Sam Mikulak hopes he’s closing gap on Kohei Uchimura

Sam Mikulak

Sam Mikulak entered the sixth and last rotation of the 2013 World Championships all-around final in third place, looking to win the first U.S. men’s all-around medal since 2010.

Mikulak, at his first Worlds, would finish his night on high bar, arguably his strongest event. If every gymnast repeated his qualifying score from his last event in the all-around final, Mikulak would win the silver medal.

No U.S. man had won an Olympic or World all-around silver or gold medal since Paul Hamm‘s Olympic title at Athens 2004.

Mikulak likely wasn’t thinking of such feats — he said he felt no nerves — but he erred on high bar and plummeted to sixth place. Mikulak had made the 2012 Olympic team as a rising University of Michigan junior and won his first P&G Championships all-around title the following year.

He was second to Japan’s Kohei Uchimura in 2013 Worlds all-around qualifying and was set to be the closest man to Uchimura again before that last rotation in the final in Antwerp, Belgium. Uchimura won his record fourth straight World all-around title, earning more of an argument for greatest-ever status.

Even if he hit high bar, Mikulak would have finished more than one full point behind Uchimura, continuing the great divide in men’s gymnastics. Mikulak was asked that night what he lacked to be competitive with Uchimura.

“Start value,” he told reporters in Antwerp. “I think that’s all I’m missing.”

Mikulak gets his second chance to win an all-around medal and challenge Uchimura at the World Championships in Nanning, China, over the next week. The U.S. men go through qualifying Saturday. The all-around final is Thursday (full broadcast schedule here).

Start value, or difficulty score, is one of two parts that make up a gymnast’s total score on each apparatus. The other is the execution score, based out of 10 per event.

In Antwerp, Uchimura had a combined start value total of 38.2 points over all six events. Mikulak’s start value was 36.4 (36.9 in qualifying). Mikulak went into the sixth and last rotation 1.675 points behind Uchimura and finished 3.442 behind after that high bar mistake.

Mikulak averaged a combined start value of 37.35 at the 2013 P&G Championships, before 2013 Worlds. At this year’s P&G Championships, Mikulak had a combined start value of 38 on the second day, when he came from fourth place back to win.

On top of that, Mikulak promised additional difficulty for Worlds after the P&G Championships in Pittsburgh last month. He showed that in training in Nanning this week, performing a vault with four tenths more difficulty than he did at P&Gs or in 2013.

In other words, Mikulak appears to be closing the gap in difficulty, the caveat being it’s not known exactly what Uchimura plans to unleash in Nanning.

“[Mikulak] probably could have finished in the all-around second in the world [in 2013],” Mikulak’s coach, Kurt Golder, said at the P&G Championships. “That’s right about where he stands right now.

“This guy from Japan, Uchimura, he’s fantastic. That’s the target. That’s the one we’re chasing.”

Mikulak is seen as one of the biggest threats to Uchimura’s dominance. The Japanese won silver at the 2008 Olympics and has won every annual global title since. He is the only gymnast, male or female, to win four World all-around titles.

The other top all-around gymnasts in Nanning include Japan’s Ryohei Kato, Great Britain’s Max Whitlock and Germany’s Fabian Hambuechen. Mikulak trained with the three-time Olympian Hambuechen earlier this year.

“I’m chipping away at it, making sure my start values are getting higher and higher as the years go on,” Mikulak, who is four years younger than Uchimura, said at the P&G Championships. “Hopefully, when it comes Rio time, I’ll be up there with his start values.”

Aliya Mustafina: I would be happy if Russia finishes top 3

Aryna Sabalenka wins Australian Open for first Grand Slam singles title

Aryna Sabalenka Australian Open 2023

MELBOURNE, Australia — One point away from her first Grand Slam title, Aryna Sabalenka faulted. And then she faulted again. She grimaced. She yelled and turned her back to the court. She wiggled her shoulders and exhaled.

Clearly, this business of winning the Australian Open was not bound to happen without a bit of a struggle Saturday night. Sabalenka knew deep inside that would be the case. She also knew that all of the effort she put in, to overcome self-doubt and those dreaded double-faults, had to pay off eventually. Just had to.

And so, as she wasted a second match point by flubbing a forehand, and a third by again missing another, Sabalenka did her best to stay calm, something she used to find quite difficult. She hung in there until a fourth chance to close out Elena Rybakina presented itself — and this time, Sabalenka saw a forehand from her similarly powerful foe sail long. That was that. The championship belonged to Sabalenka via a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 comeback victory over Wimbledon winner Rybakina.

“The last game, yeah, of course, I was a little bit nervous. I (kept) telling myself, like, ’Nobody tells you that it’s going to be easy.′ You just have to work for it, work for it, ’til the last point,” said Sabalenka, a 24-year-old from Belarus who is now 11-0 with two titles in 2023 and will rise to No. 2 in the WTA rankings on Monday.

The only set she has dropped all season was the opener on Saturday against Rybakina, who eliminated No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the fourth round.

It was telling that Sabalenka’s remarks during the post-match ceremony were directed at her coach, Anton Dubrov, and her fitness trainer, Jason Stacy — she referred to them as “the craziest team on tour.”

