Sui Wenjing, Han Cong recapture world pair title

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China’s Sui Wenjing and Han Cong captured their second World Championship title in on Thursday in Saitama, Japan.

The Olympic silver medalists only returned to major international competition a month ago, winning Four Continents in February. They skipped the fall season due to Sui’s lingering foot injury. Sui and Han won the 2017 world title after two years of silver medals.

They were sitting in second after the short program behind Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, but scored 155.60 points in their clean free skate for a winning total overall score of 234.84 points. They also set the highest free skate score for the season en route to gold.

“We are very happy to have shown our best performance and to win this Championship. We had a tough time we could not prepare so well and did not have much time to practice. Our coaches and our team gave us a lot of support and we knew we can make it and get the title. Winning the second time was harder and it was a team effort,” Sui said, according to the ISU.

Tarasova and Morozov scored 147.26 in the free skate for 228.47 total points total, both season’s bests. They took home silver medals, to add to their 2017 bronze and 2018 silver medals from worlds.

Their Russian teammates Natalya Zabiyako and Aleksandr Enbert also skated a season’s best free skate, tallying 144.02 points and a total overall score of 217.98 points to capture the bronze, their first World medal.

Full results are here.

French pair Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres squandered their chances at a gold medal after the short program, where a messy performance left them in seventh place.

The Grand Prix Final gold medalists and European champions scored 146.52 in the free skate to finish with 215.19 points overall, landing in fifth place. Without anything to lose, they skated a relatively clean performance: James doubled a plan triple toe, double toe, double toe combination and put her foot down on the landing of the throw triple Salchow.

“We won’t give up until we get the World title,” the pair told the ISU. “The Worlds hasn’t been our best friend, but every time we come back stronger.”

The lone American pair at worlds, Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, celebrated exuberantly in the Kiss and Cry with coaches Peter and Darlene Cain, Ashley’s parents. Despite Cain’s fall on the throw triple Salchow in the free skate, they finished in ninth place. They scored 126.88 in the free skate for 193.81 points overall.

By staying within the top-10 overall, the U.S. national champions secured two quota spots for the U.S. at the 2020 World Championships. The pair told NBCSports.com/figure-skating that was their goal all season, even with Cain’s concussion in December nearly derailing those plans.

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WE DID IT✌🏻✌🏻⁣ Goals for the season:⁣ •Win National title✅⁣ •Top ten at our first World Championships✅⁣ •Earn the two spots back for Team USA pairs✅⁣ We feel truly honored to be here in Japan and competing on behalf of Team USA! This season has been a pretty wild ride and it wouldn’t have been possible without the amazing team around us! Thank you to our coaches, our trainers, my family, my fiancé, US Figure Skating staff, the spectators, and all of our training mates back home! ⛸ “Whenever you find yourself doubting how far you can go, just remember how far you have come. Remember everything you have faced, all the battles you have won and all the fears you have overcome.” #WorldFigure

A post shared by Ashley Cain-Gribble (@icegirlash) on

Also of note: Great Britain’s Zoe Jones, 39-year-old mother of three, competed with partner Christopher Boyadji. Jones is a former singles skater who retired in 2001 before coming back to the sport as a pair skater in 2014. They skated personal best scores in the short program, free skate and overall total and finished 17th in Japan.

The men’s short program gets underway at 3 a.m. ET Thursday.

MORE: How to watch the World Figure Skating Championships | 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.

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Major League Baseball sponsors U.S. Olympic softball team

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NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Baseball is using its financial muscle to support the U.S. women’s softball team, which already is assured a spot in the Tokyo Olympics while the American men’s baseball team struggles to qualify.

MLB announced an agreement Thursday to become presenting sponsor of the women’s “Stand Beside Her” tour, a slate of exhibition games leading up to the Olympic tournament from July 22-28.

“We’re both bat and ball sports. Even though we’re not the same sport, there are so many similarities that you just can’t ignore,” said Kim Ng, MLB’s senior vice president for baseball operations. “It was important for us to make sure that they have this acknowledgment and recognition of their ability and their talent.”

