Javier Fernandez

Grand Prix Final schedule, previews

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U.S. ice dancer Evan Bates calls it “the most important competition we’ve ever done,” speaking for himself and his partner.

It is the Grand Prix Final, the most elite figure skating competition. The Olympics and the World Championships earn more prestige, but the Grand Prix Final is more exclusive.

The top six skaters per discipline over the six-event Grand Prix series this fall were invited to this week’s event in Barcelona.

The constantly changing figure skating landscape will be apparent in Spain, a nation with no history of Olympic medalists in the sport.

Of the 12 Sochi Olympic (non-team event) medalists, only two made it to the Grand Prix Final — men’s champion Yuzuru Hanyu and pairs silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov (plus ice dance bronze medalist Yelena Ilinykh with a different partner).

The two-time Olympian Bates, with partner Madison Chock, make up the U.S.’ biggest gold-medal hope with Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White not competing this season. That’s why Bates holds this weekend’s event in such high regard.

Here’s the schedule (all times ET):

Thursday
Pairs short program — 2:15 p.m.
Women’s short program — 3:30 p.m.

Friday
Ice dance short dance — 1:45 p.m.
Men’s short program — 3 p.m.

Saturday
Pairs free skate — 10 a.m.
Women’s free skate — 11:25 a.m.
Ice dance free dance — 1:25 p.m.
Men’s free skate — 2:45 p.m.

Icenetwork.com will stream all the sessions to subscribers live. NBC will air coverage Sunday (4-6 p.m.).

Here are event-by-event previews:

Men

The men’s competition will be the most anticipated because it includes Spain’s only entrant — Javier Fernandez.

Fernandez, 23, is the two-time reigning World Championships bronze medalist. He trains in Canada under two-time Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser but is very passionate about Spain.

In Sochi, Fernandez fell from third place after the short program to fourth overall and said he felt sad he couldn’t bring a medal home for his country. Spaniards have won two Winter Olympic medals, both in Alpine skiing, the last in 1992.

Fernandez grew up in Madrid, training on an ice rink that is now a restaurant. Fernandez believes there are nine rinks in all of Spain, with about half in Madrid.

“To fight against sports like soccer or tennis or cycling [in Spain], those kinds of sports have been there for a while,” Fernandez said. “It’s kind of more difficult to make people change their minds [about] other sports than they’re used to seeing, but we’re getting there.”

There is no clear favorite among the six men at the Grand Prix Final. Fernandez has been the most consistent over the calendar year and posted the second-best overall score in the Grand Prix season.

Japan’s Tatsuki Machida, the reigning World silver medalist, posted the highest score this season in winning Skate America in October. But Machida scored more than 30 fewer points at his more recent Grand Prix skate in November.

Russia’s Maksim Kovtun was the only man to win both of his Grand Prix series starts this season. Kovtun, who also raps, won last season’s Russian Championships but was passed over for Russia’s lone Olympic singles spot for 2006 Olympic champion Yevgeny Plushenko. He finished fourth at Worlds, just behind Machida and Fernandez.

Not to be forgotten is reigning Olympic, World and Grand Prix Final champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan. Hanyu snuck into the Grand Prix Final over American Jason Brown by .15 of a point at the last Grand Prix series event. Hanyu, also coached by Orser, is a wild card given a head injury sustained in warming up for the Cup of China free skate on Nov. 8.

Women

Just like last year, it’s four Russians, one Japanese and American Ashley Wagner.

Wagner, seventh at the Olympics and March’s World Championships, will be fortunate to repeat her bronze medal from last year’s Grand Prix Final, if the just-concluded Grand Prix series is any indication.

Three of the four Russians — Yelena RadionovaElizaveta Tuktamysheva and Anna Pogorilaya — scored higher than Wagner this season. The fourth, Yulia Lipnitskaya, was the star of the Sochi Olympic team event and won silver at the World Championships.

None of the other Olympic or World medalists competed this Grand Prix season, including Russian Olympic champion Adelina Sotnikova, out with a torn ankle ligament.

Wagner also lost Olympic teammate Gracie Gold, who qualified for Barcelona but pulled out last week with a small stress fracture in her foot.

Wagner, 23, is more than four years older than the other five women in Barcelona.

