Tokyo Olympics: 20 storylines with one year out to the 2020 Games

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Twenty storylines for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with one year until the Games begin …

Baseball/Softball: Return after 12 years away
Baseball and softball return to the Olympic program for the first time since 2008 (but will not be on the 2024 program and must reapply beyond that). Major leaguers will likely not suit up (they never did in baseball’s previous appearances), but two past U.S. Olympic softball players are vying for spots — pitchers Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman. A softball game will be the first event of the 2020 Olympics, held two days before the Opening Ceremony in Fukushima, site of the 2011 nuclear plant meltdowns caused by an earthquake and tsunami 155 miles north of Tokyo.

Basketball: Same U.S. dominance, different leaders, new event
The Mike Krzyzewski/Geno Auriemma era of U.S. basketball is over. With the two legends stepping aside following five straight combined Olympic titles, it’s Gregg Popovich and Dawn Staley who take over the dominant programs. Popovich’s respect across the NBA could rein in stars who passed on Rio for various reasons, like LeBron James and Stephen Curry. Staley is likely to get her Athens 2004 backcourt mates, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, for their fifth and final Olympics. The U.S. will have a tougher time in the new Olympic event of 3×3 played on an outdoor half-court almost surely without NBA and WNBA stars.

Beach Volleyball: U.S. has the world’s best team, chased by Kerri Walsh Jennings
April Ross and Alix Klineman recently moved atop the world rankings after taking silver at the world championships and winning one of the biggest events of the year in Switzerland. They’re in great position to earn one of the two U.S. Olympic berths. Kerri Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic champion who earned bronze with Ross in Rio before they split, has a new partner in Rio Olympian Brooke Sweat. Walsh Jennings, who could become the oldest Olympic beach player in history at age 41, and Sweat are among the teams currently fighting for the second U.S. spot in a race that could go to next June.

Golf: Can Tiger Woods qualify?
Woods jumped into the Olympic qualifying mix by winning the Masters, but missed cuts at two of the other three majors this season put him back on the outside for golf’s second Olympic appearance since 1904. He must be ranked in the top 15 in the world, and among the top four Americans, come June 22. If he played for most other countries, Woods would be a lock to qualify at age 43. As of right now, it’s Brooks KoepkaDustin JohnsonMatt Kuchar and Tony Finau.

Gymnastics: Simone Biles’ encore
Biles, who earned four golds in Rio in arguably the most dominating performance in the sport’s history, has solidified her place on the throne despite taking nearly two years off from competition. She earned medals in every event at last year’s worlds while competing with a kidney stone as the only member of the team born before the 2000s. It’s looking like the rest of the U.S. women’s team, which will be an overwhelming favorite, will be Olympic rookies.

Japan: Who will light the cauldron at the Opening Ceremony?
The final torch bearer is always a closely guarded secret. At recent Games, favorites stood out with Pele ceding to marathoner Vanderlei De Lima in 2016 and Yuna Kim in 2018. Japan has a number of options, from a legendary Olympian (judoka Tadahiro Nomura?) to active stars (gymnast Kohei Uchimura? wrestler Kaori Icho?) to a symbolic choice such as the other time Tokyo hosted. In 1964, runner Yoshinori Sakai lit the cauldron. Sakai never competed in the Olympics, but he was born on the day of the Hiroshima atomic bombing.

New Sports: Icons, preteens in the mix
Karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing make their Olympic debuts in Tokyo. Kelly Slater, the 47-year-old, 11-time world surfing champion, has a great chance to qualify but isn’t committing to the Olympics quite yet. Meanwhile, skateboarding could produce some of the youngest Olympians in history with pre-teens in the qualifying mix. Three-time Winter Olympic halfpipe champion Shaun White expressed interest in trying to qualify in skateboarding, but he competed once last summer and not at all this year.

