Seth Wescott

Seth Wescott, Nick Baumgartner eliminated at X Games; Olympic picture unclear

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Seth Wescott hoped the Winter X Games would clearly determine the final possible selection to the Olympic Team in men’s snowboard cross.

They didn’t.

Wescott, the two-time Olympic champion, and Nick Baumgartner finished fifth in respective quarterfinals where the top three advanced to semifinals in Aspen, Colo., on Friday.

They are the two men vying for one possible final spot on the U.S. Olympic Team to be named Saturday. Three men have automatically qualified already — Alex DeiboldNate Holland and Trevor Jacob.

The decision on a fourth member would be made by U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association officials as a discretionary selection.

The X Games were their final chance to prove in competition that they deserved to go to Sochi.

Wescott, 37, went up first and spent the early portion of his race in the back of a six-rider pack before his board and another rider’s board collided, costing him a chance at the top three.

“It wasn’t much of a showing,” Wescott said on ESPN3. “It wasn’t enough today. Discretion now. We’ll see. Hopefully [Baumgartner] rides well today. I’ve been saying the last couple weeks the Olympics has an amazing ability to transform people’s lives. I’d love to see him get through today well, and then go over there healthy and be able to represent the U.S.”

It didn’t go well for Baumgartner.

He rode less than 10 minutes after Wescott’s comments and was crashed into by an out-of-control rider. Baumgartner made it to the bottom of the course and lay on his back.

“Oh man, not what I was going for,” he said on the ground.

Wescott has won both gold medals since the sport was added to the Olympics in 2006 and could become the first American man to win three golds in the same event in Sochi.

It’s been a long road back for Wescott, who underwent a complete reconstruction of his left ACL in April after falling into an Alaska crevasse while shooting part of a film for ski and snowboard director Warren Miller. He tore the ACL and broke his tibia.

His return to competition came in Andorra earlier this month, the final World Cup event before the Olympics. Wescott finished an unimpressive 49th and 31st in two races, aiming for that top-four criteria.

Baumgartner, a 2010 Olympian, is the only U.S. man with three top-10 finishes on the World Cup tour this season.

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Dominic Thiem upsets Rafael Nadal to reach Australian Open semifinal

Dominic Thiem
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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Dominic Thiem stopped Rafael Nadal’s quest for his 20th Grand Slam singles title Wednesday, taking a 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 7-6 (8-6) in a quarterfinal match that stretched past four hours.

Nadal needed a break late in the fourth set, trailing 5-4 after failing to hold in his second service game of the set. Thiem faltered badly, with a couple of mishit shots and a double fault handing the game and the momentum to the top-ranked player in the world, who has won 19 majors but only one Australian Open.

A rattled Thiem failed to break back, but he regained his composure to hold his own serve and force the third tiebreaker of the match, both of which he had won.

The first five points of the tiebreaker went to the returner, giving Thiem a 3-2 edge. A highlight-reel rally, with Nadal scrambling to reach a drop shot, put Thiem up 4-2. Thiem wound up with two match points but faltered on the first, allowing Nadal to serve to prolong the match. Thiem scrambled to put a return high into the Melbourne sky, and the ball landed near the baseline. Nadal raised his hand and didn’t return the ball, but it was called in. A replay showed Nadal was right, and the tiebreaker was tied at 6-6.

But Thiem took care of Nadal’s next serve for another match point. After a brief rally, Nadal put a return into the net, and Thiem advanced.

Earlier, Alexander Zverev, a 22-year-old from Germany, reached his first major semifinal by overcoming a terrible start Wednesday at Melbourne Park and putting together a 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 victory over three-time Grand Slam champion Stan Wawrinka.

Zverev began 2020 with three consecutive losses, which meant he had plenty of problems — and plenty of time on his hands ahead of the Australian Open.

So he showed up early and got to work, spending up to seven hours a day practicing in the week before the decade’s first Grand Slam tournament.

That extra time paid off. So did a somewhat more relaxed attitude once this event began.

And how.

“I was very impatient. In a way, also was maybe paying attention to it too much, to the Grand Slams. You know what I mean?” said Zverev, who has won three Masters titles and the ATP Tour Finals. “Everything else, I was just playing better tennis at the other tournaments. … The Grand Slams, maybe, meant too much for me. This year I actually came into the Australian Open with absolutely no expectations because I was playing horrible.”

