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Ten swimmers to watch at U.S. Swimming Championships

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This week’s U.S. Swimming Championships won’t be nearly as cutthroat as an Olympic Trials, where the top two per individual event make the team.

A top-three finish should be enough to get a swimmer on the 26-per-gender team for the year’s major international meet, the Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo in August (a gathering of non-European nations). Even some fourth-place finishers made the last Pan Pacs team in 2014.

The more swimmers who make the team in multiple events (such as Katie Ledecky), the more spots open up for third- and fourth-place finishers.

Once a swimmer makes the Pan Pacs team in one event, he or she can swim any event at Pan Pacs. That’s key for 2019, since next year’s world championships team (which will be two per event, like the Olympics) will be chosen from swimmers’ best times between nationals and Pan Pacs.

Got it? That in mind, here are 10 swimmers expected to headline the racing in Irvine, Calif., from Wednesday through Sunday at nationals.

MORE: U.S. Champs TV/Stream Schedule

Katie Ledecky
Events: 100m free, 200m free, 400m free, 800m free, 1500m free
Five Olympic Gold Medals
World Records: 400m, 800m, 1500m frees

Ledecky failed to go a personal best in her main events in a calendar year for the first time in 2017. But she still earned five golds and a silver at the world championships, following a hectic post-Rio move to Stanford and full freshman season of competition. If anybody thought Ledecky’s fastest times were behind her, she silenced them on May 16 by taking five seconds off her 1500m world record at a Grand Prix-level meet. Ledecky broke the 400m free world record for the first time at nationals in Irvine four years ago. Every Ledecky final is a must-watch, even if she might not be fully tapered for this meet.

Simone Manuel
50m free, 100m free, 200m free
Two Olympic Gold Medals
Seven World Championships Gold Medals

Manuel was arguably more impressive than her good friend and Stanford teammate Ledecky at the 2017 Worlds. The 21-year-old broke the American record in her primary events — the 50m and 100m freestyles — en route to five golds (four on relays). She is a quarter of a second faster than any other woman at nationals in the 50m free, significant in a 24-second race, and a full second faster than all but one swimmer in the 100m free.

Lilly King
50m breast, 100m breast, 200m breast, 200m IM
Two Olympic Gold Medals
World Records: 50m, 100m breast

The Reggie Miller of swimming (hand-gesturing, blunt-talking and Indiana-honed) is best known for her rivalry with Russian Yuliya Efimova, who of course will not be competing this week. But King has accomplished enough to be highlighted solely for her own swimming. She was the only man or woman to break world records in multiple individual events at 2017 Worlds. Olympic and world silver medalist Katie Meili and Molly Hannis could give King close races in the sprint breaststrokes this week, though.

Kathleen Baker
50m back, 100m back, 200m back, 200m IM
Olympic 100m backstroke silver medalist
Three World Championships Medals

While Ledecky, Manuel and King earned most of the headlines in 2016 and 2017, Baker succeeded Natalie Coughlin and Missy Franklin as the U.S. backstroke queen with 100m silvers in Rio and at 2017 Worlds. Baker, diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2010, added a 200m back bronze in 2017 and is heading toward Pan Pacs showdowns with Australian Emily Seebohm and Canadians Kylie Masse and Taylor Ruck.

Missy Franklin
100m free, 200m free
Five Olympic Gold Medals
World Record: 200m back

At this point in the last Olympic cycle, Franklin was still the top U.S. swimmer, coming off six golds at the 2013 Worlds and an impressive freshman season at Cal. It began unraveling at the 2014 Pan Pacs with back spasms, followed by coaching changes and shoulder surgeries and a disappointing Rio Olympic performance (one medal, a gold, as a morning relay swimmer). Franklin recently competed for the first time since Rio. She would not make this team going by rankings this year. She is skipping her trademark backstrokes this week. Her best shot is in the 200m free, where she ranks 10th in the U.S. this year. She must be top four on Thursday, though.

