U.S. women struggle to open Four Continents Championships

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Three U.S. women dug considerable holes in Thursday’s short program at the Four Continents Championships, a tune-up for next month’s world championships.

Mirai Nagasu was fifth, botching a triple loop landing. Mariah Bell was seventh, stepping out of a triple flip landing and failing to perform a triple-triple combination. Karen Chen, the surprise U.S. champion, was 12th, falling on a double loop.

“It was definitely a rough performance,” Chen said, according to U.S. Figure Skating. “I came here with higher expectations, and I was hoping I would be able to put out my best. Unfortunately that didn’t happen.”

Canada’s Gabrielle Daleman scored 68.25 points to lead countrywoman Kaetlyn Osmond by .04 going into the free skate Saturday at the 2018 Olympic venue in Gangneung, South Korea. Full results are here.

The U.S. standings are concerning not only because worlds are in six weeks, but also because worlds results determine the number of Olympic entries each nation gets.

For the U.S. to earn the maximum three women’s spots at the Olympics, its top two of three skaters at worlds must have placements that add up to no more than 13. Last year, the top U.S. women at worlds were second and fourth, adding up to six, comfortably under 13.

The Americans aren’t looking anywhere near that strong this season.

Nagasu isn’t on the worlds team. Chen and Bell are after finishing first and third at nationals in January. As is U.S. silver medalist Ashley Wagner, who is skipping Four Continents to prepare for worlds.

The field will be much stronger at worlds than at Four Continents, with Europeans joining the mix. Russia will send three medal contenders to worlds. Italian Carolina Kostner, the Olympic bronze medalist, will be there. Japan’s best skater, Satoko Miyahara, is out of Four Continents with a hip injury.

The short dance at Four Continents went to form, with Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir topping the field with 79.75 points. They were followed by Americans Maia and Alex Shibutani with 76.59 and Madison Chock and Evan Bates with 74.67.

Virtue and Moir have been the top couple this season after taking two seasons off following their silver medal in Sochi. The Shibutanis and Chock and Bates rank Nos. 3 and 4 in the world behind France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, who are not at Four Continents.

The pairs short produced a surprise with Canada’s two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford in third after Radford fell on a triple Lutz. They trail China’s Sui Wenjing and Han Cong by 6.44 points going into Saturday’s free skate.

The top U.S. pair was Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim in sixth in their first competition of the season. They’ve been out due to her unspecified abdominal issue that lasted from April to November and required three surgeries.

“It wasn’t our biggest score, but it’s the best we’ve ever felt skating,” Scimeca Knierim said, according to U.S. Figure Skating. “Health-wise, I’m back at 100 percent, and I’m getting close to 100 percent strength-wise. I feel like my body is almost back to where it used to be, and I’m sure by the time worlds comes around, I’ll be there.”

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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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