Shiffrin’s slalom streak is snapped at Flachau World Cup

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After finishing second to American Mikaela Shiffrin in the first five World Cup slaloms of the season, Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova finally made her breakthrough at today’s World Cup stop in Flachau, Austria. Competing under the lights and amid heavy snowfall, Shiffrin led the field by 0.27 seconds after the first run (with Vlhova sitting in third, 0.31 seconds back). But Vlhova attacked the course in the second run, going on to finish 0.15 seconds ahead of Shiffrin. Austria’s Katharina Liensberger placed third, marking the 21-year-old’s first-ever World Cup podium finish. (Anna Swenn Larsson of Sweden initially seemed to have claimed the final spot on the podium, but she was later disqualified for not correctly passing through one of the gates.)

The other American competing in Flachau, Paula Moltzan, finished 12th, marking her best-ever World Cup finish. Moltzan was in 27th place after the first run, but she skied the second-fastest time (behind only Vlhova) in the second run to catapult herself up the standings. Full results are here.

It has been nearly two years since a woman other than Vlhova or Shiffrin stood atop a women’s World Cup slalom podium. Sweden’s Frida Handotter won the Flachau slalom on January 10, 2017, but in the 17 World Cup slaloms since, Shiffrin has notched 13 victories, while Vlhova has won four.

Vlhova is one of the only athletes who has seriously challenged Shiffrin in recent years. The two athletes are close in age (Shiffrin is exactly three months older). At the start of the 2017-18 season, it seemed like a real slalom rivalry was developing after Vlhova outpaced Shiffrin by 0.10 seconds at the World Cup in Levi, Finland. But then Shiffrin finished ahead of Vlhova at the Killington World Cup. And then Shiffrin won again, and again, and again, all while Vlhova’s slalom results slowed.

Vlhova has been gaining on Shiffrin since the start of the current season and she even managed to outpace the American slalom star at the city event in Oslo earlier this month. But today’s win was even sweeter. “This is my best day ever.” Vlhova said in her post-race FIS interview. “Finally I beat Mikaela, but she’s also really strong and I have big respect [for her].”

A few minutes later, Shiffrin told the crowd of cheering fans, “It’s motivation for me so we’ll see you in Maribor,” a reference to the next slalom on the World Cup calendar, which is scheduled for February 2.

Shiffrin entered Flachau having won the last seven World Cup slaloms (a streak that in March 2018 in Ofterschwang, Germany). Today’s race offered her a chance to tie the women’s World Cup record for most consecutive slalom victories (eight), which was set by Switzerland’s Vreni Schneider in 1989 and equaled by Croatia’s Janica Kostelic in 2001, but her second-place finish means it will be at least another year before she another shot at that specific record.

In December, Shiffrin broke Austrian Marlies Schild’s record for most career World Cup slalom wins by a woman. Despite her second-place finish today, Shiffrin still has the opportunity to tie the overall record for most World Cup slalom wins (by a man or woman) before the end of the season. The current record (40) is held by Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark, who competed in the 1970s and 80s. Shiffrin currently owns 37 career World Cup slalom wins, with three more races scheduled this season.

Rafael Nadal can tie Roger Federer’s Slam record with 13th French Open

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For all of the many qualities contributing to Rafael Nadal’s unprecedented superiority at the French Open — the bullwhip of a high-bouncing lefty forehand, the reflex returns, the cover-every-corner athleticism, the endless energy and grit — there’s one element that stands above all the rest.

According to the opponent Nadal beat in the last two finals in Paris, anyway.

“You go into the match knowing that even your best tennis, even if you play it over three, four hours, might not be enough. I mean, if you do it, you maybe have a little chance, but you have to go to your limit on every single rally, every single point,” Dominic Thiem, who won the U.S. Open less than two weeks ago, told The Associated Press.

“That makes it not easy to go into the match,” Thiem said. “And that’s the mental part, I guess.”

When main-draw competition begins Sunday at Roland Garros, Thiem and every other player in the men’s bracket will be pursuing Nadal as the 34-year-old from Spain pursues history.