Caeleb Dressel
50m free, 100m free, 200m free, 50m fly, 100m fly, 50m breast, 100m breast, 200m IM
Two Olympic Gold Medals
Seven 2017 World Championships Gold Medals

Dressel is now the U.S.’ marquee male swimmer after matching Michael Phelps‘ record seven gold medals at 2017 Worlds (albeit two of them came in mixed-gender relays not on the program during Phelps’ heyday). The tattooed 21-year-old is entered in eight events this week but likely will drop some of them. The butterfly and freestyle sprinter could chase records this week or at Pan Pacs. His best times are .26 off the 100m free world record and .04 off Phelps’ world record in the 100m butterfly.

Chase Kalisz
200m breast, 200m fly, 200m IM, 400m IM
Olympic 400m IM silver medalist
World Champion: 200m IM, 400m IM

If individual medleys determine the world’s greatest all-around swimmer, then Kalisz is undoubtedly the man after sweeping the IMs at 2017 Worlds. Kalisz, a Baltimore native, began swimming at the same pool as Phelps at age 6 in 2000 and trained with the 28-time Olympic medalist leading up to the Rio Games after competing for the University of Georgia. Kalisz, the most impressive swimmer in USA Swimming’s spring Pro Series, could make the 2019 Worlds team in all four of his events.

Ryan Murphy
100m free, 50m back, 100m back, 200m back
Three Olympic Gold Medals
World Record: 100m back

Dressel’s former high school club teammate was a revelation in Rio, sweeping the backstrokes and breaking the 100m back world record in the medley relay. But he dropped to silver and bronze at the 2017 Worlds. He ranks No. 1 in the U.S. this year in both events, but his top international rivals (Russian Evgeny Rylov, China’s Xu Jiayu, Australia’s Mitch Larkin) have been faster in 2018. Can Murphy post times this week or at Pan Pacs to prove he is the world’s best backstroker?

Nathan Adrian
50m free, 100m free
Five Olympic Gold Medals
Eight World Championships Gold Medals

The affable Adrian is approaching a decade as a U.S. sprinting mainstay. The 2012 Olympic 100m free champion (by .01) has ceded the king’s title to Dressel, but he remains in the conversation among the world’s best. Nationals and Pan Pacs will be about holding off the rest of the young generation to stay in the top two in the 50m and 100m frees and make the world team beyond the relays.

Matt Grevers
50m free, 100m free, 50m back, 100m back
Four Olympic Gold Medals
Six World Championships Gold Medals

Grevers is in a similar position. He and Adrian shared an Olympic debut at Beijing 2008. The 6-foot-8 Grevers has had more of a roller-coaster career, failing to make the 2011 World Championships and 2016 Olympic teams, but he roared back at age 32 last year, beating Murphy in the 100m back at the U.S. Championships and taking silver at worlds. Again, he must fend off Father Time this week and next month.

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Bryan brothers to retire at 2020 U.S. Open, don’t plan on Olympics

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Bob and Mike Bryan said they will retire after the 2020 U.S. Open, ending a tennis career that’s included a men’s record 16 Grand Slam doubles titles together.

They also don’t plan to play at the Tokyo Olympics, their manager later said in an email.

The twins are 41 years old, having spent more than half their lives as professionals.

“A part of us, feels like, is dying,” Bob Bryan said on Tennis Channel. “But we’re really clear about this decision. It’s going to be great to have a finish line.”

Mike said that in 2020 they will play all the events they “really love,” including all four Grand Slams and American tournaments. The Olympics weren’t mentioned.

Rather, they will see how they’re feeling midway through the year, they said on the Tennis.com podcast.

The Bryans earned doubles gold at the 2012 London Games but withdrew from the Rio Olympics six days before the Opening Ceremony. They cited making their family’s health a “top priority” and later said Zika virus concerns were “a very small part of” the decision.

The Bryans own 118 titles overall but nearly ended their partnership after Bob underwent hip surgery a year ago. He rejoined Mike this season, reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals and winning two ATP doubles titles.

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A century later, Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori can bring Japan Olympic tennis to forefront

Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori
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When Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori take the courts at the Tokyo Olympics, perhaps together, they will be doing so 100 years after tennis players won Japan’s first Olympic medals in any sport.

Tennis is not usually one of the handful of marquee competitions at the Games, in part because it is one of the sports whose biggest event is not the Games themselves.

“We have been playing for these Grand Slams, and I think that’s why we train for,” Nishikori said at the U.S. Open in August, when asked to compare the meaning of winning one of tennis’ four annual majors to earning a medal at a home Olympics. “That’s going to be the biggest goal to winning Grand Slams.”

