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Rafael Nadal on final entry list for Olympics; what to watch in Rio

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Rafael Nadal is on the final entry list for the Rio Olympics.

The 14-time major champion hasn’t played since pulling out of the French Open because of an injured left wrist and needed the International Tennis Federation’s Olympic Committee to approve his appeal because he hasn’t played Davis Cup.

Nadal won the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Games.

While there were no surprises on the list released Friday by the ITF, two top-10 players – one on the men’s side, one on the women’s – later announced they were withdrawing from the Olympics, and both mentioned concerns about the Zika virus.

Wimbledon runner-up Milos Raonic of Canada, No. 7 in the men’s rankings, said in a statement that “I am making this decision for a variety of health concerns including the uncertainty around the Zika virus.”

Romania’s Simona Halep, the world’s fifth-ranked woman, posted on Facebook: “After several talks with doctors and my family, I concluded that the risks are too high for my career and for my health, especially as a woman. Family is much too important for me and I can’t risk not being able to have one of my own after my career in tennis is over.”

Still, unlike golf, nearly all the world’s top tennis players plan to go to Rio next month.

The only other unexpected announcement Friday came from sixth-ranked Victoria Azarenka, who posted on Twitter just as the Olympic roster was about to be released that she is pregnant and will miss the rest of the season. The two-time Grand Slam champion’s name was on the ITF’s list.

A handful of top-30 men had pulled out of the Rio Games; they mostly cited tennis reasons and not Zika. But the Big Four of Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Roger Federer are all on the list – for both singles and doubles.

Murray is the reigning gold medalist, while Djokovic and Federer are each seeking a first Olympic singles title. Federer won silver in 2012 and Djokovic bronze in 2008.

Britain’s Murray is set to play doubles with his older brother, Jamie, who won this year’s Australian Open title with Brazil’s Bruno Soares. Federer will again team up with fifth-ranked Stan Wawrinka for Switzerland – they won gold together in 2008. Nadal is on the list with Marc Lopez, who won this year’s French Open championship with fellow Spaniard Feliciano Lopez, one of the top-30 men skipping Rio. Djokovic is on the roster for Serbia with Nenad Zimonjic. The top singles players could later choose to pull out of doubles.

Overall, 13 of the top 15 men in the singles rankings are on the roster, with No. 9 Dominic Thiem the only other one missing.

Eighteen of the top 20 women are slated to go to Brazil, led by reigning gold medalist Serena Williams, who will also seek a fourth Olympic doubles title with sister Venus. Five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova will miss the Rio Games because of her doping suspension.

There will be 64 players in the singles draws and 32 in doubles. Singles entries were based off the top 56 players in the June 6 rankings, with other ways to qualify for the final eight spots.

Each country is allowed a maximum of four singles players and two doubles teams for six players total on the men’s and women’s sides. Sixteen mixed doubles teams will be determined in Rio from players already in the Olympics.

‘BIG 4’ OF MEN’S TENNIS ALL IN

The “Big 4” of men’s tennis is enthusiastic about the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, unlike their counterparts in golf.

Djokovic, Murray, Federer and Nadal all have participated in the Summer Games in the past, all own a medal, and all talk about that event’s importance to their sport every four years – even if it already has four Grand Slam tournaments every year.

Consider what Britain’s Murray said when he was asked about Brazil the day after winning Wimbledon for the second time.

“I’ve loved being in the two Olympics that I’ve been at,” said the No. 2-ranked Murray, who won a gold in singles at the 2012 London Games. “Rio is obviously a big, big goal of mine, and hopefully I can perform well there.”

The No. 1-ranked Djokovic won a singles bronze for Serbia at the 2008 Beijing Games, then came up just short of a medal four years ago.

No. 3 Federer won a gold for Switzerland in doubles with Wawrinka eight years ago, and a silver in singles four years ago.

No. 4 Nadal won a singles gold for Spain in Beijing, missed London because he was hurt.

