Four Continents Reporter’s Notebook Day 3: Analyzing the ladies’ standings flip-flop

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That hoary old saying – “You can’t win a competition with a good short program, but you can lose it with a bad one” – proved only half-true on Friday night at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Anaheim, Calif.

None of the four leaders after the short wound up on the podium. Rika Kihira, fifth in the short after popping her triple Axel, leapfrogged over Eunsoo Lim, Mariah Bell, Kaori Sakamoto and Bradie Tennell to win her first Four Continents title. Elizabet Tursynbaeva climbed from sixth place to win silver. Mai Mihara, eighth after the short, claimed bronze.

Then there’s the way the results flipped.

For Kihira, it included a lot of improvisation: she arrived in Anaheim wearing a new boot on her left foot, and an old boot on her right foot.

“I felt my old boots were too soft so I tried a lot of things,” the Japanese skater said through an interpreter.  “I tried changing both boots, and then I decided to just change the left boot. Three days after I did this I was quite comfortable.”

The popped Axel cost her at least eight points in the short on Thursday, just as it did earlier this season at Grand Prix France. So in Friday’s free skate, she improvised again: After hitting a stellar opening triple Axel, she changed a planned second triple Axel to a double Axel-triple toe combination.

Four Continents reporter’s notebook: Day 1 | Day 2

“During the short, I was not comfortable with my triple Axel on this rink,” Kihira said, echoing the concerns several skaters here voiced about the NHL-size surface. “I decided in the warm-up whether I would do one or two (triple Axels). I had not enough practice at the main rink, and I decided to play it safe in the program and did only one triple Axel.”

Kihira’s 153.14 point free skate, which gave her the win with 221.99 total points, wasn’t surprising; she has scored higher than that this season. Tursynbaeva’s 139.37 point free skate in Anaheim, though, far eclipsed her efforts in her two Grand Prix events.

The Kazakh skater chose Friday night to try her first-ever quadruple Salchow in competition. No lady has ever landed a quad in an international senior event.

Tursynbaeva landed the quad in practices here and in the six-minute warm-up, but fell on a fully-rotated attempt in her program. Despite a long-standing hip injury, she didn’t let it rattle her, going on to land seven triples including a triple Salchow-triple toe loop combination.

“I started working on quad Salchow a long time ago, and then I stopped because of the (hip) injury,” she said. “Now I was feeling physically ready and my coach [Eteri Tutberidze] helped me to start working on the jump. A few weeks ago I was able to land it and try to put the jump in the program. I think that’s a great start. It was my coaches’ idea. They believe that I can do it.”

Mihara arrived in Anaheim with something to prove. A fourth-place finish at the Japanese Figure Skating Championships in late December left her off of her country’s world team.

A sleepless night after her eighth-place short helped snap her out of a funk created by her subpar short, and she was relaxed and confident during her near-perfect free skate, which was second only to Kihira’s. She ended with 207.12 points, edging out Sakamoto – who defeated her at the Japanese Championships, thus winning a place at worlds – by less than half a point.

“I switched to a positive mindset after the practice (on Friday),” Mihara said. “Last season, there were a lot of cases when I made mistakes in short, but I got better in free. This is my weakness. That made me nervous. I should improve my weakness.”

And then there’s the flip side of the equation.

Four under rotation calls cost Tennell big in her free skate, as did popping her opening triple Lutz-triple loop combination into a triple-single. The U.S. silver medalist was clearly irked by her performance in the mixed zone.

“It seems I only mess up my Lutz-loop during competition,” Tennell said. “I’m really frustrated about that. I have no words, because it’s so frustrating. So just go back home, work things out, work harder to train for worlds.”

Tennell removed the triple Lutz-triple loop combination from her short earlier this season, replacing it with Lutz-toe. She has kept it as the opening jump element of her free skate.

When asked whether the combination should be removed, Tennell replied, “I would love to keep it in there for Worlds, because I know I can do it. I do it every day.”

As to the under-rotation calls, Tennell admitted she “felt shaky” during the program.

“I have to agree with the judges calls, go home, work harder and train smarter,” she said.

The moment Bell stepped off of the ice after her free skate, which included a rare fall on a triple loop and reducing a planned triple Lutz to a double, her coach Rafael Arutunian expressed dissatisfaction.

“There was not enough speed,” Arutunian said about her entrance to the Lutz. “You understand, you have to go (into it) from steps.”

Bell told reporters she planned to rest for a few days, then return to her Southern California rink to train hard with Arutunian for the upcoming world championships.

“There were silly mistakes today. My mind kind of got away from me,” Bell said. “I was surprised by the fall on the (triple) loop and then I kind of had a hard time re-focusing after that. You live and learn and Worlds will be better.”

MORE: How to watch Four Continents

As a reminder, you can watch Four Continents and the world 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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Mikaela Shiffrin wins 85th World Cup, can tie overall record Sunday

Mikaela Shiffrin
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Mikaela Shiffrin earned her 85th World Cup win on Saturday and can tie the Alpine skiing World Cup victories record on Sunday.

