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Rafael Nadal outlasts Dominic Thiem in U.S. Open marathon

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NEW YORK — Rafael Nadal began his U.S. Open quarterfinal as poorly as possible, shut out in a set by a 6-0 score for only the fourth time in 282 career Grand Slam matches.

On the previous three such occasions, he’d lost. On this one, he managed to come back to win, although it took 4 hours, 49 minutes and never did get easy for him.

The defending champion and No. 1 seed at Flushing Meadows recovered from his disastrous start and other stumbles along the way to beat No. 9 Dominic Thiem 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5) for a semifinal berth at a third consecutive Grand Slam tournament, winning a physical, back-and-forth tussle that concluded after 2 a.m. on Wednesday.

“Very demanding, in all aspects,” said Nadal, who will face 2009 champion Juan Martin del Potro on Friday for a berth in the final. “A question of a little bit of luck at the end.”

How tense and tight was this one? Not only was Nadal two points from losing at 5-all in the closing tiebreaker, but he finished with fewer total points, 171-166.

“It’s cruel, sometimes, tennis,” Thiem said, calling the loss “the first really epic match I’ve played.”

When it ended, on an overhead by Thiem that sailed long, everyone in Nadal’s guest box — a group that included actor Ben Stiller — leaped to their feet to celebrate. Nadal climbed over the net to hug his opponent, then whisper an apology and words of encouragement.

“I’m very sorry for Dominic,” Nadal told a rowdy crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium. “He’s a close friend on tour. He’s a great guy. A great player.”

Asked about that at his news conference, Thiem said with a chuckle: “Well, I don’t think he’s really sorry.”

This rematch of the French Open final in June, won by Nadal, was his first match against a top-20 opponent at the U.S. Open since 2013, when he beat then-No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the final.

It sure seemed at the shocking outset as if Nadal was somehow unprepared for this step up in competition. Thiem collected 24 of the opening set’s 31 points, thanks in large part to a 13-3 edge in winners.

Hard to not think back to 24 hours earlier, when Nadal’s great rival, No. 2 seed Roger Federer, was upset in the fourth round during similarly muggy conditions. Nadal was sweating so much in the 90-degree heat and 50-percent humidity that a mountain of white towels formed next to his changeover bench.

Thiem made him work for this win. And how.

The depth and strength of Thiem’s groundstrokes were doing what Nadal’s shots usually do to opponents: robbing them of time and space. Plus, Thiem — an Austrian who turned 25 on Monday — was serving well, taking every point when he put a first serve in, and handling returns without a hitch.

“After that first set,” Nadal said, “the match became more normal.”

It took a while for Nadal to figure out what was wrong and become Thiem’s equal in entertaining, body-punishing baseline exchanges that inspired loud gasps from spectators. Still, this whole contest was filled with challenges for Nadal.

He fell behind by a break in the third set before rebounding. He was two points from victory at 6-5, deuce, in the fourth as Thiem served, but flubbed a forehand volley, leaping for a ball that appeared to be sailing out and dumping it into the net. That mistake might have stayed in Nadal’s head, because he played terribly in the ensuing tiebreaker.

In the fifth, Nadal held three break points at 5-all, love-40, but Thiem took the next five points told serve.

That, Nadal would say afterward, managed to “break my heart. But I just keep going.”

He usually does.

When Nadal makes it this far in New York, he usually doesn’t stumble. He has now won seven U.S. Open quarterfinals in a row when he’s made it that far; his only loss in that round came back in 2006.

He is bidding for a fourth title at Flushing Meadows and 18th Grand Slam trophy overall.

Del Potro, the No. 3 seed, got to the semifinals by defeating No. 11 John Isner 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2.

During that earlier quarterfinal, Isner doubled over and rested his elbows on his knees. He grimaced. He shook his head. He looked as if he wanted to be anywhere but where he was: falling further and further behind in energy-robbing heat.

“Whatever the humidity is on outer courts or in the city, I think it’s amplified on center court,” Isner said. “It’s just very difficult to deal with. I have never seen Roger sweat ever. If he’s sweating a lot and has to change clothes, then you know it’s pretty humid out there.”

Isner was bidding to become the first American man in a dozen years to get to the final four at Flushing Meadows.

But while Isner was playing before what could count as a home crowd, del Potro got all manner of support throughout, from the blue-and-white flags or soccer jerseys dotting the stands to the repeated singsong chants of his nickname, “Delpo,” punctuated by clapping.

Those choruses resonated in the arena after key points, such as each time del Potro erased one of Isner’s break chances, three in all. Still, it was Isner who struck first, closing the opening tiebreaker with a 132 mph (212 kph) ace down the middle. That was the first set dropped by del Potro in the tournament.

He managed to take the next three, though, and now meets Nadal for the 17th time on tour.

Nadal leads 11-5, including the past three, each at a Grand Slam tournament: in the semifinals of the U.S. Open last year, followed by the semifinals of the French Open and a five-set thriller in the Wimbledon quarterfinals this year.

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U.S. OPEN: Scores | Men’s Draw | Women’s Draw

Mikaela Shiffrin races for another reindeer

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Mikaela Shiffrin already has three Olympic medals. She can win her third reindeer on Saturday.

Shiffrin headlines the first slalom of the World Cup season in Levi, Finland, live on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming via NBC Sports Gold’s Snow Pass.

The first run is at 4:15 a.m. ET. The second is at 7.

The traditional (and unconventional) winner’s prize in Finland is a reindeer. Shiffrin captured the Levi slalom in 2013 and 2016, naming her furry friends Rudolph and Sven.

The reindeer stay in Finland while Shiffrin criss-crosses Europe and North America on the World Cup tour.

