Gracie Gold soars as Ashley Wagner sinks to fourth at U.S. Figure Skating Championships

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BOSTON — What a difference a year can make.

Twelve months ago at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Gracie Gold skated as the reigning junior champion in her first senior Nationals and bombed in her short program, finishing ninth and inspiring not-so-golden headlines.

But she rebounded from that start, winning the free skate and finishing second, setting up the 18-year-old for Olympic hype over the last year.

Thursday night at the U.S. Championships Gracie was golden from the start, attacking her short program in front of an enthused TD Garden crowd in Boston and claiming first place with a 72.12.

And the skater who beat her a year ago? Two-time national champion Ashley Wagner didn’t hit her triple-triple combination, a mistake that would drop her to fourth leading into the free skate.

But now with the National – and Olympic – pressure on Gold’s shoulders, can she be as good of a front-runner as she was an underdog?

“I had a wonderful performance tonight and I got a really great score,” Gold said of her 72.12, her best short ever. “It’s a new program for me so there were a couple of unknowns going in, but I was really glad that I was able to trust my training because I’ve worked really hard with Frank.”

“Frank” is Frank Carroll, the legendary skating coach of Michelle Kwan and Evan Lysacek whom Gold began working with in September and the impetus behind her switch to Gershwin’s “Three Preludes” for her short program, a decision made just weeks ago.

The current junior national champion, 15-year-old Polina Edmunds, closed the night out with a standing-ovation performance, putting her ahead of Wagner in second. Mirai Nagasu, an Olympian in 2010, was third.

“I think that I’m in a great position going into the long program – I really am happy with where I am,” Wagner told NBCOlympics.com after her skate. “Tara Lipinski stopped by as I got off the ice and told me, ‘Fourth is exactly where I was [in 1998].’ So I think I have to fight, but I prefer to fight.”

Wagner will have to fight plenty hard as she tries to work off a six-point-plus deficit against Gold, who beat her in the free skate at Nationals a year ago. Wagner finished with a 64.71; Edmunds scored a 66.75 and Nagasu a 65.44.

Olympic hopefuls Christina Gao and Agnes Zawadzki both struggled in their short programs, Gao bobbling on a step sequence and finishing sixth and Zawadzki doubling a planned triple jump, plummeting to 13th. The Colorado-based Zawadzki buried her face in her hands as her scores flashed up, fighting back tears.

But there were tears of joy for Gold, who in an Olympic season has been up and down while Wagner had been the solid one coming in.

Gold, a Boston native and now Los Angeles resident, opened with a triple Lutz-triple toe combination that was high but seamless, then executed a triple loop and double Axel later in the program, receiving loud approval from a big crowd in TD Garden.

Nagasu was the one who got the most raucous cheers of the night as the 20-year-old – who has had four years of struggles since just missing out on the Olympic podium in Vancouver – delivered a sturdy and stirring program, the 2008 national champ skating to another Gershwin piece, “The Man I Love.”

Edmunds was the 21st of 21 skaters Thursday night, but didn’t seemed phased by the occasion or the fact that she was in her first senior competition.

“I’m not really surprised,” the San Jose native said. “I know everything I need to do so when I came out here tonight I just got into the zone.”

For Gold, she might have her first medal to match her name at the senior level herself.

“You know, it’s all about tunnel vision for me,” Gold told reporters about keeping her focus. “For me it’s about turning off all social media, not texting, just putting on my headphones and skating the program I skate in practice.”

Castelli/Shnapir deliver for home crowd in pairs

Rafael Nadal can tie Roger Federer’s Slam record with 13th French Open

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For all of the many qualities contributing to Rafael Nadal’s unprecedented superiority at the French Open — the bullwhip of a high-bouncing lefty forehand, the reflex returns, the cover-every-corner athleticism, the endless energy and grit — there’s one element that stands above all the rest.

According to the opponent Nadal beat in the last two finals in Paris, anyway.

“You go into the match knowing that even your best tennis, even if you play it over three, four hours, might not be enough. I mean, if you do it, you maybe have a little chance, but you have to go to your limit on every single rally, every single point,” Dominic Thiem, who won the U.S. Open less than two weeks ago, told The Associated Press.

“That makes it not easy to go into the match,” Thiem said. “And that’s the mental part, I guess.”

When main-draw competition begins Sunday at Roland Garros, Thiem and every other player in the men’s bracket will be pursuing Nadal as the 34-year-old from Spain pursues history.

