Yevgenia Medvedeva repeats as world champ; Karen Chen saves U.S.

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With another record score, Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva became the first female figure skater to repeat as world champion since Michelle Kwan in 2001 in Helsinki on Friday.

U.S. champion Karen Chen, in her worlds debut, finished fourth to clinch the maximum three 2018 Olympic spots for the U.S. women.

The skaters to fill those spots will be announced after the January 2018 U.S. Championships.

Chen is now the front-runner after her surprise U.S. title in January and the struggles of 2016 World silver medalist Ashley Wagner (seventh at these worlds) and two-time U.S. champion Gracie Gold (failed to make worlds) this season.

There is no doubting Medvedeva, a 17-year-old who enjoys cartoons and K-pop, is the clear favorite for Olympic gold in PyeongChang.

Medvedeva smashed her world record for free-skate and total scores Friday, ending up with a flawless seven triple jumps and 233.41 points. She won by a whopping 13.28 points over Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond. Another Canadian, Gabrielle Daleman, took bronze.

“A little bit nervous [in] 6-minute warm-up before my [free] skate,” Medvedeva said. “I just told [myself], Yevgenia, you must keep calm. I skated well and had fun.”

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Medvedeva hasn’t lost since November 2015, which was her only defeat in two seasons as a senior skater. She just completed the most dominant two-year stretch in women’s skating since Katarina Witt in the 1980s.

She is the face of Olympic sports in her scrutinized country at the moment, one of two Russians to win individual world titles in Olympic events this winter sports season.

Medvedeva was asked this in Friday night’s press conference:

It’s been a tough time for Russian sport in general, in many respects. How important is it for you to do well for Russian sport, and what does this victory perhaps mean for Russian sport in general?

After a translator interpreted the question, Medvedeva took 10 seconds to gather her thoughts. She then spoke in Russian for 75 seconds, one of the longest answers she has given in such a setting.

“That’s one of the most difficult questions I’ve had,” Medvedeva said. “I hope that all the work that my coaches and myself are inputting every day brings something positive to the country. Yeah, it is sad to hear all the news and read the news and hear the news. I think we just should support each other. I know from my own experience what a great role support plays. We should not give up and move forward.”

Osmond and Daleman are the first Canadian women’s medalists since Joannie Rochette in 2009. It’s the first time two Canadian women made the podium at a worlds or Olympics.

Chen, a 17-year-old with Taiwanese parents, was a revelation at the U.S. Championships, bagging gold in January after placing eighth the year before.

She struggled at her most recent event, taking 12th at the Four Continents Championships in February, where she was slowed by the flu, nerves and boot problems.

But she rebounded in Helsinki, placing fifth in the short program with a personal best by 5.52 points. In the free skate, she had a personal best by 8.2 points, despite falling and stepping out of the landing on her last two jumps.

“That was everything that I dreamed of,” said Chen, who shares a hometown of Fremont, Calif., with mentor Kristi Yamaguchi, the 1992 Olympic champion.

Chen skated under the pressure of knowing she needed a relatively strong program to ensure the U.S. would get three Olympic spots. The U.S. had at least three women’s skaters at all but two Winter Olympics since the first Winter Games in 1924.

Before she went onto the ice for warm-up, Chen saw that Wagner was in third place with six skaters left. Chen and Wagner’s placements needed to add up to 13 or fewer for the U.S. to get three Olympic spots.

If the final group of six skaters, including Chen, skated decently, Wagner would finish ninth, meaning Chen would need to improve from fifth after the short program to finish fourth.

“I needed to skate pretty close to clean,” Chen said of her thoughts as she prepared for the most important program of her young career. “Right after I had that thought, I blocked it out right away and just realized that I’m here, and it’s my first time here and I wanted to enjoy this moment and I want to be relaxed and calm because that’s when I know I skate best.”

Chen clinched the three spots when she skated into the lead by 1.41 points.

The Americans ended up qualifying three spots easily, because Russians Maria Sotskova and Anna Pogorilaya, both in the final group, had poor free skates and slotted in behind Wagner.

That didn’t change the fact that Chen delivered for her teammates.

“Let’s take a moment to all thank [Chen] for saving America because let’s be honest she did,” Wagner tweeted. “First time at worlds and she saves the day.”

