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U.S. women’s gymnastics rested, ready for Rio

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RIO DE JANEIRO – The U.S. women’s gymnastics team might just be the biggest gold-medal lock of the Olympics. How do we know?

Martha Karolyi is giving the team a day off. Two days before the competition starts.

“It’s pretty unusual,” Karolyi admitted in a Facebook Live chat Thursday night with 2008 Olympic silver medalist Sam Peszek.

That’s how confident Karolyi is in their preparation; the 73-year-old matriarch did Facebook Live ahead of the biggest meet in four years. Imagine the Russian or Chinese coaches, or even Coach K or Geno Auriemma doing this.

These are Karolyi’s legacy Olympics, her fourth and final Games as the national-team coordinator. The program vaulted into a class of its own in the last five years, winning every Olympic and world championships team and individual all-around title.

This year’s team is her most decorated yet and the biggest favorite for the Olympic women’s team gold in recent memory. The pressure to succeed is overwhelming.

The U.S. women finished their only pre-Olympic training session on the bright-green competition floor at about 7 pm Rio time Thursday night.

MORE: U.S. women start competition on Sunday at 4:30 pm ET

From there, Karolyi would have been expected to pore over scores, analyze routines or discuss Sunday’s qualifying lineup with coaches.

Those were not her immediate plans, though the lineup was a major talking point among the media, and young Laurie Hernandez’s coach. Karolyi deflected questions in her usual gushing-but-not-revealing manner.

Three U.S. women can vie for the all-around in qualifying, and it looks like the 16-year-old Hernandez will sit out in favor of returning Olympians Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman joining Simone Biles, despite beating both of them at the U.S. Olympic Trials last month.

Again, this speaks to how big of a favorite the U.S. is. The closest thing to a controversy is debating the third-most deserving gymnast on the squad.

This is tame compared Karolyi’s previous three Games in charge, when she had to deal with injuries to individual world champions in the lead-up to the team final.

The confidence is clear among the gymnasts, too. They already have the team name chosen to follow-up the Fierce Five moniker of four years ago, but Raisman said they won’t reveal it until after the team final Tuesday night.

Raisman didn’t say anything about “if we win the team final.” One would think a team name announcement after a silver or bronze medal wouldn’t make sense, but this thought doesn’t seem to enter their minds.

Karolyi and the gymnasts marched out of the mixed zone at about 7:30 Thursday night and into a transport. They were shuttled across a largely empty and very dark Olympic Park. The gymnasts went to an interview with Ryan Seacrest. Karolyi did a series of interviews.

Raisman was asked about Karolyi’s unusual move to give the team a free day Friday. The team captain said the Fierce Five did not get such a luxury in London, though they did get one at a pre-Games team camp.

“Usually we give a day off,” Karolyi said, “and they have several half-days off.”

Is this team more prepared than the 2012 team?

“It’s so hard to compare the teams,” Karolyi said. “I feel all the teams were well prepared.

“We reached the good level of training. We thought it would very welcome to give them a little bit of break. It’s not so much from the physical effort, but I think mentally you permanently have to focus so much. You have to keep your very best every single second, every single repetition that it’s very good to give them a day off to loosen up and come back with a lot of refreshment and energy for the competition.”

The gymnasts seemed loose enough even before they were given Friday off.

They met Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps in the athletes’ village on Wednesday.

Raisman said she “acted like a 5-year-old” in front of the Jamaican sprinter. Biles said she had to be the reasonable voice when Raisman and Douglas, the team veterans, were being boisterous in Bolt’s presence.

“I kept it calm, because I know how it feels when people rush over to me,” said the 19-year-old Biles, speaking from her experience of winning three straight world all-around titles. Two years ago, Biles seemed ready to cartwheel across the lobby when she found out her face was on hotel room keys at the P&G Championships. She has matured.

“Aly and Gabby practically flipped the whole dinner table and screamed, ‘Usain!’ and attracted people,” Biles said. “I said you can’t do that, keep it calm.”

In the end, the team noticed how hungry Bolt must have been, since he had two heaping plates of pasta on his table. Hernandez wanted to challenge Bolt to a race, but that will wait.

“Hopefully another time, when he’s not starving, we can have a conversation with him,” Raisman said.

One thing the U.S. women won’t be doing on their day off is marching in the Opening Ceremony and tiring their legs with hours of standing. That would have been even more eyebrow-raising than Karolyi letting them free for the day.

Karolyi said the last time U.S. women’s artistic team members marched in the Opening Ceremony was at the 1988 Seoul Games. And that Karolyi actually marched with them.

That would be a sight to behold, but a quick YouTube query and a Where’s Waldo-esque search through the light-blue tops and long white skirts yielded no definitive proof.

“I, for sure, have been around a very long time,” Karolyi joked, fittingly in the Facebook Live chat.

When her teams perform well, Karolyi rewards herself. At the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio, the U.S. won the team event, swept the all-around podium and took gold and silver in three of four apparatus finals.

Karolyi visited a jewelry store and hopes to return, should the team take care of business. From the looks of it, they already have.

To Karolyi’s liking, they stuck their landings and showed maturity in Thursday’s training session. They’ve also traded pins and scouted boys. The team has mastered time management, too.

“Work hard, play hard,” Biles joked.

