Ten riders to watch at Tour de France

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Ten riders to watch at the 104th Tour de France, whose every stage will air live from start to finish on NBC Sports Gold’s Cycling Pass:

Chris Froome
Team Sky/Great Britain
2013, 2015, 2016 Tour de France winner

Trying to move within one Tour title of the career record of five shared by Jacques AnquetilEddy MerckxBernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain.

Froome has been the anchor of cycling’s most powerful team for five seasons now. Every time the rail-thin Brit has reached the Champs-Élysées in that time, he has been wearing the yellow jersey. The only miss was when he abandoned on Stage 5 in 2014 after crashing three times in two days.

But Froome went winless in his Tour lead up this season for the first time since 2012. Plus, this year’s route does not suit his strengths, with just two summit finishes and no extended time trials.

Richie Porte
BMC/Australia
Fifth at 2016 Tour de France

Froome has called Porte his main rival this year, though that may be in part because they were Team Sky mates through 2015. Porte is in his second season as BMC’s general classification rider. Last year, his Tour GC hopes were punctured by a flat tire on Stage 2, where he lost 1 minute, 45 seconds. Porte ended up fifth.

This season, Porte won the Tour de Romandie and was second at the Criterium du Dauphine, both stage races with Froome in the field, plus the Tour Down Under.

Nairo Quintana
Movistar/Colombia
Three Tour de France GC podiums

Every year that Froome has won the Tour, he has been joined on the Paris podium by Quintana. The Colombian has gone from 23-year-old upstart in 2013 (second at his first Tour) to trail blazer in the sport. He is a Tour de France title from becoming the first non-European to claim all three Grand Tours.

This is the first time Quintana rides the Tour de France having already done the Giro d’Italia in the same season. How will he recover? The lack of time trial mileage will help the climber.

MORE: Tour de France broadcast schedule

Alberto Contador
Trek–Segafredo/Spain
Tour de France winner in 2007, 2009

El Pistolero returns for what could be his final Tour. Contador, now 34, would be the oldest Tour winner since 1922. But that’s looking unlikely. He failed to finish in 2014 and 2016 and has not made a Grand Tour podium in more than two years. Contador was also 11th at the Criterium du Dauphine.

Romain Bardet
AG2R La Mondiale/France
2016 Tour de France runner-up

The latest French hope to end the nation’s longest Tour title drought — now 32 years since Hinault’s last win in 1985. Bardet, who at 26 is younger than Froome, Porte, Quintana and Contador, was second to Froome last year after a gutsy Stage 19 win moved him up from fifth.

This season, Bardet was sixth at the Criterium du Dauphine, after being runner-up the year before. In comments before the Tour, he downplayed his chances to win, perhaps hoping to keep the French pressure to manageable levels.

Alejandro Valverde
Movistar/Spain
Third at 2015 Tour de France

Valverde has been competing in Grand Tours since 2002 and, last year, rode all three for the first time with a worst finish of 12th. Not bad for a man who turned 37 in April. Though Valverde is on the outside of the top GC contenders here, he should be very present in helping team leader Quintana.

Peter Sagan
Bora-Hansgrohe/Slovakia
Five-time Tour de France green jersey winner

One of the sport’s great, unique personalities. He demolishes handfuls of gummy bears immediately after races. Sagan can match Erik Zabel‘s record of six points classification titles that go to the best sprinter. In 2016, he won three stages and was named the Tour’s Most Combative Rider. At just 27 years old, there’s no reason to think he won’t eventually hold the mark to himself.

Mark Cavendish
Dimension Data/Great Britain
30 Tour de France stage wins

It was thought the Manx Missile might be losing steam after winning one stage between the 2014 and 2015 Tours (he abandoned the 2014 Tour after the first stage) and changing teams before the 2016 edition. But Cavendish roared back with four stage victories last year, including wearing the yellow jersey for the first time. He followed that with a long-awaited, first Olympic medal on the track in Rio. Now, he is four stage wins behind the career Tour record of 34 held by Merckx. However, Cavendish considers himself fortunate to even be starting an 11th straight Tour after being diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus in April.

Taylor Phinney
Cannondale–Drapac/United States
First Tour start

What a winding road Phinney, the son of Olympic cycling medalists, took to his Tour debut at age 27. First, he was a phenom on the track, winning individual pursuit world titles at ages 18 and 19. He later found road success, placing fourth in both 2012 Olympic events and taking silver in the 2012 World time trial. But injuries kept Phinney from sustaining that run. He missed 15 months in 2014-15 with a broken tibia, broken patella, a severed patella tendon and a ruptured PCL from hitting a guard rail at the U.S. Championships.

Andrew Talansky
Cannondale–Drapac/United States
2013 Tour de France — 10th place

There are three Americans among the 198 riders in this year’s Tour. That matches the smallest U.S. contingent in the last 20 years. Talansky is the only one of the trio with Tour experience and the only one with hopes of decent placement in the general classification. In 2013, he was 10th at his first Tour, then 11th in 2015. Last year, Talansky passed on the Tour to focus on the Vuelta a Espana, where he was fifth. No doubt Talansky will be expected to better the top U.S. result from the 2016 Tour, Tejay van Garderen‘s 29th, which marked the worst American high finish since 1996.

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Bryan brothers to retire at 2020 U.S. Open, don’t plan on Olympics

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Bob and Mike Bryan said they will retire after the 2020 U.S. Open, ending a tennis career that’s included a men’s record 16 Grand Slam doubles titles together.

They also don’t plan to play at the Tokyo Olympics, their manager later said in an email.

