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Yuzuru Hanyu-Nathan Chen duel opens Grand Prix season

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The Grand Prix figure skating season will determine the Olympic favorites. It begins this week with a duel between the current leading man — Yuzuru Hanyu — and the last skater to beat him in major competition — U.S. champion Nathan Chen.

The Rostelecom Cup in Moscow opens the six-event series of qualifying events for the Grand Prix Final in Japan in December.

The Rostelecom live broadcast schedule on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA (all times Eastern):

Friday
Men’s Short — 7 a.m.
Short Dance — 9 a.m.
Pairs Short — 11:30 a.m.
Women’s Short — 1 p.m.

Saturday
Men’s Free — 6:30 a.m.
Free Dance — 9 a.m.
Pairs Free — 10:30 a.m.
Women’s Free — 12:30 p.m.

NBC will air a highlights show Sunday from 12-2 p.m. ET. All coverage will stream on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app. Olympic Channel coverage will also stream on Olympicchannel.com and the Olympic Channel app.

Men
Hanyu and Chen are the clear headliners in Moscow. They swapped wins last season.

Chen, then 17, outscored the 22-year-old Hanyu in the Grand Prix Final free skate (Hanyu won overall). He then defeated the Japanese megastar at the Four Continents Championships in February at the PyeongChang Olympic venue. Hanyu ended the season on top at the world championships as Chen ran out of gas in his first senior season and finished sixth.

Hanyu will go into the Olympics in February as the first man since Dick Button in in 1952 to enter as the reigning Olympic and world champion.

This season, Hanyu has already looked vulnerable. He broke his world-record short program score at a small event in Canada last month. But then he struggled with jumps throughout his fifth-place free skate and ended up second behind Spaniard Javier Fernández, reportedly slowed by a knee injury.

That inconsistency is a trademark. Hanyu has never won his opening Grand Prix start in seven tries.

Chen is taking a measured approach as one of about six men with real Olympic medal potential.

After attempting six quads in his world champs free skate, he did three at his opening event this season last month. Chen ramped up to four in the free skate-only Japan Open two weeks ago, and it looked like he wanted five.

Also in the field: Olympic bronze medalist Denis Ten, Russian champion Mikhail Kolyada

Women
The women’s field is deeper this week. It includes overwhelming Olympic favorite Yevgenia Medvedeva, undefeated since finishing second at Rostelecom two years ago.

Perhaps Medvedeva’s biggest threats are not competing this week — Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond, Russian Alina Zagitova and Japanese Marin Honda.

But the field does include the last woman to beat Medvedeva — countrywoman Yelena Radionova — and two U.S. women in the running for three available Olympic spots — Mirai Nagasu and Mariah Bell.

Mirai Nagasu, who was fourth at the 2010 Olympics and controversially left off the 2014 Olympic team, is looking like a favorite to return to the Winter Games next year.

Though Nagasu was fourth at last season’s U.S. Championships, she beat U.S. champion Karen Chen and bronze medalist Mariah Bell at her season opener last month. She then bettered Chen by 18.37 points in the free-skate only Japan Open.

Bell, who broke out at her Grand Prix debut last season, struggled with nerves en route to a 12th-place finish at last season’s worlds. She then fell in both programs at her season opener last month, finishing well behind Nagasu and Chen.

The three-woman U.S. Olympic team, named after nationals in January, will be chosen based off results from throughout the previous two years. The Grand Prix season then is not just a tune-up.

Nagasu, Bell, Chen and Ashley Wagner are the top U.S. women at the moment, but Bell more than the other three could use a strong Grand Prix opener.

Also in the field: Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner, Japanese silver medalist Wakaba Higuchi

Pairs
The top two Russian teams are the only pairs from the top eight at last year’s worlds competing in Moscow.

World bronze medalists Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov and Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov are tasked with continuing more than 50 years of Russian pairs dominance in PyeongChang.

Russian or Soviet pairs won gold at every Olympics from 1964 through 2006. After getting no medals in Vancouver, Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov returned the nation to the top spot in Sochi. Volosozhar and Trankov haven’t competed since the 2016 Worlds — they welcomed their first child — and it’s unknown if they’ll return for Russian Nationals in December.

Regardless, Tarasova and Morozov and Stolbova and Klimov are almost sure to be two of Russia’s three pairs in PyeongChang. Tarasova and Morozov claimed a hard-earned bronze at worlds with Tarasova skating with 10 stitches in her left leg from a pre-short program practice accident.

Stolbova and Klimov missed all last fall due to Stolbova’s leg injury, then beat Tarasova and Morozov at Russian Nationals. They were 13th in the worlds short program but third in the free skate, behind Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong and Germans Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot.