Even if this quartet owns a combined 46 Grand Slam titles, the Olympics still matter to them. Much will be made of the contrast between this group’s interest in the Summer Games and what happened in golf, which will be missing Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy in Rio.

“Olympic Games are the most renowned and most prominent sports event in the history of sport. No question about it. There is no bigger sports event than Olympic Games,” Djokovic said. “For me, as a professional athlete, it’s a huge honor to be part of it.”

Here are some more things to know about tennis at the Rio Olympics:

WHO’S MISSING

There are some noteworthy players who won’t be there: six of the top 20 men in this week’s ATP rankings. That includes Wimbledon runner-up Raonic of Canada; the top American man, John Isner; Australia’s best two tennis players, Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic; and Thiem, who would have given Austria a chance at a medal.

MIXING IT UP

No one will know exactly who is competing in mixed doubles until everyone is in Rio. That’s because the sign-in happens there. It’s limited to 16 teams, and the possibilities are intriguing. The expectation is that, if he’s healthy, Federer will team with Martina Hingis. And Nadal – if healthy – will partner French Open champion Garbine Muguruza. The bad news: It sounds as if the Williams sisters will not enter that event.

AGE IS JUST A NUMBER

If 34-year-old Serena Williams or 36-year-old Venus Williams wins a gold medal, either would be the third-oldest woman to collect an Olympic title in tennis. Winifred McNair was 43 when she won women’s doubles for Britain all the way back in 1920, and Hazel Wightman was 37 when she won the same event for the U.S. four years later. Each Williams already owns four medals (all gold), so adding two more – they’re both entered in singles and doubles – would put either in first place for most tennis medals in Olympic history. Kathleen McKane won five medals (one gold) in the 1920s.

MOST APPEARANCES

India’s Leander Paes will be appearing in his record-extending seventh Olympic tennis competition, pairing in men’s doubles with Rohan Bopanna. Paes owns one medal, a bronze in singles at the 1996 Atlanta Games. In Grand Slam action, he has won eight titles in men’s doubles, and another 10 in mixed doubles.

BACK-TO-BACK?

No player has won two consecutive gold medals in singles. Murray and Serena Williams will try to change that this time.

MORE: U.S. Olympic tennis team official; 546th-ranked singles player goes to Rio

Who is Germany’s greatest Olympian?

Birgit Fischer-Schmidt
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The combined all-time German Olympic medal total (including East Germany and West Germany) trails only the United States and Russia/Unified Team/Soviet Union. Norway owns the most Winter Olympic medals of any single National Olympic Committee, but the Germany/East Germany/West Germany sum is actually greater. A look at five of Germany’s greatest Olympians …

Kathrin Boron
Rowing
Four Olympic Gold Medals

Alternated gold medals between double sculls and quadruple sculls from 1992 through 2004, the last one as a mom, tacking on a bronze in 2008. Boron also earned eight world titles. In 19 total Olympic and world championships starts, she collected 12 golds, five silvers, a bronze and a fourth. An ankle injury kept her out of the 1988 Olympics at age 18, or else she could have been the first woman to take gold at five Olympics.

Birgit Fischer-Schmidt
Canoe-Kayak
Eight Olympic Gold Medals

Considered by some the greatest Olympian in history. Fischer-Schmidt won 12 Olympic medals (in 13 career Olympic events) and 37 world championships medals from 1979-2005, scattered among four retirements, two childbirths and the 1984 East German boycott. Fischer-Schmidt retired after earning her last two world championships bronze medals in 2005 at age 43. Had Fischer-Schmidt extended to one more Olympics in 2008, she could have been on the same team as niece Fanny Fischer, who earned a gold of her own in Beijing.

Georg Hackl
Luge
Three Olympic Gold Medals

The only luger with three individual Olympic titles. Hackl was called the “Flying White Sausage” for his build and Bavarian roots, a nickname he opposed. His speed on the sled was not up for debate. Hackl finished second in singles and fourth in doubles in his Olympic debut in 1988. Then he won singles golds in 1992, 1994 and 1998 before bowing out in 2006. He then became a coach for the German team and its next luge great — 2010 and 2014 Olympic champion Felix Loch.