Rugby: U.S. now a world power
The U.S. men’s rugby team has been a revelation this Olympic cycle. After being ranked 13th in the world five years ago, and failing to make the Rio Olympic quarterfinals, the Eagles finished second in this season’s World Series to Olympic champion Fiji. The U.S. boasts the two-time World Player of the Year in Perry Baker, who was briefly a Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver (but never played a game). Rugby sevens made its Olympic debut in Rio.

Russia: Will doping punishments extend to Tokyo Games?
The longtime Olympic power had a limited team in Rio due to punishments related to its poor anti-doping record, including just one track and field athlete competing under a neutral flag. In PyeongChang, no Russians could compete under their flag. Instead, it was the “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” Russia is still banned from international track and field competition, though many of its stars are now competing as neutrals. More than 100 “strong cases” of Russian doping are being investigated from a Moscow lab, according to the World Anti-Doping Agency, showing that the country could face further sanctions in the coming year.

Soccer: U.S. women eye first World Cup-Olympic double
Since women’s soccer debuted at the Olympics in 1996, the U.S. women won either the World Cup or the Olympics in each cycle, but never both titles back-to-back. So the Americans will look to repeat their success from last month in France and not their failure in the Rio Olympic quarterfinals — the famous “cowards” defeat to Sweden. The Olympic roster is five fewer players than the World Cup, which could put Carli Lloyd‘s place in danger.

Swimming: Is Katie Ledecky beatable?
It certainly looks that way at the moment. Ledecky, who won all four of her individual events at her first two Olympics (with two world records), lost to teenage swimmers from Australia, Canada and Japan at major meets the last two summers. The latest defeat came Sunday at the world championships, where Aussie Ariarne Titmus handed an ill Ledecky her first major international 400m freestyle defeat. Ledecky could go for four individual golds in Tokyo with the addition of the 1500m free to the Olympic program, but the younger generation she has helped inspire is closing in.

Swimming: Will Caeleb Dressel eye Michael Phelps’ record?
Dressel is also swimming at the world championships this week. Two years ago, the tattooed Floridian earned a Phelps-record-tying seven golds at a single worlds (two titles were in mixed-gender relays that weren’t on the program in the Phelps era, though one will debut at the Olympics in 2020). Dressel is looking like a gold-medal contender in three individual Olympic events as well as part of at least two men’s relays. The question is whether he can get up to Phelps’ eight events. This week’s results will play a factor.

Team USA: Continuing Olympic medal standings reign
The U.S. topped the total medal standings at the last six Olympics. It appeared after China earned the most golds at the 2008 Beijing Games that it could supplant the U.S., but the Americans earned 51 more medals in Rio. Gracenote’s medal projections have the U.S. comfortably taking the most medals and most golds with Japan receiving the typical host-nation boost into third place behind China.

Tennis: Will the Williams sisters qualify; what about Roger Federer?
A maximum four tennis players per gender can qualify individually for the Olympics, making the U.S. women’s team perhaps the most difficult to make. Serena Williams, a four-time gold medalist, is in great position after making the Wimbledon final. Older sister Venus Williams, also with four golds, has ground to make up after being beaten by 15-year-old Coco Gauff in Wimbledon’s first round. On the men’s side, Roger Federer may need an ITF wild card as he hasn’t competed in the required Davis Cup in four years. Federer has won every major title except an Olympic singles title.

Track and Field: Which U.S. sprint phenom will shine brightest?
It might be three Americans who fill the void left by the retired Usain Bolt. The U.S. has the world’s fastest man this year in the 100m (Christian Coleman), 200m (Noah Lyles) and 400m (Michael Norman). All three are competing at the USATF Outdoor Championships later this week (TV schedule here). All three are 23 and younger and could attempt doubles in 2020 — Coleman and Lyles in the 100m and 200m and Norman in the 200m and 400m.

Track and Field: Allyson Felix tries to make fifth Olympics, but first as a mom
The queen of track and field faces her most difficult quest yet to make an Olympics. Felix, the most decorated female athlete in her sport with nine Olympic medals and six golds, will race this week for the first time since emergency C-section childbirth on Nov. 28 at 32 weeks. Felix, at 34, would become the oldest U.S. Olympic 400m sprinter in history, surpassing Michael Johnson, if she can hold off a batch of 20-somethings for a top-three finish at next year’s trials.

