Naomi Osaka escapes Victoria Azarenka at French Open

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Naomi Osaka says she doesn’t really notice the No. 1 next to her name anymore. She is quickly earning another label at the French Open: escape artist.

Osaka rallied past former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 in the second round, winning her second straight match from a set down on Thursday. It’s her 16th straight win at a major, with seven of those going the full three sets.

“She kind of killed me in the first set, and I just kept trying to find a way to stay positive,” Osaka said. “I didn’t dip at all during this match, and she was just playing so well. I was just waiting for her to get a little bit tired.”

Azarenka, a mom who is eight years older than Osaka, was up a break in the second set, then failed to convert a break point to serve for the match before Osaka battled back. The two-time Australian Open champion was denied what would have been her biggest win since having son Leo on Dec. 19, 2016.

“I kind of felt like a challenger,” said Osaka, who gets Czech Katerina Siniakova next in her quest to win a third straight major. “Like, I know she went to the semis here before, so obviously she has a lot more experience here. She won Grand Slams and she was No. 1 way before I was. I’m still kind of new at this”

But not new at grinding out wins and performing under pressure.

After beating Serena Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open final, Osaka won four matches at the Australian Open that went three sets, including in the semifinals and final. Osaka has noted the strength shown in a comeback from down 5-1 in the third set to beat Donna Vekic last month to reach her first clay-court semifinal in Stuttgart, Germany.

“She’s been a lot in those situations where those margins are really small,” Azarenka said. “Proving that she deserves to be where she’s at right now.”

Osaka never made it past the third round in three previous Roland Garros appearances. She was nearly bounced Tuesday, getting bageled in 20 minutes in her first set of the tournament against the world No. 90 who had lost 10 straight Grand Slam matches.

Osaka said it was the most nervous she had ever felt during a match, noting it being her first time playing a Slam as the world No. 1 and first match on Court Philippe Chatrier.

“It’s not outside pressure,” she said. “It’s more like I feel like I have to win. I acknowledge that’s kind of a toxic trait, but, like, it’s gotten me this far, so … ”

Also Thursday, Williams beat Japanese qualifier Kurumi Nara 6-3, 6-2 to reach a third-round date with countrywoman Sofia Kenin. If Osaka and Williams each win their next two matches, they meet in the quarterfinals. Williams, like Osaka, lost her first set of the tournament.

Defending champ Simona Halep needed extra time to dump Magda Linette 6-4, 5-7, 6-3 after losing the last four games of the second set. Halep later said she felt a little bit sick with stomach problems.

The Romanian’s draw could be wide open if Aleksandra Krunić beats No. 27 Lesia Tsurenko when that match resumes Friday at 6-6 in the third. Tsurenko is the only player left in Halep’s quarter ranked higher than Halep’s first-round opponent, No. 47 Ajla Tomljanovic.

In men’s action, No. 1 Novak Djokovic rolled Swiss Henri Laaksonen 6-1, 6-4, 6-3. He gets Italian qualifier Salvatore Caruso in third round. Djokovic’s potential semifinal foe, No. 4 Dominic Thiem, outlasted tricky Kazakh Alexander Bublik 6-3, 6-7 (6), 6-3, 7-5.

No. 5 Alexander Zverev swept Swede Mikael Ymer 6-1, 6-3, 7-6 (3) in a match that took half the time as his first-round five-setter. Zverev is in Djokovic’s quarter.

No. 8 Juan Martin del Potro assured all of the top 10 male seeds reached the third round, rallying past Yoshihito Nishioka 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-2. Del Potro, who missed the Australian Open in January and Indian Wells in March with a knee injury, said he felt hip and knee pain during the 3-hour, 46-minute duel.

FRENCH OPEN: TV Schedule | Scores | Men’s Draw | Women’s Draw

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Chock/Bates, Knierim/Frazier futures unclear after clear-cut wins at figure skating nationals

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SAN JOSE, California – They have both begun the new Olympic cycle as the undisputed national leaders in their figure skating disciplines, cementing that status with U.S. titles Saturday – the fourth for ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates, the second for the pairs’ team of Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier.

At this point, their respective paths to the 2026 Winter Games seem free and clear of challengers.

The question for the dancers and the pair is how far down that road they intend to go.

“I don’t know what the next four years will hold,” Chock said. “But we’re committed to each other and our goals, and we’ll decide when the time comes.”

Chock, 30, and Bates, 33, engaged to be married in the summer of 2024, have been at this a long time. And their trophy case is packed to the gills, with the only gaps a world title and an individual Olympic medal.

They have competed together at the senior level in the U.S. Championships for 12 seasons, winning medals at the last 11. They have been to nine world championships, winning three medals, and three Olympics (four for Bates), winning a yet-to-be-awarded team medal last year in Beijing.

(The unresolved doping case involving Russian skater Kamila Valiyeva has delayed the awarding of the 2022 team event medals. Maybe it will become a wedding present for Chock and Bates. Or a fifth anniversary present…)

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Until this year, Chock and Bates had faced formidable rivals on the national scene – 2014 Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White; 2018 Olympic bronze medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani; and 2022 Olympic bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, with whom Chock and Bates traded gold medals over the previous four seasons. All have retired from competition.

Saturday, they cruised to the gold medal by 22.29 points over Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, the largest ice dance victory margin at nationals since 2006. In a discipline where established hierarchy weighs heavily, Chock and Bates find themselves in the unfamiliar position of being on a metaphorical easy street to the top step of the U.S. podium.