Claudia Pechstein
Speed Skating
Nine Olympic Medals

The only woman to compete in seven Winter Olympics. Pechstein owns Olympic titles in the 3000m, 5000m and team pursuit, the last medal of any color coming in 2006. At 48, she continues to race on the top international level, placing eighth, ninth and 11th at the world single distances championships in February, 28 years after her Olympic debut in Albertville, France. Pechstein served a two-year doping ban from 2009-11 over irregularities in her biological passport. She denied cheating and fought the ban in court for several years after its conclusion.

Isabell Werth
Equestrian
10 Olympic Medals

The most decorated Olympic equestrian with 10 medals and six golds. Werth, nicknamed the “Dressage Queen,” earned her first medals at the 1992 Barcelona Games and now, at 50, currently holds the Nos. 1 and 2 world rankings with two different horses. In 10 career Olympic events, she has never finished worse than second place. No other female Olympian can make that claim.

MORE: Most decorated U.S. female Olympian on front line of coronavirus fight

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Takeaways from the abbreviated 2019-20 figure skating season

Nathan Chen and Jason Brown
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Before the cancellation of the world figure skating championships due to coronavirus, audiences were anticipating a head-to-head battle between two-time and reigning world champion Nathan Chen against two-time Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu

Three Russian teenagers — and training partners — were likely to finish in some order atop the women’s podium. The hot spot of ice dance today, Montreal, was to play host to the championships, with four-time French world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France going for title number five. 

Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China, just off a sixth Four Continents crown, were favorites to become three-time world champions, but young Russians Aleksandra Boikovi and Dmitrii Kozlovskii looked strong to challenge them. And what about the world championships debut of U.S. pair Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, who arguably captured the top moment of the national championships in January? 

With or without the world championships, the 2019-20 season has come to a close. Here, the NBC Sports figure skating contributors reflect on the standout moments of the season. 

MORE: Nathan Chen, skating coaches react to cancellation of world figure skating championships

Men’s 

For the second season in a row, Chen successfully completed a double: full-time studies at Yale University, combined with a near-full slate of competitions. He remains undefeated since the 2018 Olympics, with wins at Skate America, Internationaux de France, the Grand Prix Final and the U.S. Championships. His only seeming concession to scheduling was skipping the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, held in Seoul, Korea in early February.

“Competition after competition keeps me motivated, knowing I have to achieve a certain goal at each competition,” Chen said early this season. “That’s what drives me through practices.”

The shining moment of his 2019/2020 campaign came in December at the Grand Prix Final in Torino, Italy, where he landed five quadruple jumps — two in combination with triple jumps — in a spectacular free skate that earned 224.92 points, a world record. His total for the event, 335.30, is also a record, and he defeated two-time Olympic champion Hanyu by nearly 44 points. 

Artistically, the highlight of the Chen’s free skate to Elton John’s “Rocketman” is a 30-second hip-hop sequence at the end of the routine. 

“I’m thrilled with the score,” Chen said after his “Rocketman” free skate in Torino. “I’m thrilled with this program.”

Hampered early in the season by a concussion suffered in an August car accident, Jason Brown hit his high note at Four Continents, where he skated two career-best programs to win silver behind Hanyu. His free skate, choreographed by David Wilson to music from Schindler’s List, was breathtaking in Seoul.

“My background, obviously, is Jewish, and the story is so touching,” Brown said. “I grew up learning about the Holocaust and about Oskar Schindler and the stories. I always wanted to skate to it, but it has to be when I’m at the level, maturity-wise, that I’m really ready to skate to it.”

