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Tessa Virtue, Scott Moir return to top with Grand Prix Final win

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Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir stamped their comeback to the top of ice dance, nearly five years since their last major title, by winning their first Grand Prix Final in record fashion Saturday.

The 2010 Olympic champions, back this season after a two-year break from competition, knocked off the two-time reigning world champions from France, training partners Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, on French ice in Marseille.

“At the start of the season our goal was really to qualify for this event,” said Virtue, who with Moir earned four Grand Prix Final silver medals before this week’s breakthrough. “After competing at Grand Prix Final five times, it feels nice to finally get the win.”

Virtue and Moir tallied 197.22 points, the highest total ice dance score under a judging system implemented in 2005. The French were 4.11 points behind, followed by U.S. champions Maia and Alex Shibutani in third.

Virtue and Moir completed a perfect fall season in a sport, and a discipline, where a climb back to the top after ceding the throne can be arduous.

Virtue and Moir won the 2010 Olympic title in Vancouver, then swapped world titles with then-training partners Meryl Davis and Charlie White in 2011 and 2012 before being supplanted by the Americans on the Olympic stage in Sochi.

Moir kissed the ice after their final performance in Russia, just as he did in Vancouver, but it was not a kiss goodbye to competition. The couple announced their comeback last Feb. 20.

“We probably have one more shot at it [the Olympics], so we have to take advantage of it,” Moir said then, following up his reported May 2015 comments, “We’re not coming back unless it’s to become Olympic champions again.”

Davis and White have not skated since Sochi (yet haven’t retired), but a new power ascended in ice dance the last two seasons.

In 2015, Papadakis and Cizeron became the youngest world champions in 40 years. They repeated last season, impressively, after Papadakis suffered a concussion in a practice fall seven months earlier.

When Virtue and Moir came back, they joined Papadakis and Cizeron’s training base in Montreal.

“I think we have to earn that term to be associated as rivals to Gabriella and Guillaume,” Virtue reportedly said early this season. “We are not quite there yet for sure, but they have taken the ice dance world to an entirely different level in the last few years.”

Virtue and Moir beat Papadakis and Cizeron by nine points at NHK Trophy two weeks ago, with a world-record total, and scored even better in Marseille.

“We just wanted to be in the mix [this season],” Moir said. “The state of ice dance has come up quite a ways. And this is not something that we expected. Now we know that this doesn’t make it easy for us, it makes it a lot harder. … Now we have a huge target on our backs. … Our workload just multiplied by 10.”

Now, Virtue and Moir may be on their way to a rare feat in 2018 — to win an Olympics, see somebody else win an Olympics, and then regain the gold. Across all figure skating disciplines, only Russian pairs Yekaterina Gordeeva and Sergey Grinkov have done this.

After their win in Marseille, Moir was asked about returning to the Grand Prix Final for a seventh time next season.

“There are a couple of other goals we’re looking for other than the longevity award,” he said.

The Grand Prix Final concludes Saturday with the women’s and men’s free skates (schedule here). NBCSN will air coverage Sunday from 8:30-11 p.m. ET.

MORE: Javier Fernandez builds toward last Olympic chance

Ice Dance Results
GOLD: Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir (CAN) — 197.22
SILVER: Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA) — 192.81
BRONZE: Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani (USA) — 189.60
4. Yekaterina Bobrova/Dmitry Soloviyev (RUS) — 181.95
5. Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue (USA) — 179.59
6. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 179.32

Coco Gauff eliminated from Australian Open by Sofia Kenin

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Coco Gauff‘s run at the Australian Open ended in the round of 16, foiled by fellow American Sofia Kenin on Sunday.

Kenin ousted the 15-year-old phenom 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-0 to reach her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. Gauff, too, was bidding for her first major quarterfinal after a sterling seven months ignited by her march to the Wimbledon fourth round.

Gauff, ranked No. 684 this time last year, will near the top 50 after the Australian Open. She beat Venus Williams in the first round at Wimbledon and the Australian Open and took out defending Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka in the third round on Friday.

Gauff’s play catapulted her to fifth in U.S. Olympic singles qualifying, but she has half the points as fourth-place Madison Keys, and a country can’t qualify more than four players in singles. The Olympic field will be determined by the WTA rankings after the French Open in June.

The 14th seed Kenin, who beat Serena Williams in the 2019 French Open third round, ranks second behind Williams in U.S. Olympic qualifying. She will face No. 27 Wang Qiang or Ons Jabeur in the quarterfinals.

Kenin and Alison Riske are the two remaining U.S. women in the draw.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

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Jessica Calalang, Brian Johnson produce the pairs’ moment of figure skating nationals

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – This fall season, Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson ranked fifth among American pairs but finished with silver medals at the U.S. Championships on Saturday night.

After a fifth-place nationals finish last year, their goal was just to be on the podium in Greensboro.

In their second year together, Calalang and Johnson won the free skate with 146.01 points for a total score of 213.57. It was good enough for second place, as the eventual winners, Alexa Knierim and Chris Knierim, held a 10-point lead over their training partners from the short program.

“While Brian and Chris are working on cars, Jess and I are having lattes petting cats,” Alexa said in a press conference. “We have a great dynamic and I couldn’t be prouder of them for the way they skated. I watched them backstage just because I genuinely care for them.”

Calalang and Johnson vaulted to second from fourth place after short, when Johnson fell on the side-by-side triple Salchows.

In the free skate, however, they received positive grades of execution on every element. The crowd inside the Greensboro Coliseum was on their feet before the music (“You are the Reason” by Calum Scott and Leona Lewis) even finished.

“I don’t think either of us have had that kind of performance at a U.S. Championships,” Calalang said.

“I definitely haven’t,” Johnson added. “The amount of audience support that I felt at the very end of that program was overwhelming. It was the most amazing thing I’ve felt on the ice. I don’t have words to describe it.”

Now, they could join the Knierims at the world championships in March. The U.S. has two berths to worlds, up from one last year. U.S. Figure Skating chooses the teams, not necessarily (but usually) following nationals standings.

Calalang and Johnson have no world championships experience, either together or with former partners, although they have had plenty of experience this season.

They kicked it off with a sixth-place finish at a lower-level event, followed by their Grand Prix debut at Skate America. They finished just off the podium in fourth. The following week, they were sixth at Skate Canada. They handily won the Warsaw Cup, another lower-level event this fall.

“Repetition always helps,” Johnson said. “The more experience you can get, hopefully the better you’re gonna be doing. It was great doing the Grand Prixes because we had an amazing audience at Skate America and Skate Canada. The whole place was sold-out. I think that really resembles here as well with everybody loving what you’re doing and the whole support base.”

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NATIONALS: TV/Live Stream Schedule | Full Results

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.