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Next generation ice dancers Alexandra Stepanova, Ivan Bukin on the rise with unique parental perspective

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Russia’s Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin were long-considered up-and-coming ice dancers. But they’ve been on the rise, most recently winning the silver medal at the European Championships. The couple sat down with NBCSports.com/figure-skating with their coaches, Alexander Svinin and Irina Zhuk, to discuss their struggle to embody emotions beyond their natural camaraderie, how the team managed to overcome their Olympic ban in 2018, and the perspective Bukin has from his father, a champion ice dancer 30 years ago.

“We are not a couple in real life,” Stepanova explained. “But we need to make people believe it’s real love.”

At the European Championships in Minsk, Stepanova and Bukin won far more than their third European medal: it was their first silver, and they positioned themselves as a leading ice dance team, this time with a real senior posture.

The team may have come of age this season. For many years, Stepanova and Bukin have stepped at the same pace, both on and off the ice. You could see them walk and talk and smile at each other in every competitive rink, always together, even during warm-up and stretching. Watching them, you would easily have considered them as two good teenage friends walking along.

This year, they started embodying something like passion into their routines, especially for their rhythm dance, a Tango Romantica. That couldn’t be taken for granted for this most charming team.

“It has been such a hard work,” Bukin confirmed smilingly. “It took us lots of energy, the whole day, the whole night, in our brain, during training and after training. It was a huge job, trying to grow up and to feel the dance.”

“It really has been the best part of our work, and we are grateful that you noticed the change: it shows that our work has paid off,” Stepanova added.

“No, it’s not been easy for them,” Svinin, who has been coaching them for the last 12 years with Zhuk, explained. “Alexandra and Ivan made their way from juniors and seniors. We knew each one of them very well when they started together, of course, but they had to learn one another very well, too. They’ve been working very hard – on the ice, on the floor.

“They have grown up a lot, their mentality has evolved as well. They improve year after year. Of course, they grow technically through the things we ask them to do, but also because they grow in their minds.

“These last seasons, they’ve learnt to bring a feeling between them. They can always miss an element. But they need to breathe together. That requires a lot of work with their choreographers and us. It’s a question of energy between them, of romanticism, of chemistry.”

One year ago, the team was left desperate, as the International Olympic Committee denied them the right to compete at the PyeongChang Olympics, following the Sochi Russian doping scandal.

“We never understood. We were in complete shock,” Svinin recalled. “Alexandra and Ivan had not even participated in the Sochi Olympics. All their doping tests were always negative. We were together, and we talked a lot together many times.

The president of the Russian Federation called the coaching team to announce the news, but they were out of town at another competition. The coaches called Stepanova and Bukin’s parents because they knew the team needed support. They spent two days together.

“They received so much [support],” Svinin said. “From around them, but also from the external world. So many people, champions, coaches – even those of teams we compete against – wrote and signed letters. Still we got no answer to our request to reinstate them.”

“And then what can we do?” Zhuk added. “Altogether we decided to [look] forward to the next Olympics. We’ll fight! We’re not at the end of the journey, we are just at the beginning.”

An interesting event may take place in the months and years to come. Stepanova and Bukin’s path may meet that of Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko, an American up-and-coming dance team. In January, they placed fifth at the U.S. Championships and in 2018 they were the junior national champions.

Ponomarenko is the son of Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, who won the ice dance gold medal in Albertville in 1992. While Bukin’s father, Andrei Bukin, was the Olympic gold medalist in Calgary, in 1988, with Natalia Bestemianova. Both fathers fought hard in those years.

“We are extremely proud that Ivan’s father was a great champion in his time,” Stepanova offered with a radiant smile. “Now he finds the time to visit our training sessions and offers some help.”

“It’s so funny!” Bukin added. “Now Carreira and Ponomareko are reaching [the senior] level, and it’s so funny to think that his father competed against mine, and now we are going to be able to compete together.”

“It’s nice to foresee that the two sons will soon connect again – Andrei’s son and Sergei’s son fighting on the same ice,” Svinin said. “We like it. We’ll see how it goes in the next seasons.”

“Natalia is helping us very much. Andrei helps, too,” Zhuk added. “Sometimes they put a small thing in their programs or practice. They give them love and support. They transmit the Olympic power! [laughing]. That’s what we want for them!”

“The two fathers have chosen a different life,” Svinin recalled. “One father [Bukin] remained in Russia, one [Ponomarenko] went to the United States. Sergei, Andrei and I were real friends. Except at competitions, where we fought hard. But besides that, we were friends in Moscow. At the Olympics, in 1984 in Sarajevo, we were even sharing the same apartment, the three of us plus two other Russian skaters. It was a good time. Seeing the next generation is life. And it’s good.”

Polina Lakhtsutko, from Belarus, kindly assisted with Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin’s interview and interpreted their comments.

