Sam Mikulak halfway to record romp at P&G Championships; Worlds team unclear

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INDIANAPOLIS — Sam Mikulak is clearly the best U.S. men’s gymnast for a third straight year. What’s left to be decided at the P&G Championships is which five men will join him on the World Championships team.

Mikulak, a 2012 Olympian, leads the P&G Championships all-around by a comfortable 2.35 points after six of 12 routines (full results here). He scored 92 points Friday night at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse, bettering his first-day score from his 2013 and 2014 title runs.

“I would’ve liked a little more stuck landings, put the icing on the cake,” said Mikulak, whose only major error was putting his hands down on a faulty floor exercise tumbling pass. He could break the record for margin of victory — 3.4 points — under the Code of Points implemented in 2006 with a strong showing Sunday (NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra, 3-4:30 p.m. ET).

Mikulak, who trailed by the same 2.35 points after the opening night last year, nailed his first five routines Friday, including a meet-record 16.25 on parallel bars. He’s en route to becoming the first man to win three straight U.S. all-around titles since Paul Hamm from 2002-04.

That Mikulak’s best score was on bars is notable because it was his lowest-scoring event at both the 2014 P&G Championships and the 2014 World Championships all-around. He scored in the 13s at those meets. He called the look of his new routine, which can be seen here, more international, polished and detail-oriented.

“It’s showing a level of professionalism,” said Mikulak, who was 12th in the all-around at the 2014 Worlds and is still looking for his first individual Olympic or Worlds medal. “I’m not just doing the skills; I’m showing off the skills to you. You want to make it look easy. That’s what gymnastics is all about.”

Mikulak’s coming from a different place as a professional gymnast. He stuffed his belongings in his car May 15 and drove from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Colorado Springs, Colo., moving into the U.S. Olympic Training Center.

Mikulak, 22, won three NCAA all-around titles at Michigan, the first in 2011, but he had exhausted NCAA eligibility.

“I kind of needed to be training with guys who had a similar goal that wasn’t NCAA Championships,” he said.

The goal for everyone chasing Mikulak in the all-around standings is the same going into Sunday. Not so much to catch Mikulak, which may be impossible, but to impress a World Championships selection committee.

The six-man team for the World Championships, plus two replacement athletes, will be named within 24 hours of the meet ending and likely on Sunday night.

The biggest factor in deciding the roster will be maximizing the team final score at Worlds (three men on each apparatus for 18 total routines), U.S. national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika said after Friday’s competition. The U.S. men won team bronze medals at the last two Worlds in 2011 and 2014, behind China and Japan.

The top Worlds team contenders are Donnell Whittenburg, who is second to Mikulak at the halfway point and made last year’s Worlds team, and third-place Paul Ruggeri III. The tattooed Ruggeri has never made a Worlds or Olympic team, but he has been a Worlds alternate three times.

Then there’s Olympian Jacob Dalton, who made the last three Worlds teams. Dalton pulled out of the P&G Championships earlier Friday with a small labrum tear in a shoulder and said he planned to petition for a spot on the Worlds team.

Mazeika made no guarantees that Dalton would be chosen, even though Dalton could be picked and later withdraw if his injury isn’t healed by Worlds in the last week of October.

Perhaps even more intriguing is the case of two-time Olympian Jonathan Horton, who at 29 hopes to become the oldest man to make a U.S. Olympic or Worlds team since Blaine Wilson at the Athens 2004 Games.

Horton is in fourth place in the all-around despite a disastrous vault where momentum on his landing carried him past two mats, off the elevated competition floor and nearly into a camera stand (video here). He scored 14.0.

“I don’t know where I stand in the eyes of a lot of people at the moment,” said Horton, whose last global meet was the 2012 Olympics, two major surgeries ago. “I feel like I’ve kind of got a chip on my shoulder and a lot to prove. … I feel like I am close to being back in my old form. … I have a little bit of confidence [to make the Worlds team], not quite sure.”

Olympic all-around bronze medalist Danell Leyva is in fifth place, followed by past Worlds team members Chris Brooks (sixth), Brandon Wynn (seventh), Alex Naddour (eighth) and Steven Legendre (10th). All erred on at least one apparatus Friday, counting scores in the 13s.

Key will be filling spots on potential weak events at Worlds. Pommel horse has long been a struggle for the Americans, and the leader in that event after the first night is Alec Yoder, the 18-year-old Youth Olympic all-around bronze medalist.

But Yoder is 20th in the all-around standings, just adding to the dilemma facing the Worlds team selectors.

The P&G Championships continue Saturday with the final night of women’s competition (NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra, 8-10 p.m. ET). Simone Biles leads by 1.4 points with Olympic champions Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman in third and fourth place, respectively.

Larry Bird, Kim Zmeskal remember Olympic bus meeting in Barcelona

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.”

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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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