Madison Hughes: Nate Ebner has ‘decent chance’ at Olympics

Madison Hughes
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U.S. rugby sevens captain Madison Hughes believes New England Patriots safety Nate Ebner has “a decent chance” of making the Olympic team of 12 from a player pool about three times that size.

Hughes praised Ebner’s development since Ebner announced his return to rugby March 15, seven years removed from his junior national team days before he focused on football at Ohio State.

“He’s developed a lot,” Hughes said last week, after U.S. coach Mike Friday reportedly said in April that Ebner had “a 50-50 chance.” “I think he had quite a lot of rugby experience from when he was younger, and I think that’s allowed him to step into this stage, because I think if he didn’t have that rugby experience, coming in now he’d be completely lost and wouldn’t be able to handle it at all. So I think he’s been doing well. I think he’s been a good addition so far. Competition’s going to be hot for those spots for Rio. I know he really, really wants it. I think he’s got as good of a shot as a lot of people. I think he’s got a decent chance of being there.”

Ebner reached the top level of international rugby sevens when he was named to the 12-man roster for World Series stops in Hong Kong, Singapore and Paris in April and May.

However, Ebner was not named to the team for the last World Series stop in London, instead being put on a development-level tournament squad that weekend.

Still, Hughes likes what he has seen. An NFL player joining an experienced national rugby team four months before the Olympics had the potential to create animosity.

“The kind of attitude Nate came in with when he joined us, it’s a credit to him,” Hughes said. “I think that’s kind of helped allay some of those concerns. If he had come in and been like, OK guys, I’m here, don’t worry, I think there definitely would have been some disquiet on the team. But he kind of came in, just said I’m going to put my head down, I’m going to work as hard as I can, anything I can do to help the team, then I’m going to do that. I think, because of that attitude, the guys were quite accepting and welcoming.”

USA Rugby is expected to cut its Olympic player pool to 30 or fewer on June 24 and select the Olympic team of 12 on July 17.

Players received a short break after the World Series finale in London ended May 22 before gathering in Chula Vista, Calif., this month.

“There’s a bit of nervous energy, but I think as long as we keep that in a positive direction can be good,” Hughes said. “I think everyone knows that the people who are going to get picked put the team first. If you’re focusing just on what you’re doing, you’re only hindering your chances of making the team.”

Hughes was more confident in Ebner’s Rio chances than those of former San Francisco 49ers running back Jarryd Hayne, who announced May 15 he was joining Fiji’s player pool.

“He’s joined at a very, very late stage,” Hughes said. “He’s months behind Nate, who joined at a pretty late stage. And joining the No. 1 ranked team in the world [in Fiji]. That’s a very tough thing to do. Fair play to him, he’s an incredible athlete. He was an incredible rugby player in the [National Rugby League in Australasia]. But having no experience rugby union, no experience of sevens, I think he’s going to have a hard time making that team.”

Hughes also said that he expected Carlin Isles‘ high-ankle sprain suffered in March, which kept him out of the last five World Series stops, to not affect the speedster going forward.

As for Rio medal predictions, Hughes called two-time reigning World Series champion Fiji the clear favorite.

“For the last two years, they’ve been the best team consistently,” Hughes said. “You can never count New Zealand out. They’ve been there, or thereabouts, for the whole time sevens has been played internationally. South Africa are obviously very good. I think those are the top three, but then we are firmly in the pack chasing those guys.”

MORE: Record number of NFL players could compete at Rio Olympics

Bradie’s back: Tennell wows in U.S. Figure Skating Championships return from nightmare

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SAN JOSE, California — Bradie Tennell stood at the end boards, her back to the ice surface, her attention on trying to take in what her imposing coach, Benoit Richaud, was telling her in the final seconds before she took the ice for Thursday’s short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

It was hard for Tennell to stay focused on – or even hear – what Richaud was saying. A group of kids from U.S. Figure Skating’s development camp, who were sitting in the stands near Tennell, started screaming their lungs out when they were shown on the SAP Center video board. Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” was blasting at approximately 10 million decibels on the arena’s sound system.

“It was very distracting,” Tennell said, eschewing an athlete’s usual cliché about nothing being able to break her concentration. “But this past year has taught me nothing comes easy.”

It was a year of injuries, re-injuries, new injuries. A year when the two-time U.S. champion had been physically unable to compete for a spot on a second Olympic team in 2022. A year when Tennell turned her life inside out, moving to France to train with Richaud, only to have more setbacks.

“I’ve definitely had my share of bumps in the road on the way here,” Tennell said. “This was a very long time in the making.”

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

This was finishing second in the short program, a whisker behind event favorite Isabeau Levito. This was a Tennell performance marred only by unexpected mistakes on spins, her last of seven elements in the short program. This was a statement to anyone who wondered if she could be a factor in the sport again.

