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Javier Fernandez rebounds to win seventh European title, retires from competition

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Spain’s Javier Fernandez won his seventh straight European crown in Minsk, a feat only accomplished one other time in the history of the sport. No man since Austrian Karl Schaefer – who won eight consecutive European titles beginning in 1929 – has won as many straight titles as Fernandez.

He won the free program ahead of Russia’s Alexander Samarin and Italy’s Matteo Rizzo, surprising third. Russia’s Mikhail Kolyada, who took a commanding lead in the short program, completely missed his program to end fifth overall.

Results: Men’s final at Europeans

“I’m used at comebacks, right?” Fernandez had offered at the post-event press conference after the short program. And seven has always been a lucky charm.

Fernandez still had to overcome a 8.65-point gap to catch leader Kolyada, though. He did far more than that. The “Man of La Mancha,” his program music, did more than defend his chevaleresque honor. He landed two perfect quads, a triple toe and a Salchow, and two triple Axels. He wobbled on the landing of his quad toe, triple toe combination, and his major error came later in his program, when he doubled his planned triple flip, triple Salchow combination.

“I feel amazing,” Fernandez commented, joyful though not relaxed, as he left the ice. “I knew that was going to be my last skate, and I’m super proud to have been able to skate the way I did today. I was confident, I trained great: it was for a short period of time, but the training was efficient.”

Fernandez had about three weeks of practice in the lead-up to Europeans at his longtime training base in Toronto.

The precision of Fernandez’s steps, the density of his transitions, his completely centered spins, his unconditional connection with all audiences of the world during his program gave like a reminder of all of what skating will owe to him. The Belorussian audience was on its feet and sent dozens of gifts to the ice.

Samarin took the ice right before Fernandez, with 0.13 points to spare ahead of the Spaniard after the short. He delivered a strong program, highlighted with a quad Lutz, quad toe and two triple Axels. Samarin was all energy during his routine. His strong jumps, clear long lines and amazing speed embarked the audience after his main elements were completed.

Samarin was so concentrated and tense, he ended kneeling on the ice and knocked it three times with his fist, prior to rushing to his coaches’ arms. He tallied 177.87 points for his free program, a new season’s best, and 269.84 total points, a mere 1.75 points short of the gold medal.

“It is very hard to collect my emotions now and to tell how that was,” Samarin offered as he left the ice. “It was tough emotionally and mentally. I fought for every element in this program. Obviously, you want to be among the leaders and this is a big responsibility. I am endlessly happy that I was able to make not only myself happy, but also my coach.”

Rizzo had taken the ice one hour and 20 minutes before Samarin – with a brand new program to Queen’s music, who replaced his previous Rolling Stones’ medley. He delivered a solid performance, including a clean quad toe, one triple Axel in combination with a double toe, and two triple-triple combinations. The audience became very reactive at the end of it, clapping along to the beat of his music. Rizzo reached a new season’s best for his free program, 165.67 points, the third best of the afternoon. He rallied from 10th place to third overall with 247.08 points.

“It felt very emotional at the end, as I was really giving everything I had inside,” Rizzo said. “We debuted this program two weeks ago, and already I feel much more comfortable with this one.”

France’s Kevin Aymoz experienced a few mishaps, but he managed to give an emotional rendering of his Irrepressibles’ “In this Shirt” program, and to demonstrate that he would be a strong contender to be counted on in the near future. He ended up fourth overall.

MORE: Coach Brian Orser on Javier’s skating legacy

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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Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff set Australian Open duel

Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff
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Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff will meet in the third round of a second straight Grand Slam, this time at the Australian Open on Friday.

Osaka, the defending champion and world No. 4, and Gauff, the 15-year-old American phenom, each won second-round matches in Melbourne to reach the final 32.

Osaka swept Chinese Zheng Saisai 6-2, 6-4 on a windy Wednesday afternoon. Later, Gauff followed her first-round win over Venus Williams by eliminating Romanian veteran Sorana Cirstea 4-6, 6-3, 7-5.

“I know what to expect,” Gauff said. “I’m excited.”

Osaka beat Gauff 6-3, 6-0 in the U.S. Open third round on Aug. 31. In the most memorable moment of that night, Osaka urged Gauff to share the on-court victor’s interview at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

“It’s better than going into the showers and crying,” Osaka told Gauff in front of a packed crowd. “Let these people know how you feel.”

Gauff obliged after at first declining.

“I’m not the type of person who wants to cry in front of everyone,” she said later. “I didn’t want to take that moment away from [Osaka], as well.”

Gauff, ranked No. 684 at this time last year, is now No. 67. She broke through by beating Williams in the Wimbledon first round, then reaching the round of 16.

Gauff won a lower-level WTA Tour event in October and now ranks fifth in U.S. Olympic singles qualifying. The top four after the French Open qualify for the Tokyo Games, though Gauff has fewer than half the points as No. 4 Alison Riske.

“It’s been really cool to watch her grow because it’s happened so fast,” Osaka said.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

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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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