Kaitlin Hawayek, Jean-Luc Baker signal ice dance arrival at Grand Prix Final

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By Jean-Christophe Berlot and Nick Zaccardi

When U.S. ice dancer Jean-Luc Baker returned from his first Grand Prix win with partner Kaitlin Hawayek last month, he had something to say to French training partner Guillaume Cizeron, one half of the world’s best couple.

“We missed you,” Baker told Cizeron, who withdrew before the event, NHK Trophy in Japan, with a minor back injury. “But … thank you.”

Baker was of course joking with Cizeron, who with Gabriella Papadakis won a third world title last March, but a full-strength French couple would have won NHK. Instead, Hawayek and Baker, whose best U.S. Championships finish is fourth, became the seventh U.S. couple to win a Grand Prix.

The Americans still earned their place in this week’s Grand Prix Final with enough cushion that Papadakis and Cizeron’s NHK absence didn’t matter. Even if Papadakis and Cizeron skated in Japan — and won — Hawayek and Baker would have qualified for the sport’s most exclusive competition as the sixth and last couple. They were fourth at their second Grand Prix in France, Hawayek skating with her leg stitched after a practice accident.

The duo seems to now have reached the very elite of world skating.

After missing the PyeongChang Olympics by one spot at a deep nationals, Hawayek and Baker won January’s Four Continents Championships and, after the season, joined Papadakis and Cizeron’s training group in Montreal.

The leave from the U.S. ice dance hotbed of Detroit came as one of their coaches, 1998 Olympic silver medalist Anjelika Krylova, moved home to Moscow.

Hawayek and Baker became the latest couple to cross the border. They followed Canadian Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, the other U.S. couple in the Grand Prix Final and this week’s favorite with all of the Olympic medalists absent. Madison Chock and Evan Bates train in Montreal as well, but have yet to debut this season.

Hawayek said new coaches Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon immediately noted the flaws of a couple whose website displays Pro Football Hall of Fame coach George Allen‘s quote, “Winning is the science of being totally prepared.” They’re also working with a musical specialist on interpretation.

“It’s our fifth season together. We’re old now,” Hawayek joked. “With experience comes maturity.”

But they couldn’t practice on ice together for two months after Baker, the son of a British ice dancer and pairs’ skater, sustained his second concussion in three years in August. They tell that story through their free dance to music from The Irrepressibles, a Baroque British ensemble.

“Maybe it’s not too visible to an external eye, but for us, as we skate, it is completely,” Baker said. “It helps us emotionally.”

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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U.S. Olympic women’s tennis qualifying already looks intense

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Serena Williams is in strong early position to make the 2020 U.S. Olympic team. For everyone else, including older sister Venus Williams, every set of ranking points could be crucial over the next 10 months, including at the upcoming U.S. Open.

The U.S. has seven women in the world top 36 — not including 52nd-ranked Venus — but only four singles players can go to an Olympics from any one country come the rankings cutoff next June.

Serena Williams leads the way for Americans in second place overall in Olympic qualifying — which counts WTA rankings points starting after the 2019 French Open and running through the 2020 French Open. She has 1,885 points despite playing just two events the last two months, taking runner-up at Wimbledon and the Canadian Open.

Only Wimbledon champion Simona Halep, who has already been named Romania’s Opening Ceremony flag bearer, has more Olympic qualifying points (2,395).

After Serena, three more U.S. women are in the top 10 in Olympic qualifying — Sonya Kenin (No. 5), Madison Keys (No. 8) and Alison Riske (No. 10).

Keys, a quarterfinalist or better at all four Grand Slams in her career, jumped from outside the top 20 among Americans to the No. 3 American by notching her biggest title in Ohio last week.

Notables who must improve their ranking start with Venus Williams, who moved from 18th on the U.S. list to eighth by reaching the Cincinnati quarterfinals. She turns 40 before the Tokyo Games and could become the oldest Olympic singles player since the sport returned to the Olympic program following a 64-year break in 1988. She already owns the modern-era record of five Olympic tennis medals from her five previous Games and could still get to the Olympics in doubles if she doesn’t qualify in singles.

Sloane Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open champion, is 12th in U.S. Olympic qualifying, winning a total of three matches among four tournaments in the window.

The veterans Williams sisters, Keys and Stephens, who made up the 2016 U.S. Olympic singles team, must fend off an emerging class.

Kenin, 20, backed up her French Open upset of Serena Williams by winning a lower-level event in June and then beating the world Nos. 1 and 2 the last two weeks.

Riske is playing some of the best tennis of her career at age 29. She beat world then-No. 1 Ash Barty to make her first Slam quarterfinal at Wimbledon, a week before her wedding.

Then there are two of the phenoms of the year. Coco Gauff, 15, is ninth in U.S. Olympic qualifying after a run to the Wimbledon fourth round. Gauff was granted a wild card into the U.S. Open, after which she can’t play in more than five senior tournaments (and possibly no more than three) until her 16th birthday in March due to WTA age restrictions to keep young teens from burnout.

Amanda Anisimova, 17, is 13th in U.S. Olympic qualifying. Her best results this year — French Open semifinal, Australian Open fourth round — came before the Olympic qualifying window.

It’s looking like the toughest U.S. Olympic women’s singles team to make outright since 2004. Back then, the U.S. had Nos. 4 (Lindsay Davenport), 7 (Jennifer Capriati), 8 (Venus Williams), 11 (Serena Williams) and 18 (Chanda Rubin). Davenport, Capriati and Serena didn’t play at the Athens Games, opening the door for Lisa Raymond to play singles and doubles in Athens.

In 2000, Serena Williams didn’t make the Olympic singles field despite being ranked eighth in the world. A max of three players per nation were taken to Sydney, and the U.S. had Nos. 2, 3 and 6 in Davenport, Venus Williams and Monica Seles.

An Olympic rule mandating a minimum of Fed Cup appearances could affect Tokyo 2020 eligibility. However, the fine print allows for that to be bypassed in discretionary exceptional circumstances.

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U.S. Olympic Women’s Singles Qualifying Standings (Max. 4 can qualify)
1. Serena Williams — 1,885 points
2. Sonya Kenin — 1,081
3. Madison Keys — 972
4. Alison Riske — 802
5. Jennifer Brady — 356
6. Jessica Pegula — 348
7. Madison Brengle — 344
8. Venus Williams — 302
9. Coco Cauff — 298
10. Bernarda Pera — 280
11. Lauren Davis — 245
12. Sloane Stephens — 238
13. Amanda Anisimova — 230

U.S. athletes qualified for 2020 Tokyo Olympics

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The U.S. Olympic team roster for the 2020 Tokyo Games will eventually reach more than 500 athletes. It is currently at seven.

Qualifying competitions and Olympic Trials events dot the schedule from now into early summer 2020.

Athletes qualified so far:

Modern Pentathlon
Samantha Achterberg
Amro Elgeziry

Sport Climbing
Brooke Raboutou

Swimming
Haley Anderson
Ashley Twichell
Jordan Wilimovsky

Triathlon
Summer Rappaport

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