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Takeaways and top moments from the World Figure Skating Championships

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The 2019 World Figure Skating Championships are in the books with all of their highs and lows, triumphs and heartbreaks. The Japan-hosted event was lauded as well-organized by the skaters and was said to have featured sold-out crowds.

For the Americans, these championships seem to be a net positive, while other countries, like Japan, may still be reeling from their results on home ice.

Let’s take a look at the takeaways from the World Championships and the top moments.

Nathan Chen’s incredible title defense over home favorite Yuzuru Hanyu

NBCSports.com/figure-skating contributor Phil Hersh described Chen’s performance in Saitama, Japan during the student-athlete’s spring break from Yale University as transcendent, unblemished, and artistically compelling.

We’re running out of adjectives.

Chen stepped on the ice to warm up as the sweepers cleared a shower of Winnie the Pooh stuffed animals off the ice, thrown for hometown favorite, two-time Olympic champion and two-time world champion Yuzuru Hanyu. The pressure could not have been higher for Chen, nor the environment more tense.

His floaty quad Lutz to open his free skate set the tone for the rest of the program, which was unparalleled in its marriage of artistic and technical content. Combined with his lead from the short program, Chen defeated Hanyu in their first head-to-head since the PyeongChang Olympics by more than 20 points to win his second straight world title.

Neither Hanyu (who has a lingering ankle injury but didn’t skate like it on Saturday) nor his teammate in the crowded field, reigning Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno, got the results they were hoping for. Uno finished fourth.

“I lost, that is about it. To tell the truth, it is like death to me,” Hanyu told media after the free skate. “I really want to win. I think I did my best, but the problem is that in figure skating, competition consists of two days, and I am losing in both. It means that I simply do not have enough strength to win.”

“If I recall, there are more competitions that I got disappointed over joyful ones in this season,” Uno said after his performance. “I really admire Yuzuru Hanyu who always seeks high scores and good results, which made me realize I am still immature. Overall, I am still disappointed in myself. I need to become much stronger mentally. I want to skate better next year so that when I look back this Worlds in the future, this would be a good lesson for my skating career.”

Another top moment: Chen’s American teammate Vincent Zhou rose from fourth after the short program to claim the bronze – his second major international medal in as many months. It marks the first time the U.S. put two men on a World podium since 1996, when Todd Eldredge (gold) and Rudy Galindo (bronze) stood on the podium in Edmonton, Alberta.

What does this mean for U.S. men?

Chen, Zhou and Jason Brown show no signs of slowing down. They’re solidly the triumvirate of the U.S. field, though newly-crowned junior world champion Tomoki Hiwatashi was hot on their heels in fourth at the national championships in January.

MORE: Who else is on their way up behind Chen, Zhou and Brown? More names to know as U.S. men’s skating is on the upswell.

Redemption for the Russians; Americans miss the mark

Olympic champion Alina Zagitova floundered this season looking to find her footing. A bad skate in a weak field helped her earn a silver medal at Europeans in January behind Sofia Samodurova, who also joined her in Saitama. She won her first world title in the country that gave her a dog named Masaru (“Victory”) after her Olympic win.

Redemption of a different sort came for the third Russian in the field, Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva. While it might not track that the top two ladies from the Olympics even needed to redeem themselves this year, Medvedeva struggled in her own way this season. She split from her longtime Moscow-based coach, Eteri Tutberidze, where she trained with Zagitova, and moved to around the world to Toronto to train with Brian Orser. She ditched her short program halfway through the season, wasn’t named to the European team, and was in danger of missing the World team, too. At one point, Orser said they were on “stand-by” for the spot.

But the two-time world champion has an impressive resume for a reason. She skated lights-out at Worlds, sitting fourth after the short and winning what – believe it or not – is the first major international bronze medal of her career.

MORE: A deep dive into Yevgenia Medvedeva’s move to Toronto

Moment to learn from: Japanese women placed fourth, fifth and six at a home World Championships. Grand Prix Final medalist Rika Kihira, largely seen as a favorite coming in, was a long shot for a medal after she sat seventh in the short program due to a popped triple Axel attempt. She typically is able to make up some ground in the free skate by the virtue of her two triple Axel attempts, but when she missed one on Friday, her medal hopes were dashed.

Kaori Sakamoto, sixth in PyeongChang and the reigning Japanese national champion, skated well but it wasn’t enough.

And Satoko Miyahara owns two World medals but was dinged by under-rotation calls in 2019, which seem to follow her from competition to competition.

MORE: Rika Kihira wants to be more than Miss New Triple Axel

Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell were the two ladies in the field for the U.S., looking to earn back a third quota spot for the 2020 World Championships. It would have taken a combined finish of 13th or lower, such as sixth and seventh place finishes.

In Saitama, Tennell finished seventh and Bell finished ninth. Tennell notched new best short program and total scores, while Bell improved on two consecutive years of 12th-place finishes at Worlds.

