Sam Mikulak halfway to record sixth U.S. all-around title

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Sam Mikulak is well on his way to a sixth U.S. men’s gymnastics title. He’s just not quite so sure that’s a good thing.

While the two-time Olympian was relatively pleased with his performance Thursday night, when his all-around score of 86.750 gave him a 2.750-point lead over 2017 national champion Yul Moldauer, Mikulak would prefer to have a little more heat on him heading into Saturday’s finals.

Mikulak intentionally watered down his routines to avoid the kind of big opening night mistakes that have plagued him in the past. It worked. Save for a step out of bounds on his vault, he was dominant. His score of 15.350 on parallel bars was the best of the night on any apparatus.

It means he won’t have to put together a big rally if he wants to tie Makoto Sakamoto for the second-most national championships in history and break the modern-era record he shares with Blaine Wilson

It also means, however, that nobody else in the field came close to matching him on a night when the 26-year-old mostly kept it in neutral. Not exactly the best development with the selection camp for the world championships team a month away.

“I do kind of wish there was a lot more nipping at my heels in a way,” Mikulak said. “Especially doing downgraded (routines) today. It is a bit of a struggle. I know all these guys and I kind of know what’s going on behind the scenes as well. It’s a lot of injuries.”

Colin Van Wicklen withdrew after sustaining a concussion during warm-ups. Matt Wenske placed eighth but was forced to withdraw after hurting his ankle on vault. Moldauer’s health issues over the last year have included a back injury and elbow problems. Donnell Whittenburg, an alternate on the 2016 Olympic team who is attempting to get his career back on track, has myriad concerns, from his shoulder to his knees.

Whittenburg put together perhaps his best competition in well over a year until a shaky high bar set in which he nearly came flying off. Though he managed to save it, his score of 11.850 dropped him to seventh overall. Wearing an eye-catching white Jordan brand headband, Whittenburg still believes he took a positive step forward.

Asked if he began making a compelling case to receive an invitation to the world team selection camp in September, Whittenburg nodded even while allowing much work remains to be done.

“I definitely have,” Whittenburg said. “I know if I do my very best, there’s nothing they can say at this point. But for me I didn’t. So if I didn’t do as best as I can, I feel like that always gives (the committee) questions about like ‘What if? What if? what if?’ For me, I feel like for Saturday I need to try and hit all my routines the best as I can.”

He’s hardly the only one. Moldauer technically hit all six of his routines, but four of them contained wobbles or form breaks that cost him.

“I can’t blame it on anyone else but myself,” Moldauer said. “It’s knowing what you need to improve. