AP

Comeback Coco: Gauff escapes at Wimbledon, extends unlikely run

Leave a comment

WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — It was easy to forget that Coco Gauff is still just 15 as she stood on the grass of Centre Court, pounding her chest and shouting, “Let’s go! Come on!” to celebrate a 32-stroke point that forced a third set in her match Friday evening at Wimbledon.

Up in the stands, mom rose to pump a fist and yell, “Yes!” Thousands of spectators jumped out of their seats, too, roaring.

By then, Gauff already twice had been a point from losing in the third round to Polona Hercog of Slovenia.

Most players, no matter the age, would not be able to find a path past that kind of a deficit on this imposing a stage, would not be able to handle that sort of stress and figure out a way. Gauff is, quite clearly, not most players.

That much has been established. How far can she go, both this fortnight and in the future? The tennis world is watching, waiting to learn the answers.

That Gauff, ranked 313th and facing another unseeded player, was scheduled to appear at Wimbledon’s main stadium says plenty about what a sensation the Floridian already is.

That she won this one, and how she did so — erasing a pair of match points and coming back to beat Hercog 3-6, 7-6 (7), 7-5 — offer some insight into what Gauff might become.

“Obviously, this moment is an incredible moment,” Gauff said. “I’m still excited I get to keep living it.”

As it is, she was the youngest player to qualify for Wimbledon in the professional era, winning three matches last week against higher-ranked women in the preliminary rounds.

Then, by upsetting five-time champion Venus Williams, who is 39, in the first round of the main event, Gauff became the youngest woman to win a match at the All England Club since 1991, when Jennifer Capriati reached the semifinals at 15.

That was followed by a win against 2017 Wimbledon semifinalist Magdalena Rybarikova, who is 30, before getting past Hercog, 28. When a reporter wanted to know how Gauff might spend the prize money she’s already earned of about 175,000 pounds ($220,000), she replied: “I mean, I can’t buy a car, because I can’t drive.”

That made her giggle, as did some of the other things she said at her news conference through a permanent smile, including her unprompted opening line about Jayden Smith’s new album, her plea for tickets to a Beyonce concert and poking fun at her mother, Candi, for the way she waved her arms overhead when Friday’s victory was over.

“Please tell me she’s a meme,” Gauff said. “I’m so excited to go on Instagram.”

Next up: A fourth-round matchup against 2018 French Open champion and former No. 1 Simona Halep, who eliminated two-time major champ Victoria Azarenka 6-3, 6-1.

Other women’s contests Monday will be No. 3 seed Karolina Pliskova against Karolina Muchova, No. 8 Elina Svitolina against No. 24 Petra Martic, and Dayana Yastremska against Zhang Shuai, who defeated former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki 6-4, 6-2.

The top half of the men’s draw, meanwhile, saw more in its series of upsets, leaving defending champion Novak Djokovic with what seems like little resistance in his road to the final.

The No. 1 seed got a brief test Friday before quickly righting himself and getting past Hubert Hurkacz 7-5, 6-7 (5), 6-1, 6-4. No one else on that side of the bracket is ranked higher than 17th; that’s the spot held by Milos Raonic, who is also the only other player who ever has been to a Grand Slam final.

Those exiting Friday included last year’s runner-up, No. 4 Kevin Anderson, who was knocked off by No. 26 Guido Pella 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (4). Pella beat 2017 runner-up Marin Cilic last year at Wimbledon and now will face 2016 runner-up Raonic, who beat Reilly Opelka of the U.S. 7-6 (1), 6-2, 6-1.

No. 10 Karen Khachanov, No. 11 Daniil Medvedev and No. 19 Felix Auger-Aliassime all lost.

“It’s impossible to say who is going to figure things out more than the others to do what it takes to win Slams,” Anderson said.

That could be said of Gauff, of course, but she sure is looking like someone who can go far in the coming years.

She has a big serve, dialing it up to 118 mph on Friday — only Hercog and Serena Williams have hit one faster this week — and good groundstrokes off both wings, along with some touch and guile. And what she possesses, above all, is some real calm amid a storm.

As Hercog perfectly put it: “She’s probably older in her head than the numbers show.”

