Ashley Wagner, Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds

Tara Lipinski, Johnny Weir preview World Championships women’s, ice dance events

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For the first time since 1981, the World Figure Skating Championships include zero women’s singles skaters who previously won an Olympic or World Championships individual medal.

Three new medalists will stand on the podium in Shanghai, China, on Saturday. Really, the competition is between two countries. And in the end, one nation may sweep the podium for the first time since 1991.

“It’s definitely a possibility,” NBC Olympics figure skating analyst Johnny Weir said.

“It’s a very strong possibility,” said Weir’s cohort, 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski.

Weir and Lipinski agree that Russians Elizaveta Tuktamysheva and Yelena Radionova are likely to go one-two.

RELATED: World Championships schedule | Men’s/Pairs preview

Tuktamysheva, 18, placed 10th at the 2013 World Championships but fell flat at the following season’s Russian Championships, finishing 10th among her countrywomen and missing the Sochi Olympic team by a mile.

But Tuktamysheva, a pupil of venerable coach Alexei Mishin, is in the midst of one of the greatest bounce-back seasons in the sport’s history.

She’s won seven international competitions, including her two biggest — the Grand Prix Final in December and the European Championships in January — and has shown she’s capable of landing a triple Axel. No other elite woman can boast that.

“My bets are on Tuktamysheva,” Lipinski said. “She’s found that secret potion that works for competition this year. She’s been on a roll.”

Radionova, a wispy 16-year-old, relegated Tuktamysheva to silver at Skate America in October and the Russian Championships in December.

She came into this season with perhaps the most promise of any skater, as the two-time reigning World junior champion.

“She’s right on [Tuktamysheva’s] tail,” Lipinski said. “If Liza makes any mistakes, Yelena brings so much consistency. There still could be a good fight between the both of them.”

The third Russian is less reliable. That’s Anna Pogorilaya, who finished fourth at the 2014 World Championships and won Skate Canada in November.

But Japan’s Rika Hongo topped her at a competition in Moscow later in November, and American Ashley Wagner kept Pogorilaya off the podium at the Grand Prix Final in December.

“On a good day, [Pogorilaya] can outjump the best in the world,” Weir said. “Her jumps are a bit more aesthetically pleasing than the other two Russians.”

Tuktamysheva, Radionova and Pogorilaya hope to give Russia a women’s podium sweep, a feat seen once before at a Worlds. In 1991, Americans Kristi Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan shared the podium in Munich, where unprepared organizers reportedly did not have three U.S. flags ready for the medal ceremony.

In Shanghai, a U.S. trio is out to spoil the sweep and win the first American women’s medal at a Worlds or Olympics since 2006.

“The momentum is with Ashley,” Weir said.

Wagner, 23, feels more confident going into this competition than any of her four previous World Championships or the Sochi Olympics.

RELATED: Wagner aims higher than Worlds medal

She kept Russia from a podium sweep at the Grand Prix Final in December, jumping from last place out of six after the short program to earn bronze. A month later, Wagner won her third U.S. title, breaking scoring records and taking the crown back from Gracie Gold.

At this time last year, Gold was the top U.S. hope going into Worlds (and she finished fifth, best of the Americans). But now she’s a question mark after missing the podium at her most recent event in February (without Wagner or Russians in the field).

“I watch her in practice, and I am amazed by her, the way that she can throw these triple-triples [jump combinations],” Lipinski said. “I’m always so baffled and confused that when she steps on the ice [in competition], the impression we get of her is she’s either going to fall apart, or she’s going to nail it.”

RELATED: Gold hopeful of turning turbulent season around

The third American is Polina Edmunds, who was the youngest U.S. competitor across all sports in Sochi. She struggled through the fall Grand Prix season and finished fourth at the U.S. Championships in January.

But the 16-year-old put it all together at the Four Continents Championships in Seoul in February, notching the biggest victory of her young senior career.

“Polina should be aiming for the podium, although I think stylistically she’s a little bit weaker than a lot of the top skaters at the moment,” Weir said. “So I think another year of development, and she will be one of the girls fighting for the podium next year.”

RELATED: Edmunds hopes reputation doesn’t impact Worlds

In ice dance, two U.S. couples are fighting for the podium. Neither is Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the Olympic champions who took this season off from competition and may not return.

Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who were eighth in Sochi and fifth at the 2014 Worlds, could win gold in Shanghai. They led Canadian rivals Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje after the Four Continents short program in February, but squandered it in the free dance and finished second.

“It really could be a toss-up,” Lipinski said. “Chock and Bates, they have so many differences, but at the same time they are like one. I feel that Charlie and Meryl have that, they skated as one, but they each looked different, had a different vibe going on, that it was interesting to watch.”

Siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani are the only members of the 16-skater U.S. team in Shanghai who own World Championships medals. The 2011 bronze medalists also finished third at Four Continents, but that competition did not include any European couples.

Enter the reigning World champions, Italians Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte. But they were beaten at the European Championships in January by France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.

Mao Asada still unsure of figure skating future

Bryan brothers to retire at 2020 U.S. Open, don’t plan on Olympics

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Bob and Mike Bryan said they will retire after the 2020 U.S. Open, ending a tennis career that’s included a men’s record 16 Grand Slam doubles titles together.

They also don’t plan to play at the Tokyo Olympics, their manager later said in an email.

The twins are 41 years old, having spent more than half their lives as professionals.

