatia's Barbara Jelic, the best pure hitter at the Olympics, and Logan Tom provided just enough firepower of her own to help the Americans roll to a 25-19, 25-18, 25-16 victory Wednesday.
"We're very pleased to be able to do so well against Barbara," said U.S. coach Mick Haley. "She's a wonderful player, a dominating player. It seems like our coordination between our block and our backcourt defense is constantly getting better."
The United States improved to 3-0 in Group A, almost assuring it a spot in the top two. That means the Americans won't have to face Cuba, Russia or Brazil -- the top three teams in the world -- in the quarterfinals. Should the U.S. team make the semis, it's guaranteed a chance to play for at least the bronze.
"I know from experience that it's important to win the pool and try to finish one or two, but it really doesn't mean anything until you get into the medal round," said Danielle Scott, one of only two U.S. players who were on the 1996 Olympic team. "But it's a good confidence-builder for the team."
Jelic had an amazing 40 kills against China on Monday, but this time she was frustrated nearly all match, finishing with just 14 kills. Croatia's only other offensive threat, Natasa Leto, couldn't pick up the slack.
"When you have a day when nothing is going right, it looks as if we got up on the left side of the bed this morning," Jelic said through an interpreter. "This sort of game had to happen at least once, and it's better that it happened now than later."
Safin falls to nemesis
The first thud came midway through the match, when Marat Safin angrily whacked a courtside cooler with his racket.
The second thud came an hour later, when Frenchman Fabrice Santoro took out the big Russian in the first round of the Olympics. Safin, showing the wear of an eventful month, lost today, 1-6, 6-1, 6-4.
The new U.S. Open champion was eliminated 36 hours after arriving from Uzbekistan, where he won the President's Cup on Sunday. That victory moved him ahead of Pete Sampras atop the ATP Champions Race.
"It's great to be a Grand Slam winner," Safin said. "But you have to realize you can lose also."
Seeded No. 1 in Sydney, Safin led a parade of top players to the sidelines. After just one round, nine of the 16 seeded men and three seeded women have been eliminated.
The only American left in men's singles was a stunner: Jeff Tarango, heretofore known mostly for his tongue and temper. Making his Olympic debut at 31, Tarango beat Diego Camacho of Bolivia, 6-0, 6-1, while 16th-seeded U.S. teammate Michael Chang lost to wildcard Sebastien Lareau of Canada, 7-6 (6), 6-3.
Other upset victims in men's play included No. 4 Lleyton Hewitt of Australia, No. 7 Tim Henman of England, No. 10 Francisco Squillari of Argentina, No. 12 Marcelo Rios of Chile and No. 14 Wayne Ferreira of South Africa.
Smith puts down Chalupa
North Tonawanda rower Don Smith made a charge over the final 500 meters Tuesday to win his "repechage" and advance to Thursday's single sculls semifinals. Smith overtook the Czech Republic's Vaclav Chalupa to win in a time of 7:11.83. Chalupa finished second in 7:17.53 to claim the other spot in the semis. There are two six-boat semifinal races and the top six finishers move on to the finals.
Smith needed to finish either first or second to advance, but he said he was determined to win, rather than simply qualify.
"I don't like to lose a race and I always go out to win," Smith said. "Psychologically, there is an advantage to winning and it gives you a better place in the semifinals. If you get first place, you get a better draw."
Four years ago in Atlanta, Smith rowed in the men's eight, the glamor race of the rowing competition. Early last spring, he decided to switch to single sculls.
Meanwhile, the U.S. men's eight crew won a heat Wednesday to qualify for the finals on Sunday, but it's obvious something is wrong. They beat Romania by just .02 of a second after finishing second to Croatia on Monday.
Nothstein exorcises loss
The yell Marty Nothstein let out after winning the Olympic men's sprint cycling gold medal today marked the end of a long and painful wait.
Bitter memories of the 1996 Olympic final in Atlanta, where he lost to German Jens Fiedler, will now leave him in peace.
"Since Jens beat me it's been haunting me every day," the 29-year-old American said, after outsprinting France's Florian Rousseau at Sydney's Dunc Gray velodrome.
U.S., Cuba unbeaten in boxing
U.S and Cuban boxers marched untroubled into the second round of the Olympic tournament.
No American or Cuban, whose countries are the only ones with a fighter in all 12 weight divisions, has been beaten yet in the Olympic ring with only the heavyweights and super-heavyweights still to make their appearances.