After ceding the opening set in 24 minutes, Zverev regrouped, using all of his 6-foot-6 (1.98-meter) frame to get to balls along the baseline and stretch points until Wawrinka faltered. Zverev’s sometimes-shaky serve — he was double-faulting once per game while losing all of his matches at the season-opening ATP Cup — was suddenly terrific, and Wawrinka’s barrel-chested baseline bashing weakened.

How bad were things earlier in January for Zverev?

“I’ve been struggling with my forehand, my backhand, my volleys, my drop shot, my return. My waking up in the morning. My everything,” he joked. “It was not only my serve.”

Zverev also was self-deprecating before his first-round match last week, saying that he knew no one considered him a favorite to win the championship. After his opening victory, he pledged to donate all of the champion’s prize money, a little more than 4 million Australian dollars — about $2.85 million — to relief efforts for the wildfires raging around the country if he were to go all the way.

“I know that there’s people right now in this country, in this beautiful country, that lost their homes and actually they need the money. They actually depend on it, building up their homes again, building up their houses again, building up the nature that Australia has, the animals as well,” Zverev said. “I think there’s much better use for those people with that money than I have right now.”

Just two matches to go now.

Wawrinka’s backhand is among the most respected and feared shots in all of men’s tennis. But it let him down on this day: He finished with five winners and 31 errors on that side, 18 unforced and 13 forced.

“After one set and a half, for sure, I was going a bit down physically,” Wawrinka said. “Also lack of energy.”

It all added up to Zverev getting to the final four at a major in his 19th appearance. He had been 0-2 in quarterfinals.

“The Grand Slams were always the week where I kind of even wanted it too much. I was doing things, in a way, too professional. I was not talking to anybody. I wasn’t going out with friends. I wasn’t having dinner. I was just really almost too, too focused,” Zverev explained. “Changed that a little bit this week. I’m doing much more things outside the court.”

The other men’s semifinal is Thursday, with defending champion Novak Djokovic facing 20-time major title winner Roger Federer for the 50th time.

Both women’s semifinals are Thursday: No. 1 Ash Barty of Australia vs. No. 14 Sofia Kenin of the United States, and No. 4 Simona Halep vs. unseeded Garbiñe Muguruza.

None has won the Australian Open; Halep was the runner-up in 2018.

Halep and Muguruza — both two-time major champs, both former No. 1s — advanced Wednesday with straight-set victories. Halep, who has yet to drop a set, required 53 minutes to dismiss No. 28 Anett Kontaveit 6-1, 6-1, before Muguruza eliminated No. 30 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 7-5, 6-3.

“Perfection doesn’t exist,” Halep said, “but I’m very happy with the way I played. I felt great on court. I was moving great.”

Zverev and Wawrinka, a dozen years older at 34, played on the steamiest afternoon of the tournament so far, with the temperature in the mid-80s Fahrenheit (about 30 Celsius) and no breeze to speak of.

Wawrinka had a far tougher trek to the quarterfinals, with a pair of five-set wins along the way — including over No. 4 Daniil Medvedev, the 2019 U.S. Open runner-up, in his previous outing — while Zverev hadn’t dropped a set.

Yet it took merely 16 minutes for Wawrinka to move out to a 5-0 lead by grabbing 20 of the match’s first 26 points, helped immensely by Zverev’s issues controlling the ball: He accumulated nine unforced errors and just one winner in that span.

Soon enough that set was done.

“I was getting ready to (explain) to the press why I lost in straight sets, to be honest,” Zverev said.

But Zverev realized he needed to put less into his shots on such a hot day, when the tennis balls zoom much more than in cooler weather. He also got into a real groove serving, taking all 20 points in those games in the second set.

That allowed him to play more freely in his return games and he broke to go up 5-3 when Wawrinka shanked a backhand on one point, then netted a forehand on the next. Zverev shook his right fist and bellowed, “Come ooooooooon!”

One more hold at love later, he evened things at a set apiece.

A backhand into the net by Wawrinka gave Zverev the key break in the third set. A backhand long let Zverev break for 1-0 in the fourth, and another backhand into the net put Zverev up a double break at 3-0.

Notice a pattern?

“I (started) to do a few mistakes,” Wawrinka said. “I put him back (in) the match.”

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Ragan Smith finds joy in college gymnastics after life-changing decision

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Ragan Smith, after her first two weeks of college gymnastics, quickly pointed out the coolest part of competing for the Oklahoma Sooners. It’s the noise that erupts on the last pass of her floor exercise, or upon her dismount off the uneven bars or balance beam.

They are similar sounds to what drew her to commit to Oklahoma back in 2015, when she was 15 years old.