“A part of us, feels like, is dying,” Bob Bryan said on Tennis Channel. “But we’re really clear about this decision. It’s going to be great to have a finish line.”

Mike said that in 2020 they will play all the events they “really love,” including all four Grand Slams and American tournaments. The Olympics weren’t mentioned.

Rather, they will see how they’re feeling midway through the year, they said on the Tennis.com podcast.

The Bryans earned doubles gold at the 2012 London Games but withdrew from the Rio Olympics six days before the Opening Ceremony. They cited making their family’s health a “top priority” and later said Zika virus concerns were “a very small part of” the decision.

The Bryans own 118 titles overall but nearly ended their partnership after Bob underwent hip surgery a year ago. He rejoined Mike this season, reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals and winning two ATP doubles titles.

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A century later, Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori can bring Japan Olympic tennis to forefront

Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori
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When Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori take the courts at the Tokyo Olympics, perhaps together, they will be doing so 100 years after tennis players won Japan’s first Olympic medals in any sport.

Tennis is not usually one of the handful of marquee competitions at the Games, in part because it is one of the sports whose biggest event is not the Games themselves.

“We have been playing for these Grand Slams, and I think that’s why we train for,” Nishikori said at the U.S. Open in August, when asked to compare the meaning of winning one of tennis’ four annual majors to earning a medal at a home Olympics. “That’s going to be the biggest goal to winning Grand Slams.”

Yet the term “Grand Slam” had not been conceived — for golf or tennis — at the time of the 1920 Antwerp Games. There, Ichiya Kumagae earned silvers in singles and doubles with Seiichiro Kashio to become the first Japanese Olympic medalists.

Kumagae was Japan’s first notable international tennis player, reaching the 1918 U.S. Open semifinals (then called the U.S. National Championships) and beating Bill Tilden in the final of the 1919 Great Lakes Championships.

Kumagae, born in 1890, had not seen a tennis racket or ball until his 20s, according to Roger W. Ohnsorg‘s “The First Forty Years of American Tennis.”

“He came here to America in 1916, the possessor of a wonderful forehand drive and nothing else,” Tilden wrote in “The Art of Lawn Tennis.” Kumagae was listed by Ohnsorg as 5 feet, 3 inches, 134 pounds and requiring glasses at all times. Later in 1922, Kumagae’s engagement to the daughter of a wealthy politician was published as a news brief in The New York Times.

Nearly a century later, Nishikori and Osaka brought more Japanese tennis breakthroughs. Nishikori became the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final at the 2014 U.S. Open. Last year, Osaka became the first Japanese singles player to win a Grand Slam, also at the U.S. Open.

This past June, Japan’s annual Central Research sports survey (1,227 people, age 20+) put Nishikori and Osaka as its respondents’ fourth- and sixth-favorite athletes, past or present. Baseball players Ichiro (retired), Shohei Ohtani and Shigeo Nagashima (long retired) and figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu rounded out the top five.

Osaka’s U.S. Open title was voted the top sports moment of Emperor Akihito’s reign from 1989 to April 30, beating Ichiro’s retirement and Hanyu’s repeat Olympic crown in PyeongChang. Perhaps there was some recency bias.

Akatsuki Uchida, a tennis journalist from Japan, said that Nishikori’s U.S. Open final was a bigger moment for Japanese tennis than Osaka’s win over Serena Williams, though.

“Tennis at that time [in 2014] was not broadcast in Japan,” she said at the U.S. Open. “Media coverage of tennis was decreasing before Kei made that final. For most of Japanese, not tennis fans, but ordinary people, it came from out of nowhere. … He became like an overnight sensation. Since then, the situation of tennis in Japan changed dramatically.

“If [Osaka] wins the title before Kei won the title here, it could have been way bigger, but since Kei made the final before Naomi, it made Naomi’s achievement, still a big deal, less surprising.”

Another key difference: Nishikori spent the majority of his childhood in Japan, while Osaka’s family, with a Haitian father and Japanese mother, moved to the U.S. when she was 3 years old.

Osaka has dual citizenship, but Japanese law requires one to be chosen over the other by the 22nd birthday. Osaka turned 22 last month, before which she confirmed what most had assumed, that she picked Japan.

Uchida was unsure whether Osaka and Nishikori could propel tennis at the Tokyo Games into a greater spotlight among 33 total sports.

“But if Kei and Naomi played mixed doubles, that would be a big thing,” she said.

Nishikori has already reportedly said he plans to enter singles and doubles in Tokyo, the latter with Ben McLachlan, Japan’s top doubles player. McLachlan was born in New Zealand and in 2017 switched representation to Japan, his mother’s birth nation.

But Nishikori did not rule out adding mixed doubles.

“Very hot, very humid, playing singles and two doubles, I don’t know if I can,” he said before the U.S. Open. “I haven’t think too much yet, honestly. I don’t know. I will talk to Naomi later.”

Nishikori smiled as he brought up Osaka’s name at the end of his answer to a question that didn’t mention her. Later in the tournament, Osaka was told Nishikori’s thoughts.

“I would definitely play with him,” said Osaka, who in 2016 was the highest-ranked eligible player not to make the Rio Olympic field. “I just — I would actually need to practice doubles for the first time in my life. Because you cannot play mixed doubles with Kei Nishikori and lose in the first round of the Olympics in Tokyo. That would be the biggest — like, I would cry. I would actually cry for losing a doubles match. Yeah, definitely I think that that would be so, like, historic in a way. And I would love to do it, but I need to practice my doubles.”

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