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Hilary Knight’s trip to historic Olympic ice rekindled love for hockey

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Hilary Knight, in the conversation the last few years for world’s best female hockey player, considered stepping away from the sport during the prime of her career.

Knight was “crushed and heartbroken” after losing a second straight Olympic final to Canada in 2014. This one was in heart-wrenching fashion. The U.S. led 2-0 with four minutes left and ended up losing in overtime.

She spent about six months after Sochi “trying to figure out what the next step would look like.”

“I never was committed to retiring, per se, but there was definitely an I don’t know if I can go another four years kind of feeling,” Knight said last week. “I never stopped training, but I think my heart might not have been there for a few months.”

Understand that Knight was 24 years old at the time and already very decorated.

She was the leading goal-scorer at the 2009 World Championship (age 19, youngest player on the U.S. team), recorded eight points at the 2010 Olympics (youngest on that team, too) and led the 2011 Worlds in goals and assists (and scored the golden goal in overtime of the final against Canada).

In Sochi, Knight was one of two Americans voted to the media all-star team.

Another silver medal stung. Knight needed those months after Sochi to determine if she was still in love with the game she found at age 6 in Chicago.

Come August, Knight trekked to Lake Placid, N.Y., to coach 12- and 13-year-olds. The U.S. under-18 and under-22 teams were training at the same arena, on the very rink where the Miracle on Ice took place.

Knight remembers those potential future Olympians putting on USA jerseys. It reignited her passion.

“I remember what that felt like,” Knight said. “It’s something that I’m not ready to give up yet. That amazing feeling of being that little kid again in that jersey.”

Two months later, Knight practiced with the Anaheim Ducks. If any female skater could make it a men’s pro league, it’s Knight. She is women’s hockey’s consummate power forward, listed at 5 feet, 10 inches, and 172 pounds.

She considered playing in a men’s league in Sweden after Sochi. Knight learned Swedish at the University of Wisconsin and fell in love with the culture.

The timing wasn’t right to leave the U.S., where women’s post-grad teams were in development stages (they still are).

“I couldn’t just leave, even though I really wanted to go and play men’s pro,” Knight said. “It just wasn’t the right move for the sport.”

No U.S. minor-league team reached out to her. (Female goalies are generally better candidates to play in men’s leagues. and Canadian Shannon Szabados did so for two full seasons with the Columbus (Ga.) Cottonmouths.)

Knight continued to thrive for the national team, earning world championship tournament MVP honors in 2015 and 2016. Then she scored another world championship overtime winner against Canada on April 7.

She hopes with the new labor deal with USA Hockey that she can play through 2022. Knight stated before Sochi that she wanted to become the best player in the world.

Has she met that goal?

“Never,” Knight said. “I think when I feel that way it’s time to retire.”

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MORE: Knight’s golden goal lifts U.S. past Canada for world title

Rafael Nadal can tie Roger Federer’s Slam record with 13th French Open

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For all of the many qualities contributing to Rafael Nadal’s unprecedented superiority at the French Open — the bullwhip of a high-bouncing lefty forehand, the reflex returns, the cover-every-corner athleticism, the endless energy and grit — there’s one element that stands above all the rest.

According to the opponent Nadal beat in the last two finals in Paris, anyway.

“You go into the match knowing that even your best tennis, even if you play it over three, four hours, might not be enough. I mean, if you do it, you maybe have a little chance, but you have to go to your limit on every single rally, every single point,” Dominic Thiem, who won the U.S. Open less than two weeks ago, told The Associated Press.

“That makes it not easy to go into the match,” Thiem said. “And that’s the mental part, I guess.”

When main-draw competition begins Sunday at Roland Garros, Thiem and every other player in the men’s bracket will be pursuing Nadal as the 34-year-old from Spain pursues history.

If Nadal manages to claim a 13th French Open championship — extending his own record for the most singles trophies won by anyone at any major tennis tournament — he would, more significantly, also collect his 20th Grand Slam title overall, tying Roger Federer’s record for a man.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Nadal’s tally elsewhere: four U.S. Opens, two Wimbledons, one Australian Open.

