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Heather Bergsma wins world title, could be top U.S. medalist in 2018

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After a disappointing Sochi Olympics, speed skater Heather Bergsma could be setting up for a historic rebound in PyeongChang.

The American reinforced her dominance in the 1000m at the World Single Distance Championships at the 2018 Olympic venue on Saturday, winning by .49 of a second in Gangneung, South Korea.

“I had hoped to [win], but I wasn’t sure what the other skaters were going to do,” Bergsma said. “I try not to hear times [of other skaters] before I went, because I just wanted to focus on myself.”

Japan’s Nao Kodaira, who won the 500m in Gangneung on Friday, took silver behind Bergsma. Dutchwoman Jorien ter Mors earned bronze after relegating Bergsma to silver in the 1000m and 1500m a year ago.

Full world championships results are here. NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app will air coverage Saturday at 6:30 p.m. ET.

Bergsma will skate in the 1500m, her favorite race, and the mass start on the last day of worlds on Sunday, likely dueling with the Netherlands’ Ireen Wuest for gold in the former. Wuest, the most decorated woman across all sports in Sochi with five medals, won the 3000m at worlds on Thursday.

Bergsma could very well be the top U.S. medal winner across all sports in PyeongChang. The medal-projection service Gracenote has her winning three medals next year — gold in the 1000m and 1500m and bronze in the 500m. No American in any sport won more than two medals in Sochi. No American has won three medals with two gold at a Winter Olympics since Eric Heiden swept the five speed skating events in Lake Placid in 1980.

Bergsma has been on a tear since finishing seventh, seventh and eighth in her three individual races in Sochi as part of U.S. speed skating’s much-publicized failure for multiple reasons. She went into those Winter Games favored to become the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic speed skating medal since 2002.

“Really motivated, I just want to come back and prove that I can do it,” said Bergsma, a former inline skater from North Carolina who made her Olympic debut in 2010.

She moved to the Netherlands two months after Sochi and married Dutch Olympic 10,000m champion Jorrit Bergsma, who had proposed to her in April 2013 by etching “Will You Marry Me?” into Myrtle Beach sand on a family vacation. Bergsma is still learning the native language. On Saturday, she answered the first few questions in an interview with Netherlands broadcaster NOS in Dutch, then switched to English.

“I can understand it really good, but speaking, especially after a race, all the words just disappear,” Bergsma later said in a phone interview, adding that she takes hourlong Skype lessons five days per week.

In the last three seasons, Bergsma broke the 1000m and 1500m world records and won world titles in the 500m and 1000m. Teammate Brittany Bowe snatched the 1000m mark eight days after Bergsma reset it, but Bowe is out due to effects from a July concussion. Bergsma has not been as strong in the 500m this season and finished eighth in the worlds race Friday.

Bergsma used the 500m this week as “a wake-up to the system.” Training more endurance in recent years, her opening 100-meter times have slowed, and she’s less able to keep up with the sprint specialists.

“In the first 100 meters I’m losing half a second,” she said. “When you have an extra lap there or two in the 1500m, you’re able to relax more and keep the speed better. I feel better in the 1000m, but the 1500m is still one of my favorites.”

Bergsma could skate in five events at the Olympics — 500m, 1000m, 1500m, team pursuit and mass start — but the 500m is droppable given its place on the schedule, one day before the team pursuit begins. If Bergsma cedes the 500m, she would have at least one day off between each event in PyeongChang.

Also Saturday, four-time Olympic medalist Shani Davis placed fifth in the men’s 1000m, .72 of a second behind winner Kjeld Nuis, the World Cup leader from the Netherlands. Canadian Vincent De Haitre took silver, followed by another Dutch skater, Kai Verbij.

The Czech Republic’s Martina Sablikova won her 11th straight Olympic or world title in the 5000m. Germany’s Claudia Pechstein, a 44-year-old with nine Olympic medals, took silver, 1.55 seconds behind.

Jorrit Bergsma took silver, 5.06 seconds behind Sven Kramer in the 10,000m. Bergsma was one second faster than Kramer through 23 of 25 laps in the grueling, 13-minute race, before fading horribly in the last 800 meters.

MORE: 18 U.S. Olympic hopefuls to watch for PyeongChang

Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff set Australian Open duel

Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff
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Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff will meet in the third round of a second straight Grand Slam, this time at the Australian Open on Friday.

Osaka, the defending champion and world No. 4, and Gauff, the 15-year-old American phenom, each won second-round matches in Melbourne to reach the final 32.

Osaka swept Chinese Zheng Saisai 6-2, 6-4 on a windy Wednesday afternoon. Later, Gauff followed her first-round win over Venus Williams by eliminating Romanian veteran Sorana Cirstea 4-6, 6-3, 7-5.

“I know what to expect,” Gauff said. “I’m excited.”

Osaka beat Gauff 6-3, 6-0 in the U.S. Open third round on Aug. 31. In the most memorable moment of that night, Osaka urged Gauff to share the on-court victor’s interview at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

“It’s better than going into the showers and crying,” Osaka told Gauff in front of a packed crowd. “Let these people know how you feel.”

Gauff obliged after at first declining.

“I’m not the type of person who wants to cry in front of everyone,” she said later. “I didn’t want to take that moment away from [Osaka], as well.”

Gauff, ranked No. 684 at this time last year, is now No. 67. She broke through by beating Williams in the Wimbledon first round, then reaching the round of 16.

Gauff won a lower-level WTA Tour event in October and now ranks fifth in U.S. Olympic singles qualifying. The top four after the French Open qualify for the Tokyo Games, though Gauff has fewer than half the points as No. 4 Alison Riske.

“It’s been really cool to watch her grow because it’s happened so fast,” Osaka said.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

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John Isner leaning toward skipping Olympics again

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John Isner, the highest-ranked U.S. male singles tennis player, is considering skipping the Olympics for a second straight time.

“I haven’t put a ton of thought into it, but as of right now, I think I’m leaning towards not playing,” the 19th-ranked player said at the Australian Open on Tuesday. “It’s about scheduling. I know the Olympics, it’s a fantastic honor. There’s no doubt about that. … Right now, at this stage in my career, it’s not a huge priority for me. So that’s probably the main reason I won’t be going. I certainly love playing in the summer in America, and I’m going to focus on that.”

The Tokyo Games take place the same week as a lower-level ATP Tour event in Atlanta that Isner, a former University of Georgia star, has won five times.

Other notable male players already said they will pass on Tokyo, including Sam Querrey, the top American in Olympic qualifying standings.

Austrian Dominic Thiem, a two-time French Open finalist, is prioritizing an ATP event in Kitzbühel the week of the Olympics. The U.S. doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan are not planning to play the Olympics in their final season before retirement, their manager said in November.

“The Olympics is very tough on the schedule … especially with Davis Cup,” Isner said in 2016, according to USA Today. “I think the fact that they have no [ATP ranking] points [at the Olympics], to be honest, was a pretty big factor as well. Obviously the Olympics is not about the money, but no points I think hindered me a bit.”

Isner, who turns 35 on April 26, is likely giving up his last chance to play Olympic singles. In his only Olympic participation, he reached the quarterfinals of the 2012 London Games, plus lost an opening-round doubles match there with Andy Roddick.

The top four U.S. men qualify for Tokyo, assuming they are among the top 60 overall qualifiers (maximum four per country) after this spring’s French Open.

Taylor FritzReilly Opelka, Steve Johnson and Tommy Paul are the U.S. men currently in Olympic qualifying position if excluding Querrey and Isner.

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