Behind the scenes at Grand Prix France: Day 4

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Jean-Christophe Berlot is on the ground in Grenoble to cover Internationaux de France, the sixth and final Grand Prix event in the series before the Grand Prix Final. This is his behind-the-scenes look at the competition on the day after the competition.

Chen has much more in store

Don’t try to follow the planned program content of Nathan Chen’s skates. He often changes them at the last minute.

“I know the rules and how to coordinate the jumps, in regards to combos and not repeating quads,” Chen explained after his victorious free skate in Grenoble. “I have a basic layout ready for the program, but also Plan B variations. Before a program I have a layout ready, but that also may change!”

In Grenoble, Chen had planned a quad Salchow followed by a quad Lutz, and he delivered a quad flip and a quad toe to open his program.

“We made the decision yesterday, before practice. I’m not yet at the level I should be. Skating a clean program is very important nowadays. Also, I need to be realistic with myself. I skated the maximum I could pull as now,” Chen added. And yet, watching Chen skate, one could feel that his program still had a lot of potential.

“Yes, the goal is to keep on improving and adding things. It’s a big confidence boost to know I can!” Chen concluded.

Watch the board!

It happened right during Team USA’s Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov’s free program Saturday night: the plastic tile of a sponsor fell off from the board onto the ice. In a split second, while Lu and Mitrofanov were skating to the other side of the rink, a staff member jumped over the board onto the ice and threw the tile over. He jumped back again before they were back, thus avoiding a potentially dangerous fall by the skaters, especially since the tile was ice-white and would have been difficult to see. However impressive the guy’s jumps were, the points he amassed there couldn’t be found in the team’s results!

Heading to Nationals

A journalist asked the three best pairs in Grenoble to comment about how they planned to prepare the big national championships awaiting them. Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea talked about the work they were planning to in their Colorado training base and subsequently gave the microphone to Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès.

“No,” Ciprès replied jokingly: “I won’t say anything, because the question is about ‘big championships.’ We don’t have a big championship here!” The room erupted in laughter. No other internationally competitive pair exists at the moment in France.

Fortunately, Russia’s Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii had a lot more to say about the level of Russian Nationals!

Applause-o-meter

If the placement of a skater were correlated to the loudness of the applause he or she received, then Yevgenia Medvedeva would have come first in all categories in Grenoble. The audience cheered at her as soon as she stepped on the ice, be it for practice or competition. She didn’t make it to the podium this time, but watching the protocols makes you wonder: maybe the volume of support she got could be correlated to her components? She received the best of the field for her free program Saturday. At any rate, and however strongly the social media in Russia may be bashing her, she can count on a solid – and unique – crop of fans around the world!

Rika and her big bag

When she arrived at the post-event press conference after her impressive victory, Rika Kihira was carrying a huge bag full of the gifts she had received on the ice, plush toys, cards and flowers all mixed up at once. The bag was so big, that it was almost hiding her, and she could certainly have been put in it as well. Watching her, all smiles out, you could really tell how petite and young she is. Yet a big champion already!

Food is over!

“No food?” was Medvedeva’s first reaction when she discovered that the Skating Lounge, where skaters and coaches could nurture themselves after a practice or a competition segment, had been destroyed and chairs had already been piled up. Medvedeva was one of the first ones to reach the site Sunday morning, but most skaters and officials had the same reaction afterwards: “It’s a pity, the food was so good!” an official said. “We have managed to save some water,” an ISU staff member suggested with a smile – to make the ice maybe?

This column is way too harsh on the French organization, however, as the Club of Grenoble did a wonderful job for all of us here. Grenoble is regaining its status as a skating capital of the world it was, half a century ago!

Improbable encounter

Lady Jayne Torvill graced the rink with her presence. The 1984 Olympic gold medalist (with Christopher Dean) was invited to the French Team Supporting Club party. There, she was found discussing with an elderly gentleman, saying how much he remembered her team’s world famous “Bolero”, that night of February 14, 1984. This gentleman happened to be Guillaume Cizeron’s grandfather. He explained to her how he taught Guillaume to do tumbling when he was younger. You have to listen to Grandpa’s memories to come to know your heroes better!

