Michael Phelps snaps winless skid, warms to adding event

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Michael Phelps snapped a six-race winless streak Saturday, reached a goal time and warmed up more to re-adding the 200m butterfly, an event he previously swore off, to a potential 2016 Olympic trials schedule.

The 22-time Olympic medalist notched a 200m butterfly victory — at a Pro Swim Series meet in Santa Clara, Calif. — his first win in the event since the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials. Also Saturday, Missy Franklin took third in the 100m backstroke at her first meet since the NCAA Championships in March.

Phelps clocked 1:57.62 (video here), swimming 1.28 seconds faster than the morning preliminaries and beating the two fastest U.S. men in the event from 2014 (Tyler ClaryTom Shields).

“I said if I wanted to set myself up for a good time at the end of the summer, I need to go 1:57 here,” Phelps told media in Santa Clara. “I’m very pleased.”

Phelps improved on his time from May, when he went 2:00.77 in his first 200m butterfly final since taking silver at the London 2012 Olympics.

Phelps’ 200m fly world record is 1:51.51 from 2009. His Olympic debut came in the 200m fly, when he placed fifth at the Sydney 2000 Olympics at age 15, clocking 1:56.50. His first world record also came in the 200m fly, long his signature event.

But Phelps was adamant last year in his return from a 20-month competitive retirement that he would not compete in the 200m fly again. The 200m fly was the second-most grueling event on Phelps’ program at the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympics behind the 400m individual medley.

In May 2014, a smiling Phelps cut off a reporter’s question at the mention of the 200m butterfly.

“Nope, uh-uh,” Phelps said then. “I will tell you that that race and the 400m IM are definitely gone.”

One month ago, Phelps had a different mindset.

“For me to ever want to really compete at that race, I would make sure that I was in the best shape possible,” Phelps said one day before his 2:00.77 for seventh place in Charlotte in May. “I know what I have to do to be able to get there. I don’t know if I’m ready to do that.”

His coach, Bob Bowman, appears to be training Phelps to get into that shape. In between Charlotte and Santa Clara, Phelps did a set of 150m butterflies as opposed to the usual 100m butterflies.

“We’ve been doing things in workout that I haven’t done in a long time in butterfly,” Phelps said on Universal Sports. “Having that confidence back helped me [Saturday].”

Phelps’ victory improved not only on his Charlotte result and time, but also his overall feeling.

“I didn’t die like I did in Charlotte,” he said. “It wasn’t as painful as it was in Charlotte.”

Phelps said he needs to improve the second half of his 200m butterfly if he’s going to continue swimming it. In Santa Clara, Phelps swam the second 100 in 1:02.06.

“I need to get that second 100 under a minute because there aren’t many swimmers in the world who can do that,” Phelps said. “I know what I have to do to be able to do that.”

If Phelps does swim the 200m butterfly at the 2016 U.S. Olympic trials (June 26-July 3 in Omaha next year), he could try to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team in all but one of the events he swam at the Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 Olympics, when he won medals in all of his events (all gold in Beijing).

In 2012, Phelps talked of swimming a lighter load for the London Games, but he re-added the 400m IM (after he had sworn it off) and swam in seven races (including three relays) in the British capital. Phelps has regularly been swimming the 100m fly, 100m and 200m freestyles and 200m IM in this comeback.

Phelps said Saturday that he’s more open to 200m fly training now than he was going into the London Olympics, where he was beaten by South African Chad le Clos for gold by .05.

“I almost got away with doing no work for a 200m fly,” for the London Games, Phelps said Saturday, “and almost won a gold medal.”

It’s clear Phelps is cognizant of what the rest of the world is doing in the 200m fly. He said last month it’s “not that fast an event” when comparing times now to times a decade ago.

In Sydney 2000, Tom Malchow won gold in 1:55.35. Two men worldwide have broken 1:55 since the London Olympics, Japan’s Daiya Seto and South Africa’s le Clos.

“I’ve talked about it before, and we haven’t really seen much progression in this event over the last couple of years,” Phelps said Saturday. “I’m not sure if I’m going to swim it this summer at Nationals [in San Antonio in August], or what’s really going to happen over the next year.”

Phelps’ time Saturday was not all that impressive globally, ranking 40th in the world this year and fifth among Americans.

Also Saturday, Olympic 100m free champion Nathan Adrian took the 50m free in 21.97, ranking eighth in the world this year.

FINA Swimmer of the Year Katinka Hosszu of Hungary swept the 200m butterfly and 100m backstroke after winning the 400m IM and taking second in the 200m free on Friday.

Hosszu beat the Olympic and World champion Franklin, who was third and also finished third in the 200m free Friday.

Simone Manuel prevailed in the women’s 50m free in 24.75, ranking 11th in the world this year. Manuel, a rising Stanford sophomore, has been the fastest American in the event each of the last three years.

Ryan Murphy, a rising California junior, easily beat Olympic champion Matt Grevers and World silver medalist David Plummer in the 100m backstroke. Murphy clocked 53.83, followed by Grevers (54.45) and Plummer (54.55). Olympic silver medalist Nick Thoman was fifth (55.25).

Grevers remains the fastest American this year (53.27), with Great Britain’s Chris Walker-Hebborn leading the world (52.88).

Russian Yulia Efimova and American Cody Miller won the 200m breaststrokes after capturing the 100m breasts on Friday.