While this has no bearing (yet) on the spots at the 2022 Winter Olympics, their inability to get the job done this year puts the U.S. ladies’ growth on the world stage in a holding pattern. That’s probably frustrating, especially for active skaters other than Tennell and Bell who want the experience of a major international championship. For example, Hanna Harrell (fourth at nationals in January, then seventh at Junior Worlds) and Ting Cui (fifth at Nationals, then 11th at Four Continents and bronze medalist at World Juniors). Plus, there’s U.S. champion Alysa Liu to consider; she won’t be age-eligible for a senior World Championships until 2022 – after the next Olympic Winter Games.

MORE: How consistent is Bradie Tennell, really?

One more moment: Yelizabet Tursynbayeva of Kazakhstan landed the first-ever clean quadruple jump in senior ladies’ international competition, a Salchow. She moved from Toronto to Moscow this season (going from Orser to Tutberidze) and had never finished better than ninth at Worlds. In 2019, she earned silver. (Creating the opposite of the U.S. problem – Kazakhstan now has three ladies’ spots for next year’s worlds and, as of right now, not enough skaters to fill them.)

Sui and Han take back the title in shortened season

China’s 2017 world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong had an abbreviated season this year due to Sui’s longstanding ankle and foot injuries. The 2018 Olympic silver medalists came into the World Championships as question marks; they won February’s Four Continents Championships but were not clean in either the short or the free there.

But at Worlds, they were at their best, rising from second after the short to top the Russians, Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, by 6.37 points for their second World gold. Of course, Sui and Han are eyeing a home Olympics in Beijing in 2022.

The Russians now have three World medals but have never stood on the top spot. Pairs from Russia or the Soviet Union have won 33 World titles since 1965, but only one in the last 14 years.

Heartbreak for James and Cipres: Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres of France came to Worlds undefeated and first-time European and Grand Prix Final champions this season. They were widely expected to vie for the title, possibly even take it, but they buckled under what must’ve been enormous and unfamiliar pressure. A seventh-place finish in the short program combined with a just-not-enough free skate left them in fifth overall.

“I already knew during the short program that getting a medal was almost impossible, but I think we did our job today and we are never giving up,” Cipres said. “We won’t give up until we get the world title.”

American pair’s success: Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc had said all season it would be the job of the U.S. pair named to the World Championships team to win back two pair quota spots for the U.S. for the following year, requiring a top-10 finish. They wanted to be the team to do it.

Then, in December, the team’s plans were nearly derailed as Cain and LeDuc had a bad fall at a small competition in Croatia in December, resulting in a concussion for Cain. But they rallied stronger than ever to win their first national title in January, finished fourth at Four Continents in February and placed ninth at the World Championships. The U.S. will have two pair spots to fill at the 2020 World Championships.

MORE: Cain, LeDuc discuss foundation of their partnership and pressure on them for Worlds

Not just the status quo in ice dance

Sure, the French couple of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron won their fourth world title.

But Russians Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov won the country’s first medal since 2013, a silver. A second Russian team, Aleksandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin, were fourth. Russia missed the ice dance medals in PyeongChang – it was the first time in Olympic history that a team from Russia or the Soviet Union did not stand on the podium.

American dance still strong: An American team got on the podium for the 13th time in the past 15 years: Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue won bronze. The two-time and reigning U.S. champions won their second world medal in as many years after finishing fourth in PyeongChang.

Two U.S. teams moved to Montreal to train at the same school as Hubbell and Donohue ahead of this season, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker.

Chock and Bates, the 2015 U.S. champions and two-time world medalists, finished sixth in Saitama and have said repeatedly they’re refreshed and re-invigorated headed into their third Olympic cycle as a team. It shows in their programs this season. The couple also just won their first-ever major international gold medals at February’s Four Continents Championships.

Hawayek and Baker also had their best season ever. They won their first-ever Grand Prix series gold medal and qualified for the Grand Prix Final for the first time. They reached a new high at nationals, claiming bronze. They placed fifth at Four Continents and went onto finish ninth at Worlds, improving from 10th in 2018.

They’re especially looking forward to next season, when the required rhythm dance will be Broadway/operettas for teams. They shine in character-driven programs, and Baker told NBCSports.com/figure-skating he sees the team being able to flourish in that style while training in Montreal.

Oh, Canada: Canadian ice dance may forever be synonymous with Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the most decorated figure skaters in Olympic history, but the country’s other teams are impressive, too. Two-time Olympians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje have finished inside the top five at Worlds each year for the past nine years, including fifth place this year and three World medals. Fan favorites Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier have finished a handful of times at sixth and eighth place at Worlds, and were seventh in Saitama.

Canada has three spots in dance at their home World Championships in Montreal in 2020, though only one men’s spot (Keegan Messing finished 15th in Saitama and teammate Nam Nguyen finished 16th), two ladies’ spots (Gabrielle Daleman finished 11th, while Alaine Chartrand finished 23rd and Aurora Cotop didn’t qualify for the free skate), and two pair spots (Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marino finished seventh).

U.S. spots for Worlds in 2020

The U.S. will be able to send two ladies, three men, two pairs and three ice dance teams to the 2020 World Championships in Montreal, Canada. The 2019 team will grow from 13 to 15 athletes with the addition of the pair spot.

MORE: World medalists Nathan Chen, Vincent Zhou, Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue headed back to Japan for World Team Trophy

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2018-19 figure skating season 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 so far 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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