Of the Russians, Radionova and Tuktamysheva impressed the most in the Grand Prix series. Radionova, the Skate America and Trophee Bompard winner, was too young for the Sochi Olympics. Tuktamysheva, the Cup of China winner, was 10th at last season’s Russian Championships.

Ice Dance

Meryl Davis and Charlie White won the last five Grand Prix Finals. The U.S. streak could very well continue, even with the Olympic champions sitting out this season.

That’s because Madison Chock and Evan Bates were the top qualifiers for Barcelona, winning both of their Grand Prix series starts.

They prevailed in the absence of not only Davis and White but also the entire top five from Sochi this Grand Prix season.

“The throne is vacant,” Bates said. “We’re going to try to take it.”

Chock and Bates were eighth in Sochi and fifth at the World Championships in March. Canada’s Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, who were seventh in Sochi and second at Worlds, qualified second behind Chock and Bates into the Grand Prix Final.

The other U.S. Olympic ice dance couple, siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani, qualified fourth into Barcelona. It’s their first Grand Prix Final appearance in three years.

Pairs

Like ice dance, the pairs landscape looked different this season.

Olympic champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov are out due to Trankov’s shoulder injury.

World champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy are out due to Szolkowy’s retirement.

Russians Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, who won silver behind those pairs at the Olympics and Worlds, qualified first into the Grand Prix Final. Right behind them were Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, the World bronze medalists.

The comeback story is that of Russians Yuko Kavaguti and Aleksander Smirnov, who missed last season due to Smirnov’s knee injury. They were fourth at the 2010 Olympics.

There’s also 2006 Olympic silver medalist Zhang Hao, looking for his first Grand Prix Final medal in six years. Zhang, formerly partnered with Zhang Dan (no relation), was eighth in Sochi with new partner Peng Cheng.

Evan Lysacek finds challenges away from skating in new setting

Rafael Nadal wins Australian Open first round; Maria Sharapova exits

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Rafael Nadal says he’s thinking about his next opponent … and his next practice session … and trying to recreate the superb tennis he played in his straight-set victory in the Australian Open’s first round.

What he insists is not on his mind is the number 20 — as in Roger Federer’s record 20 Grand Slam singles titles, which Nadal would equal by claiming the trophy at Melbourne Park.

“I don’t care about 20 or 15 or 16. I just care about (trying) to keep going, keep enjoying my tennis career. It’s not like 20 is the number that I need to reach. If I reach 20, fantastic,” Nadal said Tuesday, raising his hands in the air. “If I reach 21, better. If I (stay at) 19? Super happy about all the things that I did in my tennis career, no?”

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

He must have been pleased with the way his 6-2, 6-3, 6-0 win over Hugo Dellien went.

That was built with a 38-15 edge in winners and breaks in eight of Dellien’s 11 service games.

Nadal, at age 33 the oldest No. 1 in ATP history, owns 19 major championships, but only one came in Australia, 11 years ago.

Twelve, of course, were collected at the French Open, four at the U.S. Open and two at Wimbledon.

“I won the U.S. Open a few months ago, and I was super happy in that moment. But today I’m happier than if I didn’t win the U.S. Open? Probably not,” Nadal said with a hearty laugh. “The only thing I can do is put all my efforts on (trying) to keep going the best way possible. The rest of the things, the future will see.”

Wednesday’s second-round slate includes Serena WilliamsCoco GauffAsh BartyRoger Federer and Novak Djokovic in action.

In other Tuesday matches, former No. 1-ranked Maria Sharapova’s run of first-round exits at the majors continued with a 6-3, 6-4 loss to 19th-seeded Donna Vekic.

Sharapova, a five-time Grand Slam title winner, was given a wild card for the main draw at Melbourne Park after her year-end ranking slipped to 136 in 2019 after a season interrupted by injuries. Her ranking falls outside the top 300 now.

The 2008 Australian Open winner reached the fourth round here last year, missed the French Open and then lost in the first rounds at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

A few young Americans were also eliminated Tuesday.

Russian Daniil Medvedev, seeded fourth after his U.S. Open runner-up, took out 2019 Australian Open quarterfinalist Frances Tiafoe 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.

Fast-rising teenager Amanda Anisimova played her first Grand Slam match since her father, who also coached her, died last year. His sudden passing came just before the U.S. Open, so she withdrew from that tournament.

Anisimova reached the semifinals of the French Open in 2019 at age 17, becoming the first player born in the 2000s to get that far at a major. She was ranked 51st at the time and unseeded.