“I’m back, baby,” she said, her uncharacteristic bravado tempered by a laugh.

Richaud agreed.

“People can see the job we did, see the improvement,” Richaud said. “Clearly the message tonight is Bradie is one of the best skaters in the world.”

Her skating had a greater maturity and finesse, with striking flow and attention to details of hand movement and body position. She has vowed not to take a pass on any moment in her programs, knowing every second can produce more points.

“I’m a new and improved Bradie,” she said. “I don’t put a limit on myself.”

Tennell opened with a solid triple lutz-triple toe loop combination, the first time she had landed that combination cleanly since her victorious 2021 Nationals. She followed that with a strong triple flip and a good double Axel. A slip on her flying sit spin and a flawed combination spin would cost her the points that dropped her behind Levito, 73.78 to 73.76, going into Friday night’s free skate.

“Made a couple silly mistakes on spins,” Tennell said. “I think I got too excited.”

So as pleased as Tennell was with the result, she once again heard the two voices that quarrel inside her head. One says be satisfied just by being able to compete again; the other wants to win.

“One was jumping up and down with pompoms,” Tennell said. “The other was, ‘But you didn’t get the (highest) spin levels.'”

Starr Andrews was third at 68.97, her highest finish in any segment of the six nationals in which she has competed. Five years ago in this building, Andrews, then 16, had made a dazzling senior debut while finishing sixth, but she has struggled to build on that promise.

“Of course, I wondered if that was going to happen again,” Andrews said.

Andrews helped relive that past glory by wearing the same sparky carmine unitard she had in 2018.

“It was kind of a full circle,” Andrews said. “It was really amazing to be out there again. I felt really comfortable and confident.”

Tennell, too, had created a career-defining moment at this arena in 2018, winning the national title after having finished ninth a year before and going on to earn an Olympic team event bronze medal.

“This is where all my skating craziness started,” she said.

She, too, expressed a feeling of having come full circle. Yet another moment was on her mind as the auditory craziness swirled over her while Richaud, whom Tennell calls “a commanding presence,” was trying to keep her calm by repeating things he had told her earlier this season, when her return to competition had been fraught with poor performances.

Tennell was thinking about the 2019 Nationals in Detroit, when she had won the short program but coped poorly with an unexpected distraction before the free skate.

“I couldn’t get my focus back after that,” she said.

The result was a desultory fourth in the free skate, second overall and a pledge to learn from it.

“I’ve always said to myself if that happened again, I would handle it better,” she recalled.

And she did.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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2023 Australian Open men’s singles draw, scores

Novak Djokovic Australian Open
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At the Australian Open, Novak Djokovic can win a men’s record-extending 10th Australian Open title and tie Rafael Nadal for the most men’s major singles titles in history.

Djokovic was PointsBet Sportsbook’s pre-tournament favorite despite being seeded fourth after missing last year’s Australian Open and U.S. Open because of his refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

He now faces No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in Sunday’s final, also with the No. 1 ranking on the line. Tsitsipas made his fifth Grand Slam semifinal and second final, still seeking his first major title. Every other man in the Open Era (since 1968) to make it to both of those rounds that many times has won a Slam except Todd Martin.

Djokovic’s stock in Melbourne rose after Nadal, the defending champion and top seed, was injured and ousted in the second round by American Mackenzie McDonald. The next day, the No. 2 seed, Norwegian Casper Ruud, was knocked out by American Jenson Brooksby.

Djokovic won three consecutive Australian Opens after a fourth-round defeat in 2018. He is bidding to move one shy of the overall record 11 Australian Open singles titles held by Margaret Court and become the second man to win any major 10 times.

The other man to do it is of course Nadal, who owns 14 French Open crowns. Nadal also owns the men’s record 22 Grand Slam singles titles overall, just one ahead of Djokovic.

Last year, Nadal won the Australian Open on the heels of a chronic foot injury that had him questioning coming back to tennis at all. He also overcame foot problems to win the French Open, then reach the Wimbledon semifinals before withdrawing with an abdominal muscle tear.

Starting with his U.S. Open fourth-round defeat, Nadal went 1-6 in his seven matches leading into the Australian Open. He beat Jack Draper in the first round this year, but was swept by McDonald amid a hip injury in the second round.

This is the first Australian Open since Roger Federer‘s retirement. Also missing: the injured world No. 1 and U.S. Open champion Carlos Alcaraz of Spain, who at 19 became the youngest men’s Grand Slam champion since Nadal’s first title at the 2005 French Open.

MORE: Australian Open Women’s Draw

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2023 Australian Open Men’s Singles Draw

2023 Australian Open Men's Singles Draw 2023 Australian Open Men's Singles Draw 2023 Australian Open Men's Singles Draw 2023 Australian Open Men's Singles Draw