Alina Zagitova wins her Grand Prix opener; Yuzuru Hanyu leads

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Alina Zagitova wasn’t flawless in her Grand Prix season opener, but she didn’t have to be.

The Olympic champion from Russia totaled 215.29 points in Helsinki, winning the event by 17.72 over countrywoman Stanislava Konstantinova. Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto improved from seventh after the short program for bronze, two weeks after her second straight Skate America silver medal.

Zagitova did not fall between two programs, but she singled a jump in Friday’s short and had two under-rotation calls in her free.

“I’m not happy with my short program,” she said through a translator. “The free skating was better, but it still was not ideal.

“It was tough for me to leave behind the short program. I was analyzing for a long time, almost the whole night.”

Her score ranks second among women this Grand Prix season behind Skate America winner Satoko Miyahara of Japan. But Zagitova’s score from her lower-level season debut in September — 238.43 — remains best in the world overall this season by 17 points.

The Helsinki field lacked Zagitova’s top rivals like Miyahara and Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva, whom the 16-year-old will not face until December.

She had margin for error in her first top-level event since falling three times in the world championships free skate in March and finishing fifth, her only loss in a little more than a year on the senior international level.

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Earlier Saturday, double Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu moved into position to win his Grand Prix opener for the first time in his nine-year career.

The Japanese megastar was nearly flawless on his jumps, with a slight turnout on the back end of his quadruple toe loop-triple toe combination. The score — 106.69 — is the highest men’s short program in the world this season, knocking off Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno.

“Today was a bit challenging,” said Hanyu, who chose his short-program music, Otoñal, partially as a tribute to Johnny Weir. “I can say I landed [the jumps], but I can’t say perfect.”

Hanyu takes a 13.38-point lead over Czech Michal Brezina into Sunday’s free skate. Hanyu will not face Uno or world champion Nathan Chen this season until December’s Grand Prix Final at the earliest.

Russia swept the pairs’ and ice dance titles among fields with no Olympic or world medalists (aside from team events) or prior Grand Prix event winners.

Natalya Zabiyako and Alexander Enbert erased a .59 deficit from the paris’ short program to beat Italians Nicole Della Monica and Matteo Guarise. They totaled 198.51, distancing the Italians by 12.74.

The Russians’ total ranks them fifth in the world this season, far behind French leaders Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres (221.81).

Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin topped both the rhythm dance and free dance for 200.09 points, 3.8 clear of Italians Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri. Americans Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter were third, their first Grand Prix podium.

Stepnova and Bukin rank second in the world this season behind world silver medalists Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue. However, Olympic silver medalists and world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France have yet to debut.

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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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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