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Nathan Chen is the man at U.S. Figure Skating Championships

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Common sense says Nathan Chen could skip this week’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships and still be named to the Olympic team.

In the last year, Chen became the youngest U.S. champion since 1966 and the first man to land five quadruple jumps in one free skate, beat the Olympic favorite at the Olympic venue and was the only man to go undefeated in the fall Grand Prix series.

Whew.

Chen goes into nationals in San Jose, Calif., — where the Olympic team will be decided — as the biggest favorite among the four disciplines.

“There is additional pressure, but it’s reassuring again, and I’ve said this before, I’m happy with the way that things have gone,” Chen said last week. “I’m happy that I’m in this position. This is what I’ve wanted for a long time.”

Chen first predicted on national TV at the 2010 U.S. Championships — where he won the novice division at age 10 — that he eyed the 2018 Olympics.

In January 2014, still too young for the Winter Games, he won the junior division at nationals at TD Garden and stuck around to watch the women’s free skate from the second deck.

“I was trying to think about myself in their shoes,” said Chen, who was profiled by The New York Times that week. “Even at that point, it was pretty nerve-racking.”

Chen performs in the short program Thursday and the free skate Saturday. He will almost surely hear his name called in an Olympic team announcement Sunday morning.

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The intrigue? Which other two men will join him in PyeongChang.

It’s not as simple as the top three finishers from nationals.

A committee chooses the Olympic team based on results from events in the past year. This is why Chen is already considered a lock.

Past U.S. champions Adam RipponMax Aaron and Jason Brown are the next highest-ranked U.S. men this season.

The 17-year-old Vincent Zhou took second to Chen at last year’s nationals, then won the world junior title, but struggled this fall.

A closer look at the five primary contenders for three Olympic spots:

Nathan Chen
2017 U.S. champion
Undefeated in 2017-18 season
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 1st

Chen’s real measure is against the top skaters from Europe and Asia, but for now let’s focus on domestic dominance. His best total score this season is 27.34 points higher than the next U.S. man. His worst total score this season is still higher than any other American’s personal best.

Chen plans two quads in his short program and five in his free skate, a total that only one other skater could possibly attempt to match (the struggling Zhou). He certainly doesn’t need that many to repeat as U.S. champion.

There is a little bit of concern. Chen fell in his free skate at his last two events. At Skate America in November, Chen dealt with replacing a skate blade between his short and free, plus other “very private” issues, his coach reportedly said.

Chen won the Grand Prix Final in early December and then missed “a little bit” of training while feeling “a little bit under the weather.”

Adam Rippon
2016 U.S. champion
Two-time Grand Prix Final qualifier
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 2nd

“Besides Nathan Chen, I have the best criteria,” Rippon said last week. The 28-year-old claimed that because he was the only American other than Chen to qualify outright for the Grand Prix Final, where he also finished second to Chen among Americans (and fifth overall of six skaters).

Rippon missed three other key events on the committee’s criteria — last season’s nationals, Olympic test event and world championships — because of a broken foot. Doesn’t matter, he says.

“My mentality going into San Jose is that this is just going to be my coronation,” Rippon said. “The only argument is if other competitors’ mothers are on the selection committee.”

Rippon is a sentimental favorite. He was fifth at the 2010 Nationals (as two-time reigning world junior champion) and eighth in 2014 (as the most consistent U.S. man in the fall season). He considered quitting after missing in Sochi.

“I was fat then,” he said.

Two years later, Rippon won his first national title. Now, he’s poised to become the oldest U.S. Olympic rookie singles skater since 1936.

Jason Brown
2015 U.S. champion
Ninth at Sochi Olympics
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 4th

Brown was the third U.S. man at the Grand Prix Final with Chen and Rippon, finishing last of six skaters at the event. He’s also the only man in this week’s field with Olympic experience. He made the podium at his last three U.S. Championships and in every one of his five Grand Prix seasons.

“I’ve really proven myself,” Brown said. “You look at the criteria, I really do fill a lot of those bubbles.”

What Brown does not have is a consistent quadruple jump. He’s planning a quad toe loop, but has never landed a clean, fully rotated quad in competition. The other Olympic team contenders can all land a quad (though Rippon hasn’t done so clean since November 2016).

Brown makes up for that with strong component (artistic) marks. Which brings to mind his show-stopping “Riverdance” free skate from the 2014 U.S. Championships. This year, Brown received buzz for his short program music from “Hamilton.”

Vincent Zhou
2017 U.S. silver medalist
2017 World junior champion
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 5th

Zhou was very arguably the No. 2 U.S. man coming into the season. Now, he’s an underdog to make the three-man Olympic team.

The 17-year-old fell seven times in his two Grand Prix events in November. He called his skating “dismal” and later said he was dealing with a shin injury that since cleared up. Zhou also dislocated a shoulder in practice two weeks ago.

Zhou is not relenting on ambition despite those setbacks. He plans five quads in his free skate Saturday, putting his fate in his own skates.

“I know that I’m able to do all the quads that everyone else can do,” he said. “I would say my potential technical content would be on par with [Chen], but as for the artistry, presentation side, I have a long way to go.”

Max Aaron
2013 U.S. champion
2015 Skate America champion
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 3rd

Aaron was the reigning U.S. champion going into the Sochi Olympic season. He placed third at the 2014 Nationals but was left off the two-man Olympic team.

He’s more off the radar this year — after plummeting to ninth at last season’s nationals — but joined the Olympic team conversation with a personal-best free skate at a Grand Prix in China in November. In his last three free skates, Aaron has twice landed three quads.

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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.

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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

Skate America
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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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