Softball began as an Olympic sport for the 1996 Atlanta Games. The U.S. won gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004 with players that included Dot Richardson, Jennie Finch and Jessica Mendoza, then lost to Japan in the 2008 gold-medal game.

Baseball and softball were dropped for the next two Olympics, then restored for this year, when the U.S. and Japan will be joined by Australia, Canada, Italy and Mexico for games in Fukushima and Yokohama but not Tokyo. The sports are likely to be dropped for 2024 in Paris but could return four years later in Los Angeles.

The U.S. men’s baseball team stumbled in its first attempt to qualify, wasting a ninth-inning lead against Mexico in the final game of the Premier12 tournament in November and losing in the 10th. The U.S. has two more chances to join Israel, Japan, Mexico and South Korea in the Olympic field: an Americas tournament in Arizona from March 22-26 and a final tournament in Taiwan from April 1-5.

MLB is not allowing players on 40-man big league rosters to compete in qualifying, and few top pitching prospects were at the November tournament.

Softball has no such issues. The Olympics are the sport’s highest-profile event.

“The platform for us is 10 times bigger,” American outfielder Haylie McCleney said. “For us, it’s a great opportunity for people that have never watched softball before, people that have only followed it at the collegiate level, to really see how fun our game is to watch, how pure it is. If people are baseball fans, I guarantee they’re going to love softball because it’s pretty much just a faster game – it’s shorter, it’s quicker, it’s more entertaining to watch, in my opinion.”

The 2008 gold-medal softball game took 1 hours, 45 minutes — less than half the 3:45 average for this year’s World Series.

As part of the deal with MLB, the softball team’s official training facility will be at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Florida, the old Dodgertown spring training camp.

MLB Network will include programming from the tour, which currently starts Feb. 4 in Tampa and has about three dozen stops.

The U.S. women’s soccer team has attracted huge television audiences. MLB sees softball as an opportunity for the sport’s growth.

“These are world-class athletes,” Ng said. “Because we have not been in the Olympics for the last 12 years, they just haven’t had that stage. So it’s really important at this point that we show as much support as we can for them.”

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MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

Rafael Nadal advances at Australian Open; American back on Slam stage

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Rafael Nadal joined Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open third round, sweeping Argentine Federico Delbonis 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-1 on Thursday.

Nadal, whose lone Australian Open title came in 2009, gets countryman Pablo Carreno Busta in Saturday’s third round. He could face No. 23 Nick Kyrgios of Australia in round four, but neither Federer nor Djokovic until the final.

No. 4 Daniil Medvedeva and No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Simona Halep were also winners Thursday. Friday’s third-round action is headlined by defending champion Naomi Osaka facing 15-year-old U.S. phenom Coco Gauff.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

The only top-20 seed to lose Thursday was No. 20 Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic. American CiCi Bellis bounced her 6-4, 6-4.

This was a big deal for Bellis: Two full years and four right arm operations have come and gone since she was last healthy enough to participate in a Grand Slam tournament.

Bellis was something of a teen prodigy. In her very first tour-level match, at age 15 at the 2014 U.S. Open, she stunned 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, an Australian Open runner-up, to become the youngest American to win a match at Flushing Meadows in 28 years.

She reached No. 35 in the rankings at 17, when she won WTA Newcomer of the Year honors.

Then came the series of health problems, including for torn tendons in her wrist, to shorten a bone in her arm and for bone spurs in her elbow. All the time away from the tour has her at No. 600 in the rankings currently, but she was able to get into the draw in Australia via the protected ranking rule.

In other action, U.S. Open runner-up Medvedev  found himself seated in the nosebleed section at Margaret Court Arena, even though he was playing his second-round match there.

That’s because the No. 4-seeded Russian found himself dealing with something he said happens to him a couple of times each year: a nosebleed.

Medvedev blotted his nose with a towel and then was treated by a trainer while his 7-5, 6-1, 6-3 over Spanish qualifier Pedro Martinez was delayed for more than five minutes late in the second set.

“Can happen to me sometimes. Doesn’t usually happen during the match, so I had to stop (playing). Usually takes like four minutes — three, four minutes. … But it’s nothing,” Medvedev said.

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

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