Yuzuru Hanyu. AP Photo.

Worlds preview: Hanyu goes for double gold after Sochi

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This week the reigning Olympic figure skating champion Yuzuru Hanyu looks to become the first man to win a World Championship gold medal in the same year he stood atop the Olympic podium since 2002.

Hanyu, the 19-year-old from Japan who held on to win gold in Sochi last month against three-time world champion Patrick Chan, will try to win a double gold in 2014 and become the first man to do so since Russian Alexei Yagudin in 2002.

The Championships will be without its three-time and reigning champion in Chan, the Canadian who faltered to a silver medal in Sochi and is sitting out these Worlds to rest and recuperate in looking towards his uncertain future.

The men’s event gets underway Wednesday morning (EST) in Saitama, Japan, and concludes on Friday.

More: Full Worlds schedule and streaming times | Entry list

The World Championships, often a depleted field following the Olympics, will be without silver medalist Chan, bronze winner Denis Ten (out with injury), sixth place winner Daisuke Takahashi (a bronze medalist in 2010) and American Jason Brown, who placed ninth.

The U.S. will send reigning national champion Jeremy Abbott (12th in Sochi) and 2013 U.S. champ Max Aaron, who missed out on the Sochi Games by one spot in January.

“Watching my teammates that I thought I was going to go to the Olympics with on TV was the hardest part,” the 22-year-old Aaron told NBCSports.com in a phone interview last week. “That was really tough for me.”

Aaron was seventh at Worlds in 2013 and was seen to be given a vote of confidence by the U.S. Figure Skating Association when selected for Worlds over Brown following Nationals.

More: World Figure Skating Championships pairs preview

The U.S. needs Abbott and Aaron to combine for a 13th-place finish overall to recover a third spot on the international stage, which the U.S. men haven’t had since the 2011 World Championships.

Abbott, who announced this would be his last season prior to the U.S. Championships, said a third spot was not his focus.

“Of course everyone wants the three spots but it’s nobody’s focus,” said the 28-year-old, who had his best Worlds finish in 2010 when he placed fifth following the Vancouver Games. “Everyone wants to do the best that they can do. The two of us are definitely good enough to get back the three spots. Max is very talented and I think I’m capable enough that the two of us combined can do that.”

But Aaron said a third spot will be at the forefront of his mind when he takes to the ice in Saitama.

“I knew that third spot was going to make a difference going into the Olympic year, but we came up a little short,” Aaron said referring to the two U.S. spots the team had for Sochi. “Unfortunately that person was me.”

Hanyu will skate before a figure skating-mad fan base in Japan after becoming the first man in the country’s history to win an Olympic gold medal as well as Japan’s only figure skating medal in Sochi.

He fell twice in his free skate performance at the Iceberg Skating Palace, but the favorite Chan wasn’t better, Hanyu holding on for gold in a competition that was riddled with mistakes and falls.

Without Chan and Ten in the mix, Spain’s Javier Fernandez (fourth at the Sochi Olympics) will be figured into the medal mix after winning the bronze at the same event a year ago and seen to have given up a medal in Sochi.

Other Sochi competitors will factor into the medal conversation along with Hanyu, Fernandez, Abbott and Aaron. Japan’s Tatsuki Machida was fifth at the Olympics, Han Yan of China was seventh, German Peter Liebers was eighth and Michal Brezina of the Czech Republic placed 10th.

Russia will send 18-year-old Maksim Kovtun, the teenager who beat Yevgeny Plushenko at the Russian Championships in December but was skipped over for the veteran for the country’s lone men’s spot in Sochi. Plushenko helped Russia to gold in the team event before pulling out of the individual event, facing ridicule domestically.

“I think people are a lot more relaxed having gone through the Olympics and I think it makes for a really good competition,” said Abbott, who had two disastrous short programs (in the team and individual events) in Sochi before skating mistake-free in the long program. “In 2010, there were some amazing performances and I think this year is going to be no different. It’s still a world-class competition and you’re going to get world-class performances.”

Aaron said it was too early to tell, but that he’d like for Saitama to be the first step in the long road to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

“I can’t look that far ahead,” said the 2014 U.S. bronze medalist. “I have to take it season by season, day by day. I’m focused on what I need to do and the task at hand.”

While Abbott didn’t put a placement expectation on his Worlds effort, Aaron was more forthcoming.

“I’m shooting for a medal to be honest,” he said. “I want those clean performances and I’m hopefully coming away with that third spot for the U.S.”

Icenetwork.com will provide live coverage for subscribers. The men’s short program is set for Wednesday morning (2:45 a.m. EST) and the free skate will take place Friday (4 a.m. EST). NBC will air a World Championships recap show April 13 from 3-6 p.m. ET.

Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross win World Series of Beach Volleyball

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Rio bronze medalists Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross bounced back from an Olympic upset to win the biggest annual tournament in the U.S. on Sunday.