Hercog, who is ranked 60th, and is now 0-4 in third-round matches at majors, used a seven-game run to grab the opening set, the first dropped by Gauff in qualifying or the main draw, and then go up 5-2 in the second.

With Gauff serving at 30-40, Hercog was a point from victory. But the teen conjured up a backhand slice winner that dropped right on the chalk — a shot she only recently added to her repertoire.

After Gauff’s aggressive style paid off there, it was Hercog who really went into a shell, playing so cautiously and making mistake after mistake. A big one came when Hercog served for the match at 5-3 and held her second match point: She double-faulted.

Eventually they headed to a tiebreaker, Gauff’s first at a tour-level event.

Yet another reminder how new all of this is for her. Her play then offered yet another reminder how capable she is of handling it all.

“We’ve been working on her poise all year,” Gauff’s father, Corey, said earlier in the week. “After that comes together, then you really can improve your game, because when you’re poised, you’re not that emotional. You can troubleshoot.”

WIMBLEDON: Scores | Men’s Draw | Women’s Draw

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Novak Djokovic rolls at French Open; top women escape

Novak Djokovic
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Novak Djokovic began what could be a march to his 18th Grand Slam title, sweeping Swede Mikael Ymer 6-0, 6-2, 6-3 in the French Open first round on Tuesday.

The top seed Djokovic lost just seven points in the first set. He gets Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis in the second round in a half of the draw that includes no other man with French Open semifinal experience.

Djokovic had plenty going for him into Roland Garros, seeking to repeat his 2016 run to the title. The chilly weather is similar to four years ago.

As is Djokovic’s form. His only loss in 2020 was when he was defaulted at the U.S. Open for hitting a ball in anger that struck a linesperson in the throat.

Djokovic got a break with the draw when No. 3 seed Dominic Thiem was put in No. 2 Rafael Nadal‘s half. The Serbian also won his clay-court tune-up event in Rome, where he received warnings in back-to-back matches for breaking a racket and uttering an obscenity.

“I don’t think that [the linesperson incident] will have any significant negative impact on how I feel on the tennis court,” Djokovic said before Roland Garros. “I mean, I won the tournament in Rome just a week later after what happened in New York.

“I really want to be my best version as a player, as a human being on the court, and win a tennis match. Because of the care that I have for that, I sometimes express my emotions in good way or maybe less good way.”

If Djokovic can lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires two Sundays from now, he will move within two of Roger Federer‘s career Slams record. Also notable: He would keep Nadal from tying Federer’s record and head into the Australian Open in January, his signature Slam, with a chance to match Nadal at 19.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Earlier Tuesday, No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Sofia Kenin each needed three sets to reach the second round.

The Czech Pliskova rallied past Egyptian qualifier Mayar Sherif 6-7 (9), 6-2, 6-4. Pliskova, the highest-ranked player without a major title, next gets 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia.

“Let’s not talk about my level [of play],” Pliskova said. “I think there is big room for improvement.”

Kenin, the American who won the Australian Open in February, outlasted Russian Liudmila Samsonova 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

“It doesn’t matter how you win — ugly, pretty, doesn’t matter,” Kenin said on Tennis Channel.

She gets Romanian Ana Bogdan in the second round. Only one other seed — No. 14 Elena Rybakina — is left in Kenin’s section en route to a possible quarterfinal.

American Jen Brady, who made a breakthrough run to the U.S. Open semifinals, was beaten by Danish qualifier Clara Tauson  6-4, 3-6, 9-7.

Sam Querrey nearly made it eight American men into the second round, serving for the match in the third set. But he succumbed to 13th-seeded Russian Andrey Rublev 6-7 (5), 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-4, 6-3. It’s still the best first-round showing for U.S. men since nine advanced in 1996.

The second round begins Wednesday, highlighted by Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal.

MORE: Halep, Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Alysa Liu grows on the ice and adds inches, too

Liu and Scali in San Francisco
Courtesy Massimo Scali
Leave a comment

Word on the street is Alysa Liu has grown.

The two-time reigning U.S. figure skating champion said that’s true… to a degree. The two inches of height she added between last season and her 15th birthday in August don’t change Liu’s perspective.

