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Behind the scenes at the European Championships: Day 4

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Jean-Christophe Berlot is on the ground in Minsk, Belarus to cover the European Championships. This is his behind-the-scenes look at the competition on the event’s fourth day.

Zagitova’s teddy bear

If there would be a world record for teddy bears, Alina Zagitova would have won Friday night in Minsk. Among the hundreds of gifts that poured from the stands, a huge “Carmen”-red bear made its way to the ice. Two ice sweepers, at most a third its size, had to take one of its arms each and pulled it over the ice to the other side of the ice rink.

“I’ve not seen it yet; I just saw something red,” Zagitova commented later [she must have been the only one person in the rink not to see it!]. “I’ll take it home of course, but I’m running out of space!”

“Alina and I communicated a lot together, before the award ceremony but also the doping control. We really had fun with that big red bear!” Sofia Samodurova detailed Saturday morning.

MORE: Samodurova surpasses Zagitova for gold at Europeans

Girls move a teddy bear from the ice after Russia’s Alina Zagitova performs in the ladies free skating at the ISU European figure skating championships in Minsk, Belarus, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

Ciprès can finally sleep

“I didn’t sleep very well before the free program, because of the jetlag,” newly-minted European pairs’ gold medalist Morgan Cipres admitted after the duo’s historic victory in Minsk.

“When you don’t sleep, the problem is that you think a lot. The experience we had last year, when we dropped from first to fourth, came back again and again. The night after we won, however, I went back to the Internet and watched some of our skating programs of the past. For the first time, I even dared watching the program we had skated in Moscow last year. After I watched it, I could finally go back to sleep.”

The nightmare is finally over!

Success and ubiquity

“It’s not easy to have the Europeans being held at the same time as U.S. Nationals!” Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron’s coach, Romain Haguenauer, said half-smilingly. Probably one of the most successful ice dance schools in the world at the present time, the Montreal school had to set a specific organization for these two simultaneous major championships.

“At U.S. Nationals we have three major teams, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. Here we have six teams from various nationalities. In both cases you can’t do with less than two coaches. So Marie-France [Dubreuil] and I are here, while Patrice [Lauzon] and another coach are in Detroit. But that’s sure quite good for the school!” Haguenauer concluded.

MORE: Hubbell, Donohue one step closer to title defense in Detroit

Medal grace

Slavic countries are known for their rich and colored costumes. The three Belarussian ladies carrying the medals, wearing a big brown crown and exquisite embroidered dresses and plastrons, exemplify the wealth of the Belarussian culture.

“It takes about half an hour for us to dress up,” one explained. Half an hour to get ready to present the medals of one’s life, and the centuries of Belarussian culture to the elite of skating.

Green is red

The “green room,” where the leaders are being scrutinized by TV cameras as they are waiting for their competitors’ marks, has been revived in Minsk. Except the green zone is decorated is red, the colors of Minsk. And the room is now open to the end of the mixed zone. Alina Zagitova and Viveca Lindfors were in the green zone as Sofia Samodurova was skating her exhilarating performance and Alexia Paganini fought for a podium finish. Both unlaced their skates and put them back cautiously and slowly. Zagitova dove her head down as the final ranking was posted. Virpi Horttana, Lindfors’s coach, rushed to hug her pupil as Paganini’s marks came up. Lindfors had just won a bronze medal, seven years after Kiira Korpi had won her last European medal for Finland in 2012!

TV… Or skating stars?

During resurfacing breaks, two long lines of spectators usually form in the Minsk Arena: one is going upward, toward Tatiana Tarasova’s TV booth. The other is going downward toward Elena Chaykovskaya. Both are respected coaches.

“But don’t believe that people want an autograph because of the many skating stars they produced,” a noted Russian journalist explained. “Both Chaykovskaya and Tarasova take part in TV shows, like The Ice Age and Skating with the Stars, which Ilya Averbukh [the 2002 Olympic silver medalist] produces. Tarasova is the main judge, so she is highly respected!”

Lambiel’s fan club

Brian Joubert was alongside France’s Laurine Lecavelier as she skated her free program. Friday, he went to the rink wearing a flashy jacket with tiger-like orange sleeves, quite reminiscent to Stéphane Lambiel’s own costume on the Olympic ice of Turin, back in 2006.

