AP

World Championships pairs’ preview: Can Vanessa James, Morgan Cipres cement their undefeated season with a win?

Leave a comment

Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres of France are coming to the 2019 World Championships with plenty of momentum. They won their first Grand Prix Final title in December and became the first French team since 1932 to win gold at the European Championships in January. 1932 was also the last time a French pair won the world title.

They’re the favorites at the World Championships in Saitama, Japan from March 18-24. But they’ll still have to battle 2017 World Champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China as well as two-time world medalists Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov of Russia if they want to stand atop the podium.

Here is a closer look at the field:

Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres, France

Credentials: Grand Prix Final champions, European champions, fifth in PyeongChang, 2018 world bronze medalists

James and Cipres own the highest three free skate scores of the season and the two highest total scores of the season. Their free skate point gap over the Russians, Tarasova and Morozov, is around 5 points. They are the overwhelming favorites outside of the 2017 World Champions, Sui and Han of China. But unlike the other podium threat teams, they’ve never vied for a world title before, and the pressure to deliver could be a factor for James and Cipres.

Worth noting: The pair told NBCSports.com/figure-skating they would have retired had they won an Olympic medal, but now they want to keep going and take things one season at a time.

Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, China

Credentials: Olympic silver medalists, 2017 world champions plus two-time worlds silver medalists

Sui and Han’s first full competition of the season was last month’s Four Continents. Despite winning, they were not clean in the short program or the free skate.

Worth noting: Reports have also surfaced that neither Sui nor Han is 100 percent. Sui hasn’t made a full recovery from her foot injury, and was injured again during an exhibition in North Korea in February.

Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, Russia

Credentials: Two-time world medalists (bronze, 2017; silver, 2018), two-time European champions, fourth in PyeongChang plus won silver in the team event as Olympic Athletes from Russia

Two gold medals on the Grand Prix circuit, plus a bronze in the Grand Prix Final have set up Tarasova and Morozov well for the second half of the season. They had a messy free skate in the Final but improved by Russian nationals, which they won. They earned a silver at European championships after Tarasova downgraded her triple toes in both the short and the free.

Worth noting: They changed their short program after Russian nationals. The pair was previously skating to James Brown’s “I Got You” but now skate to music by Rachmaninov, the same program they used during Olympic season.

The American outlook:

Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc are the lone U.S. representatives in the field. Their main task in Saitama is to finish inside the top 10, which would guarantee two pairs quota spots for the U.S. at the 2020 World Championships. The newly-crowned national champions told NBCSports.com/figure-skating that this has been their goal all along this season, and they feel ready to do so, despite Cain’s December concussion.

Honorable mention: The other Chinese team in the field has done well this season. Peng Cheng and Jin Yang were the 2019 Four Continents bronze medalists and won the silver medal at the Grand Prix Final.

Canada’s Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro are also a team to watch, as they were silver medalists behind Sui and Han at Four Continents by just 0.06 points.

Two other teams in the field also competed at the Grand Prix Final: Italy’s Nicole Della Monica and Matteo Guarise and Russia’s Natalya Zabiyako and Aleksandr Enbert.

MORE: How to watch the World Figure Skating ChampionshipsLadies’ preview | Pairs’ preview | Men’s Preview

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

French Open: Karolina Pliskova, top player sans Slam, again exits early

Karolina Pliskova
Getty Images
Leave a comment

No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova exited yet another Grand Slam in the early stages, falling to 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia in the second round at Roland Garros on Thursday.

Ostapenko, whose only match wins at the French Open before this week came in her title run three years ago, bounced the big-serving Czech 6-4, 6-2.

Pliskova put fewer than half of her first serves in play, while Ostapenko fired 27 winners to 19 unforced errors. Pliskova was on the ropes in her first round, too, needing three sets to get past an Egyptian qualifier.

“Maybe same level as the match before, but of course [Ostapenko] is much better player,” Pliskova said. “Not much to say about this match.”

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Later Thursday, top-ranked Novak Djokovic had a second straight win ceding just five games, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 over Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis. Djokovic undefeated in 2020 save his U.S. Open default for smacking a ball that inadvertently struck a linesperson, next gets Colombian lucky loser Daniel Elahi Galán.

Nobody else in Djokovic’s half of the draw at the start of the tournament made a French Open semifinal before.

Pliskova is the highest-ranked player of either gender (No. 4) without a Grand Slam title, yet hasn’t made it past the fourth round at a major since the 2019 Australian Open.

She’s played six Slams as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, one shy of Caroline Wozniacki‘s total before she broke through at the 2018 Australian Open and two shy of Simona Halep‘s total before she won the 2018 French Open.

Ostapenko, meanwhile, is having a very different career.

She won the 2017 Roland Garros title, two days after turning 20, while ranked 47th. She hasn’t gotten past the third round of a major since 2018 Wimbledon, including first-round French Open exits the last two years, and is back down to No. 43 in the WTA rankings.

“It’s hard to compare with 2017. As I said, it was like three years ago, and I was much younger, and also I was fearless. Nobody knew me,” Ostapenko said. “The world doesn’t stop with winning only one Grand Slam. Of course I want to achieve more, and I want to be back in top five, top 10.”

She dropped just nine games in four sets this week.

Ostapenko gets 87th-ranked Spaniard Paula Badosa in third round. Badosa dispatched 2018 French Open runner-up Sloane Stephens 6-4, 4-6, 6-2.

MORE: Serena Williams ‘struggling to walk’

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Figure skating’s Grand Prix fields look very different this season

Nathan Chen
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Before Nathan Chen is expected to go for a historic fifth straight U.S. figure skating title in January, he will, in a first, compete against most of his top countrymen later this month.

Fields for the Grand Prix Series, figure skating’s autumn international circuit, were published Thursday. As expected, every top skater entered will compete in his or her home country, or nearest to where he or she trains, and in one of the six events.

Traditionally, skaters compete in two of the six events and are scattered among competitions in the U.S., Canada, France, Russia, China and Japan based on world rankings.

But the International Skating Union restricted travel this season due to the coronavirus pandemic. Skaters are limited to compete locally. And the Grand Prix Final at the conclusion of the Grand Prix Series has been postponed from its scheduled December setting in Beijing.

That means that Chen vies for a record-tying fourth straight Skate America crown in Las Vegas in three weeks against a field mostly made up of countrymen, including Olympic teammate Vincent Zhou and U.S. bronze medalist Tomoki Hiwatashi.

In all, there are eight U.S. men entered in Skate America, 11 women (including past national champions Bradie Tennell and Gracie Gold), six pairs and nine ice dance couples (including U.S. champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue), plus some skaters from other nations who train in the U.S.

Traditionally, a country has no more than three entries per discipline at a Grand Prix event.

GRAND PRIX FIELDS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance

Sochi Olympian Jason Brown, who trains in Toronto, is entered in Skate Canada the week after Skate America.

Two-time U.S. women’s champion Alysa Liu will not be old enough for the Grand Prix Series until the 2021-22 Olympic season.

All of the reigning Olympic champions are absent from the series.

Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan previously announced he wouldn’t compete due to virus-related travel risks. Russian Alina Zagitova extended her indefinite break from competition dating to last autumn, rather choosing to participate in a skating-themed TV series.

Ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada retired. The German pairs’ team of Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot last competed in the 2018 Olympic season.

Instead, the headliners include Chen, the two-time world champion undefeated since placing fifth in PyeongChang. And a deep crop of Russian teenage women, all of course entered in the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow in November.

MORE: Brian Orser reacts to Yevgenia Medvedeva’s coaching switch

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!