Pressure rests on Ashley Wagner’s shoulders in team event

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SOCHI, Russia – Suddenly Team USA is fighting an uphill battle in the new Olympic figure skating team event. And where does its hopes rest? Squarely on the shoulders of Ashley Wagner.

A disappointing night left the medal-favored Americans outside the top three in a tie for fifth (and technically in seventh overall) with Wagner and the ice dance team of Meryl Davis and Charlie White to skate their short programs Saturday night.

The new Olympic team figure skating event features ten teams, but only five which will advance to the free skate portion of the competition. With two-time world champions Davis/White almost assured a first- or second-place finish in the short dance, Wagner, the most controversial member of Team USA, needs to skate her best in the short program.

“This will be her moment to rise to the challenge and prove to everyone that she deserves to be here,” said Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic champion and an NBC analyst.

“It’s on her shoulders,” added former Olympian Johnny Weir, also a commentator for NBC. “Our hopes rest on the one skater who caused the most controversy by being here.”

Wagner hasn’t officially been announced for Saturday night’s ladies’ short program, though she has been in Sochi all week practicing her short program.

Wagner was caught in controversy following the U.S. Championships last month when she finished in fourth place, but was chosen for the team because of her success on the international stage, including three Grand Prix medals this past season.

WATCH: Ashley Wagner’s practice session for her new routine

Wagner has a stronger international profile than the Canadian, Chinese, German and French skaters who will potentially start above her Saturday. The short dance will be held before the ladies’ short program that night.

The U.S. finds itself in such a struggle after four-time champion Jeremy Abbott had a dismal night, falling on his opening quadruple jump before popping a triple Axel into a single. Pairs team Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir made up some ground, placing fifth in their segment.

“Looking at what happened tonight, that’s not what we expected,” Lipinski said. “Jeremy had a rough night, but we still have a chance.”

Wagner has long expressed her affinity for her Pink Floyd “Shine on Me Crazy Diamond” short program, which opens with a triple-triple combination and showcases the 22-year-old’s tough, aggressive skating.

“It’s Ashley’s chance to say, ‘I am woman, hear me roar,’” Weir said.

MORE: Photos from Team USA’s practice session

After long being talked as one of the favorites for the inaugural team event, the U.S. is left outside looking in. Numerically, the Americans would have to crumble not to make the free skate portion of the competition, most likely hop-scotching China and Germany, who are weak in the ladies and ice dance segments.

“I think it’s anybody’s game,” said Shnapir after his skate with Castelli. “We have two great disciplines coming up and I think we have the opportunity to pull up and to get up to that top tier and I think that’s where we’re going to end up.”

It was a horror of a night for Abbott, the four-time national champion scoring a 65.65, some 30 points below his marks at Nationals a month ago.

“I’m torn apart that I did that for Team USA,” Abbott said after his short program. “I really wanted to pull out a win here for us and help us earn a medal – perhaps even a gold. I’ve let them down.”

Wagner – along with Davis and White – are expected to be announced for the team short programs at a press conference Friday.

Novak Djokovic rolls at French Open; top women escape

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Novak Djokovic began what could be a march to his 18th Grand Slam title, sweeping Swede Mikael Ymer 6-0, 6-2, 6-3 in the French Open first round on Tuesday.

The top seed Djokovic lost just seven points in the first set. He gets Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis in the second round in a half of the draw that includes no other man with French Open semifinal experience.

Djokovic had plenty going for him into Roland Garros, seeking to repeat his 2016 run to the title. The chilly weather is similar to four years ago.

“I don’t like usually comparing the years,” he said. “But I think [the conditions are] quite suitable to my style of the game.”

As is Djokovic’s form. His only loss in 2020 was when he was defaulted at the U.S. Open for hitting a ball in anger that struck a linesperson in the throat.

Djokovic got a break with the draw when No. 3 seed Dominic Thiem was put in No. 2 Rafael Nadal‘s half. The Serbian also won his clay-court tune-up event in Rome, where he received warnings in back-to-back matches for breaking a racket and uttering an obscenity.

“I don’t think that [the linesperson incident] will have any significant negative impact on how I feel on the tennis court,” Djokovic said before Roland Garros. “I mean, I won the tournament in Rome just a week later after what happened in New York.

“I really want to be my best version as a player, as a human being on the court, and win a tennis match. Because of the care that I have for that, I sometimes express my emotions in good way or maybe less good way.”

