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Japan’s superfans travel far for figure skating heroes

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HELSINKI (AP) — You could be forgiven for thinking this year’s world figure skating championships took place in Japan, not Finland.

The stands were full of red-and-white flags, Japanese skaters got huge cheers, and companies from the country dominated the advertising on the rink’s boards.

That’s because Japan is firmly entrenched as skating’s spiritual home, with a legion of dedicated fans ready to follow their favorite skaters around the world.

“When I was a small girl, five years old, I was always watching it on TV, all the skating competitions,” said Kikuko, who didn’t want to give her family name, as she sipped a beer Sunday below a display of Finnish hockey memorabilia ahead of the exhibition gala skates.

In the decades since Kikuko first fell in love with skating, she has followed her favorite skaters to competitions in France, South Korea, North America and Spain.

Championship organizers didn’t provide an official number for tickets sold in Japan, but arena staff and Japanese journalists estimated that up to 2,000 fans from the country – typically middle-aged women – were in attendance at the Hartwall Arena this week. They had plenty to cheer as Yuzuru Hanyu, a heartthrob for Japanese supporters, won men’s gold on Saturday.

Taisuke Goto, a journalist with Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper, says skating’s popularity there began with Japan’s first home Winter Olympics in Sapporo in 1972, grew with the worldwide fame of skaters like East German Katarina Witt in the 1980s, and went into overdrive when Shizuka Arakawa won Japan’s first figure skating gold at the 2006 Olympics.

Many Japanese fans prefer to focus on individual stars rather than follow team sports, says Goto, who estimates skating is Japan’s most popular sport among women. Three-time world champion Mao Asada is seen “like a daughter, like a sister” by many. When she’s skated at major competitions, “they prayed in front of the TV and were watching, will she make the triple axel (jump) this time, or not?”

Paradoxically, many Japanese fans say it’s easier to see top skaters in Finland, a 10-hour flight from Tokyo, than at home.

“It’s so difficult to get a ticket for Japanese events. It’s easier for overseas,” says Yasuko Izumizaki, a teacher of English who was watching Sunday’s exhibition gala. There’s a thriving secondary market for tickets, with Japanese skating fans getting hold of extra passes to international events via third parties in other countries, or foreign friends on online figure skating forums.

It’s a hobby that can easily eat up savings and vacation allowances.

Izumizaki and her friend Kumiko Uchiyama planned to travel back from Finland almost as soon as the championship ends.

“We don’t see much of the country,” said Izumizaki. “I took such a long vacation for this competition, so I don’t think I can (go to next year’s Olympics).”

With the next two Winter Olympics to be held in South Korea next year and China in 2022, it’s a tantalizing prospect for Japanese skating fans, but the lottery system used for tickets means many will be disappointed.

Still, it’s a safe bet there will be plenty of Japanese flags in the stands.

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Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal rekindle record bids at French Open

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Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal will play on the same day at the French Open through the quarterfinals, assuming each advances that far and the weather doesn’t wreak havoc. Each time they walk on the crushed red clay, the legends move closer to tying all-time records.

Williams, in her 10th bid since returning from childbirth to tie Margaret Court‘s 24 Grand Slam singles titles, battled and then rolled past 102nd-ranked countrywoman Kristie Ahn 7-6 (2), 6-0.

“I just need to play with more confidence, like I’m Serena,” she said of the difference between a 74-minute first set and a 27-minute second set. “I love the clay, and I started playing like it, opening the court and moving and sliding.”

Nadal, in his second major since moving within one of Roger Federer‘s male record 20 Slam titles, swept 83rd-ranked Belarusian Egor Gerasimov 6-4, 6-4, 6-2.

“Six months without playing a single tennis match is not easy,” said Nadal, who skipped the U.S. Open and then lost his third match at his comeback tournament in Rome. “I had to stop playing tennis for more than two months, so situation is difficult.”

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Their pursuits are very different.

Williams is already the greatest player in history by many measures, especially considering most of Court’s crowns came before the Open Era and some at the Australian Open without the world’s best players.

Williams has lost all four of her major finals since her life-threatening childbirth. But she is not the favorite in Paris, despite the absence of 2019 champion Ash Barty of Australia and recent U.S. Open winner Naomi Osaka. Williams hasn’t made the quarterfinals at Roland Garros in four years and just went 16 months between competitive matches on clay.

She’s also battling an Achilles injury that affected her during a U.S. Open semifinal run three weeks ago. She’s spent most of her preparation time in France rehabbing.

“A ton of prayer,” she said, noting coming early to a post-match press conference to maximize her subsequent time handling the Achilles. “I’m doing so much for it.”

None of Williams’ potential first three opponents have ever beaten her. Next up: Bulgarian and fellow mom Tsvetana Pironkova, a rematch of their three-set U.S. Open quarterfinal three weeks ago.

Like Williams, Nadal next plays on Wednesday. He gets Mackenzie McDonald, one of six American men to so far reach round two, the most since 1998.

For more than a decade, followers have debated the greatest male player in history between Nadal and Federer (and now Novak Djokovic). But not until winning the 2019 U.S. Open did Nadal move within one Slam of Federer’s total.

Now, Nadal can tie Federer and pass the Swiss if he wins the next two French Opens (and Federer doesn’t win the next Australian Open).

Nadal is going for his 13th crown in Paris, as usual downplaying his favorite status. This time, he’s noting the cool, slow, autumnal conditions and a new brand of tennis ball that is disadvantageous.

“Conditions here probably are the most difficult conditions for me ever in Roland Garros,” Nadal said last week. “The conditions are a little bit extreme to play an outdoor tournament.”

Federer is not playing after two knee operations. Nadal, who at 34 is five years younger than Federer, has the opportunity in the coming matches and months to tip the scales in his favor. And help deny Djokovic, who is 33 with 17 Slams.

Nadal is not one to engage in that GOAT debate. Turns out, neither is Williams.

“You can’t compare two people that are equally great,” she said of Nadal and Federer. “I don’t understand why people want to pit who’s this, who’s that? They both have spectacular careers that 99 percent of people can only dream of and they both deserve.”

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.

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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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