Just like school children!

Preparing the final gala is always a feat – if not a feast. Yohann Deslot, who coaches in Grenoble, rehearsed the group numbers with the best ranked skaters of the competition Sunday morning. Needless to say, they were not the best-disciplined class one would dream of. Deslot was trying to give his instructions, but the skaters had other plans.

Kevin Aymoz, the French men’s hope, was playing on the ice like a fish in the water. Canada’s Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier were certainly the most exuberant of all, cheering and pulling their fellow skaters. Maria Sotskova, Yevgenia Medvedeva and Stanislava Konstantinova, the three Russians, were dancing as if they were in a nightclub. Morgan Ciprès lifted Vanessa James into a pair spin – just for the fun of it. Guillaume Cizeron looked like a 1970s New York gangster with his trendy cap above his beard. Nathan Chen skated with his Yale student’s classy glasses. Fortunately, the final number could drive from their talent!

Bye Grenoble!

The six legs of the Grand Prix season are now over. The next stage, for the happy few, will take place in beautiful Vancouver. Thank you, skaters and coaches and team members to have given us such a thrill in Grenoble. Thank you all for having followed us. It’s been a privilege for us to give you some of the powerful vitamins only skating can give.

Stay tuned though: there is much more awaiting you in the following week… And the week after!

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 to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating 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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MORE: Nathan Chen rallies to capture Grand Prix France title 

Aryna Sabalenka wins Australian Open for first Grand Slam singles title

Aryna Sabalenka Australian Open 2023
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MELBOURNE, Australia — One point away from her first Grand Slam title, Aryna Sabalenka faulted. And then she faulted again. She grimaced. She yelled and turned her back to the court. She wiggled her shoulders and exhaled.

Clearly, this business of winning the Australian Open was not bound to happen without a bit of a struggle Saturday night. Sabalenka knew deep inside that would be the case. She also knew that all of the effort she put in, to overcome self-doubt and those dreaded double-faults, had to pay off eventually. Just had to.

And so, as she wasted a second match point by flubbing a forehand, and a third by again missing another, Sabalenka did her best to stay calm, something she used to find quite difficult. She hung in there until a fourth chance to close out Elena Rybakina presented itself — and this time, Sabalenka saw a forehand from her similarly powerful foe sail long. That was that. The championship belonged to Sabalenka via a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 comeback victory over Wimbledon winner Rybakina.

“The last game, yeah, of course, I was a little bit nervous. I (kept) telling myself, like, ’Nobody tells you that it’s going to be easy.′ You just have to work for it, work for it, ’til the last point,” said Sabalenka, a 24-year-old from Belarus who is now 11-0 with two titles in 2023 and will rise to No. 2 in the WTA rankings on Monday.

The only set she has dropped all season was the opener on Saturday against Rybakina, who eliminated No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the fourth round.

It was telling that Sabalenka’s remarks during the post-match ceremony were directed at her coach, Anton Dubrov, and her fitness trainer, Jason Stacy — she referred to them as “the craziest team on tour.”

“We’ve been through a lot of, I would say, downs last year,” said Sabalenka, who was appearing in her first major final and had been 0-3 in Slam semifinals until this week. “We worked so hard and you guys deserve this trophy. It’s more about you than it’s about me.”

Well, she had a lot to do with it, of course. Those serves that produced 17 aces, helping erase the sting of seven double-faults. Those hammered groundstrokes and relentlessly aggressive style that produced 51 winners, 20 more than Rybakina’s total. And, despite her go-for-broke shotmaking, somehow Sabalenka limited her unforced error count to 28. One more key statistic: Sabalenka managed to accrue 13 break points, converting three, including the one at 4-3 in the last set that put her ahead for good.

“She played really well today,” said Rybakina, who has lost all four matches she’s played against Sabalenka, all in three sets. “She was strong mentally, physically.”

While the latter has long been a hallmark of her game, even Sabalenka acknowledges that the first has been an issue.

Her most glowing strength was also her most glaring shortfall: her serve. Capable of delivering aces, she also had a well-known problem with double-faulting, leading the tour in that category last year with nearly 400, including matches with more than 20.

