Nathan Chen rallies, wins GP France, sets possible Yuzuru Hanyu matchup

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Nathan Chen is going back to the Grand Prix Final for another possible showdown with Yuzuru HanyuJason Brown, if he keeps this up, is on his way to a rebound season after missing the PyeongChang Olympic team.

The world champion Chen won his fifth straight Grand Prix event, moving from third after the short program to overtake Brown and prevail by 15.25 points at Internationaux de France on Saturday. Chen landed three quadruple jumps in a clean, watered-down free skate, totaling 271.58 between two programs.

He overcame a 9.47-point deficit to the 2014 Olympian Brown from Friday.

“I’m still not at the level I should be technically,” Chen, who had a record six quads in his PyeongChang Olympic free skate (five clean), said, according to the Olympic Channel. “There’s a lot of work to be done, but whatever I did, I did. I am pretty satisfied.

“What I did today was the maximum of my capabilities as of right now and we’ll see about the future.”

GP FRANCE: Full Results | TV/Stream Schedule

Chen landed a quad flip and two quad toe loops in the free, including one in combination after falling on an under-rotated quad flip in the short. He’s the first man to win five straight Grand Prix starts in more than a decade.

Chen has so far successfully juggled skating with freshman classes at Yale, training some 3,000 miles from his Southern California-based coach. Like Hanyu and Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno, Chen swept his two Grand Prix Series starts.

The Grand Prix Final in two weeks is during a break from Yale classes, as were Chen’s two Grand Prix events. The Final, which takes the top six skaters per discipline from the Grand Prix Series, is the second-biggest annual competition behind the world championships.

At the Final, Chen is slated to face the Olympic champion Hanyu for the first time since PyeongChang, where the American was 17th in the short program but won the free skate to place fifth overall. But Hanyu, who has the world’s highest score this season by 16 points, could withdraw from the Final after suffering an ankle injury last Saturday.

“It definitely has pushed me quite a lot over the past few years, to be able to skate with him in practices and compete against him and also just to be able to watch him from afar and see what he’s doing to sort of motivate me and push myself in practices,” Chen said Saturday. “It’s definitely disappointing if he won’t be at the Grand Prix Final.”

Brown did not fall and did not attempt a quad in his programs in Grenoble. The 2015 U.S. champion has now made a Grand Prix podium in all six of his senior international seasons, an active streak shared only by Hanyu among male or female singles skaters.

The silver medal marked quite an improvement for Brown, who was sixth at the U.S. Championships in January and, after changing coaches to Brian Orser, sixth at his Grand Prix season debut in Canada last month.

Brown is now a favorite to make the three-man U.S. team for the world championships in March. Only Chen has a better score this season among Americans than Brown, who is 30 points clear of PyeongChang Olympian Vincent Zhou. Brown competes at least one more time before January’s nationals, at a lower-level event in Croatia in two weeks.

“I have a long way to go with [the free skate], but I’m really happy with the development as it has come a long way since the start to the season,” Brown said. “I’m still just scratching the surface of the potential that I have. … I’m still struggling every day with the changes.”

Later, three-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron ran away with the ice dance title by 16.4 points in their first top-level senior event of the season. While their score — 216.78 — is the highest in the world this season by nearly 16 points, they are ineligible for the Grand Prix Final because they missed their first Grand Prix due to Cizeron’s back injury.

Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker finished fourth, securing their first Grand Prix Final berth. Hawayek and Baker won NHK Trophy two weeks ago. The favorites at the Final are U.S. champions and world silver medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, who won the first two Grand Prix events last month.

Grand Prix Final Qualifiers
Men
1. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 30 points
2. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 30 points
3. Nathan Chen (USA) — 30 points
4. Michal Brezina (CZE) — 26 points
5. Sergey Voronov (RUS) — 24 points
6. Cha Jun-Hwan (KOR) — 22 points

Ice Dance
1. Madison Hubbell/Zach Donohue (USA) — 30 points

2. Alexandra Stepanova/Ivan Bukin (RUS) — 30 points
3. Victoria Sinitsina/Nikita Katsalapov (RUS) — 26 points
4. Charlene Guignard/Marco Fabbri (ITA) — 26 points
5. Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker (USA) — 24 points
6. Tiffany Zahorski/Jonathan Guerreiro (RUS) — 24 points

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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Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff set Australian Open duel

Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff
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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Plenty was going badly for Coco Gauff in the second round of the Australian Open.

The double-faults kept coming Wednesday, nine in all. The deficits, too: First, she dropped the opening set against 74th-ranked Sorana Cirstea.

Then, after forcing a third, Gauff fell behind by a break, ceding 14 of 16 points with a series of mistakes. Later, after getting even at 3-all, Gauff was a mere two points from a loss.

None of that mattered. As she keeps showing, over and over, Gauff is not a typical 15-year-old. Not a typical tennis player, either.

And by getting past Cirstea 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 in a little more than two hours thanks to a more aggressive approach in the late going, she now has set up yet another Grand Slam showdown against Naomi Osaka.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

“I kind of felt the momentum changing,” Gauff said about turning things around against Cirstea. “I knew I had to keep pressing.”

Less than five months after their memorable meeting at the U.S. Open — Osaka won that one in straight sets, then consoled a crying Gauff on court and encouraged her to address the spectators — the two will face each other again. Like that time, Osaka is the major’s reigning champion and Gauff is making her debut at the tournament.

