Ashley Wagner

Ashley Wagner conquers freezing temperatures; ‘Russian fleet’ is next

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NEW YORK — Ashley Wagner skated at the Olympics, the World Championships, under the pressure of defending U.S. Championships, but nothing could have prepared her for The Rink at Rockefeller Center on Friday morning.

The temperature? Single digits. It felt below zero.

Wagner spun around the ice in teeth-chattering conditions, her breath visible and her bare skin reddened. She wore a black dress with gloves, but no cover over her arms.

She finished the skate, opting not to perform jumps, and scurried off the ice, covering her cheeks with her gloves and enveloping into a zip-up jacket. Somebody standing just behind the boards asked if she’d ever skated in this type of weather.

Wagner raised her eyebrows and replied with emphasis.

“This is the coldest,” the Southern California resident said.

Later, Wagner regained the feeling to offer more words, warmed up in the TODAY green room.

“It was more a test of my mental strength than anything else,” she said. “There’s nothing comparable. Nothing even close to that. That was absolutely frigidly cold.

“The main concern with something like that is that you don’t get hurt. Your body can’t be warmed up to really be able to move the way it should for skating. You just kind of have to play it safe.”

Friday ushered in reportedly the coldest weekend in New York in two decades. The type of weather to enjoy an indoor fireplace with a loved one on Valentine’s Day, not to rapidly cut through the air on blades, with little clothing.

“You always know that it’s going to be cold because it’s an outdoor event,” Wagner said of scheduling the skate. “It’s during the dead of winter, but I think this is like unreasonably cold for this time of year. I didn’t expect that, but I feel like I can take on anything now.”

Which brings up Wagner’s next big skate, under completely different challenges. She enters the World Championships in Shanghai in March coming off two of the greatest performances of her career.

The 23-year-old leaped from sixth place to a bronze medal at the Grand Prix Final in December and captured her third U.S. title in Greensboro, N.C., in January.

She joined Irina SlutskayaMichelle KwanMao Asada and Yuna Kim as the only women to win medals at three straight Grand Prix Finals. Everyone in that quartet won at least silver in the Olympics.

She became the first woman since Kwan to win three U.S. titles. Kwan won nine.

“It’s still so weird for to even hear my name in the same sentence as [Kwan], let alone begin compared to her,” Wagner said. “Of course, it would be a dream come true to be even an ounce of what Michelle Kwan was, but I think I have so much work ahead of me to really be able to think about that. She accomplished so much and is a legend in the sport.”

Wagner said she is “absolutely” more confident going into these World Championships than any major international competition in her career. She skipped this past weekend’s Four Continents Championships to train and focus on Worlds.

Wagner felt she left points on the table with her spins at the U.S. Championships, where she shattered Nationals records for free skate and total scores.

“A lot of people called it the skate of a lifetime, and it was an incredible skate, no doubt, but I have more skates like that left in me,” Wagner said. “I think that I can improve on that.”

Wagner is seeking her first medal at a World Championships in her fifth appearance. She was fourth, fifth and seventh the last three years. No U.S. woman has won a medal at Worlds since 2006, the longest drought since World War I.

“The way Raf [coach Rafael Arutyunyan] has prepared me this entire season, I’ve been building and building, getting better and better,” Wagner said. “I need that time to make sure my technical arsenal is stronger than ever and secure. That way, under pressure, up against the Russian fleet, I’ll be able to hold my own.”

Wagner knows the medal favorites in Shanghai will be led by Russians. Wagner successfully kept them from a podium sweep at the Grand Prix Final and must beat at least one of them again to make the podium in Shanghai.

She will be boosted by the presence in Shanghai of close friend Adam Rippon, the U.S. silver medalist who roomed with Wagner at Nationals and helped choreograph her short program. They’re both competing at Worlds for the first time since 2012.

“It’s like a little bit of home,” Wagner said. “To have that one person who knows everything about me, has seen the way I’ve prepared for competition, someone to calm me down, it’s really been a tool for me. I think that was part of the key to my success in Greensboro.”

Video: Polina Edmunds rises to win Four Continents; Gracie Gold struggles

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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