Track and Field: Caster Semenya’s status
For now, the two-time Olympic champion is allowed to race in the 800m, but a Swiss court could change all that. Semenya is appealing the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s ruling that sides with track and field’s governing body, which instituted a rule capping testosterone levels in women’s races between the 400m and the mile for athletes with differences in sexual development. Semenya says she will not take testosterone-suppressing medication, which means her future in the event she has not lost in nearly four years rides on that appeal.

U.S. Women: Still outpacing the men
The U.S. Olympic team boasted more women than men in 2012 and 2016 (and more women’s medals than men’s medals). The women are again leading the way by early projections. Gracenote has U.S. women earning about 15 more medals in Tokyo than the men, with Biles and Ledecky in for large hauls.

Weightlifting: First transgender Olympic athlete?
No openly transgender athlete has competed at an Olympics, but New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard has been making headlines in weightlifting. Hubbard, who formerly competed as Gavin Hubbard, began transitioning six years ago. She earned a 2017 World silver medal but said in 2018 that she thought her career was over when she ruptured an elbow ligament. But Hubbard came back to win the Pacific Games title this month. “I think even 10 years ago, the world perhaps wasn’t ready for an athlete like myself, and perhaps it’s not really now. But I got the sense at least that people were willing to consider me,” she said in 2017.

Wrestling: Match of the Century
In Rio, Kyle Snyder became the youngest U.S. Olympic wrestling champion at age 20. One weight class below him, another 20-year-old, Russian Abdulrashid Sadulayev, steamrolled to gold by a combined 28-1, extending a three-year win streak. Sadulayev has since moved up to Snyder’s weight class, and their gold-medal meeting at the 2017 World Championships was dubbed the “Match of the Century.” Snyder beat Sadulayev there, but the Russian Tank shockingly pinned the American in 68 seconds in the 2018 World Championships final. They could meet again at September’s worlds, but the real showdown would be in Tokyo.

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Bryan brothers to retire at 2020 U.S. Open, don’t plan on Olympics

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Bob and Mike Bryan said they will retire after the 2020 U.S. Open, ending a tennis career that’s included a men’s record 16 Grand Slam doubles titles together.

They also don’t plan to play at the Tokyo Olympics, their manager later said in an email.

The twins are 41 years old, having spent more than half their lives as professionals.

“A part of us, feels like, is dying,” Bob Bryan said on Tennis Channel. “But we’re really clear about this decision. It’s going to be great to have a finish line.”

Mike said that in 2020 they will play all the events they “really love,” including all four Grand Slams and American tournaments. The Olympics weren’t mentioned.

Rather, they will see how they’re feeling midway through the year, they said on the podcast.

The Bryans earned doubles gold at the 2012 London Games but withdrew from the Rio Olympics six days before the Opening Ceremony. They cited making their family’s health a “top priority” and later said Zika virus concerns were “a very small part of” the decision.

The Bryans own 118 titles overall but nearly ended their partnership after Bob underwent hip surgery a year ago. He rejoined Mike this season, reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals and winning two ATP doubles titles.

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A century later, Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori can bring Japan Olympic tennis to forefront

Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori
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When Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori take the courts at the Tokyo Olympics, perhaps together, they will be doing so 100 years after tennis players won Japan’s first Olympic medals in any sport.

Tennis is not usually one of the handful of marquee competitions at the Games, in part because it is one of the sports whose biggest event is not the Games themselves.

“We have been playing for these Grand Slams, and I think that’s why we train for,” Nishikori said at the U.S. Open in August, when asked to compare the meaning of winning one of tennis’ four annual majors to earning a medal at a home Olympics. “That’s going to be the biggest goal to winning Grand Slams.”

Yet the term “Grand Slam” had not been conceived — for golf or tennis — at the time of the 1920 Antwerp Games. There, Ichiya Kumagae earned silvers in singles and doubles with Seiichiro Kashio to become the first Japanese Olympic medalists.