“I just went from really short to very short,” Liu said, wryly, via telephone after a training session last week in San Francisco. “I’m up to 5-0. I like the five-foot number, but it’s still short.”

Anyway, the more important measure will be how much Liu has grown as a skater since her successful 2019-20 debut in international junior competition.

As is the case for all skaters, especially those in North America, such skating growth risks being temporarily stunted by restrictions on training and lack of competition caused by the coronavirus pandemic. And physical growth, even if it is only two inches, can also be problematic.

In Liu’s case, issues related to the pandemic have complicated her sudden shift to a new coaching team in late June, when she announced a split from Laura Lipetsky, who had coached her since age 5. Cancellation of the Junior Grand Prix series is giving Liu more travel-free time to adapt to the new situation, although, ironically, travel restrictions are keeping her from having the two-country, three-coach arrangement work the way it was planned.

“I don’t think it affects the long-term plan that much,” Liu said. “I still have my school schedule [where she will finish her high school education before the 2021-22 season, her first as an international senior]. I’m training hard. I’m getting stronger.

“I wasn’t surprised the Junior Grand Prix was cancelled. I’m a little sad I can’t go, but I get to stay home and train, so it’s all good. I do like competing a lot, and I guess I’ll miss that feeling, but because of corona[virus], there is nothing I can do, so I just accepted it.”

As of now, Liu can’t go to Toronto to work face-to-face with coach Lee Barkell, the newest member of the team, and choreographer Lori Nichol, with whom the skater began collaborating last season.

Massimo Scali, the three-time Italian Olympic ice dancer based in the Bay Area who began helping Lipetsky with Liu a month before the 2020 U.S. Championships, now is her in-person coach. Barkell and Nichol contribute via several FaceTime or Zoom sessions each week. Once entry restrictions from the U.S. to Canada are eased, Liu intends to visit regularly while continuing to live with her family in the Bay Area.

Of course, little has gone as might have been planned for Liu over the last two seasons.

In January 2019, at 13, she stunningly became the youngest ever to win a U.S. singles title. In January 2020, at 14, she became the youngest to win two. In the process, Liu became the first U.S. woman to land two triple Axels in a free skate and the first to land a quadruple jump, the former at 2019 nationals, the latter at her 2019 Junior Grand Prix debut.

She won both her 2019 Junior Grand Prix series events. She finished a close second to Russia’s Kamila Valieva at the 2019 Junior Grand Prix Final and a distant third to Valieva at the 2020 World Junior Championships. That made her the first U.S. woman to win a Junior Grand Prix Final medal since 2012 and just the second to win a world junior medal during that period.

Taking over as primary coach of a skate with such a resume carries a burden, especially for a coach like Scali whose entire knowledge base and coaching experience is based in ice dance.

Scali and Liu
Scali and Liu at the Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center in San Francisco. Courtesy Massimo Scali

“There is a little pressure on me, for sure,” Scali said. “She is an extremely talented skater and an amazing human being. But I know that I have a terrific team behind me, working really well together. My pressure is doing the best for Alysa to improve where she has to improve.”

Barkell is dealing with a different set of challenges: working remotely with a skater he barely knows.

“It was a bit difficult in the beginning, verbally explaining exercises, technique, corrections, etc., instead of being able to show Alysa,” Barkell said in a text message. “But we have figured out ways to make this work. Alysa is very coachable and has been very receptive to new ideas.

“We [myself, Massimo and Lori] are focusing on development of speed and power in her overall skating and continued development and consistency in all of her jumps. We all realize some of these changes will not happen overnight.”

There is a rule of thumb that says figure skaters need between 18 months and two years to get fully comfortable working with new coaches. For Liu, that time frame dovetails nicely with the next Olympic season.

Liu plans to give her first progress report by recording this week her new short and long programs, by choreographed by Nichol, for judging in U.S. Figure Skating’s international selection pool (ISP) points challenge competition. The performances are to go online Oct. 6.

The short uses music from Nino Rota’s score for the Fellini movie, “La Strada.” The long draws from “The Storm,” a work by the Hungarian composer/pianist Balázs Havasi that Nichol had choreographed for Carolina Kostner in the 2018-19 season, when an injury kept Kostner from competing with that program.

