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Serena Williams advances in French Open return; ‘You can’t beat a catsuit’

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PARIS (AP) — For all that has changed in the 16 months since Serena Williams last played in a Grand Slam tournament — she is now married and a mother — so much was familiar about her at the French Open on Tuesday.

The fashion statement, this time in the form of a black bodysuit with a red belt that she said made her feel like a “warrior princess.” The cries of “Come on!” The big serves that provided 13 aces. The returns that eventually produced three consecutive breaks of serve.

And, yes, the victory. Competing as a mom for the first time at a major, and only about nine months since giving birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia, then dealing with postpartum complications, Williams edged 70th-ranked Kristyna Pliskova of the Czech Republic 7-6 (4), 6-4 at Roland Garros.

Already a transcendent sports star and cultural icon, Williams now carries a new title: working mother.

“Well, my priority is Olympia. No matter what, that’s my priority. I have given tennis so much, and tennis has actually given me a lot, and I couldn’t be more grateful,” Williams said. “She’s my priority, and I work everything around her.”

The 36-year-old American had not played in one of tennis’s biggest tournaments since winning the Australian Open in January 2017 for her 23rd Grand Slam title, breaking a tie with Steffi Graf for the most in the professional era.

Williams, the world found out later, was pregnant at the time. Her baby was born Sept. 1; Williams married Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian in November.

Williams eventually revealed that she had an emergency cesarean section, then encountered trouble breathing afterward because of a pulmonary embolism and needed a follow-up operation.

“Just literally not sure if I was going to make it or not at several different times,” Williams said. “A lot of people have really reached out, because they have so many similar stories, too. I feel like a lot of people don’t talk about it. They talk about the baby and how happy they are. But it’s a lot that goes into it with the pregnancy and with giving birth, and it’s called a ‘miracle’ for a reason.”

FRENCH OPEN: TV/Stream Schedule | Scores | Men’s Draw (PDF) | Women’s Draw

The first match of her comeback was in doubles alongside her older sister, Venus Williams, for the U.S. Fed Cup team in February. She entered two tournaments in singles the next month, going 2-2. An absence of more than two months followed, until Tuesday in Paris.

So a woman who has spent hundreds of weeks ranked No. 1 is currently No. 451 and unseeded at the French Open, a subject of some debate: Should her past success accord her the protection a seeding offers? Williams faces 17th-seeded Ash Barty of Australia next.

“She’s a genuine champion,” Barty said. “What she’s done to be able to get back … is a pretty amazing thing.”

Tuesday’s return was striking, from Williams’ powerful shots to her outfit, which called to mind the “catsuit” she wore at the 2002 U.S. Open.

It was by far the most significant event of Day 3 at Roland Garros, even though there were so many other Grand Slam champions in action. Rafael Nadal finished off a rain-interrupted victory as he begins his try for a record-extending 11th French Open title. Maria Sharapova, a two-time champ in Paris, was pushed to three sets in a win. Garbine Muguruza, who beat Williams in the 2016 final at Roland Garros, beat another past champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova.

All eyes were on Williams, though. On the fifth point, she delivered an ace at 112 mph (181 kph). Moments later, the chair umpire intoned, “Jeu, Madame Williams,” — French for “Game, Mrs. Williams,” a change from the “Mademoiselle” used for unmarried female players.

Pliskova, a lefty whose twin sister upset Williams in the 2016 U.S. Open semifinals, actually hit more aces, 15. That’s the most anyone has hit against Williams since at least 2008, according to the WTA.

Indeed, Williams appeared to have trouble reading Pliskova’s serves early on. There were other blips, of the sort to be expected from someone who hasn’t played lately. Williams double-faulted seven times. She had nearly as many unforced errors, 25, as winners, 29.

But she is not simply skilled. She is smart, too, and she figured things out.

After trailing 3-0 in the tiebreaker, she reeled off six points in a row. After falling behind 2-0 in the second set, Williams came up with a trio of service breaks.

All was not perfect, of course. In the final game, Williams’ right foot gave way as she sprinted toward the net and she landed on her backside. At least she was able to laugh at that as she went to the sideline to towel off. A spectator yelled: “That’s all right, Serena! You still look great!”

After months of worrying more about diapers than drop shots, of breastfeeding for what she called “a really, really, really long time,” of organizing her practice schedule around her newborn’s nap schedule, Williams was back to doing what she’s most famous for, in an arena where she earned trophies in 2002, 2013 and 2015.

On Tuesday, she noted that she showed up at her news conference more promptly than she used to, so she could have more time to spend with Olympia.

“I don’t want her to ever feel like I’m not around. I’m a super hands-on mom,” Williams said. “Maybe too much.”

A reporter wanted to know whether Williams believes she can win the title again.

“I’m definitely here to compete and do the best that I can do, obviously. I’m not putting any pressure on myself as I normally do,” Williams began.

Then, perhaps questioning her own words as she heard them, she paused, before adding with a laugh: “I think deep down, we all know the answer to that.”