Now 18, she was seeded 21st at Melbourne Park, but was beaten 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 by Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan.

Credit Fabio Fognini with a career Grand Slam of comebacks: His 3-6, 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (5) rain-interrupted victory across two days against Reilly Opelka of the U.S. gave the 12th-seeded Italian a total of eight wins in matches after dropping the opening two sets.

And now that he’s done it at the Australian Open, Fognini has a full collection, with at least one such reversal at each of the four major tournaments. According to the International Tennis Federation, only 11 other men have done it at each Slam, a group that includes Federer, Rod Laver and Boris Becker, but not Nadal or Novak Djokovic.

The most famous example of an 0-2 comeback by Fognini came against Nadal at the 2015 U.S. Open. Fognini said he doesn’t recall all of his turnaround victories, but he sure does remember that one.

So does Opelka, who rued the fact that play was halted against Fognini because of showers Monday after the initial game of the third set.

Opelka said that Nadal match wasn’t really on his mind, but “if anything, it was just more to have me prep to expect (Fognini) to want to win and believe in himself that he can win. Clearly, he did.”

Felix Auger-Aliassime is considered a future star of men’s tennis, a 19-year-old from Canada who was seeded 20th at the Australian Open — and is already out after a first-round loss against Ernests Gulbis, who once was a young up-and-comer himself.

Back when he was in his 20s, Gulbis reached the French Open semifinals and earned a spot in the top 10 of the ATP rankings. A series of injuries waylaid his career, including a back problem in 2019; he entered Tuesday ranked only 256th and needed to go through qualifying just to get into the main draw.

Made the most of it, though, beating Auger-Aliassime 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4.

“We saw the good Gulbis today,” Auger-Aliassime said.

The 31-year-old Gulbis, who is from Latvia, described himself as “emotional when I was walking back to the locker room, because it’s not easy. Its not easy to come back. It’s not easy to play Challengers. But these moments are really worth it.”

MORE: Top U.S. male tennis player to skip Tokyo Olympics

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40 years ago today: Jimmy Carter lays plan for Olympic boycott

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On Jan. 20, 1980, U.S. President Jimmy Carter said he would not support sending a U.S. team to the Moscow Olympics later that summer if the Soviet Union did not withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

Carter detailed his stance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” airing that Sunday. A transcript:

Bill Monroe: Assuming the Soviets do not pull out of Afghanistan any time soon, do you favor the U.S. participating in the Moscow Olympics, and if not, what are the alternatives?

Carter: No. Neither I nor the American people would support the sending of an American team to Moscow with Soviet invasion troops in Afghanistan. I’ve sent a message today to the United States Olympic Committee spelling out my own position that unless the Soviets withdraw their troops within a month from Afghanistan that the Olympic Games be moved from Moscow to alternate site or multiple sites or postponed or canceled. If the Soviets do not withdraw their troops immediately from Afghanistan — within a month — I would not support the sending of an American team to the Olympics. It’s very important for the world to realize how serious a threat the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan is. I do not want to inject politics into the Olympics, and I would personally favor the establishment of a permanent Olympic site for both the Summer and the Winter Games. In my opinion, the most appropriate permanent site for the Summer Games would be Greece. This will be my own position, and I have asked the U.S. Olympic Committee to take this position to the International Olympic Committee, and I would hope that as many nations as possible would support this basic position. One hundred and four nations voted against the Soviet invasion and called for their immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan in the United Nations, and I would hope as many of those as possible would support the position I’ve just outlined to you.

Monroe: Mr. President, if a substantial number of nations does not support the U.S. position, would not that just put the U.S. in an isolated position without doing much damage to the Soviet Union?

Carter: Regardless of what other nations might do, I would not favor the sending of an American Olympic team to Moscow while the Soviet invasion troops are in Afghanistan.

Three days later, Carter said in his State of the Union address, “I have notified the Olympic Committee that with Soviet invading forces in Afghanistan, neither the American people nor I will support sending an Olympic team to Moscow.”

The Soviets did not withdraw troops.

Though Carter did not have the authority to order a boycott, the U.S. Olympic Committee did decide on April 12 not to send a team.

The U.S. was among more than 60 nations that were invited to the Moscow Games and did not participate (for various reasons). Other notable absences included Canada, West Germany, Japan and China.

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