Competition concludes in Santa Clara on Sunday (USASwimming.org, 8 p.m. ET).

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Rafael Nadal can tie Roger Federer’s Slam record with 13th French Open

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For all of the many qualities contributing to Rafael Nadal’s unprecedented superiority at the French Open — the bullwhip of a high-bouncing lefty forehand, the reflex returns, the cover-every-corner athleticism, the endless energy and grit — there’s one element that stands above all the rest.

According to the opponent Nadal beat in the last two finals in Paris, anyway.

“You go into the match knowing that even your best tennis, even if you play it over three, four hours, might not be enough. I mean, if you do it, you maybe have a little chance, but you have to go to your limit on every single rally, every single point,” Dominic Thiem, who won the U.S. Open less than two weeks ago, told The Associated Press.

“That makes it not easy to go into the match,” Thiem said. “And that’s the mental part, I guess.”

When main-draw competition begins Sunday at Roland Garros, Thiem and every other player in the men’s bracket will be pursuing Nadal as the 34-year-old from Spain pursues history.

If Nadal manages to claim a 13th French Open championship — extending his own record for the most singles trophies won by anyone at any major tennis tournament — he would, more significantly, also collect his 20th Grand Slam title overall, tying Roger Federer’s record for a man.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Nadal’s tally elsewhere: four U.S. Opens, two Wimbledons, one Australian Open.

He spoke Friday in Paris about what “probably are the most difficult conditions for me ever in Roland Garros” — a lack of matches in 2020; a new brand of tennis balls (“super slow, heavy”); cooler weather and plenty of rain in the forecast.

“But you know what?” Nadal said. “I am here to fight and to play with the highest intensity possible.”

Asked recently about the possibility of catching the 39-year-old Federer, out for the rest of the season after a pair of operations on his right knee, Nadal expressed a sentiment he’s uttered before.

Climbing the Grand Slam list, Nadal said, is “not an obsession at all.”

“I know that you put a lot of attention on all of this,” he replied when the topic was raised last week at the Italian Open, Nadal’s first tournament since February because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Of course I would love to finish my career with 25, but (that’s) something that probably will not happen. I’m going to keep fighting to produce chances, and then when I finish my career, let’s see, no?” he said. “I just want to keep enjoying tennis. And that’s it. If I am playing well, I know I normally have my chances. If not, going to be impossible. That’s it.”

There is, of course, another great of the game playing during this era and, like Nadal, gaining on Federer.

That would be No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic, who had won five of seven major titles to raise his total to 17 before being disqualified at the U.S. Open for accidentally hitting a line judge with a ball while walking to a changeover.

In this oddest of years, the Grand Slam season will drawing to a close in France; the clay-court major was postponed from May until now because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Roland Garros is the last Slam, the last opportunity of this season. So we all know who the main favorite is there: Obviously, it’s Nadal. And everything that he has achieved there, losing maybe a couple matches in his entire career on that court … is probably the most impressive record that anybody has on any court,” Djokovic said. “So, yeah, of course you would put him right there in front as a favorite to win it.”

For the record: Nadal has won 93 of 95 matches in the French Open and his last 21 in a row.

So what makes him so dominant there?

“He’s an unbelievably great tennis player. Probably on clay, a little bit better than on the other surfaces,” Thiem said. “He’s left-handed, which makes it very uncomfortable. And then his forehand, the topspin on the clay, it’s cruel to play.”

Thiem takes notes and hopes to emulate aspects of Nadal’s game.

So do others.

In Rome, for example, two-time Grand Slam champion Simona Halep and one of her coaches, Artemon Apostu-Efremov, caught one of Nadal’s training sessions.

“We were watching the way he hits the ball, the acceleration, the energy he has on the court and the way he practices 100%. It’s always an inspiration,” Apostu-Efremov said.

“This dedication on the court and focus on court,” he said, “it’s something that, for sure, could be transferred to Simona.”

Nadal wound up losing his third match in Italy, which is neither ideal form nor the sort of prep work he is accustomed to ahead of Roland Garros.

Still, Nadal at the French Open is unlike anyone else, anywhere else.

“Regardless of how he feels, I’m sure he’ll find a way,” said Stefanos Tsitsipas, a 2019 Australian Open semifinalist seeded No. 5 in Paris. “He always finds a way, every single year. Clay is his surface. I’m sure he’s going to do well.”

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Skate America will not have fans

Skate America
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Skate America, the top annual international figure skating competition held in the U.S., will not have spectators in Las Vegas from Oct. 23-25.

U.S. Figure Skating said the restriction was “due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in strict accordance with the Nevada Gaming Control Board guidelines.”

Skate America is the first top-level event of the season, kicking off the six-stop Grand Prix Series leading up to December’s Grand Prix Final, which is scheduled this season for Beijing.

The series has already been modified to restrict fields to skaters from the host country or to the event closest to their training location.

Grand Prix fields have not been announced, though two-time world champion Nathan Chen said last month he hoped to go for a fourth straight Skate America title.

Chen trains in California. Most, if not all, top U.S. skaters train in the U.S. or Canada, which means they will compete in Skate America or Skate Canada if they participate in the Grand Prix Series at all.

Two-time U.S. women’s champion Alysa Liu will not be old enough to compete on the Grand Prix until the 2021-22 Olympic season.

Skaters are limited to one Grand Prix start this season. In past seasons, they’ve typically competed twice.

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