Balancing skating with full-time studies isn’t doable when there are no available ice surfaces within an easy drive. Vincent Zhou couldn’t find the ice time he needed at Brown University. He withdrew from the Grand Prix Series and all but stopped skating after a few weeks, returning to the sport in full force around Christmas, under new coaches Lori Nichol and Lee Barkell in Toronto. He rallied to perform two clean programs and place fourth at nationals — his lowest finish since his 2016 senior debut — but made the Worlds team as the reigning Worlds bronze medalist.

MORE: Nathan Chen, from flu-ridden on the floor, fights for 4th U.S. title

Women’s 

Russia’s “three A’s” — Alena Kostornaia, Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova — combined to win every major international senior event on the 2019-20 calendar. Shcherbakova and Trusova both have quads, but Kostornaia, the Grand Prix Final and European champion, outshone her compatriots by combining elegance and musicality with a consistent triple Axel.

Alysa Liu of the United States, 14, made her long-awaited junior international debut, adding a quadruple Lutz to her programs and becoming the first woman to land a triple Axel and a quad in the same routine, doing it at the Lake Placid JGP in August. She won her second U.S. crown in January, and then capped her season with a bronze medal behind two Russians at the World Junior Figure Skating Championships early last month. 

“I don’t feel [outside] pressure to be the best in the world,” Liu told Phil Hersh of NBCSports.com/figure-skating in January. “I just take it step by step and work hard for myself.”

U.S. silver medalist Mariah Bell had a fine season, winning two bronze medals on the Grand Prix circuit and creating one of the signature moments of the U.S. Championships with a stirring, near-perfect free skate to “Hallelujah.”

“Looking back, this was by far the best season of my career, so I’m very proud,” Bell said on a teleconference the day worlds were cancelled. “I’m really looking forward to building on that next season.”

U.S. bronze medalist Bradie Tennell can also celebrate her best campaign. The 2018 U.S. champion qualified for the Grand Prix Final for the first time, and broke more new ground in Seoul last month where two career-high programs earned her a bronze medal at Four Continents, her first ISU Championships medal.

“I feel like I was able to relax and skate the way that I do every day,” Tennell said at a press conference in Seoul. “That’s kind of been my goal not only this year but also last year. I feel like I never quite achieved it last year. But this year throughout each competition I’ve been getting closer and closer, and at this competition I was able to really achieve that.”

Following a long road back to the sport that involved treatment for depression, anxiety and an eating disorder, Gracie Gold earned a standing ovation at the U.S. Championships. She ultimately finished 12th after an emotional free skate to “She Used to be Mine,” but told reporters she would continue training for next season.

“I think I’ve earned that,” Gold said.

MORE: Gold recounts literally and figuratively running out of gas

Ice dance 

2019-20 was truly Madison Chock and Evan Bates’ season. The couple, who moved to Montreal to train under Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon last season, created a mesmerizing “Egyptian Snake Dance” program, won a silver medal at the Grand Prix Final and defeated longtime rivals Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue to take their second U.S. title, some five years after they first won the crown. Two weeks later, they won a second straight Four Continents title, defeating Hubbell and Donohue and Canadian champions Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier.

With Papadakis and Cizeron showing some cracks in their armor — the French duo placed second at the European Championships, their first loss since the 2018 Olympics — a world title seemed to be within Chock and Bates’ grasp. 

“This has been the best season of our careers, no doubt about that, and a big part of that is our program [“Egyptian Snake Dance”] and the way we performed it,” Bates said. “Also just the improvements we made to our skating, generally, since moving to Montreal have started to be recognized and rewarded.”

The French, who train alongside Chock and Bates, Hubbell and Donohue and many other teams in Montreal, may be glad to bid the 2019-20 season farewell. Their programs, especially their free dance to a spoken word poem, were not nearly as praised as their past efforts. After Europeans, a stressed Papadakis spoke to reporters about her mental fatigue, and the couple took a two-week break from training. Now, they have a long off-season to recoup and plan new programs.

Hubbell and Donohue, too, had a few ups-and-downs. The skaters and their coaches, Lauzon, Dubreuil and Romain Haguenauer, re-worked music edits and sections of choreography in their Star is Born free dance, hoping for a peak performance in Montreal and a third consecutive world medal. Now, the two-time U.S. champions will have a long off-season to create new programs.