The twins are 41 years old, having spent more than half their lives as professionals.

“A part of us, feels like, is dying,” Bob Bryan said on Tennis Channel. “But we’re really clear about this decision. It’s going to be great to have a finish line.”

Mike said that in 2020 they will play all the events they “really love,” including all four Grand Slams and American tournaments. The Olympics weren’t mentioned.

Rather, they will see how they’re feeling midway through the year, they said on the Tennis.com podcast.

The Bryans earned doubles gold at the 2012 London Games but withdrew from the Rio Olympics six days before the Opening Ceremony. They cited making their family’s health a “top priority” and later said Zika virus concerns were “a very small part of” the decision.

The Bryans own 118 titles overall but nearly ended their partnership after Bob underwent hip surgery a year ago. He rejoined Mike this season, reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals and winning two ATP doubles titles.

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A century later, Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori can bring Japan Olympic tennis to forefront

Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori
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When Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori take the courts at the Tokyo Olympics, perhaps together, they will be doing so 100 years after tennis players won Japan’s first Olympic medals in any sport.

Tennis is not usually one of the handful of marquee competitions at the Games, in part because it is one of the sports whose biggest event is not the Games themselves.

“We have been playing for these Grand Slams, and I think that’s why we train for,” Nishikori said at the U.S. Open in August, when asked to compare the meaning of winning one of tennis’ four annual majors to earning a medal at a home Olympics. “That’s going to be the biggest goal to winning Grand Slams.”

Yet the term “Grand Slam” had not been conceived — for golf or tennis — at the time of the 1920 Antwerp Games. There, Ichiya Kumagae earned silvers in singles and doubles with Seiichiro Kashio to become the first Japanese Olympic medalists.

Kumagae was Japan’s first notable international tennis player, reaching the 1918 U.S. Open semifinals (then called the U.S. National Championships) and beating Bill Tilden in the final of the 1919 Great Lakes Championships.

Kumagae, born in 1890, had not seen a tennis racket or ball until his 20s, according to Roger W. Ohnsorg‘s “The First Forty Years of American Tennis.”

“He came here to America in 1916, the possessor of a wonderful forehand drive and nothing else,” Tilden wrote in “The Art of Lawn Tennis.” Kumagae was listed by Ohnsorg as 5 feet, 3 inches, 134 pounds and requiring glasses at all times. Later in 1922, Kumagae’s engagement to the daughter of a wealthy politician was published as a news brief in The New York Times.

Nearly a century later, Nishikori and Osaka brought more Japanese tennis breakthroughs. Nishikori became the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final at the 2014 U.S. Open. Last year, Osaka became the first Japanese singles player to win a Grand Slam, also at the U.S. Open.

This past June, Japan’s annual Central Research sports survey (1,227 people, age 20+) put Nishikori and Osaka as its respondents’ fourth- and sixth-favorite athletes, past or present. Baseball players Ichiro (retired), Shohei Ohtani and Shigeo Nagashima (long retired) and figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu rounded out the top five.

Osaka’s U.S. Open title was voted the top sports moment of Emperor Akihito’s reign from 1989 to April 30, beating Ichiro’s retirement and Hanyu’s repeat Olympic crown in PyeongChang. Perhaps there was some recency bias.

Akatsuki Uchida, a tennis journalist from Japan, said that Nishikori’s U.S. Open final was a bigger moment for Japanese tennis than Osaka’s win over Serena Williams, though.

“Tennis at that time [in 2014] was not broadcast in Japan,” she said at the U.S. Open. “Media coverage of tennis was decreasing before Kei made that final. For most of Japanese, not tennis fans, but ordinary people, it came from out of nowhere. … He became like an overnight sensation. Since then, the situation of tennis in Japan changed dramatically.

“If [Osaka] wins the title before Kei won the title here, it could have been way bigger, but since Kei made the final before Naomi, it made Naomi’s achievement, still a big deal, less surprising.”

Another key difference: Nishikori spent the majority of his childhood in Japan, while Osaka’s family, with a Haitian father and Japanese mother, moved to the U.S. when she was 3 years old.

Osaka has dual citizenship, but Japanese law requires one to be chosen over the other by the 22nd birthday. Osaka turned 22 last month, before which she confirmed what most had assumed, that she picked Japan.

Uchida was unsure whether Osaka and Nishikori could propel tennis at the Tokyo Games into a greater spotlight among 33 total sports.

“But if Kei and Naomi played mixed doubles, that would be a big thing,” she said.

Nishikori has already reportedly said he plans to enter singles and doubles in Tokyo, the latter with Ben McLachlan, Japan’s top doubles player. McLachlan was born in New Zealand and in 2017 switched representation to Japan, his mother’s birth nation.

But Nishikori did not rule out adding mixed doubles.

“Very hot, very humid, playing singles and two doubles, I don’t know if I can,” he said before the U.S. Open. “I haven’t think too much yet, honestly. I don’t know. I will talk to Naomi later.”

Nishikori smiled as he brought up Osaka’s name at the end of his answer to a question that didn’t mention her. Later in the tournament, Osaka was told Nishikori’s thoughts.

“I would definitely play with him,” said Osaka, who in 2016 was the highest-ranked eligible player not to make the Rio Olympic field. “I just — I would actually need to practice doubles for the first time in my life. Because you cannot play mixed doubles with Kei Nishikori and lose in the first round of the Olympics in Tokyo. That would be the biggest — like, I would cry. I would actually cry for losing a doubles match. Yeah, definitely I think that that would be so, like, historic in a way. And I would love to do it, but I need to practice my doubles.”

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