“I think I’ll be less nervous this time,” said Gauff, who eliminated seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams in the first round Monday. “I think I’m more confident this time around.”

As for what sticks with her about the post-match comforting Osaka offered in New York, Gauff said: “If I had a child or something, that’s something I would want my child to see. It just shows what being a competitor really is. You might hate the person on the court, but off the court you love them — not really, like, ‘hate,’ but you want to win. Sometimes when we’re on the court, we say things we don’t mean because we have that mentality. When it’s all said and done, we still look at each other with respect.”

Other winners included Serena Williams — 6-2, 6-3 against Tamara Zidansek in a match that finished with the Rod Laver Arena retractable roof closed because of rain — No. 1 Ash Barty, 2018 Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki and two-time major champion Petra Kvitova, the runner-up to Osaka in Australia a year ago.

Defending men’s champion Novak Djokovic required all of 95 minutes to breeze past Japanese wild-card entry Tatsuma Ito 6-1, 6-4, 6-2, while Roger Federer swept Filip Krajinovic 6-1, 6-4, 6-1.

Gauff was not at her very best on a windy afternoon against Cirstea but managed to figure her way out of trouble repeatedly. Gauff demonstrated plenty of grit, yes, and also enthusiasm, pumping herself up by shaking a fist and yelling, “Come on!” after most of her successful points down the stretch.

All the while, Gauff was supported by a Melbourne Arena crowd that chanted, “Let’s go, Coco! Let’s go!”

Her father, Corey, was animated in the stands, too, except when he was squeezing his eyes shut at critical moments.

There were several of those for his precocious daughter, who was ranked only 313th last year when she became the youngest player in history to qualify for Wimbledon, then wound up beating Williams there en route to the fourth round.

It is a measure of her came-so-soon stardom that Gauff was playing at Melbourne Park’s third-largest stadium Wednesday, even though this was a matchup between a pair of players ranked outside the top 60 and with one career Grand Slam quarterfinal between them, more than a decade ago (Cirstea made it that far at the 2009 French Open).

Indeed, every Grand Slam singles match — “every” being a relative term, of course, because this was No. 9 — of the 67th-ranked Gauff’s nascent career has been placed on a show court.

This was the first main draw match at a major for Gauff in which she held a better ranking than her opponent.

Didn’t seem that way at the outset: Gauff dropped the first set. After forcing things to a third, she trailed 3-0. After making it 3-3, Gauff needed to get through one more gut-check: Twice, she was two points from departing.

But the American teenager broke in the next-to-last game, then held to win.

How did Gauff get through this test?

“Just my will to win,” she said. “My parents, they always told me I can come back, no matter what the score is.”

Osaka worked through some frustrations Wednesday by grabbing her racket with both hands and chucking it to the ground, tossing away a tennis ball and kicking the racket along the court, to boot.

Then she plopped herself down on her sideline seat and draped a towel over her head. Soon, she was gathering herself and defeating Zheng Saisai 6-2, 6-4.

“I mean, my racket just magically flew out of my hand. I couldn’t control it,” Osaka said with a mischievous smile. “I think that’s how I dealt with my frustration. It was a bit childish. I just want to play one match without throwing my racket or kicking it. That’s all I want.”

Perhaps because her news conference took place while Gauff and Cirstea were still playing, Osaka deflected a question seeking some sort of lookahead to the third round, saying simply she would go watch the end of that match.

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John Isner leaning toward skipping Olympics again

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John Isner, the highest-ranked U.S. male singles tennis player, is considering skipping the Olympics for a second straight time.

“I haven’t put a ton of thought into it, but as of right now, I think I’m leaning towards not playing,” the 19th-ranked player said at the Australian Open on Tuesday. “It’s about scheduling. I know the Olympics, it’s a fantastic honor. There’s no doubt about that. … Right now, at this stage in my career, it’s not a huge priority for me. So that’s probably the main reason I won’t be going. I certainly love playing in the summer in America, and I’m going to focus on that.”

The Tokyo Games take place the same week as a lower-level ATP Tour event in Atlanta that Isner, a former University of Georgia star, has won five times.

Other notable male players already said they will pass on Tokyo, including Sam Querrey, the top American in Olympic qualifying standings.

Austrian Dominic Thiem, a two-time French Open finalist, is prioritizing an ATP event in Kitzbühel the week of the Olympics. The U.S. doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan are not planning to play the Olympics in their final season before retirement, their manager said in November.

“The Olympics is very tough on the schedule … especially with Davis Cup,” Isner said in 2016, according to USA Today. “I think the fact that they have no [ATP ranking] points [at the Olympics], to be honest, was a pretty big factor as well. Obviously the Olympics is not about the money, but no points I think hindered me a bit.”

Isner, who turns 35 on April 26, is likely giving up his last chance to play Olympic singles. In his only Olympic participation, he reached the quarterfinals of the 2012 London Games, plus lost an opening-round doubles match there with Andy Roddick.

The top four U.S. men qualify for Tokyo, assuming they are among the top 60 overall qualifiers (maximum four per country) after this spring’s French Open.

Taylor FritzReilly Opelka, Steve Johnson and Tommy Paul are the U.S. men currently in Olympic qualifying position if excluding Querrey and Isner.

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