Can Russia take another gold, this time in figure skating pairs?

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SOCHI, Russia – Having won zero gold medals at the Vancouver Olympics in figure skating, Russia looks to earn its second in two events as the pairs competition gets underway on Tuesday night at the Iceberg Skating Palace.

After helping lead the Russians to gold in the inaugural team event, Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov are the heavy favorites going into pairs at the Sochi Games, the reigning world champions also owning the three highest scores of the season leading into the Olympics.

But fellow veterans Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy are four-time world champions, and recently took down the Russians at the Grand Prix Final, marking Volosozhar/Trankov’s first loss in nearly two years.

Here, a full preview of the pairs event, which gets underway Tuesday night at 7 p.m. local time at the Sochi Iceberg Palace and concludes Wednesday night.

A Two-Team Race for Gold
It will be home-ice advantage for Volosozhar/Trankov, who wowed in their short program Thursday night in the team event, though they skipped the free skate Saturday to help them rest ahead of the pairs competition, which had the fastest turnaround of any individual copmetition following the new event.

Savchenko/Szolkowy skipped the team event altogether, with Germany not considered a medal threat there. The Russians, who joined forces in the spring of 2010, competed with other partners at the Vancouver Games, where Savchenko/Szolkowy claimed the bronze medal.

These are two teams with interwoven pasts: Savchenko, who has roots in Ukraine, took Volosozhar – who was also born in Ukraine – under her wing and helped Tatyana with pairs training, only now to see the Russian as part of the favorite team heading into the Olympic Games.

The Russians told NBCOlympics.com during the Grand Prix season that the only pressure they felt was their own, though anything could happen at the Olympics.

“We only have pressure for each other – we push each other everyday,” Trankov said in an interview at Skate America in October. “You never know, especially with the Olympics, what will happen. You cannot plan these competitions. You just work and hope that everything will be OK.”

It wasn’t OK at the Grand Prix Final in December, when the Russians faltered several times in their free skate, leaving the door open for the Germans to beat them.

“It’s hard to see any other team being first or second. They’re both so solid,” said 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski, an NBC figure skating analyst. “For the Russians, I see it as their gold to lose. The Russians have to skate well – they have to do what they’re expected to do or I think we could be surprised a little. If any team is going to move in on them, it’s the Germans.”

Battle for Bronze
A host of teams will be fighting for the bronze medal, led by 2010 Vancouver silver medalists Pang Qing and Tong Jian, a pair of 34-year-olds in a sport that is dominated by teenagers and 20-somethings. The Chinese have taken a backseat after winning the World Championships in 2010, however, as Canadian and Russian teams have inserted themselves into the podium conversation.

Most notable among them are Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford as well as Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch, who were third and fourth, respectively, at the World Championships in 2013. Both Canadian teams were stellar in the team event, Duhamel/Radford skating the short program and Moore-Towers/Moscovitch the free skate – to help Canada earn a silver medal.

But Russia will have a play at the bronze medal as well, particularly with Vera Bazarova and Yuri Lariyonov, who have three European Champoinships medals to their names and were second to Volosozhar/Trankov at the Russian National Championships in December. Kesnia Stolbova and Fyodor Klimov, could be a factor, as well, having gotten their skates under them in the free skate portion of the team event, winning it with an entertaining and unique “Addams Family” program.

American Hopes
A bronze would be a long-shot hope for both American pairs entered, led by reigning and two-time national champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir.

The duo, who measure in at five feet and six-foot-four, respectively, attempt a rare throw quadruple Salchow in their James Bond-themed free skate, which Castelli stayed upright on – just barely – during the team event.

“We’ve been doing this element since day one of the season,” Shnapir told reporters Sunday at a press conference. “We have never thought about taking it out,” Castelli added.

The stars would have to align for the Americans to land on the podium: they were 13th at the World Championships a year ago.

“We’re not looking for gold – for us it’s about getting the full experience,” Shnapir said last month. “For our own goals we want to put out the best programs we can. We feel like we’ve done the best we can.”

“As competitors, I think they’re really strong,” Lipinski said of the Boston-based team. “They’ve been together for so long and I love the height difference – they’re just such a dynamic team. That quad sets them apart.”

Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay are the second American pair, who – along with Castelli/Shnapir – make their Olympic debut in Sochi.

“We were a little bit of the underdogs at Nationals, but that role doesn’t change the way we approach the Olympics, either” Bartholomay said. “We have really consistent programs and rely on that when we go out on the ice.”

“We want to show everyone that we’re here for a reason,” said Zhang, who trains with Bartholomay in Ellenton, Florida. “We’ve worked hard these past few  years and we’re just honored to be here.

Castelli/Shnapir will skate sixth in the pairs short program Tuesday night while Zhang/Bartholomay will follow them in seventh.

What to Watch For
The Russians Volosozhar/Trankov are artful in both their “Masquerade Waltz” short program and “Jesus Christ Superstar” free skate, the former in which they wear ballet-inspired princess and soldier costumes and the latter which has had the Internet chattering over Trankov’s yellow pants, a burnt-gold pair of trousers that has spawned its own mock Twitter handle.

While Castelli/Shnapir’s throw quadruple Salchow is one to watch, so too is Savchenko/Szolkowy’s throw triple Axel, which they have had success with off and on throughout the season. It’s a dramatic finish to their “Nutcracker” free skate.

