AP

Nadia Comaneci ‘sick to my stomach’ watching Romania crumble at Worlds

Leave a comment

GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) — The reality hit and the tears, like the mistakes that doomed the Romanian women’s gymnastics team on the worst day in the program’s medal-strewn history, piled up quickly.

First Larisa Iordache cracked, the 19-year-old star’s composure slipping away after a handful of questions about what exactly happened. The rest of the team soon followed, leading Iordache to usher them out of the media zone Friday on the first — and Romania’s almost certainly last — day of the World Gymnastics Championships.

“Sorry, thank you,” Iordache politely said over her shoulder as she picked up speed.

The sooner one of the sport’s original superpowers moves on, the better.

While Russia eased to first with an opening total of 231.437, Romania’s stunning collapse in the opening session overshadowed everything that came after it. The same country that has medaled at every Summer Olympics since 1976 finished a distant eighth with the U.S. and China to come on Saturday.

The top eight qualifiers advance to next Tuesday’s finals and an automatic berth in the 2016 Summer Games. Romania will still head to Rio next year, just sooner than planned. Teams who finish between ninth and 16th will compete in a test event in April, where the final four Olympic spots will be determined.

Amazingly, jarringly, Romania will be in mix with the likes of Spain and Poland, whose programs would consider an Olympic trip a blessing. Not in Romania, where it has been a birthright since Nadia Comaneci was perfect in capturing the all-around gold in 1976.

“I am sick to my stomach,” Comaneci said Friday after watching from the stands.

Hard to blame her. She understood her home country walked onto the floor at The SSE Hydro shorthanded after veteran Catalina Ponor injured her leg in training a few weeks ago and Ana Maria Ocolisan twisted her ankle in practice on Thursday. Comaneci didn’t expect to see what amounted to a full-on meltdown.

Neither did anyone else, with Britain’s Elissa Downie calling it a “disaster.”

“You don’t want to wish that on any team,” Downie added. “Everybody works so hard for that championship, and nobody goes out to fall purposely. It’s just one of those things.”

Things that typically happened to someone other than the Romanians.

MORE GYMNASTICS: World Championships broadcast schedule

Yet from the start, they just seemed off. They were sluggish on floor exercise and uninspired on vault. Uneven bars, never a strong suit, proved their undoing. Laura Jurca was the only one among the five Romanian women to get through a routine without hitting the mat. Diana Bulimar came off twice, standing there stunned for several moments after her second miscue.

The mistakes continued on beam, with Iordache botching an early skill and appeared disinterested as she tried to complete her set. Comaneci, who attempted to give the girls a pep talk after Ocolisan went down, believes the program can rebound even by next summer.

“It’s not the best year for them,” Comaneci said. “I know they have a few girls that aren’t of age who are in the plan for next year’s Olympics. There’s been a lot of accidents also. It wasn’t very smooth for everybody and psychologically on top of that, (Ocolisan’s injury) hit them hard.”

While the Russians have problems of their own, including back issues for 2010 World champion Aliya Mustafina that have sidelined her indefinitely, they seemed to grow stronger as they made their way around the pink-splashed SSE Hydro. Russia posted the highest team scores on bars, vault and balance beam, mixing their precision with a seemingly effortless grace.

They were followed by the energetic Brits, buoyed by competing on home soil they continued the rise that started in the run-up to the London Games. Confident and calm, they weren’t cowed by the stage or the idea of leaving Romania in the rearview mirror, if only for one meet.

Neither were Italy, Japan, Canada or Brazil as the field behind the U.S., Russia and China grew more jumbled with flame being lit in Rio in 287 days.

Barring something unforeseen, Romania will almost certainly make it through the test event. It will likely be joined there by Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan. The 40-year-old — yes, she’s 40 — finished with an all-around total of 52.998 and will probably miss out on the vault finals here after sitting on her Produnova, basically two forward flips. She hardly seemed undeterred and why should she? It’s only one of the hardest vaults being done at an event where she’s twice the age of most of the competitors.

Three years ago, Chusovitina insisted she was going to retire after the London Games. Yet she’s still here, still flipping and still a marvel.

“We are women,” she said through a translator. “We say one thing and we change our mind. It happens all the time.”

It’s a sentiment that could be echoed by the Romanians. Comaneci is optimistic a rough morning doesn’t indicate tougher times ahead.

“Gymnastics is still popular (in Romania),” she said. “Hopefully, we’ll forget about this day.”

 

MORE GYMNASTICS: U.S. faces familiar dilemma in qualifying

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

Getty Images
Leave a comment

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.

MORE: Simona Halep, Nadia Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

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

Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori
Getty Images
Leave a comment

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.”

MORE: Simona Halep, Nadia Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!