“The girls in practice were all cheering for each other,” she recalled in a phone interview earlier this month.

Last spring, Smith called Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler with a request. The Texan wanted to enroll at OU that summer, a year earlier than planned. Originally, Smith committed to the university with the intention of deferring until after the 2020 Olympic season.

Smith, a Rio Olympic alternate in her first year at the senior elite level, began this Olympic cycle in 2017 by winning the U.S. all-around title. Granted, the triumph came during Simone Biles‘ one-year break. But consider that Smith’s margin of victory — 3.4 points — was greater than Biles’ average margin for her four national titles from 2013-16.

Everything changed for Smith on Oct. 6, 2017. Minutes before she was to compete as the favorite in the world championships all-around, she suffered an ankle injury warming up on vault (reportedly three torn ligaments). She was withdrawn from the meet and fought injuries for the rest of her elite career.

In calling Kindler last spring, Smith signaled she was ready to move on from Olympic-level or “elite” gymnastics. It is possible for collegians to compete at U.S. Championships or Olympic trials, but no woman with NCAA experience has made any of the last three Olympic teams.

“I felt like my time was done in elite,” said Smith, whose mother and aunt competed for Auburn and Maryland, respectively. “I really just wanted to move on with my life and everything.”

Kindler was walking in an academic center on campus when Smith called her last spring.

“[Smith] said, ‘I was in the shower, and I was thinking, and I think I really, really want to come,'” Kindler said. “‘My body is ready to be done with elite gymnastics, and my mind is ready to move forward, and I would love to come to school this year. Is there a spot for me?’

“We saved a spot in case she changed her mind [about waiting until after the Olympics], but the plan was always for her to defer. We never talked about anything else, so I was very surprised by the phone call.”

Kindler urged Smith to think it over. Discuss it with her elite coach, 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal.

“[Zmeskal] and I had a really good understanding of what Ragan’s goals were, which is why I think it had to be Ragan’s decision,” Kindler said. “I didn’t want to place any influence on anything. Kim thinks the world of Ragan. She was in full support. Her and I texted back and forth and spoke about it. She said she wanted Ragan to think about it a little bit, and she did do that, and still had decided that this was for her. I think Kim supported that decision, just as I said I would support whatever she wanted to do.”

Smith shared the news on July 7.

“I have moved on from the 1st chapter of my life and on to the 2nd,” was posted on her Instagram, accompanied by a photo of her in a crimson leotard. “I am so excited to be joining the class of 2019.”

Smith joined the defending national champion program, one that captured three of the last four NCAA titles. By enrolling a year early, Smith gets to be teammates with senior Maggie Nichols.

Nichols was second to Biles at the 2015 U.S. Championships, making her a bona fide contender for the Rio Olympic team. Early in 2016, Nichols tore a meniscus on a vault landing and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. She announced retirement from elite gymnastics two days after finishing sixth at the Olympic trials, one spot behind Smith, and not being named to the Olympic team.

Last season, Nichols became the first woman to repeat as NCAA all-around champion in 12 years.

Smith said she has already benefited from Nichols’ experience, coming to her with questions to aid her transition.

“What an incredible opportunity to have Ragan and Maggie on the same team,” Kindler said.

The Sooners are 9-0 this year and 26-0 since the start of 2019. Smith was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Week each of the season’s first three weeks. Not incredibly surprising, given Smith’s pedigree.

Perhaps more notable: Kindler said Smith hasn’t had a single ankle problem since arriving in Norman in July.

Back in August 2018, Smith said the ankle still hurt sometimes, that she had not completed a practice without pain that whole year and a coach joked to her, “You already have a 100-year-old body.”

Smith is competing easier routines collegiately than as an elite, as is the norm. But Kindler found that her passion for the sport has not waned.

“As an elite athlete, you don’t necessarily have to learn anything when you come to college,” Kindler said. “In fact, you can scale back what you’re doing, but I feel like she has a real eagerness to continue to refine what she’s doing and to learn new skills. She wants to continue to get better, and I love that about her.”

At her first college meet, Smith remembered the feeling of adrenaline brought on by competing not just for herself, but for women with whom she will call teammates week in and week out for the coming years.

“I didn’t want to let go of elite because it’s been, like, my whole life and my dream and everything,” said Smith, who was inspired by McKayla Maroney‘s 2012 Olympic vault and then had a dog named Rio. “But at the same time, my mind was telling me to come to college and have fun. I’m glad I made that decision, because I love it here.”

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