Rafael Nadal can tie Roger Federer’s Slam record with 13th French Open

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For all of the many qualities contributing to Rafael Nadal’s unprecedented superiority at the French Open — the bullwhip of a high-bouncing lefty forehand, the reflex returns, the cover-every-corner athleticism, the endless energy and grit — there’s one element that stands above all the rest.

According to the opponent Nadal beat in the last two finals in Paris, anyway.

“You go into the match knowing that even your best tennis, even if you play it over three, four hours, might not be enough. I mean, if you do it, you maybe have a little chance, but you have to go to your limit on every single rally, every single point,” Dominic Thiem, who won the U.S. Open less than two weeks ago, told The Associated Press.

“That makes it not easy to go into the match,” Thiem said. “And that’s the mental part, I guess.”

When main-draw competition begins Sunday at Roland Garros, Thiem and every other player in the men’s bracket will be pursuing Nadal as the 34-year-old from Spain pursues history.

If Nadal manages to claim a 13th French Open championship — extending his own record for the most singles trophies won by anyone at any major tennis tournament — he would, more significantly, also collect his 20th Grand Slam title overall, tying Roger Federer’s record for a man.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Nadal’s tally elsewhere: four U.S. Opens, two Wimbledons, one Australian Open.

He spoke Friday in Paris about what “probably are the most difficult conditions for me ever in Roland Garros” — a lack of matches in 2020; a new brand of tennis balls (“super slow, heavy”); cooler weather and plenty of rain in the forecast.

“But you know what?” Nadal said. “I am here to fight and to play with the highest intensity possible.”

Asked recently about the possibility of catching the 39-year-old Federer, out for the rest of the season after a pair of operations on his right knee, Nadal expressed a sentiment he’s uttered before.

Climbing the Grand Slam list, Nadal said, is “not an obsession at all.”

“I know that you put a lot of attention on all of this,” he replied when the topic was raised last week at the Italian Open, Nadal’s first tournament since February because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Of course I would love to finish my career with 25, but (that’s) something that probably will not happen. I’m going to keep fighting to produce chances, and then when I finish my career, let’s see, no?” he said. “I just want to keep enjoying tennis. And that’s it. If I am playing well, I know I normally have my chances. If not, going to be impossible. That’s it.”

There is, of course, another great of the game playing during this era and, like Nadal, gaining on Federer.

That would be No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic, who had won five of seven major titles to raise his total to 17 before being disqualified at the U.S. Open for accidentally hitting a line judge with a ball while walking to a changeover.

In this oddest of years, the Grand Slam season will drawing to a close in France; the clay-court major was postponed from May until now because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Roland Garros is the last Slam, the last opportunity of this season. So we all know who the main favorite is there: Obviously, it’s Nadal. And everything that he has achieved there, losing maybe a couple matches in his entire career on that court … is probably the most impressive record that anybody has on any court,” Djokovic said. “So, yeah, of course you would put him right there in front as a favorite to win it.”

For the record: Nadal has won 93 of 95 matches in the French Open and his last 21 in a row.

So what makes him so dominant there?

“He’s an unbelievably great tennis player. Probably on clay, a little bit better than on the other surfaces,” Thiem said. “He’s left-handed, which makes it very uncomfortable. And then his forehand, the topspin on the clay, it’s cruel to play.”

Thiem takes notes and hopes to emulate aspects of Nadal’s game.

So do others.

In Rome, for example, two-time Grand Slam champion Simona Halep and one of her coaches, Artemon Apostu-Efremov, caught one of Nadal’s training sessions.

“We were watching the way he hits the ball, the acceleration, the energy he has on the court and the way he practices 100%. It’s always an inspiration,” Apostu-Efremov said.

“This dedication on the court and focus on court,” he said, “it’s something that, for sure, could be transferred to Simona.”

Nadal wound up losing his third match in Italy, which is neither ideal form nor the sort of prep work he is accustomed to ahead of Roland Garros.

Still, Nadal at the French Open is unlike anyone else, anywhere else.

“Regardless of how he feels, I’m sure he’ll find a way,” said Stefanos Tsitsipas, a 2019 Australian Open semifinalist seeded No. 5 in Paris. “He always finds a way, every single year. Clay is his surface. I’m sure he’s going to do well.”

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Skate America will not have fans

Skate America
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Skate America, the top annual international figure skating competition held in the U.S., will not have spectators in Las Vegas from Oct. 23-25.

U.S. Figure Skating said the restriction was “due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in strict accordance with the Nevada Gaming Control Board guidelines.”

Skate America is the first top-level event of the season, kicking off the six-stop Grand Prix Series leading up to December’s Grand Prix Final, which is scheduled this season for Beijing.

The series has already been modified to restrict fields to skaters from the host country or to the event closest to their training location.

Grand Prix fields have not been announced, though two-time world champion Nathan Chen said last month he hoped to go for a fourth straight Skate America title.

Chen trains in California. Most, if not all, top U.S. skaters train in the U.S. or Canada, which means they will compete in Skate America or Skate Canada if they participate in the Grand Prix Series at all.

Two-time U.S. women’s champion Alysa Liu will not be old enough to compete on the Grand Prix until the 2021-22 Olympic season.

Skaters are limited to one Grand Prix start this season. In past seasons, they’ve typically competed twice.

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