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Alina Zagitova wins Rostelecom Cup; Gracie Gold withdraws

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Olympic champion Alina Zagitova dominated the Rostelecom Cup, while Gracie Gold withdrew before Saturday’s free skate at her first competition in 22 months, citing emotional stress.

Zagitova skated a flawed free, but still totaled 222.95 points and prevailed by 24.94 over countrywoman Sofia Samodurova. Zagitova qualified for December’s Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual international competition, which takes the top six skaters from the fall Grand Prix Series.

Gold, coming back from treatment for anxiety, depression and an eating disorder, was in last place of 10 skaters after struggling with jumps in Friday’s short program.

Gold, a Sochi Olympian and two-time U.S. champion, later tweeted that she withdrew because competing in the free skate would be damaging to her mental health and confidence.

“It was a difficult decision to make, but ultimately I need to put my mental health first and focus on the big picture,” was tweeted from Gold’s account. “Looking forward, I need to keep improving both my physical and mental condition. I thought checking into treatment last fall was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but skating my short program last night might have topped it. I do not want to undo the tremendous progress I’ve made in these last few months.”

The Grand Prix season continues next week with Nathan Chen headlining Internationaux de France, the last event before the Grand Prix Final.

ROSTELECOM CUP: Results | TV/Stream Schedule

Zagitova, 16, is undefeated in three events this season and owns the world’s top overall score (238.43) by a whopping 14.12 points. However, Japanese 16-year-old Rika Kihira has the highest total on the Grand Prix of 224.31.

Zagitova struggled Saturday with the difficult triple Lutz-triple loop combination and doubled a flip at the end of her free skate.

Her primary rival last season, countrywoman Yevgenia Medvedeva, has finished second or third in her four competitions in the last year and likely must reach the podium next week in France for a chance at the Grand Prix Final and her first matchup with Zagitova since PyeongChang.

It’s likely that no U.S. woman makes the Grand Prix Final for a third straight year, after never previously going back-to-back years without a qualifier. U.S. champion Bradie Tennell likely must win in France to reach the Final.

Earlier Saturday, double Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu won the men’s event, hours after twisting his right ankle in a hard practice fall. Hanyu hopped on a crutch backstage and said he is uncertain for the Grand Prix Final and Japanese Nationals later in December. More here on Hanyu’s day.

Russian favorites Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov and Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin won the pairs’ and ice dance titles, respectively, qualifying for the Grand Prix Final.

Tarasova and Morozov, two-time world medalists, posted 220.25 points, moving up to No. 2 in the world behind French Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres, who were not in the Rostelecom field. None of the Olympic pairs’ medalists are competing this fall. Earlier Saturday, Tarasova received five stitches after cutting her chin in a practice crash into the boards.

In dance, Stepanova and Bukin tallied 199.43, keeping them close to U.S. champions Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue in the world rankings. Those two couples face off for the first time this season at the Grand Prix Final.

The top returning couple this season, French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, competes next week at the top international level for the first time since winning a third world title in March. They are not eligible for the Grand Prix Final after withdrawing from last week’s NHK Trophy due to Cizeron’s back injury.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season…NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Yuzuru Hanyu wins Rostelecom Cup, hops on crutch to press conference

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Yuzuru Hanyu won Rostelecom Cup by nearly 30 points, then hopped on a crutch backstage.

The double Olympic champion twisted his right ankle in a hard practice fall Saturday morning, then several hours later had the highest-scoring free skate with three quadruple jumps.

Hanyu said he is uncertain for the Grand Prix Final in three weeks — and a showdown with Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno and, likely, world champion Nathan Chen according to The Associated Press.

“It really hurts,” Hanyu said, according to Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “This injury made me change my program, and sadly I couldn’t perform the way I wanted. I could have done better.”

ROSTELECOM CUP: Results | TV/Stream Schedule

Hanyu apologized to a TV camera following his free skate, after falling and popping an Axel on his last two jumps.

Last November, Hanyu damaged right ankle ligaments in a practice fall, forcing him off the ice for more than a month. He said this injury is not as bad. Still, coach Brian Orser said “it was a big question” whether Hanyu would withdraw before the free skate, according to Olympic Channel.

Hanyu endured, taking out the quadruple loop that he fell on in practice but still adding 10 points to his lead from Friday’s short program. For the first time in nine seasons, Hanyu won his two Grand Prix Series qualifying events, cruising into December’s exclusive, six-skater Grand Prix Final.

Georgian Morisi Kvitelashvili took second, followed by Japanese Kazuki Tomono.

Two other men who came to Moscow with Grand Prix Final hopes — Russian Mikhail Kolyada and Canadian Keegan Messing — struggled in Friday’s short program and could not get onto the podium, placing fourth and fifth. They won’t be at the Final, assuming Chen finishes in the top six at next week’s event in France.

Rostelecom Cup continues later Saturday with the free programs for ice dance, pairs and women, streaming live on NBC Sports Gold.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season…NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

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