Wagner, at her seventh worlds, struggled with her combination jumps Friday. She had the seventh-best score in the short program and the 10th-best in the free skate, ending her worst season since 2010-11.

“Medaling at the Olympic Games is my ultimate goal,” said Wagner, who was also seventh in Sochi. “Looking at the way I performed here, that might not seem very tangible right now, but I know the athlete I am, I know how prepared I am and I just didn’t skate that way today.”

The third American, Mariah Bell, was 12th in her worlds debut.

“I’ve gone from competition to competition feeling little variations of my nerves,” Bell said. “This one was probably the worst. I had trouble sleeping and a little bit of trouble during my practices.”

The world championships conclude with the men’s free skate and free dance on Saturday, with coverage on NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app starting at 12:30 p.m. ET.

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Women’s Results
Gold: Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 233.41
Silver: Kaetlyn Osmond (CAN) — 218.13

Bronze: Gabrielle Daleman (CAN) — 213.52
4. Karen Chen (USA) — 199.29
7. Ashley Wagner (USA) — 193.54
12. Mariah Bell (USA) — 187.23

Novak Djokovic rolls at French Open; top women escape

Novak Djokovic
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Novak Djokovic began what could be a march to his 18th Grand Slam title, sweeping Swede Mikael Ymer 6-0, 6-2, 6-3 in the French Open first round on Tuesday.

The top seed Djokovic lost just seven points in the first set. He gets Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis in the second round in a half of the draw that includes no other man with French Open semifinal experience.

Djokovic had plenty going for him into Roland Garros, seeking to repeat his 2016 run to the title. The chilly weather is similar to four years ago.

As is Djokovic’s form. His only loss in 2020 was when he was defaulted at the U.S. Open for hitting a ball in anger that struck a linesperson in the throat.

Djokovic got a break with the draw when No. 3 seed Dominic Thiem was put in No. 2 Rafael Nadal‘s half. The Serbian also won his clay-court tune-up event in Rome, where he received warnings in back-to-back matches for breaking a racket and uttering an obscenity.

“I don’t think that [the linesperson incident] will have any significant negative impact on how I feel on the tennis court,” Djokovic said before Roland Garros. “I mean, I won the tournament in Rome just a week later after what happened in New York.

“I really want to be my best version as a player, as a human being on the court, and win a tennis match. Because of the care that I have for that, I sometimes express my emotions in good way or maybe less good way.”

If Djokovic can lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires two Sundays from now, he will move within two of Roger Federer‘s career Slams record. Also notable: He would keep Nadal from tying Federer’s record and head into the Australian Open in January, his signature Slam, with a chance to match Nadal at 19.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Earlier Tuesday, No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Sofia Kenin each needed three sets to reach the second round.

The Czech Pliskova rallied past Egyptian qualifier Mayar Sherif 6-7 (9), 6-2, 6-4. Pliskova, the highest-ranked player without a major title, next gets 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia.

“Let’s not talk about my level [of play],” Pliskova said. “I think there is big room for improvement.”

Kenin, the American who won the Australian Open in February, outlasted Russian Liudmila Samsonova 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

“It doesn’t matter how you win — ugly, pretty, doesn’t matter,” Kenin said on Tennis Channel.

She gets Romanian Ana Bogdan in the second round. Only one other seed — No. 14 Elena Rybakina — is left in Kenin’s section en route to a possible quarterfinal.

American Jen Brady, who made a breakthrough run to the U.S. Open semifinals, was beaten by Danish qualifier Clara Tauson  6-4, 3-6, 9-7.

Sam Querrey nearly made it eight American men into the second round, serving for the match in the third set. But he succumbed to 13th-seeded Russian Andrey Rublev 6-7 (5), 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-4, 6-3. It’s still the best first-round showing for U.S. men since nine advanced in 1996.

The second round begins Wednesday, highlighted by Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal.

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Alysa Liu grows on the ice and adds inches, too

Liu and Scali in San Francisco
Courtesy Massimo Scali
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Word on the street is Alysa Liu has grown.

The two-time reigning U.S. figure skating champion said that’s true… to a degree. The two inches of height she added between last season and her 15th birthday in August don’t change Liu’s perspective.

