Tatyana Volosozhar, Maksim Trankov
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World Figure Skating Championships pairs preview: ‘A game of Russians’

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BOSTON — Russian pairs, for so long the standard of figure skating excellence, did not come close to a medal at the 2015 World Championships.

Don’t expect a repeat of that failure at TD Garden this week.

“Pairs will be a game of Russians,” said Johnny Weir, NBC Olympics analyst and noted lover of all things Russian.

Both Weir and colleague Tara Lipinski tap Russia to go one-two here, which it hasn’t done since 2005.

The difference from last year is that the best Russian pairs are actually competing at Worlds.

Olympic champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov and Sochi silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov sat out the 2015 event in Shanghai, where the best Russian finish was fifth.

They’ve returned with force this season.

Volosozhar and Trankov, who wed in August, swept the Russian and European Championships in the winter. Stolbova and Klimov won the Russian Grand Prix and the Grand Prix Final in the fall. The pairs share a coach in Nina Mozer but haven’t gone head-to-head since the Sochi Winter Games.

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Which pair should be the favorite this week? Lipinski and Weir disagree.

“The reigning Olympic champions in my mind are on a different level,” Lipinski said of Volosozhar and Trankov, winners of 11 of their last 12 top-level international starts dating to 2012. “They have the air. They have the confidence of Olympic champions, and when they take the ice, they grab your attention.”

Weir called Volosozhar and Trankov’s “Dracula” free skate “downtrodden” and “labored,” questioning their conditioning after not competing at all in 2014-15.

He likes Stolbova and Klimov to break through for their first World title following four silvers and one bronze combined at the Olympics, Worlds and Europeans.

“Stolbova and Klimov of Russia have been in a class by themselves,” he said.

But their form is hazy, having not competed in more than three months due to reported back and shoulder injuries to Klimov.

What’s clear is Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford are not favored to repeat as World champions.

Further down, surprise U.S. champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea and Grand Prix Finalists Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim are even less likely to snap the U.S. pairs medal drought set to reach 14 years.

Scimeca and Knierim, who were the first U.S. pair to make the prestigious Grand Prix Final since 2007, can aim for the top seven, Weir said. They were seventh at both the Grand Prix Final and last year’s Worlds and have better international standing than Worlds rookies Kayne and O’Shea.

“[Scimeca and Knierim] have been on the world stage before, and they’re pushing the bar technically,” Lipinski said. “That’s all you can ask for, especially with the state U.S. pairs have been in for so long.”

Lipinski and Weir’s medal picks from last week:

Lipinski
Gold: Volosozhar/Trankov (RUS)
Silver: Stolbova/Klimov (RUS)
Bronze: Duhamel/Radford (CAN)

Weir
Gold: Stolbova/Klimov (RUS)
Silver: Volosozhar/Trankov (RUS)
Bronze: Savchenko/Massot (GER)

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Justin Morneau nixes Olympic baseball qualifying return

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Justin Morneau, the 2006 AL MVP with the Minnesota Twins, was taken off Canada’s Olympic baseball qualifying roster before he would have played his first competitive game in more than two years.

Morneau, 38, experienced an unspecified setback in training and was replaced on Canada’s roster for next month’s Premier12. The global tournament marks the first opportunity for many world baseball powers to qualify for the sport’s return to the Olympics.

Morneau never played in the Olympics before baseball was cut from the Games after 2008; active MLB players have never competed in the Games. But he was on Canada’s roster at all four World Baseball Classics from 2006 through 2017.

At November’s Premier12, the top nation from North and South America will qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. Japan and Israel are already qualified. Those that do not qualify will get another chance next year.

Morneau could become the second Major League Baseball MVP to play Olympic baseball as a medal sport. The other was Jason Giambi, who made the U.S. team in 1992, the same summer he was drafted in the second round by the Oakland Athletics.

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Kolohe Andino is first U.S. Olympic surfing qualifier; Kelly Slater faces last chance

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Kolohe Andino is the first American to qualify for surfing’s Olympic debut, which leaves one spot left for 47-year-old Kelly Slater to chase at the final contest of the season.

Andino, a 25-year-old Californian whose first name means “rascal” in Hawaiian, clinched his place in Tokyo on Friday at the penultimate stop on the World Surf League Championship Tour in Portugal. He is ranked fifth in the world, trailing a trio of Brazilians.

One more American man will join Andino on the Olympic team. It will be one of Slater, the 11-time world champion, John John Florence, the 2016 and 2017 World champion, and rising 22-year-old Hawaiian Seth Moniz.

Slater was handed a golden opportunity to qualify when Florence announced in early July that he tore an ACL for the second time in 13 months. Florence had won two of the first five events this season.

Slater has been chasing the sidelined Florence in the standings ever since. But it has not been easy.

Slater hasn’t made the quarterfinals in any of his last seven contests going into December’s finale — the prestigious Billabong Pipeline Masters on the North Shore of Oahu.

“Ninth place, to me, used to be a pretty awful result. I’m used to at least a quarterfinal on for most of my career,” he said in July, noting a back injury. “I’m not horrified by my results, but I’m also not surprised. Maybe other people are because everyone focuses on my age and that kind of thing. It’s not like I’m going to all of a sudden forget how to do this thing, you know?”

Slater, who won the Pipe Masters seven times between 1992 and 2013, must reach the quarterfinals at this year’s event to have any chance of passing Florence to qualify for the Olympics.

Complicating matters: Florence said in August it was his “goal to get better for Pipeline in case I have to come back and compete and gain points,” according to ESPN.com. If Florence does return for the December contest, and makes the quarterfinals, Slater could only pass him with a victory.

Moniz goes into the finale ranked one spot behind Slater, meaning he, too, can grab that second and final Olympic spot with a win or a runner-up.

Slater, who turns 48 on Feb. 11, would be the oldest U.S. Summer Olympic rookie competitor in a sport other than equestrian, sailing or shooting (or art competitions!) in the last 100 years, supplanting Martina Navratilova, according to the OlyMADMen.

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