MORE: Gabriella Papadakis, Guillaume Cizeron look to new Olympic cycle

As a reminder, you can watch 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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Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff set Australian Open duel

Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff
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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Plenty was going badly for Coco Gauff in the second round of the Australian Open.

The double-faults kept coming Wednesday, nine in all. The deficits, too: First, she dropped the opening set against 74th-ranked Sorana Cirstea.

Then, after forcing a third, Gauff fell behind by a break, ceding 14 of 16 points with a series of mistakes. Later, after getting even at 3-all, Gauff was a mere two points from a loss.

None of that mattered. As she keeps showing, over and over, Gauff is not a typical 15-year-old. Not a typical tennis player, either.

And by getting past Cirstea 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 in a little more than two hours thanks to a more aggressive approach in the late going, she now has set up yet another Grand Slam showdown against Naomi Osaka.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

“I kind of felt the momentum changing,” Gauff said about turning things around against Cirstea. “I knew I had to keep pressing.”

Less than five months after their memorable meeting at the U.S. Open — Osaka won that one in straight sets, then consoled a crying Gauff on court and encouraged her to address the spectators — the two will face each other again. Like that time, Osaka is the major’s reigning champion and Gauff is making her debut at the tournament.

“I think I’ll be less nervous this time,” said Gauff, who eliminated seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams in the first round Monday. “I think I’m more confident this time around.”

As for what sticks with her about the post-match comforting Osaka offered in New York, Gauff said: “If I had a child or something, that’s something I would want my child to see. It just shows what being a competitor really is. You might hate the person on the court, but off the court you love them — not really, like, ‘hate,’ but you want to win. Sometimes when we’re on the court, we say things we don’t mean because we have that mentality. When it’s all said and done, we still look at each other with respect.”

Other winners included Serena Williams — 6-2, 6-3 against Tamara Zidansek in a match that finished with the Rod Laver Arena retractable roof closed because of rain — No. 1 Ash Barty, 2018 Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki and two-time major champion Petra Kvitova, the runner-up to Osaka in Australia a year ago.

In the last featured match of the night, No. 10 Madison Keys defeated Arantxa Rus 7-6 (7-3), 6-2.

Defending men’s champion Novak Djokovic required all of 95 minutes to breeze past Japanese wild-card entry Tatsuma Ito 6-1, 6-4, 6-2, while Roger Federer swept Filip Krajinovic 6-1, 6-4, 6-1.

Gauff was not at her very best on a windy afternoon against Cirstea but managed to figure her way out of trouble repeatedly. Gauff demonstrated plenty of grit, yes, and also enthusiasm, pumping herself up by shaking a fist and yelling, “Come on!” after most of her successful points down the stretch.

All the while, Gauff was supported by a Melbourne Arena crowd that chanted, “Let’s go, Coco! Let’s go!”

Her father, Corey, was animated in the stands, too, except when he was squeezing his eyes shut at critical moments.

There were several of those for his precocious daughter, who was ranked only 313th last year when she became the youngest player in history to qualify for Wimbledon, then wound up beating Williams there en route to the fourth round.

It is a measure of her came-so-soon stardom that Gauff was playing at Melbourne Park’s third-largest stadium Wednesday, even though this was a matchup between a pair of players ranked outside the top 60 and with one career Grand Slam quarterfinal between them, more than a decade ago (Cirstea made it that far at the 2009 French Open).

Indeed, every Grand Slam singles match — “every” being a relative term, of course, because this was No. 9 — of the 67th-ranked Gauff’s nascent career has been placed on a show court.

This was the first main draw match at a major for Gauff in which she held a better ranking than her opponent.

Didn’t seem that way at the outset: Gauff dropped the first set. After forcing things to a third, she trailed 3-0. After making it 3-3, Gauff needed to get through one more gut-check: Twice, she was two points from departing.

But the American teenager broke in the next-to-last game, then held to win.

How did Gauff get through this test?

“Just my will to win,” she said. “My parents, they always told me I can come back, no matter what the score is.”

Osaka worked through some frustrations Wednesday by grabbing her racket with both hands and chucking it to the ground, tossing away a tennis ball and kicking the racket along the court, to boot.

Then she plopped herself down on her sideline seat and draped a towel over her head. Soon, she was gathering herself and defeating Zheng Saisai 6-2, 6-4.

“I mean, my racket just magically flew out of my hand. I couldn’t control it,” Osaka said with a mischievous smile. “I think that’s how I dealt with my frustration. It was a bit childish. I just want to play one match without throwing my racket or kicking it. That’s all I want.”

Perhaps because her news conference took place while Gauff and Cirstea were still playing, Osaka deflected a question seeking some sort of lookahead to the third round, saying simply she would go watch the end of that match.

MORE: Another top U.S. tennis player cools on Olympics

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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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