U.S.’ ‘most improved’ gymnast hopes to best Gabby Douglas at American Cup

Maggie Nichols
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NEWARK, N.J. — Maggie Nichols will walk into the Prudential Center for the AT&T American Cup on Saturday (NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra, 1 p.m. ET) more than ready to compete against the Olympic all-around champion, her friend and usual teammate Gabby Douglas.

Nichols will have two very important things on her side: a mature new floor routine and the approval of U.S. national team coordinator Martha Karolyi.

In practice Thursday, Nichols did a run-through of her brand-new floor exercise, which has more of the Latin-inspired choreography that became her signature in 2015.

Her previous routine, which earned bronze at the 2015 World Championships, used a piece of paso doble music called “España Cañí.”

Her new music for 2016 — the music Nichols hopes to hear in Rio in August — is similar, “a tango-ish sort of thing,” she said.

“It’s still very new,” Nichols said Thursday, “so it won’t be as good as I probably can dance. I’ll try my best.”

The sophisticated routine reflects the grown-up athlete Nichols has become after her breakout 2015.

In August, she led after the first three of eight rotations at the P&G Championships, eventually finishing second behind Simone Biles and ahead of 2012 Olympians Douglas, Aly Raisman and Kyla Ross.

Two months later, she earned team gold and floor bronze in her World Championships debut in Glasgow, Scotland.

She also added high school graduate to her list of accomplishments, finishing classes at Roseville Area High in Minnesota in December.

She’s now focused entirely on gymnastics. Nichols plans to stay amateur and compete collegiately at Oklahoma in January 2017, after the expected post-Olympic whirlwind dies down.

While her résumé speaks for itself, it was the endorsement of Karolyi that marked her as a Rio contender.

“Maggie Nichols, the biggest improvement I can see in this quadrennium is her,” Karolyi said last August. “At the beginning, she was just average, new elite, two and a half, three years ago. And every year, very seriously, very committed, very dedicated, she worked her way, and I think at this moment she is showing definitely world-class gymnastics.”

Nichols feels she’s still improving.

“My skills are getting cleaner, and everything’s getting more powerful,” she said.

Karolyi’s feedback has been more about mentality, that she urged Nichols to “stay really focused and calm and do what I usually do.”

Not that Nichols or Karolyi are worried that she’ll falter under the pressure at the American Cup.

“Maggie never missed a routine last season in any competition,” Karolyi told USA Gymnastics. “She handles very well the pressure, and she is one of those girls who really likes to perform. Sometimes gymnasts get a little intimidated, but not her.”

Nichols isn’t thinking about the fact that she’ll be facing off with the reigning Olympic all-around champion on Saturday.

Though Douglas earned World Championships all-around silver behind Biles in October, Nichols posted an all-around score in the team final that would have won bronze in the individual final.

Does Nichols consider herself the favorite Saturday?

“I haven’t thought too much about it, but it’s my goal so that’d be really cool if it came out that way,” Nichols said.

A few months before the London Olympics, Douglas posted the highest score at the American Cup, but the win wasn’t official because she was competing as an exhibition athlete.

All four U.S. female all-around Olympic champions — Douglas, Nastia Liukin, Carly Patterson and Mary Lou Retton — won the American Cup the same year as their Olympic title.

Biles, the three-time U.S. and World all-around champion and Rio Olympic favorite, was not entered in the American Cup.

USA Gymnastics could enter a maximum of two gymnasts and wanted to get an early look at Douglas and Nichols.

Biles is slated to make her 2016 debut at the Jesolo Trophy in Italy in two weeks.

MORE: Mary Lou Retton reflects on American Cup win 

Correction: Due to an editing error, Maggie Nichols was incorrectly credited with posting a higher World Championships all-around score than Gabby Douglas in an earlier version of this post.

2023 French Open women’s singles draw, scores

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At the French Open, Iga Swiatek of Poland eyes a third title at Roland Garros and a fourth Grand Slam singles crown overall.

The tournament airs live on NBC Sports, Peacock and Tennis Channel through championship points in Paris.

Swiatek, the No. 1 seed from Poland, can join Serena Williams and Justine Henin as the lone women to win three or more French Opens since 2000.

Having turned 22 on Wednesday, she can become the youngest woman to win three French Opens since Monica Seles in 1992 and the youngest woman to win four Slams overall since Williams in 2002.

FRENCH OPEN: Broadcast Schedule | Men’s Draw

But Swiatek is not as dominant as in 2022, when she went 16-0 in the spring clay season during an overall 37-match win streak.

She retired from her last pre-French Open match with a right thigh injury and said it wasn’t serious. Before that, she lost the final of another clay-court tournament to Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus.

Sabalenka, the No. 2 seed, and Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, the No. 4 seed and Wimbledon champion, are the top challengers in Paris.

No. 3 Jessica Pegula, the highest-seeded American man or woman, was eliminated in the third round.

No. 6 Coco Gauff, runner-up to Swiatek last year, is the best hope to become the first American to win a Grand Slam singles title since Sofia Kenin at the 2020 Australian Open. The 11-major drought is the longest for U.S. women since Seles won the 1996 Australian Open.

MORE: All you need to know for 2023 French Open

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2023 French Open Women’s Singles Draw

French Open Women's Singles Draw French Open Women's Singles Draw French Open Women's Singles Draw French Open Women's Singles Draw

Jessica Pegula upset in French Open third round

Jessica Pegula French Open

Jessica Pegula, the highest-ranked American man or woman, was upset in the third round of the French Open.

Elise Mertens, the 28th seed from Belgium, bounced the third seed Pegula 6-1, 6-3 to reach the round of 16. Pegula, a 29-year-old at a career-high ranking, had lost in the quarterfinals of four of the previous five majors.

Down 4-3 in the second set, Pegula squandered three break points in a 14-minute game. Mertens then broke Pegula to close it out.

“I feel like I was still playing good points. Elise was just being really tough, not making a lot of errors and making me play every single ball. And with the windy conditions, I felt like it definitely played into her game,” Pegula said.

Pegula’s exit leaves No. 6 seed Coco Gauff, last year’s runner-up, as the last seeded hope to become the first U.S. woman to win a major title since Sofia Kenin at the 2020 Australian Open. The 11-major span without an American champ is the longest for U.S. women since Monica Seles won the 1996 Australian Open.

Mertens, who lost in the third or fourth round of the last six French Opens, gets 96th-ranked Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the 2021 French Open runner-up, for a spot in the quarterfinals.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men | Broadcast Schedule

Also Friday, No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus won a third consecutive match in straight sets, then took questions from a selected group of reporters rather than conducting an open press conference. She cited mental health, two days after a tense back and forth with a journalist asking questions about the war, which she declined to answer.

“For many months now I have answered these questions at tournaments and been very clear in my feelings and my thoughts,” she said Friday. “These questions do not bother me after my matches. I know that I have to provide answers to the media on things not related to my tennis or my matches, but on Wednesday I did not feel safe in press conference.”

Sabalenka next plays American Sloane Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open champion now ranked 30th, who reached the fourth round with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 win over Kazakh Yulia Putintseva.

Ukrainian Elina Svitolina, the former world No. 3, is into the fourth round of her first major since October childbirth. She’ll play ninth-seeded Russian Daria Kasatkina.

Novak Djokovic continued his bid for a men’s record-breaking 23rd major title by dispatching No. 29 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5), 6-2. Djokovic’s fourth-round opponent will be No. 13 Hubert Hurkacz of Poland or 94th-ranked Peruvian Juan Pablo Varillas.

Later Friday, top seed Carlos Alcaraz faces 26th seed Denis Shapovalov of Canada.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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