If Djokovic can lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires two Sundays from now, he will move within two of Roger Federer‘s career Slams record. Also notable: He would keep Nadal from tying Federer’s record and head into the Australian Open in January, his signature Slam, with a chance to match Nadal at 19.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Earlier Tuesday, No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Sofia Kenin each needed three sets to reach the second round.

The Czech Pliskova rallied past Egyptian qualifier Mayar Sherif 6-7 (9), 6-2, 6-4. Pliskova, the highest-ranked player without a major title, next gets 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia.

“Let’s not talk about my level [of play],” Pliskova said. “I think there is big room for improvement.”

Kenin, the American who won the Australian Open in February, outlasted Russian Liudmila Samsonova 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

“It doesn’t matter how you win — ugly, pretty, doesn’t matter,” Kenin said on Tennis Channel.

She gets Romanian Ana Bogdan in the second round. Only one other seed — No. 14 Elena Rybakina — is left in Kenin’s section en route to a possible quarterfinal.

American Jen Brady, who made a breakthrough run to the U.S. Open semifinals, was beaten by Danish qualifier Clara Tauson  6-4, 3-6, 9-7.

Sam Querrey nearly made it eight American men into the second round, serving for the match in the third set. But he succumbed to 13th-seeded Russian Andrey Rublev 6-7 (5), 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-4, 6-3. It’s still the best first-round showing for U.S. men since nine advanced in 1996.

The second round begins Wednesday, highlighted by Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal.

MORE: Halep, Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

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U.S. men off to best French Open start in 24 years

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The last time U.S. men started this well at the French Open, Sebastian Korda wasn’t alive and his dad had yet to win a Grand Slam singles title.

Eight American men are into the second round at Roland Garros, the largest contingent in the last 64 since 1996. It could have been nine, had Sam Querrey served out the match in the third set against 13th seed Andrey Rublev of Russia.

Still, the U.S. has more men in the second round than any other nation. Astonishing, given U.S. men went a collective 1-9 at the 2019 French Open.

Back in 1996, nine American men won first-round matches. That group included Pete SamprasAndre AgassiJim Courier and Michael Chang (in Sampras’ deepest run in Paris, to the semifinals).

Clay has long been kryptonite for this generation of Americans — the last U.S. man to make a Roland Garros quarterfinal was Agassi in 2003.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

This group includes veterans like Jack Sock, who swept countryman Reilly Opelka 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 on Monday. Sock, 28, was once ranked eighth in the world.

He then dropped out of the rankings entirely, missing time due to injury and going 10 months between tour-level match wins. He’s now at No. 310 and preparing to play No. 3 Dominic Thiem in the second round.

“A pretty horrific two years in a row,” Sock said. “I’m not opposed to silencing some haters after the last couple years I’ve gone through. I’ve read and seen enough of it, heard enough of it. I’m kind of ready to reestablish myself out there, let people know that I’m back.”

Then there’s 35-year-old John Isner, the big server who swept a French wild card in round one. Isner, the highest seeded U.S. man at No. 21, has posted some decent Roland Garros results, reaching the fourth round three times.

There are new faces, too. Taylor Fritz is seeded 27, aged 22 and in an open section of the draw to make his first Grand Slam fourth round.

On Sunday, 20-year-old Korda became the youngest U.S. man to win a French Open main-draw match since an 18-year-old Andy Roddick beat Chang in 2001.

He is the son of 1998 Australian Open champion Petr Korda and brother of the world’s second- and 22nd-ranked female golfers (Nelly and Jessica).

So far, Sebastian’s biggest feats: winning the 2018 Australian Open junior title and, in his only golf tournament, beating both of his sisters when he was 11. It was around that age that he gave up ice hockey and focused solely on tennis.

Korda was hooked after watching a Czech whom his dad coached, Radek Stepanek, at the U.S. Open in 2009.

“He played Djokovic on [Arthur] Ashe [Stadium] like at 10:30 at night,” Korda, nicknamed Sebi, said on Tennis Channel. “Completely packed. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I went home, and I was like, this is exactly what I want to do.”

An American man is already guaranteed to make the third round in Paris. Korda faces Isner on Thursday.

“I grew up on the clay,” Korda said, “so I know how to play on it a little bit.”

MORE: Halep, Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

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