If Nadal manages to claim a 13th French Open championship — extending his own record for the most singles trophies won by anyone at any major tennis tournament — he would, more significantly, also collect his 20th Grand Slam title overall, tying Roger Federer’s record for a man.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Nadal’s tally elsewhere: four U.S. Opens, two Wimbledons, one Australian Open.

He spoke Friday in Paris about what “probably are the most difficult conditions for me ever in Roland Garros” — a lack of matches in 2020; a new brand of tennis balls (“super slow, heavy”); cooler weather and plenty of rain in the forecast.

“But you know what?” Nadal said. “I am here to fight and to play with the highest intensity possible.”

Asked recently about the possibility of catching the 39-year-old Federer, out for the rest of the season after a pair of operations on his right knee, Nadal expressed a sentiment he’s uttered before.

Climbing the Grand Slam list, Nadal said, is “not an obsession at all.”

“I know that you put a lot of attention on all of this,” he replied when the topic was raised last week at the Italian Open, Nadal’s first tournament since February because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Of course I would love to finish my career with 25, but (that’s) something that probably will not happen. I’m going to keep fighting to produce chances, and then when I finish my career, let’s see, no?” he said. “I just want to keep enjoying tennis. And that’s it. If I am playing well, I know I normally have my chances. If not, going to be impossible. That’s it.”

There is, of course, another great of the game playing during this era and, like Nadal, gaining on Federer.

That would be No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic, who had won five of seven major titles to raise his total to 17 before being disqualified at the U.S. Open for accidentally hitting a line judge with a ball while walking to a changeover.

In this oddest of years, the Grand Slam season will drawing to a close in France; the clay-court major was postponed from May until now because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Roland Garros is the last Slam, the last opportunity of this season. So we all know who the main favorite is there: Obviously, it’s Nadal. And everything that he has achieved there, losing maybe a couple matches in his entire career on that court … is probably the most impressive record that anybody has on any court,” Djokovic said. “So, yeah, of course you would put him right there in front as a favorite to win it.”

For the record: Nadal has won 93 of 95 matches in the French Open and his last 21 in a row.

So what makes him so dominant there?

“He’s an unbelievably great tennis player. Probably on clay, a little bit better than on the other surfaces,” Thiem said. “He’s left-handed, which makes it very uncomfortable. And then his forehand, the topspin on the clay, it’s cruel to play.”

Thiem takes notes and hopes to emulate aspects of Nadal’s game.

So do others.

In Rome, for example, two-time Grand Slam champion Simona Halep and one of her coaches, Artemon Apostu-Efremov, caught one of Nadal’s training sessions.

“We were watching the way he hits the ball, the acceleration, the energy he has on the court and the way he practices 100%. It’s always an inspiration,” Apostu-Efremov said.

“This dedication on the court and focus on court,” he said, “it’s something that, for sure, could be transferred to Simona.”

Nadal wound up losing his third match in Italy, which is neither ideal form nor the sort of prep work he is accustomed to ahead of Roland Garros.

Still, Nadal at the French Open is unlike anyone else, anywhere else.

“Regardless of how he feels, I’m sure he’ll find a way,” said Stefanos Tsitsipas, a 2019 Australian Open semifinalist seeded No. 5 in Paris. “He always finds a way, every single year. Clay is his surface. I’m sure he’s going to do well.”

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Skate America will not have fans

Skate America
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Skate America, the top annual international figure skating competition held in the U.S., will not have spectators in Las Vegas from Oct. 23-25.

U.S. Figure Skating said the restriction was “due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in strict accordance with the Nevada Gaming Control Board guidelines.”

Skate America is the first top-level event of the season, kicking off the six-stop Grand Prix Series leading up to December’s Grand Prix Final, which is scheduled this season for Beijing.

The series has already been modified to restrict fields to skaters from the host country or to the event closest to their training location.

Grand Prix fields have not been announced, though two-time world champion Nathan Chen said last month he hoped to go for a fourth straight Skate America title.

Chen trains in California. Most, if not all, top U.S. skaters train in the U.S. or Canada, which means they will compete in Skate America or Skate Canada if they participate in the Grand Prix Series at all.

Two-time U.S. women’s champion Alysa Liu will not be old enough to compete on the Grand Prix until the 2021-22 Olympic season.

Skaters are limited to one Grand Prix start this season. In past seasons, they’ve typically competed twice.

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