Liu’s jump layouts this season include a triple Axel in the short program with two triple Axels and a quadruple Lutz in the long. She may wait until later competitive events to include them. She plans to skate at the USFS Championship Series competitions in Spokane, Wash., November 10-15 and Henderson, Nevada Nov. 24-28.

“I just want to do good programs for whatever competitions are available,” Liu said. “It will take me a long time to get everything perfect. But I have been working hard on skating skills, and hopefully people can see a difference.”

Barkell handles nearly all the jump instruction, although Scali said is learning enough from watching the remote sessions to be aware of what Liu is supposed to do. Nichol is primary choreographer, with the concept, the music cuts and the steps coming from her.

Scali, who has done choreography for ice dancers, makes occasional choreographic suggestions. But his focus is the areas of skating covered by component scores (PCS).

Liu’s PCS was 6.31 points lower than Valieva’s in the world junior free skate. And Liu’s aggregate PCS for the two programs at 2020 nationals was 9.35 points behind that of runner-up Mariah Bell, but a whopping 18.66 margin over Bell in technical scores – most from jumps – made Liu an easy winner.

Scali and Liu
Scali and Liu at the Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center in San Francisco. Courtesy Massimo Scali

“We want Alysa to go out on the ice and look like a mature, different skater,” Scali said. “We are working on details – expression, speed, gliding, posture – to polish the programs so that they give an image of an Alysa who is more empowered and more mature and really ready for senior level competition.”

Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic champion, skates twice a week at the San Francisco rink where Liu has been training for the last seven weeks. He gives her tips on jumps and moves like spread eagles.

Boitano proctored Liu’s clean run-throughs last week that did not include the Axels or a quad. “It was great,” Boitano said of the long program.

“We don’t know yet [about the big jumps],” Scali said. “Her training was so affected by this pandemic, and this ISP competition is so early in the season considering all she went through.”

Liu has been training in San Francisco because of issues with ice time availability at her home rink in Oakland, in a different county with different pandemic rules than San Francisco.

When no rinks at all near her were open after coming back from junior worlds, Liu and her father, Arthur, an attorney, went to Wilmington, Del., from early March through mid-May, living in an AirBnb property. She trained in Wilmington on her own except for spotting from a coach with jumps done on a pull harness.

She found herself going stir crazy at times in Delaware, especially missing her four younger siblings, who stayed in California. There is only so much anime on Netflix one can watch.

Once she and her father returned west, it became a case of being careful what you wish for. The siblings, like the home-schooled Liu, now are doing remote learning at home. So far, the Wi-Fi is holding up.

“It’s very chaotic,” she said, laughing. “They are all so crazy it’s kind of ridiculous. I get home every day, and there’s always a racket in the house. My sister Julia is always falling. My sister Selina is always FaceTiming her friends. And the boys [Joshua and Justin] are always fighting.”

Since she has been training in San Francisco, Liu takes the BART train back and forth, sometimes by herself, sometimes with Scali, who lives in Berkeley.

When they began working together on a full-time basis, it was briefly at her usual rink (the Oakland Ice Center), where Lipetsky still teaches. Lipetsky was away at the time, so there were no potentially uncomfortable encounters.

In the June 22 USFS release announcing the coaching change, Liu acknowledged and thanked Lipetsky for the coach’s role in the skater’s success.

“We’ve worked so closely together, and she has helped me get to where I am today,” Liu said.

In a June 22 text message to me, Lipetsky wrote:

“I have really enjoyed working with Alysa for her entire skating career. Massimo Scali and her father informed me that I would no longer be working with her. To not add to her distraction and allow her the opportunity to focus on being the best she can be, I prefer not to comment any further.”

In a text message to me a few days later, Arthur Liu said neither he nor Alysa wanted to talk about the reasons why she left Lipetsky.

“We need to move on and focus on her training,” he wrote.

Scali said they plan to return to the Oakland Ice Center as soon as they can get the ice time Alysa needs there. He does not expect any issues if they are in the rink at the same time as Lipetsky, who, Scali said, had asked him last December to work with the skater on skating skills and components.

“It’s all good,” Scali said. “Alysa is serene and happy about the decision she made, so there will be no problems.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating

MORE: Orser reacts to Medvedeva’s coaching switch back to Moscow

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!