Walsh Jennings and Ross captured the Asics World Series of Beach Volleyball title in Long Beach, Calif., for the second time in three years. They beat Spanish pair Liliana Fernández and Elsa Baquerizo 21-16, 21-16 in the final.

“We love those girls so much, they are dear friends of ours,” Walsh Jennings said. “We wanted to beat them down.”

Absent from Long Beach were Olympic gold medalists Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst of Germany and silver medalists Ágatha and Bárbara of Brazil.

Walsh Jennings and Ross, who lost to Ágatha and Bárbara in the Olympic semifinals, dropped a total of two sets in seven undefeated matches this past week.

They earned their fifth international title of the year after winning none in 2015, last season shortened by Walsh Jennings’ fifth right shoulder surgery.

In the men’s final, Brazil’s No. 2 pair, Pedro and Evandro, beat top U.S. pair Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena 19-21, 21-17, 15-9.

Olympic champions Alison and Bruno of Brazil did not compete in Long Beach.

The beach volleyball season continues with the FIVB World Tour Finals in Toronto in two weeks.

MORE: Tough for Misty May-Treanor to watch Kerri Walsh Jennings in Rio

Monica Puig’s unlikely Olympic tennis gold reminded her of ‘Miracle’ scene

Monica Puig
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NEW YORK (AP) — Monica Puig gazed out at her fellow Puerto Ricans jamming the parade route, and in their eyes she saw hope.

They hailed her with “a sense of satisfaction,” she recalled Saturday, “and a sense of belief that things are going to get better.”

Throughout her stunning run to the Olympic tennis gold medal, Puig embraced the symbolism of each upset victory. An economic crisis is devastating the island of her birth, and she appreciated that if she could prove the impossible is possible, that message would reverberate far beyond sports.

“If Puerto Rico channels that same energy and belief that things will get better and working for the better of the island, the better of the community, things will improve,” Puig said four days after the U.S. territory honored its Olympic team and, above all, its first gold medalist.

“I really hope I gave them a lot of confidence moving forward,” she added, “that things will actually get better.”

The world’s 34th-ranked women’s tennis player met with a roomful of reporters Saturday, exactly two weeks after she beat Australian Open champ Angelique Kerber in three sets in the final in Rio de Janeiro. Poised and philosophical in ways that bely her age, the 22-year-old realizes some people deem her gold medal “a fluke.”

After all, Puig has never made it past the round of 16 at a major. And at the U.S. Open, which starts Monday, she’s never advanced beyond the second round. Puig is already bracing herself for the reality that her run at Flushing Meadows could fall well short of what took place in Rio.

“I’m 22 years old. There’s still a long way for me to go, a long stretch of career,” she said. “If anything happens, any kind of slip-up, it’s not really going to be a big deal, because I have a process and I have a long-term view of where I want to go.”

Which isn’t to say she expects a slip-up.

“I know that the Olympics wasn’t a fluke for me, because I have worked very hard to get to where I am,” Puig said. “I know the hours and the tears and the sweat and everything that’s been put into my practices. It’s been very difficult for me.

“But that moment, nobody will be able to take away.”

Even she considers that Olympic moment to be like something out of a movie script. When spectators chanted “Si se puede!” (“Yes you can!” in Spanish) during the final against the second-ranked Kerber, Puig flashed back to a scene from the film “Miracle” about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.

With fans roaring “U-S-A!” coach Herb Brooks tells his players: “Listen to them. That’s what you’ve done.” As Puig said Saturday, “I needed to listen to the crowd.”

Her gold might not have been quite as unlikely as the Miracle on Ice, but it wasn’t too far off. The night after her victory, Puig slept with the medal on her nightstand, waking up every few hours to make sure it was real. She still feels the need to check up on it during the day.

“I see the videos and I’m like, ‘Did this really just happen?'” Puig said.

When they showed the clip of her medal ceremony when she was honored in Puerto Rico, she started crying again. Through it all, she insisted Saturday, she felt she kept her focus, knowing the U.S. Open was looming.

After Rio, Puig spent some time with her family in Miami, where she lives. Then it was on to the island “where the big party was waiting.” It’s been hard to squeeze in sleep and alone time and practice — all the things she needs to recover from one big event and prepare for another.

Puig faces 60th-ranked Zheng Saisai, who upset Agnieszka Radwanska at the Olympics, in the first round Monday. She originally wasn’t seeded at Flushing Meadows, which meant she could have faced a top player in her opening match, but she moved up to the final seed when Sloane Stephens withdrew because of an injury Friday.

It’s the first time Puig has been seeded at a major, and in what was a breakthrough season even before her golden moment, she’s starting to grow comfortable with those sorts of roles.

“I feel like I finally understand what I’m doing when it comes to tennis,” she said.

MORE: U.S. goes one-two in Olympic mixed doubles