If Nadal manages to claim a 13th French Open championship — extending his own record for the most singles trophies won by anyone at any major tennis tournament — he would, more significantly, also collect his 20th Grand Slam title overall, tying Roger Federer’s record for a man.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Nadal’s tally elsewhere: four U.S. Opens, two Wimbledons, one Australian Open.

He spoke Friday in Paris about what “probably are the most difficult conditions for me ever in Roland Garros” — a lack of matches in 2020; a new brand of tennis balls (“super slow, heavy”); cooler weather and plenty of rain in the forecast.

“But you know what?” Nadal said. “I am here to fight and to play with the highest intensity possible.”

Asked recently about the possibility of catching the 39-year-old Federer, out for the rest of the season after a pair of operations on his right knee, Nadal expressed a sentiment he’s uttered before.

Climbing the Grand Slam list, Nadal said, is “not an obsession at all.”

“I know that you put a lot of attention on all of this,” he replied when the topic was raised last week at the Italian Open, Nadal’s first tournament since February because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Of course I would love to finish my career with 25, but (that’s) something that probably will not happen. I’m going to keep fighting to produce chances, and then when I finish my career, let’s see, no?” he said. “I just want to keep enjoying tennis. And that’s it. If I am playing well, I know I normally have my chances. If not, going to be impossible. That’s it.”

There is, of course, another great of the game playing during this era and, like Nadal, gaining on Federer.

That would be No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic, who had won five of seven major titles to raise his total to 17 before being disqualified at the U.S. Open for accidentally hitting a line judge with a ball while walking to a changeover.

In this oddest of years, the Grand Slam season will drawing to a close in France; the clay-court major was postponed from May until now because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Roland Garros is the last Slam, the last opportunity of this season. So we all know who the main favorite is there: Obviously, it’s Nadal. And everything that he has achieved there, losing maybe a couple matches in his entire career on that court … is probably the most impressive record that anybody has on any court,” Djokovic said. “So, yeah, of course you would put him right there in front as a favorite to win it.”

For the record: Nadal has won 93 of 95 matches in the French Open and his last 21 in a row.

So what makes him so dominant there?

“He’s an unbelievably great tennis player. Probably on clay, a little bit better than on the other surfaces,” Thiem said. “He’s left-handed, which makes it very uncomfortable. And then his forehand, the topspin on the clay, it’s cruel to play.”

Thiem takes notes and hopes to emulate aspects of Nadal’s game.

So do others.

In Rome, for example, two-time Grand Slam champion Simona Halep and one of her coaches, Artemon Apostu-Efremov, caught one of Nadal’s training sessions.

“We were watching the way he hits the ball, the acceleration, the energy he has on the court and the way he practices 100%. It’s always an inspiration,” Apostu-Efremov said.

“This dedication on the court and focus on court,” he said, “it’s something that, for sure, could be transferred to Simona.”

Nadal wound up losing his third match in Italy, which is neither ideal form nor the sort of prep work he is accustomed to ahead of Roland Garros.

Still, Nadal at the French Open is unlike anyone else, anywhere else.

“Regardless of how he feels, I’m sure he’ll find a way,” said Stefanos Tsitsipas, a 2019 Australian Open semifinalist seeded No. 5 in Paris. “He always finds a way, every single year. Clay is his surface. I’m sure he’s going to do well.”

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Skate America will not have fans

Skate America
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Skate America, the top annual international figure skating competition held in the U.S., will not have spectators in Las Vegas from Oct. 23-25.

U.S. Figure Skating said the restriction was “due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in strict accordance with the Nevada Gaming Control Board guidelines.”

Skate America is the first top-level event of the season, kicking off the six-stop Grand Prix Series leading up to December’s Grand Prix Final, which is scheduled this season for Beijing.

The series has already been modified to restrict fields to skaters from the host country or to the event closest to their training location.

Grand Prix fields have not been announced, though two-time world champion Nathan Chen said last month he hoped to go for a fourth straight Skate America title.

Chen trains in California. Most, if not all, top U.S. skaters train in the U.S. or Canada, which means they will compete in Skate America or Skate Canada if they participate in the Grand Prix Series at all.

Two-time U.S. women’s champion Alysa Liu will not be old enough to compete on the Grand Prix until the 2021-22 Olympic season.

Skaters are limited to one Grand Prix start this season. In past seasons, they’ve typically competed twice.

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