U.S. table tennis players, 13 and 14 years old, have shot at Rio Olympics

Crystal Wang
JOOLA USA
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Every U.S. Olympian since 1996 has been age 15 or older. That may change this year.

Crystal Wang, a 13-year-old table tennis player, will be one of four U.S. women seeking one possible Olympic berth in a North American Olympic qualifier in Markham, Ontario, from April 8-10.

Wang, who was born Feb. 23, 2002, was the fourth and final U.S. woman to advance to the North American qualifier at the Olympic table tennis trials last week.

She joins 2015 U.S. champion Jiaqi Zheng and fellow Olympic trials winners Chen Wang (a 42-year-old 2008 Olympic quarterfinalist) and Lily Zhang (2012 Olympian) on the North American qualifier team.

A nation may qualify no more than two individual table tennis players per gender for an Olympics. Jennifer Wu took one of those U.S. spots by winning the 2015 Pan American Games.

If Wang is the top U.S. finisher in Markham in April (and first or second overall), she will become the youngest U.S. Olympian since 1976, according to sports-reference.com.

It will be challenging for Wang to beat her countrywomen, let alone the host Canadians, the only other nation competing.

Wang lost in the quarterfinals on the first two days of the U.S. Olympic trials last week before prevailing on the last day against a field that didn’t include any of the other three women who had already clinched spots in the North American qualifier.

The other three Americans are ranked between Nos. 89 and 146 by the International Table Tennis Federation. Wang is ranked No. 189. Canada has a player ranked No. 113.

If Wang doesn’t make it, then Sharon Alguetti, who turns 15 on May 14, could become the youngest U.S. Olympian since Michael Phelps in 2000.

He will be one of four U.S. men seeking a possible two individual Olympic berths in the North American Olympic qualifier from April 8-10.

Alguetti’s Olympic chances may be greater than Wang’s since there is one more men’s berth at stake (the 2015 Pan Am Games champion was a Brazilian), and he was the third of four U.S. men to qualify for the North American event.

Alguetti joins 2015 U.S. champion Yijun Feng and Olympic trials winners Timothy Wang (2012 Olympian) and Kanak Jha.

Alguetti lost to Wang at the Olympic trials before beating Jha.

No American men are ranked in the world top 300. Jha is No. 302. Alguetti is No. 549. Canada’s best player is ranked No. 63.

The U.S. Olympic table tennis team will increase in size in May if it is the top-ranked North American team in men’s or women’s International Table Tennis Federation rankings. If so, it will send three players to Rio in the respective gender(s), adding its top finishers from the April tournament.

MORE: U.S.’ greatest Olympic table tennis player unretires

Novak Djokovic wins 10th Australian Open, ties Rafael Nadal for most men’s Slam titles

Novak Djokovic Australian Open
Getty
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic was simply too good at the most crucial moments and claimed his 10th Australian Open championship and 22nd Grand Slam title overall by beating Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) in the final at Rod Laver Arena on Sunday night.

The victory allows Djokovic to return to No. 1 in the ATP rankings.

The 35-year-old from Serbia did not compete in the Australian Open a year ago after being deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19.

Government restrictions have eased since, and he was able to get a visa this time despite still not having gotten the shots against the illness caused by the coronavirus.

Now Djokovic has run his winning streak at the hard-court tournament to 28 matches.

His 10th trophy in Australia adds to the record he already held. His 22 major championships — which include seven from Wimbledon, three from the U.S. Open and two from the French Open — are tied with Rafael Nadal for the most by a man in the history of tennis.

Tsitsipas fell to 0-2 in major finals. He also lost to Djokovic at the 2021 French Open.

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Chock/Bates, Knierim/Frazier futures unclear after clear-cut wins at figure skating nationals

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SAN JOSE, California – They have both begun the new Olympic cycle as the undisputed national leaders in their figure skating disciplines, cementing that status with U.S. titles Saturday – the fourth for ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates, the second for the pairs’ team of Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier.

At this point, their respective paths to the 2026 Winter Games seem free and clear of challengers.

The question for the dancers and the pair is how far down that road they intend to go.

“I don’t know what the next four years will hold,” Chock said. “But we’re committed to each other and our goals, and we’ll decide when the time comes.”

Chock, 30, and Bates, 33, engaged to be married in the summer of 2024, have been at this a long time. And their trophy case is packed to the gills, with the only gaps a world title and an individual Olympic medal.

They have competed together at the senior level in the U.S. Championships for 12 seasons, winning medals at the last 11. They have been to nine world championships, winning three medals, and three Olympics (four for Bates), winning a yet-to-be-awarded team medal last year in Beijing.

(The unresolved doping case involving Russian skater Kamila Valiyeva has delayed the awarding of the 2022 team event medals. Maybe it will become a wedding present for Chock and Bates. Or a fifth anniversary present…)

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Until this year, Chock and Bates had faced formidable rivals on the national scene – 2014 Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White; 2018 Olympic bronze medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani; and 2022 Olympic bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, with whom Chock and Bates traded gold medals over the previous four seasons. All have retired from competition.

Saturday, they cruised to the gold medal by 22.29 points over Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, the largest ice dance victory margin at nationals since 2006. In a discipline where established hierarchy weighs heavily, Chock and Bates find themselves in the unfamiliar position of being on a metaphorical easy street to the top step of the U.S. podium.

“We – at least I – felt nervous today,” Bates said. “We (still) felt compelled to skate well. The lack of maybe the Hubbell-Donohue back and forth did not mitigate the specialness today.”

Knierim, 31, and Frazier, 30, have similar longevity at nationals, even if they did not team up until 2020, taking the U.S. title in their first season together.

Knierim skated at seven nationals with her husband, Chris, winning three titles, Frazier at seven with Haven Denney, winning once.

Knierim and Frazier had expected to retire after last season, when they missed nationals because Frazier contracted Covid but went on to place sixth at the Olympics and unexpectedly became the first U.S. team to win a pairs’ world title since 1979. Their experiences on the Stars on Ice Tour led them to reconsider.

“It made sense on our timeline to move on,” Knierim told me in September. “We had done everything we could in two years.

“Yet it felt like it could be sad or disappointing to end a really talented career together so soon. Being on tour had opened our eyes to how in synch and unified we were on the ice. So there was a little bit of curiosity, a feeling of ‘What else are we capable of?’”

Their personal circumstances have changed during the course of this season. Chris Knierim starts work Thursday as skating director of a rink in the Chicago suburbs, and the Knierims recently bought a house in that area.

Knierim and Frazier have been training at a rink in Irvine, California. Should they decide to continue as competitors after this season, it would almost certainly entail a move to Chicago for Frazier.

Knierim insisted her house purchase was not an indication of what her plans with Frazier are.

“Right now, we are staying the course, based in Irvine through the world championships (in late March),” Knierim said before winning her fifth U.S. title.

“We do have some changes ahead of us. But I’d hate to jump ahead and say yes or no to next season. We learned that last season.”

Frazier spoke Saturday of reflecting throughout this season about their personal journeys and their partnership, the kind of reflection that often accompanies doing something for the last time.

“We just are trying to soak it in as if it could be your last, but the future is unknown,” Frazier said.

Knierim and Frazier prevailed Saturday with the largest winning margin, 31.11 points, in the 18 years that the International Judging System has been used at nationals.

They saved several points due to her quick thinking.

After Frazier put his hand to the ice on the triple toe loop that was to open a triple-double-double-jump combination, Knierim saw that her partner was going to follow with only a single jump and followed suit. It led to the delightful oddity of side-by-side single toe loops.

Nicely executed ones, too.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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