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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Mikaela Shiffrin wins 85th World Cup, can tie overall record Sunday

Mikaela Shiffrin
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Mikaela Shiffrin earned her 85th World Cup win on Saturday and can tie the Alpine skiing World Cup victories record on Sunday.

Shiffrin won the first of back-to-back slaloms in Spindleruv Mlyn, Czech Republic, site of her World Cup debut in 2011 at age 15, for her 11th victory in 22 starts this season.

She prevailed by six tenths of a second over German Lena Duerr combining times from two runs. Then she celebrated with an uncharacteristic shoulder shimmy before “Simply the Best” by Tina Turner began playing over loudspeakers in the finish area.

It’s not the first time that song has been played after a Shiffrin victory this season.

“I knew it would take some risk,” she said. “There’s a chance I don’t finish at all.”

ALPINE SKIING: Full Results | Broadcast Schedule

Shiffrin, having her best season since her record 17-win campaign in 2018-19, is now one victory shy of the Alpine World Cup record held by Swede Ingemar Stenmark, who won 86 times between slalom and giant slalom in the 1970s and ’80s.

Stenmark has held the record since January 1982.

Shiffrin races in another slalom on Sunday in Spindleruv Mlyn, the last women’s race before February’s world championships. World championships races do not count as World Cups. The World Cup season resumes following worlds in late February.

Shiffrin is on her second winning streak this season and has won nine of her last 14 races dating to Dec. 18. Last Tuesday, she won a giant slalom in Kronplatz, Italy, to break her tie with Lindsey Vonn for the women’s Alpine World Cup wins record. On Wednesday, she won another GS In Kronplatz.

She leads the standings for the World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing, by more than 600 points through 27 of 39 scheduled races. At this rate, she could clinch her fifth overall title before March’s World Cup Finals.

She is currently tied with Vonn for the second-most overall titles behind Austrian Annemarie Moser-Pröll, who won five in the 1970s.

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Aryna Sabalenka wins Australian Open for first Grand Slam singles title

Aryna Sabalenka Australian Open 2023
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Aryna Sabalenka won her first Grand Slam title by coming back to beat Elena Rybakina 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the Australian Open women’s final Saturday.

The 24-year-old Sabalenka, who is from Belarus, was appearing in her first major final.

She improved to 11-0 in 2023, and the only set she has dropped all season was the opener on Saturday against Wimbledon champion Rybakina.

But Sabalenka turned things around with an aggressive style that resulted in 51 winners, 20 more than her opponent. She used 17 aces to overcome seven double-faults. And she managed to break the big-serving Rybakina three times, the last coming for a 4-3 lead in the third set that she never relinquished.

Still, Sabalenka needed to work for the championship while serving in what would be the last game, double-faulting on her initial match point and requiring three more to close things out.

When Rybakina sent a forehand long to cap the final after nearly 2 1/2 hours, Sabalenka dropped to her back on the court and stayed down for a bit, covering her face as her eyes welled with tears.

Sabalenka is a powerful player whose most glowing strength was also her most glaring shortfall: her serve. Long capable of hammering aces, she also had a well-known problem with double-faulting, leading the tour in that category last year with nearly 400, including more than 20 apiece in some matches.

After much prodding from her team, she finally agreed to undergo an overhaul of her serving mechanics last August. That, along with a commitment to trying to stay calm in the most high-pressure moments, is really paying off now.

Sabalenka was 0-3 in Grand Slam semifinals until eliminating Magda Linette in Melbourne. Now Sabalenka has done one better and will rise to No. 2 in the rankings.

As seagulls were squawking loudly while flying overhead at Rod Laver Arena, Rybakina and Sabalenka traded booming serves. Rybakina’s fastest arrived at 121 mph, Sabalenka’s at 119 mph. They traded zooming groundstrokes from the baseline, often untouchable, resulting in winner after winner.

The key statistic, ultimately, was this: Sabalenka accumulated 13 break points, Rybakina seven. And although Sabalenka converted just a trio of them, that was enough, and the constant pressure she managed to apply during Rybakina’s service games had to take a toll.

Sabalenka had been broken just six times in 55 service games through the course of these two weeks, an average of once per match. It took Rybakina fewer than 10 minutes of action and all of two receiving games to get the measure of things and lead 2-1, helped by getting back one serve that arrived at 117 mph (189 kph).

A few games later, Sabalenka returned the favor, also putting her racket on one of Rybakina’s offerings at that same speed. Then, when Sabalenka grooved a down-the-line backhand passing winner to grab her first break and pull even at 4-all, she looked at her coach and fitness coach in the stands, raised a fist and shouted.

In the next game, though, Sabalenka gave that right back, double-faulting twice — including on break point — to give Rybakina a 5-4 edge. This time, Sabalenka again turned toward her entourage, but with a sigh and an eye roll and arms extended, as if to say, “Can you believe it?”

Soon after, Rybakina held at love to own that set.

Sabalenka changed the momentum right from the get-go in the second set. Aggressively attacking, she broke to go up 3-1, held for 4-1 and eventually served it out, fittingly, with an ace — on a second serve, no less.

Sabalenka acknowledged ahead of time that she expected to be nervous. Which makes perfect sense: This was the most important match of her career to date.

And if those jitters were evident ever-so-briefly early — she double-faulted on the evening’s very first point — and appeared to be resurfacing as the end neared, Sabalenka controlled them well enough to finish the job.

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