“I just went from really short to very short,” Liu said, wryly, via telephone after a training session last week in San Francisco. “I’m up to 5-0. I like the five-foot number, but it’s still short.”

Anyway, the more important measure will be how much Liu has grown as a skater since her successful 2019-20 debut in international junior competition.

As is the case for all skaters, especially those in North America, such skating growth risks being temporarily stunted by restrictions on training and lack of competition caused by the coronavirus pandemic. And physical growth, even if it is only two inches, can also be problematic.

In Liu’s case, issues related to the pandemic have complicated her sudden shift to a new coaching team in late June, when she announced a split from Laura Lipetsky, who had coached her since age 5. Cancellation of the Junior Grand Prix series is giving Liu more travel-free time to adapt to the new situation, although, ironically, travel restrictions are keeping her from having the two-country, three-coach arrangement work the way it was planned.

“I don’t think it affects the long-term plan that much,” Liu said. “I still have my school schedule [where she will finish her high school education before the 2021-22 season, her first as an international senior]. I’m training hard. I’m getting stronger.

“I wasn’t surprised the Junior Grand Prix was cancelled. I’m a little sad I can’t go, but I get to stay home and train, so it’s all good. I do like competing a lot, and I guess I’ll miss that feeling, but because of corona[virus], there is nothing I can do, so I just accepted it.”

As of now, Liu can’t go to Toronto to work face-to-face with coach Lee Barkell, the newest member of the team, and choreographer Lori Nichol, with whom the skater began collaborating last season.

Massimo Scali, the three-time Italian Olympic ice dancer based in the Bay Area who began helping Lipetsky with Liu a month before the 2020 U.S. Championships, now is her in-person coach. Barkell and Nichol contribute via several FaceTime or Zoom sessions each week. Once entry restrictions from the U.S. to Canada are eased, Liu intends to visit regularly while continuing to live with her family in the Bay Area.

Of course, little has gone as might have been planned for Liu over the last two seasons.

In January 2019, at 13, she stunningly became the youngest ever to win a U.S. singles title. In January 2020, at 14, she became the youngest to win two. In the process, Liu became the first U.S. woman to land two triple Axels in a free skate and the first to land a quadruple jump, the former at 2019 nationals, the latter at her 2019 Junior Grand Prix debut.

She won both her 2019 Junior Grand Prix series events. She finished a close second to Russia’s Kamila Valieva at the 2019 Junior Grand Prix Final and a distant third to Valieva at the 2020 World Junior Championships. That made her the first U.S. woman to win a Junior Grand Prix Final medal since 2012 and just the second to win a world junior medal during that period.

Taking over as primary coach of a skate with such a resume carries a burden, especially for a coach like Scali whose entire knowledge base and coaching experience is based in ice dance.

Scali and Liu
Scali and Liu at the Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center in San Francisco. Courtesy Massimo Scali

“There is a little pressure on me, for sure,” Scali said. “She is an extremely talented skater and an amazing human being. But I know that I have a terrific team behind me, working really well together. My pressure is doing the best for Alysa to improve where she has to improve.”

Barkell is dealing with a different set of challenges: working remotely with a skater he barely knows.

“It was a bit difficult in the beginning, verbally explaining exercises, technique, corrections, etc., instead of being able to show Alysa,” Barkell said in a text message. “But we have figured out ways to make this work. Alysa is very coachable and has been very receptive to new ideas.

“We [myself, Massimo and Lori] are focusing on development of speed and power in her overall skating and continued development and consistency in all of her jumps. We all realize some of these changes will not happen overnight.”

There is a rule of thumb that says figure skaters need between 18 months and two years to get fully comfortable working with new coaches. For Liu, that time frame dovetails nicely with the next Olympic season.

Liu plans to give her first progress report by recording this week her new short and long programs, by choreographed by Nichol, for judging in U.S. Figure Skating’s international selection pool (ISP) points challenge competition. The performances are to go online Oct. 6.

The short uses music from Nino Rota’s score for the Fellini movie, “La Strada.” The long draws from “The Storm,” a work by the Hungarian composer/pianist Balázs Havasi that Nichol had choreographed for Carolina Kostner in the 2018-19 season, when an injury kept Kostner from competing with that program.

