U.S. Championships pairs short program produces surprise leaders

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KANSAS CITY — The U.S. Figure Skating Championships started with a surprise. A big one.

Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, in their first year together, topped the pairs short program with a clean performance. The pre-event favorites all erred on Thursday evening.

Cain and LeDuc scored 69.33 points, edging Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier by 3.96 points. Deanna Stellato and Nathan Bartholomay are third, followed by Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran.

Bartholomay and Castelli were Sochi Olympians with different partners. Stellato, the 2000 World junior singles silver medalist, is competing at the U.S. Championships for the first time in 17 years at age 33.

Defending champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea were fifth Thursday after Kayne fell hard on their throw triple Lutz.

Full results are here.

The U.S. will send two pairs to the world championships in Helsinki in two months, likely the top two finishers after the free skate Saturday (3 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

“We definitely know what we’re capable of, and we’re hoping to show that again in the long program on Saturday, but we do know that this is only halfway through the competition,” Cain said.

Before this season, LeDuc had not competed in pairs since the 2014 U.S. Championships with DeeDee Leng (they were seventh, missing the two-pair Olympic team).

Cain had taken nearly 4 1/2 years off from pairs competition. She and LeDuc had a tryout together before this season at the suggestion of U.S. Figure Skating and instantly clicked. Within a week, they were an official pair, with LeDuc moving to Dallas to train with Cain.

“The moment I took his hand, I didn’t realize how much I had missed pairs skating,” said Cain, who competed in pairs and singles until 2012, then did only singles the last four seasons (while slowed by injury). “I had the biggest smile on my face, and I could feel how happy I was, just skating with him, him lifting me in the air.”

In his 2 1/2 years away, LeDuc joined his younger sister, Leah, to skate on cruise ships, travling the world.

“I, as a person, felt lost in a way, because I only understood my ability to figure skate,” said LeDuc, who is 26 years old and, like Cain, seeking a first senior U.S. Championships medal. “I felt that I needed to expand my horizons a little bit. I needed to step away and find myself. … [The time away] helps me to feel that it’s OK to focus on something you’re passionate about. I brought that into tonight. I love to perform. I still consider myself almost a show skater.”

Cain and LeDuc came into the U.S. Championships with the fourth-best total score among U.S. pairs in the fall international season.

Denney and Frazier, in second place, were the top U.S. pair in the fall international season by 16 points, taking a silver medal at Skate America. But Denney struggled on landings in the short program, her right leg wrapped after spring 2015 knee surgery that caused them to miss the entire 2015-16 season.

The top U.S. pair in international competition in recent seasons, Alexa Scimeca and Christopher Knierim, has been out since Scimeca’s stomach surgery in September.

The U.S. Championships continue with the women’s short program Thursday at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app. A complete broadcast schedule is here.

Check out NBCsports.com/USFIGS for all-access coverage all week.

PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance | Live Results

Pairs Short Program
1. Ashley Cain/Timothy LeDuc — 69.33
2. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier — 65.39
3. Deanna Stellato/Nathan Bartholomay — 65.04
4. Marissa Castelli/Mervin Tran — 64.29
5. Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea — 61.80

World silver medalist opts out of figure skating Grand Prix

Elizabet Tursynbaeva
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Elizabet Tursynbayeva, the 2019 World silver medalist, said she will not compete in figure skating’s upcoming Grand Prix Series, according to Kazakhstan’s Olympic Committee.

Tursynbayeva noted in stating her decision that world ranking points will not be awarded in the series, which starts with Skate America from Oct. 23-25.

Fields for the six Grand Prix events, held on consecutive weekends through November, have not been released.

Skaters will be restricted to one Grand Prix start — halved from the usual two — and to the event in their home nations or closest to their training locations.

Tursynbayeva trains in Russia, one of six nations to host Grand Prix events.

Previously, Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu announced he would not compete on the Grand Prix due to coronavirus pandemic-related travel risks.

Russian Olympic gold medalist Alina Zagitova, who announced an indefinite break from competition last December, is also not expected to compete. She is hosting a Russian skating-themed TV show but has not announced her future competition plans.

Tursynbayeva took silver behind Zagitova at the most recent world championships in 2019, a surprise given her 12th-place finish at the PyeongChang Olympics. Tursynbayeva withdrew before her 2019 Grand Prix events, reportedly after suffering an injury.

Last season’s top skaters were all first-year seniors — Russians Alena Kostornaya, Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova. The world championships were not held due to the pandemic.

Two-time U.S. champion Alysa Liu will not be old enough for the Grand Prix until the 2021-22 Olympic season.

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Serena Williams battles, then rolls into French Open second round

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Serena Williams overcame early struggles, sweeping past countrywoman Kristie Ahn 7-6 (2), 6-0 to reach the French Open second round.

Williams, again eyeing a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title, started out like somebody who went 16 months between clay-court matches. She needed 74 minutes to take the first set from the 102nd-ranked Ahn, recovering twice after having her serve broken.

She dominated the second set in 27 minutes, advancing to play Bulgarian and fellow mom Tsvetana Pironkova, a rematch of their three-set U.S. Open quarterfinal three weeks ago.

Williams, in long sleeves and tights, had 15 winners to 28 unforced errors in the first set in cloudy, sub-60-degree weather on Monday.

“I hate the cold. I’m from L.A. and I live in Florida,” Williams said before the tournament, which was postponed from its usual May/June slot due to the coronavirus pandemic. “For half my life I’ve never seen snow. Cold weather and me do not mix.”

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Williams also noted before the tournament that she was “not at 100 percent physically” and spent most of her time in France “rehabbing” without giving specifics. She took a medical timeout with a left Achilles injury in her last match, a U.S. Open semifinal loss to Victoria Azarenka,

“I wouldn’t be playing if I didn’t think I could perform,” Williams said Saturday. “I don’t know any athlete that ever plays physically when they’re feeling perfect. That’s just something I think as athletes we have to play with.”

Earlier Monday, newly crowned U.S. Open champion Dominic Thiem rolled 2014 U.S. Open winner Marin Cilic 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

Thiem, the 2018 and 2019 French Open runner-up, next gets American Jack Sock, a former top-10 player now ranked No. 310. Sock took out countryman Reilly Opelka 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 for his first main draw win at the French Open in four years.

Rafael Nadal begins his quest for a record-extending 13th French Open title and male record-tying 20th Grand Slam singles title later Monday.

The French Open first round concludes Tuesday with top-ranked Novak Djokovic in action.

MORE: Halep, Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

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