“We – at least I – felt nervous today,” Bates said. “We (still) felt compelled to skate well. The lack of maybe the Hubbell-Donohue back and forth did not mitigate the specialness today.”

Knierim, 31, and Frazier, 30, have similar longevity at nationals, even if they did not team up until 2020, taking the U.S. title in their first season together.

Knierim skated at seven nationals with her husband, Chris, winning three titles, Frazier at seven with Haven Denney, winning once.

Knierim and Frazier had expected to retire after last season, when they missed nationals because Frazier contracted Covid but went on to place sixth at the Olympics and unexpectedly became the first U.S. team to win a pairs’ world title since 1979. Their experiences on the Stars on Ice Tour led them to reconsider.

“It made sense on our timeline to move on,” Knierim told me in September. “We had done everything we could in two years.

“Yet it felt like it could be sad or disappointing to end a really talented career together so soon. Being on tour had opened our eyes to how in synch and unified we were on the ice. So there was a little bit of curiosity, a feeling of ‘What else are we capable of?’”

Their personal circumstances have changed during the course of this season. Chris Knierim starts work Thursday as skating director of a rink in the Chicago suburbs, and the Knierims recently bought a house in that area.

Knierim and Frazier have been training at a rink in Irvine, California. Should they decide to continue as competitors after this season, it would almost certainly entail a move to Chicago for Frazier.

Knierim insisted her house purchase was not an indication of what her plans with Frazier are.

“Right now, we are staying the course, based in Irvine through the world championships (in late March),” Knierim said before winning her fifth U.S. title.

“We do have some changes ahead of us. But I’d hate to jump ahead and say yes or no to next season. We learned that last season.”

Frazier spoke Saturday of reflecting throughout this season about their personal journeys and their partnership, the kind of reflection that often accompanies doing something for the last time.

“We just are trying to soak it in as if it could be your last, but the future is unknown,” Frazier said.

Knierim and Frazier prevailed Saturday with the largest winning margin, 31.11 points, in the 18 years that the International Judging System has been used at nationals.

They saved several points due to her quick thinking.

After Frazier put his hand to the ice on the triple toe loop that was to open a triple-double-double-jump combination, Knierim saw that her partner was going to follow with only a single jump and followed suit. It led to the delightful oddity of side-by-side single toe loops.

Nicely executed ones, too.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier win U.S. figure skating pairs’ title in possible final nationals

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Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier haven’t decided if they’ll compete beyond this season, so Saturday may have been their farewell to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

If so, they went out as dominant winners, the first pair in their 30s to win nationals in more than 50 years.

Knierim, 31, and Frazier, 30, took their second U.S. title together, totaling 227.97 points to prevail by 31.11 over Emily Chan and Spencer Howe. They led by a gaping 15.1 points after Thursday’s short.

Knierim and Frazier were solid after errors on their opening jumping combination in Saturday’s free skate. They broke their own pairs’ margin of victory record from the 2021 U.S. Championships under a scoring system implemented in 2006. Knierim appeared to wipe away tears backstage.

“As I get older, the longer I’m in this sport, the more gratitude I have for it,” Knierim, the oldest woman to win a U.S. figure skating title since 1995 (Renée Roca), said on USA Network. “After that music ended, I’m just thankful that Brandon’s by my side and I’m able to do what I love.”

Ellie Kam and Danny O’Shea bagged bronze to likely round out the three-pair team for March’s world championships.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Knierim and Frazier considered retiring after last season, after they missed nationals due to Frazier’s COVID-19, petitioned onto the Olympic team and posted the best Olympic finish for a U.S. pair (sixth) in 20 years.

They then became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979, beating a field that didn’t include any of the top five from the Olympics.

They returned in part to compete as world champions and rank second in the world this season (during which the top Olympic pairs also haven’t competed). They will likely go into March’s worlds in Japan as underdogs to Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who won their lone head-to-head this past fall at the Grand Prix Final.

Back in October, Knierim said this will probably be their last season competing together, though the pair also thought they were done last spring. They don’t expect to make a final decision until after a Stars on Ice tour this spring.

“This U.S. Championships for us was extra special because you’re just reflecting on the journey, and you know that there’s a good chance that this will be your last one,” Frazier said.

Knierim won her fifth U.S. title, tying the record for a pairs’ skater since World War II, joining Kyoka InaTai BabiloniaRandy GardnerKarol Kennedy and Peter Kennedy. Knierim’s first three titles, and her first Olympics in 2018, were with husband Chris, who retired in 2020.

Silver medalists Chan and Howe continued their recent surge. After placing fourth at last season’s nationals, they rank sixth in the world this season. That’s despite summer injuries that left them unable to practice lifts (his shoulder) and throws (her foot) for a while.

Kam, 18, and O’Shea, 31, made the podium four months after becoming a pair and less than two months after a car Kim was riding in was hit by a drunk driver while crossing an intersection. The car was totaled, but Kim and O’Shea still competed days later in Croatia.

O’Shea won the 2016 U.S. title with Tarah Kayne, retired after they split in late 2020, then came back in 2021 with Chelsea Liu. They ranked sixth in the U.S. going into 2022 Nationals, but withdrew beforehand due to concussions both suffered in a November competition fall, according to Figure Skaters Online.

NBC Sports’ Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.

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