“We’ve been through a lot of, I would say, downs last year,” said Sabalenka, who was appearing in her first major final and had been 0-3 in Slam semifinals until this week. “We worked so hard and you guys deserve this trophy. It’s more about you than it’s about me.”

Well, she had a lot to do with it, of course. Those serves that produced 17 aces, helping erase the sting of seven double-faults. Those hammered groundstrokes and relentlessly aggressive style that produced 51 winners, 20 more than Rybakina’s total. And, despite her go-for-broke shotmaking, somehow Sabalenka limited her unforced error count to 28. One more key statistic: Sabalenka managed to accrue 13 break points, converting three, including the one at 4-3 in the last set that put her ahead for good.

“She played really well today,” said Rybakina, who has lost all four matches she’s played against Sabalenka, all in three sets. “She was strong mentally, physically.”

While the latter has long been a hallmark of her game, even Sabalenka acknowledges that the first has been an issue.

Her most glowing strength was also her most glaring shortfall: her serve. Capable of delivering aces, she also had a well-known problem with double-faulting, leading the tour in that category last year with nearly 400, including matches with more than 20.

After much prodding from her group, she agreed to undergo an overhaul of her mechanics last August. That, along with a commitment to trying to keep her emotions in check — she used to work with a sports psychologist but no longer, saying she relies on herself now — is really paying off.

“She didn’t have great serve last year, but now she was super strong and she served well,” said Rybakina, a 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan. “For sure, I respect that. I know how much work it takes.”

With seagulls squawking loudly while flying overhead at Rod Laver Arena, Rybakina and Sabalenka traded serious racket swings for nearly 2 1/2 hours.

The serves were big. So big. Rybakina’s fastest arrived at 121 mph, Sabalenka’s at 119 mph.

The points were over quickly. So quickly: Seven of the first 13 were aces.

Sabalenka had been broken just six times in 55 service games through the course of these two weeks, but Rybakina did it twice in the opening set.

And never again. Sabalenka resolved to take the initiative even more, and the payoff for her high-risk, high-reward attitude was too much for Rybakina to withstand over the last two sets.

Sabalenka said ahead of time that she expected to feel some jitters. Which makes perfect sense for anyone: This was the most important match of her career.

At the end, when it mattered more than ever, Sabalenka was able to steady herself. After the final point, she dropped to her back on the court and stayed down for a bit, covering her face as her eyes welled with tears.

Quite a difference from a year ago at Melbourne Park, when Sabalenka departed after 15 double-faults in a fourth-round loss.

“I really feel right now that I really needed those tough losses to kind of understand myself a little bit better. It was like a preparation for me,” Sabalenka said at her post-match news conference, her new trophy nearby and a glass of bubbly in her hand. “I actually feel happy that I lost those matches, so right now I can be a different player and just a different Aryna, you know?”

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Matt Weston, Susanne Kreher win first world skeleton titles; Olympic champs struggle

Matt Weston

Great Britain’s Matt Weston and German Susanne Kreher consolidated breakout post-Olympic seasons by winning world skeleton titles in St. Moritz, Switzerland, on Friday.

Weston, 15th at last year’s Olympics, prevailed by 1.79 seconds combining times from four runs, the largest margin of victory at worlds for men or women since 2012.

Weston became the second British man to win a world skeleton title after Kristan Bromley in 2008. The 25-year-old from Surrey left taekwondo at age 17 due to a reported back injury and has three wins in six World Cups this season after considering quitting the sport over the summer, according to the BBC.

“What happened there [at Beijing 2022] hit us all really hard, and it took a while to get over,” he said, speaking of the whole British skeleton team that had no top-10 finishes after medals in the last five Olympics, according to the BBC.

Italian Amedeo Bagnis, whose best World Cup finish is eighth, took silver, a year after placing 11th at the Olympics. South Korean Jeong Seung-Gi earned bronze by one hundredth over Brit Chris Thompson, a year after placing 10th at the Olympics.

Kreher, a 24-year-old sprint convert in her first full World Cup season, won by one hundredth of a second over Olympic bronze medalist Kimberley Bos of the Netherlands. Mimi Rahneva took bronze for Canada’s first Olympic or world skeleton medal since 2015.

Kreher extended Germany’s streak to six consecutive women’s world titles. Kreher, last year’s world junior champion, has three World Cup podiums this season, but no wins on the circuit.

Germany’s reigning Olympic champions Christopher Grotheer and Hannah Neise were 10th and 15th, respectively. Tina Hermann, who won the last three women’s world titles, was fifth.

Two other Olympic champions were absent: 2014 gold medalist Aleksandr Tretiyakov is out due to the ban on Russians for the war in Ukraine. Yun Sung-Bin, a 2018 gold medalist, is taking this season off but is expected to come back, according to the South Korean federation.

The top Americans were Hallie Clarke in 10th for the women and Austin Florian in 19th for the men. The last U.S. medalist at worlds was Noelle Pikus-Pace, who took silver in 2013.

Katie Uhlaender, the top U.S. finisher at the last worlds and last Olympics (sixth both times), has not competed this season after rupturing a tendon in her right ankle two months ago.

Worlds continue with the women’s monobob and two-man bobsled events Saturday and Sunday.

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