Liu’s jump layouts this season include a triple Axel in the short program with two triple Axels and a quadruple Lutz in the long. She may wait until later competitive events to include them. She plans to skate at the USFS Championship Series competitions in Spokane, Wash., November 10-15 and Henderson, Nevada Nov. 24-28.

“I just want to do good programs for whatever competitions are available,” Liu said. “It will take me a long time to get everything perfect. But I have been working hard on skating skills, and hopefully people can see a difference.”

Barkell handles nearly all the jump instruction, although Scali said is learning enough from watching the remote sessions to be aware of what Liu is supposed to do. Nichol is primary choreographer, with the concept, the music cuts and the steps coming from her.

Scali, who has done choreography for ice dancers, makes occasional choreographic suggestions. But his focus is the areas of skating covered by component scores (PCS).

Liu’s PCS was 6.31 points lower than Valieva’s in the world junior free skate. And Liu’s aggregate PCS for the two programs at 2020 nationals was 9.35 points behind that of runner-up Mariah Bell, but a whopping 18.66 margin over Bell in technical scores – most from jumps – made Liu an easy winner.

Scali and Liu
Scali and Liu at the Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center in San Francisco. Courtesy Massimo Scali

“We want Alysa to go out on the ice and look like a mature, different skater,” Scali said. “We are working on details – expression, speed, gliding, posture – to polish the programs so that they give an image of an Alysa who is more empowered and more mature and really ready for senior level competition.”

Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic champion, skates twice a week at the San Francisco rink where Liu has been training for the last seven weeks. He gives her tips on jumps and moves like spread eagles.

Boitano proctored Liu’s clean run-throughs last week that did not include the Axels or a quad. “It was great,” Boitano said of the long program.

“We don’t know yet [about the big jumps],” Scali said. “Her training was so affected by this pandemic, and this ISP competition is so early in the season considering all she went through.”

Liu has been training in San Francisco because of issues with ice time availability at her home rink in Oakland, in a different county with different pandemic rules than San Francisco.

When no rinks at all near her were open after coming back from junior worlds, Liu and her father, Arthur, an attorney, went to Wilmington, Del., from early March through mid-May, living in an AirBnb property. She trained in Wilmington on her own except for spotting from a coach with jumps done on a pull harness.

She found herself going stir crazy at times in Delaware, especially missing her four younger siblings, who stayed in California. There is only so much anime on Netflix one can watch.

Once she and her father returned west, it became a case of being careful what you wish for. The siblings, like the home-schooled Liu, now are doing remote learning at home. So far, the Wi-Fi is holding up.

“It’s very chaotic,” she said, laughing. “They are all so crazy it’s kind of ridiculous. I get home every day, and there’s always a racket in the house. My sister Julia is always falling. My sister Selina is always FaceTiming her friends. And the boys [Joshua and Justin] are always fighting.”

Since she has been training in San Francisco, Liu takes the BART train back and forth, sometimes by herself, sometimes with Scali, who lives in Berkeley.

When they began working together on a full-time basis, it was briefly at her usual rink (the Oakland Ice Center), where Lipetsky still teaches. Lipetsky was away at the time, so there were no potentially uncomfortable encounters.

In the June 22 USFS release announcing the coaching change, Liu acknowledged and thanked Lipetsky for the coach’s role in the skater’s success.

“We’ve worked so closely together, and she has helped me get to where I am today,” Liu said.

In a June 22 text message to me, Lipetsky wrote:

“I have really enjoyed working with Alysa for her entire skating career. Massimo Scali and her father informed me that I would no longer be working with her. To not add to her distraction and allow her the opportunity to focus on being the best she can be, I prefer not to comment any further.”

In a text message to me a few days later, Arthur Liu said neither he nor Alysa wanted to talk about the reasons why she left Lipetsky.

“We need to move on and focus on her training,” he wrote.

Scali said they plan to return to the Oakland Ice Center as soon as they can get the ice time Alysa needs there. He does not expect any issues if they are in the rink at the same time as Lipetsky, who, Scali said, had asked him last December to work with the skater on skating skills and components.

“It’s all good,” Scali said. “Alysa is serene and happy about the decision she made, so there will be no problems.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating

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