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Serena Williams rallies for French Open win, nears possible showdown

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PARIS (AP) — After playing so infrequently, it’s as if Serena Williams is starting from scratch.

Sure looked that way for a bit more than a half-hour in the French Open’s second round on Thursday, when she dealt with muscle soreness, a lack of verve and a bunch of mistakes. So many mistakes.

And then, suddenly, after unleashing one particularly powerful backhand return winner that she punctuated with a shout, Williams was back. She was animated. Determined. Dominant, even. Shaking off some rust in her first Grand Slam tournament since giving birth nine months ago, Williams recalibrated her shots and erased a deficit of a set and a break to beat 17th-seeded Ashleigh Barty of Australia 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 in a match that ended shortly before dusk.

“I lost the first set, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to try harder. I’ve got to just try harder,’ she told the crowd afterward. “And Serena came out.”

Well put.

Williams had all sorts of trouble in the opening set, compiling 12 unforced errors. By the time the second set was merely one game old, she had been broken twice in the match, each time at love, a rather surprising development for the owner of one of her sport’s most dangerous serves.

Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, attributed much of the poor start to this outing coming about 48 hours after the first match of her comeback following a two-month break. She arrived in Paris having played only four matches all season — none on the red clay used at Roland Garros, and none at a major tournament since she won her 23rd such title at the Australian Open in January 2017, while pregnant.

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

“She had no energy. She was struggling to move,” Mouratoglou said, adding that he had hoped for rain to postpone the match against Barty until Thursday. “She was struggling to use her legs on the serve and she was making much too many mistakes.”

And then?

“This ability to turn a match around and suddenly be like a superhero, basically — she’s normal and suddenly, Poom!” he said, snapping fingers on both hands. “Something happens, and she transforms into someone who’s almost unreachable at the level she gets to. This is something she’s always had. It’s really special, but that’s also why she is who she is.”

Williams started yelling and pumping her fist after pretty much every point that went her way. It woke up Williams’ game. Might have startled Barty, too. As big a hitter as Barty is in her own right, she is hardly in Williams’ class — who is? — and never has been past the third round at a major tournament.

The 36-year-old American, who became a mother on Sept. 1, grabbed four consecutive games over a span of less than 15 minutes to lead 4-1 in the second set, which soon enough would be hers. She gained control of the third almost immediately, breaking to go ahead 2-1, then holding for 3-1.

After only three winners in the first set, she had 25 the rest of the way.

“When push came to shove, the real Serena came out. And that’s one of her best assets: When her back is against the wall, the best comes out,” Barty said. “And that happened early in the second, and early in the third again.”

When Williams served out the victory with a backhand winner down the line, she raised both arms. In the stands, Mouratoglou, shook his fist.

“I felt like it’s been a long way and a long journey, and I’m still getting there, you know. But I have been working really hard, for a really long time,” said Williams, who is ranked 451st, 450 spots below her career high. “I just am hoping that every day I’m out there, every match I’m out there … it will come together.”

Next for Williams is a third-round match against 11th-seeded Julia Goerges of Germany.

Get through that, and Williams would face either five-time major champion Maria Sharapova or 2016 U.S. Open runner-up Karolina Pliskova. Williams beat Pliskova’s twin sister, Kristyna, in the first round in Paris.

There were, to be sure, plenty of other big names in action Wednesday, including victories for Sharapova, No. 1-ranked Simona Halep and 10-time men’s champion Rafael Nadal.

But the 2018 French Open is, first and foremost, about Williams and her return to a Grand Slam stage.

“She’s not quite at the level she was when she was at her best, but that’s normal. That’s expected,” Barty said. “But her level when she’s not quite on her best is still bloody good.”

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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.

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