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Kaitlin Hawayek, Jean-Luc Baker on progress this season, what Montreal means to them

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Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker won bronze medals at the U.S. Championships in January, their highest finish ever at the event. In doing so, they were named to the Four Continents team and the world championship team.

The ice dance duo finished fifth at Four Continents in Anaheim in February, and their next stop is the world championships in Saitama, Japan from March 18-24.

NBCSports.com/figure-skating spoke to Hawayek and Baker in Detroit after nationals and discussed their biggest win on the national stage, how they chose to train in Montreal, and what inspires them most about the city.

But was it hard to skate last at Nationals? What’s that like?

Baker: No. We’ve skated last a multitude of times. It’s our first time skating last at U.S. Championships, but we are seasoned competitors. In a way it’s nice to skate, like, third just because you’re warm from the warm up. It’s not any different than any day of training for us realistically. We heard Madi [Hubbell] and Zach [Donohue]’s music, and then [Madison] Chock and [Evan] Bates’ music. [Note: the top three U.S. dance teams train together in Montreal.]

Hawayek: We’re like, ‘Oh, this is like home!’

Baker: For us, it wasn’t any different. We love to be in the last group and skating in the last flight of three is always a pleasure. You’re in the top three! For us, it didn’t really change anything. The number is the number and we have a job to do.

This is a breakthrough for you, first medal at nationals.

Hawayek: Yea, it’s been a season of a lot of milestones that we’ve accomplished. We won our first Grand Prix gold medal [in Japan]. Then we made our first Grand Prix Final. Now we’re earned our first official senior medal. We’ve been fourth in the past [Note: U.S. Championships gives out pewter medals for the fourth-place finishers], which is an incredible accomplishment. It’s a medal. But in terms of what a usual competition would be like, the third place is more of a true medal, I guess.

We’re really excited to have that. To qualify for Worlds and Four Continents… last year we were fortunate enough to get the call to go to Worlds after being alternates. It’s nice to not have to wonder if we’re going, and know right off the bat that we’ll be going this year. It’s been an exciting season.

In that situation, do you train anyway, even though you’re left wondering?

Hawayek: It’s tough. We’ve been in that position. It helps you grow as athletes just because it’s a bump in the road in a way that you’re trying to get over. It’s really exciting for us to make that leap into this realm of skaters. We’re really grateful that we train with the other two that are on the podium with us every day.

This free feels pretty personal compared to characters that you may have played in the past. Do you feel differently performing it because you’re so close to it?

Hawayek: I think so. It’s something very relatable to us. The story line that we’re telling because of the injury that Jean-Luc had earlier in the season. But on a larger scale, we want that to be relatable to the audience as a whole. Everyone goes through something in their life and I think it’s emotional and powerful to have somebody else with you going through that and overcoming obstacles. That’s what we’re hoping to portray. Because it is something that hits so close to home for us, I think it’s really easy to make the emotions really authentic and natural.

I want to rewind and ask how you selected Montreal. Was Montreal the only place you considered? Were there other options on the table?

Baker: We looked around, obviously, but we wanted to find something that we thought fit not just our style but more so the environment we were looking for. We really were striving towards a family-friendly environment in a way that you end up loving what you do. It has the competitive rivalries but it’s almost second nature to what is our friendship that has built around us. We really see and saw over the years, the camaraderie of their camp. We have friends there, before we even moved. They just told us how amazing it was.

For us it was quite an easy decision, or a very obvious one for us to try and make the move. We had heard a lot of teams had asked to go and we were put on a waiting list as well, because they had to figure out their options to talk to their teams. Like Madi Hubbell said, they have that strong bond because they respect the teams so much. It was a pretty easy go-ahead for us.

Jean-Luc, in the past you had said to me that you preferred more of the theatrical motifs in ice dance compared to what they were doing in Montreal. But you came to Montreal anyway. I’m wondering how you came to terms with that or if your mindset changed.

Baker: I think that realistically, it’s the place that we wanna be in terms of… it’s what we need for our training environment. If I think that we are given an opportunity like next year, for instance, with rhythm dance being Broadway and/or opera, I believe… I think that it’s a great opportunity for us to explore that theatrical side of things which I think Kaitlin and I would be very, very good at.

Like we had mentioned, we really moved to Montreal for the environment. Not necessarily the material they create. They do create phenomenal material but it seems as though they’re focusing now with the teams that we’re training with, I’m starting to see a lot more diversity in terms of growing each skaters’ strength, as opposed to guiding each skater in the same direction.

There are lot of skaters who say Montreal itself is so inspiring. What it is about the city? The language? The culture? The things to do?

Hawayek: I think that has a big part of it. I think it’s really neat to be in a city with such a unique culture. There is both the Western and the European influence that they carry throughout the city. There’s the downtown, which is very familiar to us. It feels very American. And then you head into Old Port and it feels very much like Europe. There’s a lot of diversity that we can be inspired from.

I think it’s just an inspiring place to be in general because it’s very active and healthy city. There’s people walking outside all the time. They bike, they run, they boat on the canal. It’s a very active environment. When you’re a happier person and you feel like a more well-rounded person off the ice, it’s really easy to feel inspired to improve and to grow on the ice as well. I think that’s something for both of us that we felt moving to Montreal, not only has our skating grown, but I feel like us as people have grown. We just feel more inspired throughout life in general.

MORE: Bradie Tennell on her improved artistry this season

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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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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