Yuzuru Hanyu
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Yuzuru Hanyu roars to Worlds lead amid pressure of rising expectations

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Yuzuru Hanyu feels the expectations, rising with every world-record performance. He stepped on the TD Garden ice with an unfamiliar nervousness as thousands cheered in anticipation on Wednesday night.

Many Japanese fans flew more than 6,000 miles to Boston for the World Championships this week, most of all to watch Hanyu perform for not even eight minutes over two programs.

But he’s used to that, having swept the Olympic and World titles in 2014 and shattered short program, free skate and total scores at his last two international competitions.

“I was pretty nervous today, and just the quality of the nervousness was a little bit different from usual,” Hanyu said through a translator afterward. “It’s hard to explain, but I felt a little unsettling in my mind.”

Hanyu’s first task was Wednesday’s short program, jumping, stepping and spinning to Chopin for just under three minutes.

He appeared calm and cocooned as he skated towards center ice, seconds before his turn as the penultimate competitor among a group of 30.

“When I was skating the short program, I was kind of released from that feeling,” Hanyu said of the nervousness, “and I just skated.”

Nearly to perfection.

Hanyu nailed all of his jumps, unlike his two main rivals, including two quads and tallied the second-highest short-program score under a judging system that debuted in 2005.

He roared twice before gliding off the ice, carefully avoiding Winnie the Pooh bears tossed by adoring fans. They’ve been a staple since before he became the world’s best skater at age 19 two years ago.

“The reason that I was so emotional at the end today was because I felt kind of different,” said Hanyu, attributing the nervousness at least partly to obstacles faced in pre-Worlds training, including a poor practice Tuesday. “With that circumstance, I was still able to pull out the good performance. That’s why I showed my emotion so strongly.”

The scoreboard read 110.56, just off the record 110.95 set at his last international competition in December.

Hanyu goes into Friday’s free skate (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra) with the largest short-program lead for any skater in any discipline at a Worlds or Olympics — a whopping 12.04 points.

“I do feel the expectation of my standard has been rising, and I do feel the pressure, actually, but it doesn’t really affect my performance,” Hanyu said. “I want to really enjoy my skating, and I think I was able to show that today.”

Neither 2015 World champion Javier Fernandez nor three-time World champion Patrick Chan can say they showed their best Wednesday. Both men fell on jumps and are second and third, respectively, going into the free skate.

Fernandez, who erased Hanyu’s comparatively paltry short-program lead of 2.46 points to win Spain’s first World title a year ago, added a second quadruple jump to his short program earlier this season.

He needed it to continue challenging Hanyu, his training partner under 1988 Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser in Toronto.

But Fernandez couldn’t land it, slamming his right arm and then the rest of his body on the ice on a Salchow.

“When we decided to put two quads, we knew it was more risk,” Fernandez said. “Hopefully in the free program I can keep myself more concentrated, I don’t do any more mistakes, because Yuzu is already like 10 points away.”

Chan, the last man to beat Hanyu in November, fell on a triple Axel at his first Worlds since he three-peated in 2013. The Canadian took more than 18 months off from competition after grabbing silver behind Hanyu at the Sochi Olympics.

He called his third-place standing Wednesday a success.

“There’s a lot of pressure that I haven’t been familiar with for two seasons,” Chan said. “I’m very happy with how much I’ve improved already this year, being a comeback year.”

The U.S. men are out of the medal picture, as expected. U.S. champion Adam Rippon skated clean but didn’t attempt a quad. It showed in his score, an 85.72 for seventh place.

The 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron did attempt a quad but put a hand down and slotted in 4.44 behind Rippon in eighth place. Worlds rookie Grant Hochstein fell on his lone quad and is 16th.

Rippon and Aaron must make a net gain of two places in the free skate for the U.S. to keep three men for the 2017 World Championships.

As for Hanyu, the numbers to watch are 219.48 and 330.43, his world-record free skate and total scores set in December. They are not at the front of his mind.