“Yeah, that’s it!” Joubert commented: “I’m a big fan!”

I’m sure Lambiel would like to know that his fan base keeps expanding!

First steps

“This is the first time we skate together in such a huge arena,” Louis Thauron, the French ice dancer, said as he and new partner Adelina Galyavieva left the ice after their Rhythm dance Friday afternoon. Galyavieva and Thauron partnered at the end of the season last year.

“Can you imagine? I’m just 1.58 meters [5 feet, 3 inches], and I’m here in the middle of the ice with 15,000 people above my head?” Galyavieva exclaimed. “We are alone in the middle and we have to do the show, it just can’t be described. You feel it when silence greets you before your music starts. And it’s just so overwhelming as your music starts!” Thauron added. “We heard the audience cheer in the step sequence and that gave me so much energy, that it motivated me to give back even more!” He concluded enthusiastically.

MORE: Behind the scenes on Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 at the European Championships

As a reminder, you can watch the European Championships 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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Roger Federer saves 7 match points; next: Novak Djokovic in Australian Open semifinals

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Roger Federer was not going to go gently, of course, no matter how daunting the number of match points — his opponent accumulated seven! — no matter how achy his 38-year-old legs, no matter how slow his serves, no matter how off-target his groundstrokes.

Federer still plays for the love of these stages and circumstances. Still yearns for more trophies, too. Down to his very last gasp, time and again, against someone a decade younger, 100th-ranked Tennys Sandgren of the United States, Federer somehow pulled off a memorable comeback to reach the Australian Open semifinals for the 15th time.

Despite all sorts of signs he was not quite himself for much of the match, Federer beat the biceps-baring, hard-hitting, court-covering Sandgren 6-3, 2-6, 2-6, 7-6 (8), 6-3 on Tuesday in a rollicking quarterfinal that appeared to be over long before it truly was.

“For the most time there, I thought that was it. Of course, there’s little sparkles where maybe not. Then you’re like, ‘No, it IS over,’” said Federer, who only once before had won after facing as many as seven match points, equaling his personal best from all the way back in 2003. “Only maybe when I won that fourth set did I really think that, maybe, this whole thing could turn around.”

He said afterward that it had been his groin muscle that was the problem and he couldn’t be certain whether he would be fully recovered for his next match. That will come against defending champion Novak Djokovic, who overwhelmed No. 32 Milos Raonic 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (1) to improve to 10-0 against the 2016 Wimbledon runner-up.

“He was just too good,” Raonic said.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

It’ll be the 50th meeting between No. 3 Federer, who has won 20 Grand Slam titles, and No. 2 Djokovic, who owns 16.

Djokovic leads their head-to-head series 26-23, including their past five matches at majors.

“Roger is Roger. You know that he’s always going to play on such a high level, regardless of the surface,” Djokovic said. “He loves to play these kind of matches, big rivalries, semis, finals of Grand Slams.”

About the only thing that slowed Djokovic’s progression to a 37th career Grand Slam semifinal — Federer earned his 46th — was the medical timeout the Serb asked for at 4-all in the third set so he could put in new contact lenses.

“It was just something I had to do,” Djokovic said, “because those few games, I really couldn’t see much.”

The last two men’s quarterfinals are Wednesday: Rafael Nadal vs. Dominic Thiem, and Alexander Zverev vs. Stan Wawrinka.

One women’s semifinal was set Tuesday: No. 1 Ash Barty, trying to become the first Australian Open singles champion from the host country since the 1970s, against No. 14 Sofia Kenin, a 21-year-old American never before this far at any major tournament.

Wednesday’s quarterfinals are Simona Halep vs. Anett Kontaveit, and Garbiñe Muguruza vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

There was a lot to live up to after the drama of Federer vs. Sandgren.

“You can’t give a good player — let alone maybe the best player ever — that many chances to come back,” said Sandgren, his voice low, his eyes looking down. “They’re going to find their game and start playing well. That seemed to me what happened.”

In truth, so much had happened.

Federer got into a dispute with a line judge and the chair umpire over cursing. He left the court for a medical timeout early in the third set, then was visited by a trainer later for a right leg massage.