He spoke Friday in Paris about what “probably are the most difficult conditions for me ever in Roland Garros” — a lack of matches in 2020; a new brand of tennis balls (“super slow, heavy”); cooler weather and plenty of rain in the forecast.

“But you know what?” Nadal said. “I am here to fight and to play with the highest intensity possible.”

Asked recently about the possibility of catching the 39-year-old Federer, out for the rest of the season after a pair of operations on his right knee, Nadal expressed a sentiment he’s uttered before.

Climbing the Grand Slam list, Nadal said, is “not an obsession at all.”

“I know that you put a lot of attention on all of this,” he replied when the topic was raised last week at the Italian Open, Nadal’s first tournament since February because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Of course I would love to finish my career with 25, but (that’s) something that probably will not happen. I’m going to keep fighting to produce chances, and then when I finish my career, let’s see, no?” he said. “I just want to keep enjoying tennis. And that’s it. If I am playing well, I know I normally have my chances. If not, going to be impossible. That’s it.”

There is, of course, another great of the game playing during this era and, like Nadal, gaining on Federer.

That would be No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic, who had won five of seven major titles to raise his total to 17 before being disqualified at the U.S. Open for accidentally hitting a line judge with a ball while walking to a changeover.

In this oddest of years, the Grand Slam season will drawing to a close in France; the clay-court major was postponed from May until now because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Roland Garros is the last Slam, the last opportunity of this season. So we all know who the main favorite is there: Obviously, it’s Nadal. And everything that he has achieved there, losing maybe a couple matches in his entire career on that court … is probably the most impressive record that anybody has on any court,” Djokovic said. “So, yeah, of course you would put him right there in front as a favorite to win it.”

For the record: Nadal has won 93 of 95 matches in the French Open and his last 21 in a row.

So what makes him so dominant there?

“He’s an unbelievably great tennis player. Probably on clay, a little bit better than on the other surfaces,” Thiem said. “He’s left-handed, which makes it very uncomfortable. And then his forehand, the topspin on the clay, it’s cruel to play.”

Thiem takes notes and hopes to emulate aspects of Nadal’s game.

So do others.

In Rome, for example, two-time Grand Slam champion Simona Halep and one of her coaches, Artemon Apostu-Efremov, caught one of Nadal’s training sessions.

“We were watching the way he hits the ball, the acceleration, the energy he has on the court and the way he practices 100%. It’s always an inspiration,” Apostu-Efremov said.

“This dedication on the court and focus on court,” he said, “it’s something that, for sure, could be transferred to Simona.”

Nadal wound up losing his third match in Italy, which is neither ideal form nor the sort of prep work he is accustomed to ahead of Roland Garros.

Still, Nadal at the French Open is unlike anyone else, anywhere else.

“Regardless of how he feels, I’m sure he’ll find a way,” said Stefanos Tsitsipas, a 2019 Australian Open semifinalist seeded No. 5 in Paris. “He always finds a way, every single year. Clay is his surface. I’m sure he’s going to do well.”

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Skate America will not have fans

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Skate America, the top annual international figure skating competition held in the U.S., will not have spectators in Las Vegas from Oct. 23-25.

U.S. Figure Skating said the restriction was “due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in strict accordance with the Nevada Gaming Control Board guidelines.”

Skate America is the first top-level event of the season, kicking off the six-stop Grand Prix Series leading up to December’s Grand Prix Final, which is scheduled this season for Beijing.

The series has already been modified to restrict fields to skaters from the host country or to the event closest to their training location.

Grand Prix fields have not been announced, though two-time world champion Nathan Chen said last month he hoped to go for a fourth straight Skate America title.

Chen trains in California. Most, if not all, top U.S. skaters train in the U.S. or Canada, which means they will compete in Skate America or Skate Canada if they participate in the Grand Prix Series at all.

Two-time U.S. women’s champion Alysa Liu will not be old enough to compete on the Grand Prix until the 2021-22 Olympic season.

Skaters are limited to one Grand Prix start this season. In past seasons, they’ve typically competed twice.

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