Yet the term “Grand Slam” had not been conceived — for golf or tennis — at the time of the 1920 Antwerp Games. There, Ichiya Kumagae earned silvers in singles and doubles with Seiichiro Kashio to become the first Japanese Olympic medalists.

Kumagae was Japan’s first notable international tennis player, reaching the 1918 U.S. Open semifinals (then called the U.S. National Championships) and beating Bill Tilden in the final of the 1919 Great Lakes Championships.

Kumagae, born in 1890, had not seen a tennis racket or ball until his 20s, according to Roger W. Ohnsorg‘s “The First Forty Years of American Tennis.”

“He came here to America in 1916, the possessor of a wonderful forehand drive and nothing else,” Tilden wrote in “The Art of Lawn Tennis.” Kumagae was listed by Ohnsorg as 5 feet, 3 inches, 134 pounds and requiring glasses at all times. Later in 1922, Kumagae’s engagement to the daughter of a wealthy politician was published as a news brief in The New York Times.

Nearly a century later, Nishikori and Osaka brought more Japanese tennis breakthroughs. Nishikori became the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final at the 2014 U.S. Open. Last year, Osaka became the first Japanese singles player to win a Grand Slam, also at the U.S. Open.

This past June, Japan’s annual Central Research sports survey (1,227 people, age 20+) put Nishikori and Osaka as its respondents’ fourth- and sixth-favorite athletes, past or present. Baseball players Ichiro (retired), Shohei Ohtani and Shigeo Nagashima (long retired) and figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu rounded out the top five.

Osaka’s U.S. Open title was voted the top sports moment of Emperor Akihito’s reign from 1989 to April 30, beating Ichiro’s retirement and Hanyu’s repeat Olympic crown in PyeongChang. Perhaps there was some recency bias.

Akatsuki Uchida, a tennis journalist from Japan, said that Nishikori’s U.S. Open final was a bigger moment for Japanese tennis than Osaka’s win over Serena Williams, though.

“Tennis at that time [in 2014] was not broadcast in Japan,” she said at the U.S. Open. “Media coverage of tennis was decreasing before Kei made that final. For most of Japanese, not tennis fans, but ordinary people, it came from out of nowhere. … He became like an overnight sensation. Since then, the situation of tennis in Japan changed dramatically.

“If [Osaka] wins the title before Kei won the title here, it could have been way bigger, but since Kei made the final before Naomi, it made Naomi’s achievement, still a big deal, less surprising.”

Another key difference: Nishikori spent the majority of his childhood in Japan, while Osaka’s family, with a Haitian father and Japanese mother, moved to the U.S. when she was 3 years old.

Osaka has dual citizenship, but Japanese law requires one to be chosen over the other by the 22nd birthday. Osaka turned 22 last month, before which she confirmed what most had assumed, that she picked Japan.

Uchida was unsure whether Osaka and Nishikori could propel tennis at the Tokyo Games into a greater spotlight among 33 total sports.

“But if Kei and Naomi played mixed doubles, that would be a big thing,” she said.

Nishikori has already reportedly said he plans to enter singles and doubles in Tokyo, the latter with Ben McLachlan, Japan’s top doubles player. McLachlan was born in New Zealand and in 2017 switched representation to Japan, his mother’s birth nation.

But Nishikori did not rule out adding mixed doubles.

“Very hot, very humid, playing singles and two doubles, I don’t know if I can,” he said before the U.S. Open. “I haven’t think too much yet, honestly. I don’t know. I will talk to Naomi later.”

Nishikori smiled as he brought up Osaka’s name at the end of his answer to a question that didn’t mention her. Later in the tournament, Osaka was told Nishikori’s thoughts.

“I would definitely play with him,” said Osaka, who in 2016 was the highest-ranked eligible player not to make the Rio Olympic field. “I just — I would actually need to practice doubles for the first time in my life. Because you cannot play mixed doubles with Kei Nishikori and lose in the first round of the Olympics in Tokyo. That would be the biggest — like, I would cry. I would actually cry for losing a doubles match. Yeah, definitely I think that that would be so, like, historic in a way. And I would love to do it, but I need to practice my doubles.”

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