After much prodding from her group, she agreed to undergo an overhaul of her mechanics last August. That, along with a commitment to trying to keep her emotions in check — she used to work with a sports psychologist but no longer, saying she relies on herself now — is really paying off.

“She didn’t have great serve last year, but now she was super strong and she served well,” said Rybakina, a 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan. “For sure, I respect that. I know how much work it takes.”

With seagulls squawking loudly while flying overhead at Rod Laver Arena, Rybakina and Sabalenka traded serious racket swings for nearly 2 1/2 hours.

The serves were big. So big. Rybakina’s fastest arrived at 121 mph, Sabalenka’s at 119 mph.

The points were over quickly. So quickly: Seven of the first 13 were aces.

Sabalenka had been broken just six times in 55 service games through the course of these two weeks, but Rybakina did it twice in the opening set.

And never again. Sabalenka resolved to take the initiative even more, and the payoff for her high-risk, high-reward attitude was too much for Rybakina to withstand over the last two sets.

Sabalenka said ahead of time that she expected to feel some jitters. Which makes perfect sense for anyone: This was the most important match of her career.

At the end, when it mattered more than ever, Sabalenka was able to steady herself. After the final point, she dropped to her back on the court and stayed down for a bit, covering her face as her eyes welled with tears.

Quite a difference from a year ago at Melbourne Park, when Sabalenka departed after 15 double-faults in a fourth-round loss.

“I really feel right now that I really needed those tough losses to kind of understand myself a little bit better. It was like a preparation for me,” Sabalenka said at her post-match news conference, her new trophy nearby and a glass of bubbly in her hand. “I actually feel happy that I lost those matches, so right now I can be a different player and just a different Aryna, you know?”

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Matt Weston, Susanne Kreher win first world skeleton titles; Olympic champs struggle

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Great Britain’s Matt Weston and German Susanne Kreher consolidated breakout post-Olympic seasons by winning world skeleton titles in St. Moritz, Switzerland, on Friday.

Weston, 15th at last year’s Olympics, prevailed by 1.79 seconds combining times from four runs, the largest margin of victory at worlds for men or women since 2012.

Weston became the second British man to win a world skeleton title after Kristan Bromley in 2008. The 25-year-old from Surrey left taekwondo at age 17 due to a reported back injury and has three wins in six World Cups this season after considering quitting the sport over the summer, according to the BBC.

“What happened there [at Beijing 2022] hit us all really hard, and it took a while to get over,” he said, speaking of the whole British skeleton team that had no top-10 finishes after medals in the last five Olympics, according to the BBC.

Italian Amedeo Bagnis, whose best World Cup finish is eighth, took silver, a year after placing 11th at the Olympics. South Korean Jeong Seung-Gi earned bronze by one hundredth over Brit Chris Thompson, a year after placing 10th at the Olympics.

Kreher, a 24-year-old sprint convert in her first full World Cup season, won by one hundredth of a second over Olympic bronze medalist Kimberley Bos of the Netherlands. Mimi Rahneva took bronze for Canada’s first Olympic or world skeleton medal since 2015.

Kreher extended Germany’s streak to six consecutive women’s world titles. Kreher, last year’s world junior champion, has three World Cup podiums this season, but no wins on the circuit.

Germany’s reigning Olympic champions Christopher Grotheer and Hannah Neise were 10th and 15th, respectively. Tina Hermann, who won the last three women’s world titles, was fifth.

Two other Olympic champions were absent: 2014 gold medalist Aleksandr Tretiyakov is out due to the ban on Russians for the war in Ukraine. Yun Sung-Bin, a 2018 gold medalist, is taking this season off but is expected to come back, according to the South Korean federation.

The top Americans were Hallie Clarke in 10th for the women and Austin Florian in 19th for the men. The last U.S. medalist at worlds was Noelle Pikus-Pace, who took silver in 2013.

Katie Uhlaender, the top U.S. finisher at the last worlds and last Olympics (sixth both times), has not competed this season after rupturing a tendon in her right ankle two months ago.

Worlds continue with the women’s monobob and two-man bobsled events Saturday and Sunday.

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