Kumagae was Japan’s first notable international tennis player, reaching the 1918 U.S. Open semifinals (then called the U.S. National Championships) and beating Bill Tilden in the final of the 1919 Great Lakes Championships.

Kumagae, born in 1890, had not seen a tennis racket or ball until his 20s, according to Roger W. Ohnsorg‘s “The First Forty Years of American Tennis.”

“He came here to America in 1916, the possessor of a wonderful forehand drive and nothing else,” Tilden wrote in “The Art of Lawn Tennis.” Kumagae was listed by Ohnsorg as 5 feet, 3 inches, 134 pounds and requiring glasses at all times. Later in 1922, Kumagae’s engagement to the daughter of a wealthy politician was published as a news brief in The New York Times.

Nearly a century later, Nishikori and Osaka brought more Japanese tennis breakthroughs. Nishikori became the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final at the 2014 U.S. Open. Last year, Osaka became the first Japanese singles player to win a Grand Slam, also at the U.S. Open.

This past June, Japan’s annual Central Research sports survey (1,227 people, age 20+) put Nishikori and Osaka as its respondents’ fourth- and sixth-favorite athletes, past or present. Baseball players Ichiro (retired), Shohei Ohtani and Shigeo Nagashima (long retired) and figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu rounded out the top five.

Osaka’s U.S. Open title was voted the top sports moment of Emperor Akihito’s reign from 1989 to April 30, beating Ichiro’s retirement and Hanyu’s repeat Olympic crown in PyeongChang. Perhaps there was some recency bias.

Akatsuki Uchida, a tennis journalist from Japan, said that Nishikori’s U.S. Open final was a bigger moment for Japanese tennis than Osaka’s win over Serena Williams, though.

“Tennis at that time [in 2014] was not broadcast in Japan,” she said at the U.S. Open. “Media coverage of tennis was decreasing before Kei made that final. For most of Japanese, not tennis fans, but ordinary people, it came from out of nowhere. … He became like an overnight sensation. Since then, the situation of tennis in Japan changed dramatically.

“If [Osaka] wins the title before Kei won the title here, it could have been way bigger, but since Kei made the final before Naomi, it made Naomi’s achievement, still a big deal, less surprising.”

Another key difference: Nishikori spent the majority of his childhood in Japan, while Osaka’s family, with a Haitian father and Japanese mother, moved to the U.S. when she was 3 years old.

Osaka has dual citizenship, but Japanese law requires one to be chosen over the other by the 22nd birthday. Osaka turned 22 last month, before which she confirmed what most had assumed, that she picked Japan.

Uchida was unsure whether Osaka and Nishikori could propel tennis at the Tokyo Games into a greater spotlight among 33 total sports.

“But if Kei and Naomi played mixed doubles, that would be a big thing,” she said.

Nishikori has already reportedly said he plans to enter singles and doubles in Tokyo, the latter with Ben McLachlan, Japan’s top doubles player. McLachlan was born in New Zealand and in 2017 switched representation to Japan, his mother’s birth nation.

But Nishikori did not rule out adding mixed doubles.

“Very hot, very humid, playing singles and two doubles, I don’t know if I can,” he said before the U.S. Open. “I haven’t think too much yet, honestly. I don’t know. I will talk to Naomi later.”

Nishikori smiled as he brought up Osaka’s name at the end of his answer to a question that didn’t mention her. Later in the tournament, Osaka was told Nishikori’s thoughts.

“I would definitely play with him,” said Osaka, who in 2016 was the highest-ranked eligible player not to make the Rio Olympic field. “I just — I would actually need to practice doubles for the first time in my life. Because you cannot play mixed doubles with Kei Nishikori and lose in the first round of the Olympics in Tokyo. That would be the biggest — like, I would cry. I would actually cry for losing a doubles match. Yeah, definitely I think that that would be so, like, historic in a way. And I would love to do it, but I need to practice my doubles.”

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