Volosozhar/Trankov is looking to become the first pairs team to win an Olympic gold in front of a home crowd since the 1936 Games in Germany, when Maxi Herber and Ernst Baier captured first place. Savchenko/Szolkowy, however,  have a bit of history on their side, as only once – in 1998 – did the pairs team that won the Grand Prix Final not go on to win at the Olympics.

If any of Volosozhar/Trankov, Stolbova/Klimov, Duhamel/Radford, Moore-Towers/Moscovitch or Castelli/Shnapir win a medal in the pairs event, they will become the first figure skaters to win two medals in one Olympics with the addition this year of the team event.

Novak Djokovic wins 10th Australian Open, ties Rafael Nadal for most men’s Slam titles

Novak Djokovic Australian Open
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic was simply too good at the most crucial moments and claimed his 10th Australian Open championship and 22nd Grand Slam title overall by beating Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) in the final at Rod Laver Arena on Sunday night.

The victory allows Djokovic to return to No. 1 in the ATP rankings.

The 35-year-old from Serbia did not compete in the Australian Open a year ago after being deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19.

Government restrictions have eased since, and he was able to get a visa this time despite still not having gotten the shots against the illness caused by the coronavirus.

Now Djokovic has run his winning streak at the hard-court tournament to 28 matches.

His 10th trophy in Australia adds to the record he already held. His 22 major championships — which include seven from Wimbledon, three from the U.S. Open and two from the French Open — are tied with Rafael Nadal for the most by a man in the history of tennis.

Tsitsipas fell to 0-2 in major finals. He also lost to Djokovic at the 2021 French Open.

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Chock/Bates, Knierim/Frazier futures unclear after clear-cut wins at figure skating nationals

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SAN JOSE, California – They have both begun the new Olympic cycle as the undisputed national leaders in their figure skating disciplines, cementing that status with U.S. titles Saturday – the fourth for ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates, the second for the pairs’ team of Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier.

At this point, their respective paths to the 2026 Winter Games seem free and clear of challengers.

The question for the dancers and the pair is how far down that road they intend to go.

“I don’t know what the next four years will hold,” Chock said. “But we’re committed to each other and our goals, and we’ll decide when the time comes.”

Chock, 30, and Bates, 33, engaged to be married in the summer of 2024, have been at this a long time. And their trophy case is packed to the gills, with the only gaps a world title and an individual Olympic medal.

They have competed together at the senior level in the U.S. Championships for 12 seasons, winning medals at the last 11. They have been to nine world championships, winning three medals, and three Olympics (four for Bates), winning a yet-to-be-awarded team medal last year in Beijing.

(The unresolved doping case involving Russian skater Kamila Valiyeva has delayed the awarding of the 2022 team event medals. Maybe it will become a wedding present for Chock and Bates. Or a fifth anniversary present…)

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Until this year, Chock and Bates had faced formidable rivals on the national scene – 2014 Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White; 2018 Olympic bronze medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani; and 2022 Olympic bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, with whom Chock and Bates traded gold medals over the previous four seasons. All have retired from competition.

Saturday, they cruised to the gold medal by 22.29 points over Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, the largest ice dance victory margin at nationals since 2006. In a discipline where established hierarchy weighs heavily, Chock and Bates find themselves in the unfamiliar position of being on a metaphorical easy street to the top step of the U.S. podium.

“We – at least I – felt nervous today,” Bates said. “We (still) felt compelled to skate well. The lack of maybe the Hubbell-Donohue back and forth did not mitigate the specialness today.”

Knierim, 31, and Frazier, 30, have similar longevity at nationals, even if they did not team up until 2020, taking the U.S. title in their first season together.

Knierim skated at seven nationals with her husband, Chris, winning three titles, Frazier at seven with Haven Denney, winning once.

Knierim and Frazier had expected to retire after last season, when they missed nationals because Frazier contracted Covid but went on to place sixth at the Olympics and unexpectedly became the first U.S. team to win a pairs’ world title since 1979. Their experiences on the Stars on Ice Tour led them to reconsider.

“It made sense on our timeline to move on,” Knierim told me in September. “We had done everything we could in two years.

“Yet it felt like it could be sad or disappointing to end a really talented career together so soon. Being on tour had opened our eyes to how in synch and unified we were on the ice. So there was a little bit of curiosity, a feeling of ‘What else are we capable of?’”

Their personal circumstances have changed during the course of this season. Chris Knierim starts work Thursday as skating director of a rink in the Chicago suburbs, and the Knierims recently bought a house in that area.

Knierim and Frazier have been training at a rink in Irvine, California. Should they decide to continue as competitors after this season, it would almost certainly entail a move to Chicago for Frazier.

Knierim insisted her house purchase was not an indication of what her plans with Frazier are.

“Right now, we are staying the course, based in Irvine through the world championships (in late March),” Knierim said before winning her fifth U.S. title.

“We do have some changes ahead of us. But I’d hate to jump ahead and say yes or no to next season. We learned that last season.”

Frazier spoke Saturday of reflecting throughout this season about their personal journeys and their partnership, the kind of reflection that often accompanies doing something for the last time.

“We just are trying to soak it in as if it could be your last, but the future is unknown,” Frazier said.

Knierim and Frazier prevailed Saturday with the largest winning margin, 31.11 points, in the 18 years that the International Judging System has been used at nationals.

They saved several points due to her quick thinking.

After Frazier put his hand to the ice on the triple toe loop that was to open a triple-double-double-jump combination, Knierim saw that her partner was going to follow with only a single jump and followed suit. It led to the delightful oddity of side-by-side single toe loops.

Nicely executed ones, too.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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