U.S. Figure Skating Championships women’s preview

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Ashley Wagner can become the oldest U.S. women’s figure skating champion in 79 years this week. Standing in her way? Gracie Gold.

Wagner, 24, and Gold, 20, combined to win the last four national titles and finished within two places of each other at last three World Championships.

Each hopes to become the first U.S. woman to earn an individual Olympic or World Championships medal since 2006 at this spring’s Worlds in Boston.

“This event is going to be the best event at Nationals,” 1998 Olympic champion and NBC analyst Tara Lipinski said. “You have Gracie and Ashley technically evenly matched. They both struggle when it comes to actually competing and having that mental nerve when it counts.”

The winner automatically qualifies for Worlds. The other two women on the Worlds team will likely be the silver and bronze medalists but will be chosen by a committee following the U.S. Championships.

Icenetwork.com will stream the short program from St. Paul, Minn., on Thursday at 9 p.m. ET. NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra will air the free skate live on Saturday at 8 p.m.

Here’s the full competition and broadcast schedule.

Here’s a look at women’s skaters to watch:

Ashley Wagner
Age: 24
Hometown: Los Angeles
Credentials: 2012-13, ’15 U.S. champion, seventh at 2014 Olympics, fifth at 2015 World Championships

Last year, Wagner became the first woman to win three U.S. titles since Michelle Kwan (who won nine). This year, Wagner can become the oldest U.S. women’s champion since Maribel Vinson in 1937.

At 24, she’s still at or near the top of her game. She won Skate Canada in November and placed fourth at the Grand Prix Final in December, proving the best U.S. woman in fall competition (based on results, not necessarily scores, more on that in the Gold section).

Wagner’s goals go beyond national championships. Her best shot at a Worlds medal may come in two months, with home-ice advantage in Boston. She’s also looking to the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics, with a chance to better a seventh-place finish from Sochi.

Lipinski’s Take: “Ashley, to me, is a slightly stronger competitor [than Gold]. Mentally, when she goes out there, she gets mad, and she can really sell a performance.”

Ashley Wagner: ‘The end is in sight’

Gracie Gold
Age: 20
Hometown: Hermosa Beach, Calif.
Credentials: 2014 U.S. champion, fourth at 2014 Olympics and 2015 World Championships

Gold finished 15.48 points behind Wagner at the 2015 U.S. Championships, when Wagner shattered Gold’s records for highest Nationals women’s free skate and total scores. Gold competed then under less-than-ideal preparation, following a small stress fracture in her left foot late that fall.

She came back to better Wagner at the World Championships by 3.95 points two months later. They finished fourth and fifth.

This season, Gold posted better scores than Wagner in the Grand Prix series (by 2.59 in the short program; 5.62 in the free skate). But Wagner then beat Gold by 5.02 in the Grand Prix Final in December, making up a 6.48-point deficit from the short program. Again, they were fourth and fifth.

Lipinski’s Take: By far she is the best in the U.S. Technically, she is insane. When I watch her in practice, she hits triple, triple, triple, one after another, just like it’s nothing. She gives me chills. When I asked her what happens when you go out and have to compete, she just says she struggles to get into that zone.

“Even though she did not win last year, I still believe this is hers to lose.”

Gracie Gold discusses retirement

Karen Chen
Age: 16
Hometown: Fremont, Calif.
Credentials: 2015 U.S. bronze medalist

Chen’s third-place finish in her senior Nationals debut last year could have put her on the three-woman World Championships team, but she was too young for the event. So fourth-place Polina Edmunds went instead. Chen took eighth at Junior Worlds (after being ninth in 2014).

This season, her first as a senior international skater, Chen placed fifth at both Skate America and Cup of China. Edmunds and Courtney Hicks, two other contenders to make the Worlds team, posted better Grand Prix series scores than Chen.

Polina Edmunds
Age: 17
Hometown: San Jose, Calif.
Credentials: 2014 U.S. silver medalist, ninth at 2014 Olympics, eighth at 2014-15 World Championships

Edmunds joined Gold and Wagner as the third U.S. woman at the 2014 Olympics and 2014 and 2015 World Championships, but her hold on that place is very tenuous.

For one, she was fourth at last year’s Nationals behind Chen. She won the Four Continents Championship a month later over Gold and Japan’s best skaters, but did not follow that up this past fall. Edmunds was sixth at Skate Canada and fourth at Rostelecom Cup, though she would finish third this week if all skaters repeat their best Grand Prix scores.

Mirai Nagasu
Age: 22
Hometown: Colorado Springs, Colo.
Credentials: 2014 U.S. bronze medalist, 2008 U.S. champion, fourth at 2010 Olympics

The 2010 Olympian won the U.S. Championships the last time they were held in St. Paul in 2008 but was seventh or worse at Nationals three of the last four years. The outlier was her famous third-place finish in 2014, when fourth-place Wagner made the Olympic team instead.

Nagasu would finish sixth this week if all skaters repeat their best Grand Prix season scores, though Nagasu received one Grand Prix start, while most others got two.

Courtney Hicks
Age: 20
Hometown: Chino Hills, Calif.
Credentials: 2015 NHK Trophy silver medalist

Hicks, the 2011 U.S. junior champion, notched the best Grand Prix finish by a U.S. woman other than Wagner and Gold in more than three years with her silver at NHK Trophy in Japan in November.

She’s been known to practice a triple Axel, not done by a U.S. woman since 2006 World champion Kimmie Meissner, but did not perform it in her two Grand Prix starts in the fall. She’ll almost certainly need to beat her best U.S. senior Nationals finish — fourth in her 2013 debut — to make her first Worlds team.

VIDEO: Dorothy Hamill remembers 1976 Olympic figure skating title on TODAY

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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