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Matthew Centrowitz eyes American record after bounce-back year

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Olympic 1500m champion Matthew Centrowitz sat down for a Q&A last month at the end of a season in which he reclaimed the U.S. title (his fifth career) and grabbed his first Diamond League win. Centrowitz, after a 2017 plagued by health setbacks, is looking forward to chasing the American record in the 1500m, a repeat Olympic title in Tokyo and, possibly, moving up in distance …

OlympicTalk: Your overall thoughts on the year. A lot was made last year of the health setbacks. You came back, won the U.S. title, got your first Diamond League win. How do you feel?

Centrowitz: It’s definitely been an up-and-down year, to say the least. Kind of a slow start, just from me having the big setback I had in November/December [coming back too early from an early August hamstring strain] then not running an indoor season [after returning to training in January]. I can only remember one time where I hadn’t run an indoor season in the past decade. The second half went really well starting with the USA Championships. That was the first goal I had for the year, going back and reclaiming the title. Once I did that, the pressure was kind of off and I really wanted to mix it up with some of these guys in these Diamond League races. I knew I probably wasn’t in shape to run an American record, or even a PR, but I was pleasantly surprised to run 3:31 [in Monaco], which is my third-fastest time.

OlympicTalk: What’s your best race since Rio?

Centrowitz: I would probably say Oxy 2017 (video here). I was pretty excited about that race, ran 3:33 domestically. I haven’t really run that fast in the U.S. And obviously getting a chance to compete against Mo [Farah], one of my teammates, and a great caliber of field. I was excited to come out with the win.

OlympicTalk: How big is the American 1500m record for you? [Bernard Lagat’s 3:29.30, 1.1 seconds faster than Centrowitz’s PR from 2015] Is it bigger than repeating as Olympic champion?

Centrowitz: It’s probably No. 2 behind repeating Olympic gold, but since the Olympics aren’t for two years, it’s, right now, in my rear-view mirror. Especially after this year, running 3:31 with the year I’ve had, I think I can probably knock a half-second off the American record. Somewhere between 3:28-3:29 flat.

Luckily, the men’s 1500m is so deep these days that there’s at least one or two races a year that go around that fast. If I just get back into shape that I know I’m capable of being in, stay healthy, mix it up with those guys, who knows how fast I’m capable of going.

OlympicTalk: When did the American record first seem possible to you?

Centrowitz: Around 2014, 2015. Once I had my PR down to 3:30. I’m still third-fastest on the list [behind Lagat and Sydney Maree]. Where do you go but No. 1? No one’s like, “I want to be No. 2.”

OlympicTalk: Do you think you need the American record to be considered by a lot of people as the greatest American miler ever, or do you think you’ve done enough?

Centrowitz: That’s up to the people to decide, but in my eyes, I’m biased. I don’t think I need to. For sure, if I do get it, it will be undisputed. In my eyes, I don’t think I would need that to be considered the best.

OlympicTalk: Do you see yourself moving up in distance after 2020 or 2024?

Centrowitz: I don’t know. Certainly, I thought I’d be in the 5K by now for sure. I was primarily a two-miler in high school, so to drop back down to the mile in college was definitely a surprise to me and to continue to have this kind of success. I train primarily like a 3K/5K guy anyways, so definitely running 5Ks in the near future [starting with the USATF 5K Championships in New York’s Central Park on Nov. 3]. See what kinds of times I put up.

The day I don’t think I can PR anymore in the 1500m, and the day I stop medaling and feel like I’m in medal contention is the day I’ll probably move up.

OlympicTalk: What do you think about Jakob Ingebrigtsen? [The Norwegian born in 2000 is the youngest sub-4-minute miler in history and swept the 1500m and 5000m at the European Championships in August.]

Centrowitz: He’s continued to surprise me throughout the whole year. At Stanford [the Payton Jordan Invitational 1500m won by Ingebrigtsen in May], I wasn’t too surprised with his time, but I was surprised about how well he put away the field. Not just me, but Paul Chelimo is no slouch. My teammates Eric [Jenkins] and Craig [Engels] are very good as well. I was kind of surprised by how easy he put us away the last 200m. From there, he continued to get better and better.

He’s a world-record holder in his age group. Any kind of world record in itself is an amazing feat, so what we’re witnessing is greatness. How well he’s run and continued throughout the year, he’s progressing with each week and each race. I had a chance to see him in St. Moritz, Switzerland, where I was training. And some of his brothers. The kid obviously works tremendously hard, and he’s mentioned it interviews, too, that he’s been training like a professional for years. So I guess that doesn’t come to me as quite a surprise since he’s had older brothers get him into the sport. But at the end of the day, nonetheless, he’s a 17-year-old kid running and beating the world’s best. So it is surprising, but also the way he works, how hard he works, I’m sure he’s not quite as surprised and his brothers aren’t surprised as well.

OlympicTalk: You played an April Fool’s joke in 2105 that you were moving up to the marathon. If you had to say right now, will you ever run a marathon?

Centrowitz: Probably not, if I had to make a guess. But you never know. I’m not opposed to it. I have teammates now doing it, and the training that they say it takes for it, you’re just constantly tired. I want to end this sport on a positive note. I want to continue running when I’m retired. Marathon training might put me in that mode where I’m not really enjoying the training or want to run another step when I’m done.

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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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