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Wagner, Asada, Hanyu headline NHK Trophy in Japan; Grand Prix Final berths on the line

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Three-time U.S. national champion Ashley Wagner looks to qualify for her fourth consecutive Grand Prix Final at this weekend’s NHK Trophy in Nagano, Japan. A medal of any color should be good enough to get her to Barcelona, but she faces a tough field.

Japan’s Mao Asada returned to competition this season and is poised to qualify for the most elite competition since the Sochi Olympics (where she finished sixth) and 2014 World Championships (which she won). Finishing on the podium would earn a berth to the final for Asada. Also in the field are Americans Mirai Nagasu and Courtney Hicks, Japan’s Satoko Miyahara, and one of Russia’s darlings from last season, Anna Pogorilaya.

Olympic champion and last year’s Grand Prix Final winner Yuzuru Hanyu, surely to be the overwhelming crowd favorite in the men’s field, will look to improve his short program results from his other Grand Prix appearance. At Skate Canada, two of his three jumping passes recceived zero points. He rallied in the free skate, finishing second behind Canada’s Patrick Chan. Chan is essentially a lock for the final, while a top three finish would seal the deal for Hanyu.

MORE: Javier Fernandez qualifies for second straight home Grand Prix Final

Other men in the hunt for Grand Prix Final berths competing in Nagano include China’s Jin Boyang and Russia’s Maxim Kovtun, who also need podium finishes to lock up spots in Barcelona. Jin’s and Kovtun’s finishes will likely dictate whether or not American Max Aaron qualifies to the final. More on that process here. No U.S. man has qualified since Jeremy Abbott did it in 2011.

MORE: Jason Brown withdraws from NHK Trophy

Reigining U.S. pairs champions Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim can make the Grand Prix Final with a medal in Japan.

The U.S. is sending three ice dance couples to Japan, of which two have a shot at qualifying for Barcelona. Siblings and Sochi Olympians Maia and Alex Shibutani can finish in any 1-2 combination with Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue allowing for both duos to qualify for the final. Madison Chock and Evan Bates, U.S. ice dance champions, already qualified.

Icenetwork.com will stream for subscribers live coverage of men’s, women’s, pairs and ice dance short programs and free skates. NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra will have coverage Sunday from 4-6 p.m. ET.

Men’s short program — Friday, 2:10 a.m. ET (start order here)
Women’s short program — Friday, 5:05 a.m. ET (start order here)
Men’s free skate — Saturday, 2:30 a.m. ET
Women’s free skate — Saturday, 5:35 a.m. ET

Maria Sharapova wraps up tennis career after nearly two decades, career Slam

Maria Sharapova
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Maria Sharapova has announced her retirement after a professional tennis career that includes five Grand Slam wins, 36 singles titles and an Olympic silver medal.

Sharapova was only 17 when she won her first major in 2004 at Wimbledon. She won the U.S. Open in 2006 and the Australian Open in 2008 before completing her career Grand Slam in the 2012 French Open. She won the French Open again in 2014.

After moving from Russia to Florida at age 9 to train at the Bollettieri Academy, she made her professional debut just after her 14th birthday in 2001. She graduated to top-level events and majors within two years and reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon in 2003.

In 2004, she upset Lindsay Davenport and Serena Williams at Wimbledon and beat Williams again at the Tour Championships.

By 2005, the 6-foot-2 player had claimed the top spot in the world rankings. She remained in the top five for most of the next four years before suffering an injury to her right shoulder that limited her tournament schedule in 2008 and 2009. By 2011, she had reclaimed her status as a top-five player and remained there until 2016.

Her career declined after a positive drug test at the 2016 Australian Open. The substance in question, meldonium, had been given by Russian doctors to many athletes.

An initial suspension of two years was reduced to 15 months, but she wasn’t able to get back to her previous form. She won one more tournament in 2017 and reached the quarterfinals of the 2018 French Open, but she fared poorly in sporadic appearances in 2019. Her last match was a loss to Donna Vekic in the first round of the Australian Open in January.

SEE: Sharapova discusses reduced ban on TODAY

Her meldonium suspension also cost her commercial sponsorships and her role as a UN Development Program ambassador, which she earned with her work to help survivors of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.

She was involved in the Olympics as a silver medalist in 2012, losing to Williams in the final, and as one of the final torch bearers in the relay to the 2014 Olympics opening ceremony in her home country.

She’s also third on the all-time WTA earnings list behind Serena and Venus Williams, taking in more than $38m in her career on top of lucrative endorsement deals.

Federica Brignone hopes World Cup rival Mikaela Shiffrin will return soon

Shiffrin and Brignone
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Mikaela Shiffrin‘s prolonged absence from the World Cup Alpine skiing circuit has opened the door for Italy’s Federica Brignone to break the American’s grip on the season title, but Brignone hopes her friend and rival will be back in competition soon.

“I really do hope that she will return soon for herself so she can do again what she loves most,” Brignone said.

Brignone took the season lead from Shiffrin, who has won the last three World Cup overall titles, on Sunday and has a 73-point advantage with 11 of the season’s 40 races remaining. She also leads Shiffrin by 74 points in the giant slalom standings.

READ: Brignone moves into World Cup lead

No Italian woman has won the overall World Cup. Brignone was fifth in 2017 and won the Alpine combined discipline title last season.

Brignone will have a chance to clinch another Alpine combined discipline title and extend her overall lead in her home country this weekend. While some other sports events in Italy have been canceled or otherwise affected by the coronavirus outbreak, the host resort of La Thuile has so far been spared from the virus’ spread.

Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova, the only other skier with a realistic chance of winning the overall trophy, is dealing with a knee injury and might not be able to race this weekend. Vhlova leads Shiffrin by 20 points in the slalom standings.

Shiffrin has not competed since the death of her father Feb. 2, and she has not announced plans to return. She was not on pace to match her astounding 17-win 2018-19 season but still had six wins and had reached the podium in 13 of 19 races.

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