Sandgren was run into by a ballkid during a changeover in the tiebreaker; was distracted by a courtside broadcast commentator.

The 28-year-old from Tennessee has never been a major semifinalist and was trying to become the lowest-ranked man in the Australian Open’s final four since Patrick McEnroe — John’s younger brother — was No. 114 in 1991.

Imagine, then, the heartbreak for Sandgren, who toiled for years on lower-level tours and was so thrilled just to share the stage with Federer.

“Maybe,” Sandgren said, “I’ll get another look, another shot.”

After rolling through the second and third sets as Federer’s serve dropped from an average of 112 mph to 105 mph — “Wasn’t popping like it does normally,” Sandgren observed — and Federer’s unforced errors totaled 30, the underdog led 5-4 in the fourth set.

That’s when Sandgren earned his first trio of opportunities to complete a career-defining victory. But he missed a shot each time. There were four more match points in the tiebreaker at 6-3, 6-4, 6-5 and 7-6.

“Honestly, when they told me seven, I was like, ‘What?!’ I thought it was three,” Federer said. “It’s such a blur.”

Djokovic’s take on Federer’s comeback: “Amazing.”

Raonic’s: “Impressive.”

When Sandgren sent an overhead smash long to give Federer the fourth set. Federer quickly controlled the fifth and ended the victory with a service winner at 119 mph, a little more than an hour after first staring down defeat.

“Just seemed like his level picked up when his back was right up against the wall,” said Sandgren, who only got the chance to serve on one of those seven pivotal points. “He just wouldn’t give me anything.”

That’s how Djokovic makes foes feel.

The key moment for him Tuesday came rather early: Raonic went into the quarterfinals having won all 59 of his service games in the tournament. But that streak ended at 5-4 against Djokovic. On Djokovic’s ninth break point of the match, Raonic missed a forehand to cap a 19-shot exchange, handing over the opening set.

Djokovic yelled and threw an uppercut. Two Raonic service games later, he broke yet again, all he would need to own the second set, too. Soon enough, he was two wins from a record-extending eighth championship at the Australian Open.

Federer has won six titles at Melbourne Park and never lost there to anyone ranked worse than 54th. But Sandgren, whose career tour-level record is under .500, played superbly. He won more points, 161-160, and produced edges of 27-5 in aces, 73-44 in total winners.

“I mean, he never gives up,” Djokovic said about Federer. “When it matters the most, he’s focused and he plays his best tennis.”

Federer knows exactly the sort of pain Sandgren experienced.

Last July, Federer failed to convert a pair of championship points in the fifth set of the Wimbledon final before losing to Djokovic.

“These ones just sting, and they hurt,” Federer said. “But … I was incredibly lucky today.”

MORE: Top U.S. tennis player leaning toward skipping Olympics

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World champion wins doping case citing bodily fluids from boyfriend

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — A world champion canoeist won a doping case Monday after persuading a tribunal that her positive test was caused by bodily fluid contamination from her boyfriend.

The International Canoe Federation (ICF) ended its investigation into 11-time world champion Laurence Vincent Lapointe, who tested positive for a steroid-like substance in July. She faced a four-year ban and could have missed her event’s Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games.

The Canadian canoe sprint racer and her lawyer detailed in a news program that laboratory analysis of hair from her then-boyfriend showed he was likely responsible for a tiny presence of ligandrol in her doping sample.

“The ICF has accepted Ms. Vincent Lapointe’s evidence which supports that she was the victim of third-party contamination,” the governing body said in a statement, clearing her to return to competition.

The legal debate is similar to tennis player Richard Gasquet’s 2009 acquittal in the “cocaine kiss” case. The Court of Arbitration for Sport accepted Gasquet’s defense that kissing a woman who had taken cocaine in a Miami nightclub, after he had withdrawn injured from a tournament, caused his positive test.

The 27-year-old Vincent Lapointe was provisionally suspended for almost six months and missed the 2019 World Championships, which was a key qualifying event for the Tokyo Olympics. American 17-year-old Nevin Harrison won the 200m world title in her absence.

She can still qualify for the Olympic debut of women’s canoe sprint events with victory at a World Cup event in May in Germany.

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