Shiffrin lost in her trademark discipline in Levi last fall to a new rival, Petra Vlhova of Slovakia.

Motivated, Shiffrin won the next six slaloms before skiing out of the last slalom before the Olympics. Then in PyeongChang, Shiffrin shockingly finished fourth in defense of her Sochi Olympic title (after a giant slalom gold and before a super combined silver).

She bounced back, winning the last two World Cup slaloms of the 2017-18 season.

In the past, Shiffrin voiced a goal of winning every slalom in a season. She won all but three each of the last two years. Levi is the first of 12 World Cup slaloms this season.

Shiffrin must overcome the three women who made the PyeongChang podium ahead of her — Swede Frida Hansdotter, Swiss Wendy Holdener and Austrian Katharina Gallhuber.

She has already shown strong form, taking third in the season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, three weeks ago.

Nothing but a third reindeer will suffice in Saturday’s slalom, though.

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Gracie Gold wants to be new skater in comeback event; TV/stream schedule

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When Gracie Gold was in treatment for anxiety, depression and an eating disorder last year, she received a message from two-time Olympian Jeremy Abbott.

“If you ever want to come back to skating, I want to do an exhibition piece for you as a gift,” Abbott, who has taken up choreography in retirement, told his friend. Gold said it was a sweet offer and thanked him.

“At that point I don’t think that she had thought about coming back at all,” Abbott said last week.

Several months later, Gold had thought it over. She contacted Abbott in the spring.

“I’m going to make a go at this. Would you be willing to do my programs?” Abbott recalled Gold telling him. “I was shocked,” Abbott continued, “but also, at the same time, I was not.”

Gold, a two-time U.S. champ who finished fourth at the 2014 Olympics, competes this week for the first time since the January 2017 U.S. Championships. NBC Sports Gold streams live coverage of Rostelecom Cup from Moscow.

Day Time (ET) Event Network
Friday 6 a.m. Men’s Short NBC Sports Gold | STREAM LINK
8 a.m. Rhythm Dance NBC Sports Gold | STREAM LINK
10:30 a.m. Pairs’ Short NBC Sports Gold | STREAM LINK
12 p.m. Women’s Short NBC Sports Gold | STREAM LINK
Saturday 5:30 a.m. Men’s Free NBC Sports Gold | STREAM LINK
7:30 a.m. Free Dance NBC Sports Gold | STREAM LINK
9:30 a.m. Pairs’ Free NBC Sports Gold | STREAM LINK
11:30 a.m. Women’s Free NBC Sports Gold | STREAM LINK
Sunday 12 p.m. Highlights NBC | STREAM LINK

Gold, who detailed her last two years in a video published a month ago, is refraining from more interviews until after she skates. Abbott choreographed both her short and long programs, making a few trips to her Pennsylvania training base in the last six months. Gold is coached by former French skater Vincent Restencourt.

“She told me that she wanted to be a new skater and a new Gracie,” Abbott said. “She said that she always admired the artistry that I had and that she really wanted to bring something new to her skating.”

Abbott said her program music choices — “I Put a Spell On You” and “She Used to Be Mine,” the latter from the Broadway musical “Waitress” — reflect the new Gold. The former is “a little more mature and a little more sexy and playful than anything she’s done in the past.” The latter speaks to how she got from there to here in the last two years.

“At one point, she was on top of the world and had everything at her feet,” Abbott said. (Gold has said she spiraled psychologically after squandering a short-program lead at the 2016 Worlds and missing the podium altogether.) “Then she had some really big struggles and had to really step back from the life that she knew. Now she’s having to rebuild herself. It’s kind of looking back at who she was and who she used to be and now where she is and who she wants to become.”

Gold made it clear to Abbott whom she wanted to become.

“She was like, ‘I always was viewed as a jumper and not a skater. I always wanted to be an artist, but everyone told me stick to what you’re best at,'” Abbott said. “Working with her, she is an artist. She is sensitive. She understands the music. She gets it.”

Abbott visited Gold once this fall for choreography touch-ups and will not be in Moscow with her and Restencourt. Rather, he will be performing in 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton‘s show in Nashville on Sunday.

Abbott doesn’t know how Gold is handling the comeback nerves or what to expect of her jumps.

“This isn’t like a big massive coming-out party for her,” he said. “This is really just the first step to get her feet back under her, get her going again because the plan isn’t about this competition. The plan isn’t about this season. The plan is really about building for her future and the next four years.”

The field is led by Olympic champion Alina Zagitova, fellow Russian Sofia Samodurova and Japanese Yuna Shiraiwa, all 16-year-olds with a chance to make December’s exclusive, six-skater Grand Prix Final.

This is Gold’s lone competition until the new year. Many will watch and wonder how she stacks up among Americans heading into January’s national championships. (Two U.S. women are ranked in the top 30 in the world this season, with many big names sitting out the fall.)

“From where her life was, I think it takes some major balls to even put herself back into this situation,” said Abbott, who noted that when he first visited Gold in the spring, she had her double jumps back. “For where she came from, she’s made huge strides. It’s really been impressive to watch her growth.”

In the men’s field, double Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu is a heavy favorite given the absence of his top rivals, Nathan Chen and Shoma Uno. Canadian Keegan Messing and Russian Mikhail Kolyada are also in the mix to qualify for the Grand Prix Final.

In pairs, Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov are the clear favorites on home ice, but Americans Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc carry the intrigue.

They have a great chance at the Grand Prix Final if they can finish second, after taking third at Skate America four weeks ago. Cain and LeDuc rank fourth in the Rostelecom field by best scores this season but are only 4.21 points behind the second-ranked pair.

Russians Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin headline the ice dance. They’re ranked second in the world behind Americans Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, who clinched their Grand Prix Final spot three weeks ago.

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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