“I am not thinking of setting new records,” he said.

WORLDS PREVIEWS: Men | WomenPairsIce Dance | Broadcast Schedule

Men’s Short Program
1. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 110.56
2. Javier Fernandez (ESP) — 98.52
3. Patrick Chan (CAN) — 94.84
7. Adam Rippon (USA) — 85.72
8. Max Aaron (USA) — 81.28
16. Grant Hochstein (USA) — 74.81

Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff set Australian Open duel

Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff
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Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff will meet in the third round of a second straight Grand Slam, this time at the Australian Open on Friday.

Osaka, the defending champion and world No. 4, and Gauff, the 15-year-old American phenom, each won second-round matches in Melbourne to reach the final 32.

Osaka swept Chinese Zheng Saisai 6-2, 6-4 on a windy Wednesday afternoon. Later, Gauff followed her first-round win over Venus Williams by eliminating Romanian veteran Sorana Cirstea 4-6, 6-3, 7-5.

“I know what to expect,” Gauff said. “I’m excited.”

Osaka beat Gauff 6-3, 6-0 in the U.S. Open third round on Aug. 31. In the most memorable moment of that night, Osaka urged Gauff to share the on-court victor’s interview at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

“It’s better than going into the showers and crying,” Osaka told Gauff in front of a packed crowd. “Let these people know how you feel.”

Gauff obliged after at first declining.

“I’m not the type of person who wants to cry in front of everyone,” she said later. “I didn’t want to take that moment away from [Osaka], as well.”

Gauff, ranked No. 684 at this time last year, is now No. 67. She broke through by beating Williams in the Wimbledon first round, then reaching the round of 16.

Gauff won a lower-level WTA Tour event in October and now ranks fifth in U.S. Olympic singles qualifying. The top four after the French Open qualify for the Tokyo Games, though Gauff has fewer than half the points as No. 4 Alison Riske.

“It’s been really cool to watch her grow because it’s happened so fast,” Osaka said.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

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John Isner leaning toward skipping Olympics again

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John Isner, the highest-ranked U.S. male singles tennis player, is considering skipping the Olympics for a second straight time.

“I haven’t put a ton of thought into it, but as of right now, I think I’m leaning towards not playing,” the 19th-ranked player said at the Australian Open on Tuesday. “It’s about scheduling. I know the Olympics, it’s a fantastic honor. There’s no doubt about that. … Right now, at this stage in my career, it’s not a huge priority for me. So that’s probably the main reason I won’t be going. I certainly love playing in the summer in America, and I’m going to focus on that.”

The Tokyo Games take place the same week as a lower-level ATP Tour event in Atlanta that Isner, a former University of Georgia star, has won five times.

Other notable male players already said they will pass on Tokyo, including Sam Querrey, the top American in Olympic qualifying standings.

Austrian Dominic Thiem, a two-time French Open finalist, is prioritizing an ATP event in Kitzbühel the week of the Olympics. The U.S. doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan are not planning to play the Olympics in their final season before retirement, their manager said in November.

“The Olympics is very tough on the schedule … especially with Davis Cup,” Isner said in 2016, according to USA Today. “I think the fact that they have no [ATP ranking] points [at the Olympics], to be honest, was a pretty big factor as well. Obviously the Olympics is not about the money, but no points I think hindered me a bit.”

Isner, who turns 35 on April 26, is likely giving up his last chance to play Olympic singles. In his only Olympic participation, he reached the quarterfinals of the 2012 London Games, plus lost an opening-round doubles match there with Andy Roddick.

The top four U.S. men qualify for Tokyo, assuming they are among the top 60 overall qualifiers (maximum four per country) after this spring’s French Open.

Taylor FritzReilly Opelka, Steve Johnson and Tommy Paul are the U.S. men currently in Olympic qualifying position if excluding Querrey and Isner.

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