Mikaela Shiffrin
AP

Amid historic season, Shiffrin hardly thinks of herself as ‘face of ski racing’

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ARE, Sweden — Mikaela Shiffrin may someday be the most successful Alpine skier in history. But until then, she has been shooting admiring glances at another young female athlete excelling at her chosen sport.

And that athletes, too, is emerging from the shadow of an all-time great.

“Somebody I’ve been watching lately, and I’m really excited for, is Naomi Osaka,” Shiffrin said. “I think that she at least seems like a really nice, down-to-earth girl, trying to do her job and coming up the ranks in a sport that has Serena Williams, the face of tennis.

“Watching Osaka and seeing how she handles herself competing against one of her biggest idols has been pretty cool for me to see.”

While Osaka, the winner of the last two Grand Slam tennis tournaments and — at only 21 — the new No. 1 player in the world, is just starting on the long road to emulating Williams, Shiffrin is already close to eclipsing Lindsey Vonn’s record-breaking exploits.

Watch her ski the giant slalom, Thursday at 8 am on NBCSN and the slalom, Saturday at 5 am on NBCSN.

Fifty-six World Cup victories. Two Olympic gold medals. Four world championship golds, with possibly two more coming in Are, Sweden, this week. Shiffrin is on course to obliterate perhaps every skiing record in the book.

At 23, and with Vonn newly retired, Shiffrin is the face of skiing — whether she likes it or not.

“In my own head, I’m thinking about what I’m going to have for lunch. I’m not thinking, ‘Oh, the face of ski racing,’” she said, laughing.

In Vonn’s farewell news conference after concluding her show-stopping career with a bronze in the downhill on Sunday, she included Shiffrin when listing the ski racers she believes need to step up and promote the sport in the coming years.

“It’s not just about success,” Vonn said. “It’s about doing everything you can to promote (skiing). That’s a part of your job as an athlete.”

Shiffrin is belatedly coming around to that train of thought, even though she says being a poster girl doesn’t come naturally to her.

“I wouldn’t say I’m the most self-confident person out there but I feel comfortable in my own skin and I certainly feel comfortable on my skis,” said the American, who described herself as “naturally a fairly introverted personality.”

“I would like to believe that just being a really kind person and a good athlete and having success is enough to promote the sport, but it’s not really. There needs to be some drama, some excitement, some really big personalities. For me, maybe I’m growing into that.”

This enhanced self-belief perhaps explains why Shiffrin felt emboldened to race only three events at the world championships, despite external pressure to go for gold in every discipline. She has already won the super-G and has strong gold-medal chances in the giant slalom and slalom on Thursday and Saturday, respectively.

Her decision to skip last week’s Alpine combined, in which she would have been the favorite, surprised Vonn and Bode Miller. Indeed, Vonn said she didn’t understand it, saying Shiffrin had “100 percent the capability” of getting a medal in all five disciplines.

Back in Are after spending some days training across the border in Norway, Shiffrin expanded on a long and heartfelt Instagram post she posted in response to Vonn and Miller’s comments.

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I have to say, I’m flattered by some recent comments by Bode and Lindsey saying that they think I would have been a contender in 5 events this World Champs. However, as the one who has been trying to race in every discipline this season, and who has won in 5 disciplines this season alone, I can tell you that not a single one of those wins was “easy”. There is no such thing as an easy win. From the outside, people see the records and stats. As I have said, those numbers dehumanize the sport and what every athlete is trying to achieve. What I see is an enormous mixture of work, training, joy, heartache, motivation, laughs, stress, sleepless nights, triumph, pain, doubt, certainty, more doubt, more work, more training, surprises, delayed flights, canceled flights, lost luggage, long drives through the night, expense, more work, adventure, and some races mixed in there. I don’t have the Slalom and GS season titles in the bag, and I don’t have the Slalom or GS World Champs medals in the bag either. The girls are competitive and it’s a fight, every single race. Everyone has their sights set on gold, so to think that I could come in and waltz away with 4 or 5 medals would be a wild miscalculation and honestly disrespectful to the talent and ability of the other athletes, and how much work they have also put into their skiing. At 23, I’m still understanding my full potential as well as my limitations. But I have definitely learned not to let hubris dictate my expectations and goals. My goal has never been to break records for most WC wins, points or most medals at World Champs. My goal is to be a true contender every time I step into the start, and to have the kind of longevity in my career that will allow me to look back when all is said and done and say that – for a vast majority of the duration of my career – I was able to compete and fight for that top step rather than being sidelined by getting burnt out or injured from pushing beyond my capacity. It is clear to me that many believe I am approaching my career in a way that nobody has before, and people don’t really understand it. But you know what?! That is completely fine by me, because I am ME, and no one else.

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“I wasn’t disappointed. Actually I was really flattered,” she said. “I was incredibly honored that two of the greatest athletes in our sport said that they thought I could win in all events.

“The reason I made this post was because they both also said they thought essentially that I was wrong in making my decision and I have reasons that maybe they didn’t consider in making my decision.”

Shiffrin said she has “paid too much attention to all the expectations of other people” in recent years.

“This year, it’s been one of my goals to see that, to hear it, to understand it, and to let it go,” she said.

It’s an approach that was backed by Scandinavian ski greats Kjetil Andre Aamodt and Anja Paerson.