Also in the field: U.S. silver medalists Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran (ineligible for the Olympics), Skate America winners Julianne Séguin and Charlie Bilodeau

Ice Dance
Siblings Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, the top U.S. couple the last two seasons, open their Olympic season against a very beatable field.

The Shibutanis, world silver and bronze medalists the last two years, are the only dancers in Moscow to make a world podium in this Olympic cycle.

Absent are the last two world champions — Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron — the clear Olympic gold- and silver-medal favorites.

The Shibutanis could be challenged this week, though. Six-time Russian champions Yekaternia Bobrova and Dmitry Soloviyev actually outscored the Shibutanis in the worlds free dance last season (fifth overall).

Also in the field: World junior champions Rachel Parsons and Michael Parsons

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Figure skating’s Grand Prix fields look very different this season

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Before Nathan Chen is expected to go for a historic fifth straight U.S. figure skating title in January, he will, in a first, compete against most of his top countrymen later this month.

Fields for the Grand Prix Series, figure skating’s autumn international circuit, were published Thursday. As expected, every top skater entered will compete in his or her home country, or nearest to where he or she trains, and in one of the six events.

Traditionally, skaters compete in two of the six events and are scattered among competitions in the U.S., Canada, France, Russia, China and Japan based on world rankings.

But the International Skating Union restricted travel this season due to the coronavirus pandemic. Skaters are limited to compete locally. And the Grand Prix Final at the conclusion of the Grand Prix Series has been postponed from its scheduled December setting in Beijing.

That means that Chen vies for a record-tying fourth straight Skate America crown in Las Vegas in three weeks against a field mostly made up of countrymen, including Olympic teammate Vincent Zhou and U.S. bronze medalist Tomoki Hiwatashi.

In all, there are eight U.S. men entered in Skate America, 11 women (including past national champions Bradie Tennell and Gracie Gold), six pairs and nine ice dance couples (including U.S. champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue), plus some skaters from other nations who train in the U.S.

Traditionally, a country has no more than three entries per discipline at a Grand Prix event.

GRAND PRIX FIELDS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance

Sochi Olympian Jason Brown, who trains in Toronto, is entered in Skate Canada the week after Skate America.

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

All of the reigning Olympic champions are absent from the series.

Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan previously announced he wouldn’t compete due to virus-related travel risks. Russian Alina Zagitova extended her indefinite break from competition dating to last autumn, rather choosing to participate in a skating-themed TV series.

Ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada retired. The German pairs’ team of Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot last competed in the 2018 Olympic season.

Instead, the headliners include Chen, the two-time world champion undefeated since placing fifth in PyeongChang. And a deep crop of Russian teenage women, all of course entered in the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow in November.

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French Open: Karolina Pliskova, top player sans Slam, again exits early

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No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova exited yet another Grand Slam in the early stages, falling to 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia in the second round at Roland Garros on Thursday.

Ostapenko, whose only match wins at the French Open before this week came in her title run three years ago, bounced the big-serving Czech 6-4, 6-2.

Pliskova put fewer than half of her first serves in play, while Ostapenko fired 27 winners to 19 unforced errors. Pliskova was on the ropes in her first round, too, needing three sets to get past an Egyptian qualifier.

“Maybe same level as the match before, but of course [Ostapenko] is much better player,” Pliskova said. “Not much to say about this match.”

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Pliskova is the highest-ranked player of either gender (No. 4) without a Grand Slam title, yet hasn’t made it past the fourth round at a major since the 2019 Australian Open.

She’s played six Slams as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, one shy of Caroline Wozniacki‘s total before she broke through at the 2018 Australian Open and two shy of Simona Halep‘s total before she won the 2018 French Open.

Ostapenko, meanwhile, is having a very different career.

She won the 2017 Roland Garros title, two days after turning 20, while ranked 47th. She hasn’t gotten past the third round of a major since 2018 Wimbledon, including first-round French Open exits the last two years, and is back down to No. 43 in the WTA rankings.

“It’s hard to compare with 2017. As I said, it was like three years ago, and I was much younger, and also I was fearless. Nobody knew me,” Ostapenko said. “The world doesn’t stop with winning only one Grand Slam. Of course I want to achieve more, and I want to be back in top five, top 10.”

She dropped just nine games in four sets this week.

Ostapenko gets 87th-ranked Spaniard Paula Badosa in third round. Badosa dispatched 2018 French Open runner-up Sloane Stephens 6-4, 4-6, 6-2.

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