Shiffrin won the first of back-to-back slaloms in Spindleruv Mlyn, Czech Republic, site of her World Cup debut in 2011 at age 15, for her 11th victory in 22 starts this season.

She prevailed by six tenths of a second over German Lena Duerr combining times from two runs. Then she celebrated with an uncharacteristic shoulder shimmy before “Simply the Best” by Tina Turner began playing over loudspeakers in the finish area.

It’s not the first time that song has been played after a Shiffrin victory this season.

“I knew it would take some risk,” she said. “There’s a chance I don’t finish at all.”

ALPINE SKIING: Full Results | Broadcast Schedule

Shiffrin, having her best season since her record 17-win campaign in 2018-19, is now one victory shy of the Alpine World Cup record held by Swede Ingemar Stenmark, who won 86 times between slalom and giant slalom in the 1970s and ’80s.

Stenmark has held the record since January 1982.

Shiffrin races in another slalom on Sunday in Spindleruv Mlyn, the last women’s race before February’s world championships. World championships races do not count as World Cups. The World Cup season resumes following worlds in late February.

Shiffrin is on her second winning streak this season and has won nine of her last 14 races dating to Dec. 18. Last Tuesday, she won a giant slalom in Kronplatz, Italy, to break her tie with Lindsey Vonn for the women’s Alpine World Cup wins record. On Wednesday, she won another GS In Kronplatz.

She leads the standings for the World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing, by more than 600 points through 27 of 39 scheduled races. At this rate, she could clinch her fifth overall title before March’s World Cup Finals.

She is currently tied with Vonn for the second-most women’s overall titles behind Austrian Annemarie Moser-Pröll, who won five in the 1970s.

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Aryna Sabalenka wins Australian Open for first Grand Slam singles title

Aryna Sabalenka Australian Open 2023
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Aryna Sabalenka won her first Grand Slam title by coming back to beat Elena Rybakina 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the Australian Open women’s final Saturday.

The 24-year-old Sabalenka, who is from Belarus, was appearing in her first major final.

She improved to 11-0 in 2023, and the only set she has dropped all season was the opener on Saturday against Wimbledon champion Rybakina.

But Sabalenka turned things around with an aggressive style that resulted in 51 winners, 20 more than her opponent. She used 17 aces to overcome seven double-faults. And she managed to break the big-serving Rybakina three times, the last coming for a 4-3 lead in the third set that she never relinquished.

Still, Sabalenka needed to work for the championship while serving in what would be the last game, double-faulting on her initial match point and requiring three more to close things out.

When Rybakina sent a forehand long to cap the final after nearly 2 1/2 hours, Sabalenka dropped to her back on the court and stayed down for a bit, covering her face as her eyes welled with tears.

Sabalenka is a powerful player whose most glowing strength was also her most glaring shortfall: her serve. Long capable of hammering aces, she also had a well-known problem with double-faulting, leading the tour in that category last year with nearly 400, including more than 20 apiece in some matches.

After much prodding from her team, she finally agreed to undergo an overhaul of her serving mechanics last August. That, along with a commitment to trying to stay calm in the most high-pressure moments, is really paying off now.

Sabalenka was 0-3 in Grand Slam semifinals until eliminating Magda Linette in Melbourne. Now Sabalenka has done one better and will rise to No. 2 in the rankings.

As seagulls were squawking loudly while flying overhead at Rod Laver Arena, Rybakina and Sabalenka traded booming serves. Rybakina’s fastest arrived at 121 mph, Sabalenka’s at 119 mph. They traded zooming groundstrokes from the baseline, often untouchable, resulting in winner after winner.

The key statistic, ultimately, was this: Sabalenka accumulated 13 break points, Rybakina seven. And although Sabalenka converted just a trio of them, that was enough, and the constant pressure she managed to apply during Rybakina’s service games had to take a toll.

Sabalenka had been broken just six times in 55 service games through the course of these two weeks, an average of once per match. It took Rybakina fewer than 10 minutes of action and all of two receiving games to get the measure of things and lead 2-1, helped by getting back one serve that arrived at 117 mph (189 kph).

A few games later, Sabalenka returned the favor, also putting her racket on one of Rybakina’s offerings at that same speed. Then, when Sabalenka grooved a down-the-line backhand passing winner to grab her first break and pull even at 4-all, she looked at her coach and fitness coach in the stands, raised a fist and shouted.

In the next game, though, Sabalenka gave that right back, double-faulting twice — including on break point — to give Rybakina a 5-4 edge. This time, Sabalenka again turned toward her entourage, but with a sigh and an eye roll and arms extended, as if to say, “Can you believe it?”

Soon after, Rybakina held at love to own that set.

Sabalenka changed the momentum right from the get-go in the second set. Aggressively attacking, she broke to go up 3-1, held for 4-1 and eventually served it out, fittingly, with an ace — on a second serve, no less.

Sabalenka acknowledged ahead of time that she expected to be nervous. Which makes perfect sense: This was the most important match of her career to date.

And if those jitters were evident ever-so-briefly early — she double-faulted on the evening’s very first point — and appeared to be resurfacing as the end neared, Sabalenka controlled them well enough to finish the job.

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