Aamodt, who won Olympic or worlds medals in all five disciplines during his career, called her decision “smart,” while Paerson, who won five medals — including three golds — on home snow at the 2007 worlds in Are, said: “I love that she’s taking her own way.”

The president of U.S. Ski and Snowboard sees no issue with Shiffrin picking and choosing her events, either.

“I think it’s great,” Tiger Shaw told The Associated Press, “that she’s smart enough to say, ‘You know what, I’m going to focus on the ones I want to win. And yes I can go in every event and I could probably win the downhill, too. But I’m going to race the ones I want to race. I’m me and everybody else can think whatever they think.’”

Certainly, Shiffrin has no regrets this week as she goes for her fifth and sixth world titles.

“I’m a little bit fresher going into these races,” she said. “It almost feels like a second start to the world championships.”

U.S. men off to best French Open start in 24 years

Sebastian Korda
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The last time U.S. men started this well at the French Open, Sebastian Korda wasn’t alive and his dad had yet to win a Grand Slam singles title.

Eight American men are into the second round at Roland Garros, the largest contingent in the last 64 since 1996. No nation will have more. Astonishing, given U.S. men went a collective 1-9 at the 2019 French Open.

Back in 1996, nine American men won first-round matches. That group included Pete SamprasAndre AgassiJim Courier and Michael Chang (in Sampras’ deepest run in Paris, to the semifinals).

Clay has long been kryptonite for this generation of Americans — the last U.S. man to make a Roland Garros quarterfinal was Agassi in 2003.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

This group includes veterans like Jack Sock, who swept countryman Reilly Opelka 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 on Monday. Sock, 28, was once ranked eighth in the world.

He then dropped out of the rankings entirely, missing time due to injury and going 10 months between tour-level match wins. He’s now at No. 310 and preparing to play No. 3 Dominic Thiem in the second round.

Then there’s 35-year-old John Isner, the big server who swept a French wild card in round one. Isner, the highest seeded U.S. man at No. 21, has posted some decent Roland Garros results, reaching the fourth round three times.

There are new faces, too. Taylor Fritz is seeded 27, aged 22 and in an open section of the draw to make his first Grand Slam fourth round.

On Monday, 20-year-old Korda became the youngest U.S. man to win a French Open main-draw match since an 18-year-old Andy Roddick beat Chang in 2001.

An American man is already guaranteed to reach the third round — Korda, the son of 1998 Australian Open champion Petr Korda and brother of the world’s second-ranked female golfer Nelly Korda, next faces Isner.

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Novak Djokovic rolls at French Open; top women escape

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Novak Djokovic began what could be a march to his 18th Grand Slam title, sweeping Swede Mikael Ymer 6-0, 6-2, 6-3 in the French Open first round on Tuesday.

The top seed Djokovic lost just seven points in the first set. He gets Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis in the second round in a half of the draw that includes no other man with French Open semifinal experience.

Djokovic had plenty going for him into Roland Garros, seeking to repeat his 2016 run to the title. The chilly weather is similar to four years ago.

As is Djokovic’s form. His only loss in 2020 was when he was defaulted at the U.S. Open for hitting a ball in anger that struck a linesperson in the throat.

Djokovic got a break with the draw when No. 3 seed Dominic Thiem was put in No. 2 Rafael Nadal‘s half. The Serbian also won his clay-court tune-up event in Rome, where he received warnings in back-to-back matches for breaking a racket and uttering an obscenity.

“I don’t think that [the linesperson incident] will have any significant negative impact on how I feel on the tennis court,” Djokovic said before Roland Garros. “I mean, I won the tournament in Rome just a week later after what happened in New York.

“I really want to be my best version as a player, as a human being on the court, and win a tennis match. Because of the care that I have for that, I sometimes express my emotions in good way or maybe less good way.”

If Djokovic can lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires two Sundays from now, he will move within two of Roger Federer‘s career Slams record. Also notable: He would keep Nadal from tying Federer’s record and head into the Australian Open in January, his signature Slam, with a chance to match Nadal at 19.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Earlier Tuesday, No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Sofia Kenin each needed three sets to reach the second round.

The Czech Pliskova rallied past Egyptian qualifier Mayar Sherif 6-7 (9), 6-2, 6-4. Pliskova, the highest-ranked player without a major title, next gets 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia.

“Let’s not talk about my level [of play],” Pliskova said. “I think there is big room for improvement.”

Kenin, the American who won the Australian Open in February, outlasted Russian Liudmila Samsonova 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

“It doesn’t matter how you win — ugly, pretty, doesn’t matter,” Kenin said on Tennis Channel.

She gets Romanian Ana Bogdan in the second round. Only one other seed — No. 14 Elena Rybakina — is left in Kenin’s section en route to a possible quarterfinal.

American Jen Brady, who made a breakthrough run to the U.S. Open semifinals, was beaten by Danish qualifier Clara Tauson  6-4, 3-6, 9-7.

Sam Querrey nearly made it eight American men into the second round, serving for the match in the third set. But he succumbed to 13th-seeded Russian Andrey Rublev 6-7 (5), 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-4, 6-3. It’s still the best first-round showing for U.S. men since nine advanced in 1996.

The second round begins Wednesday, highlighted by Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal.

MORE: Halep, Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

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