The season ended on a truly somber note, with the loss of Chris Reed, a three-time Olympic ice dancer for Japan who died of a sudden cardiac event at age 30 in March. Fellow skaters paid tribute over social media for the Michigan-born Reed, who won 10 Japanese titles over his career. 

Pairs 

Chris Knieirm, winner of an Olympic team bronze medal and three U.S. Championships with his wife, Alexa, announced his retirement shortly after the couple withdrew following the short program at Four Continents. 

The Knierims, the only U.S. pair to execute a quadruple twist in competition, capped their career in January, at the U.S. Championship in Greensboro. Their final complete competition was highlighted by a clean, emotional performance to the romantic ballad “At Last,” which gave them a seven-point lead over Calalang and Johnson, and, ultimately, their third U.S. title

“It was a dream that was attainable to skate the way we did today, but it always seems something gets in the way,” Scimeca-Knierim said at the time. “I’ve just been wanting for this moment to happen, because it’s been a little bit of time for Chris and I to have a skate that makes you feel, like, alive. I’m just so happy.”

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier also announced a split, and Scimeca-Knierim and Frazier plan to for a new pair and compete next season

The shakeup will add to the likely shuffling of U.S. pair rankings next season. U.S. silver medalists Calalang and Johnson won the free skate at the U.S. Championships, and two weeks later placed a solid fourth at Four Continents. Lacking an international resume, they were controversially left off the world team in favor of 2019 U.S. champs Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who placed fourth in Greensboro. They had placed ninth at the 2019 Worlds, earning a second quota spot for the U.S. in the discipline. 

These two pairs, along with 2016 U.S. champions Tarah Kayne and Daniel O’Shea, and perhaps, a few improving teams, will compete for supremacy. This, partnered with the new Scimeca-Knierim/Frazier partnership should lead to something to watch for in the upcoming season.

Other notable aspects of the season: 

By the middle of September, it already was clear the season would feature a jump revolution in women’s skating. Yet no one could have foreseen the speed at which it occurred and how far it went.

With statistics courtesy of skatingscores.com, this illustrates what happened:

Until 2018, just one junior or senior woman, Miki Ando of Japan, had been credited with landing a quadruple jump in a significant national or international competition (2002 Junior Grand Prix Final). From the 2017-18 season until the start of this season, there were 21 quad attempts by three skaters (Shcherbakova, Trusova, Yelizabet Tursynbaeva) in significant international competitions, with 13 getting full rotational credit and eight judged clean (positive or neutral grade of execution).

This season, seven women were listed for 42 quad attempts in significant international competitions, with four — Shcherbakova, Trusova, Kamila Valieva and Alysa Liu — getting credit for at least one clean quad and 25 of the 42 judged clean.

Trusova landed three clean quads in a single free skate and did three different types cleanly during the season — Lutz, flip and toe loop (plus a fourth, the Salchow, at the Japan Open, which Skating Scores does not list among its “major,” or significant, events because of its limited field). Shcherbakova did two clean quad Lutzes in a single free skate.

There was a similar great leap forward on triple Axels.

Until this season, only eight women had been credited with landing one in a significant international competition. Four of those eight had done it in the pre-IJS and pre-replay era.

This season, the triple Axel club got three new members: Liu*, Kostornaia and Young You. Two previous members, Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva and Rika Kihira, did more. The five had an aggregate 23 judged clean.

And all that was without the senior worlds.

(*Liu was credited with landing a triple Axel at the 2018 Asian Open, when she competed in the advance novice division.)

A bit of history

2020 also marked the 10-year anniversary of two notable Olympic moments from Vancouver 2010: Yuna Kim won South Korea’s first Olympic figure skating gold and Evan Lysacek won the first U.S. men’s Olympic gold since Brian Boitano in 1988.

MORE: In figure skating, a radical proposal to reshape the sport

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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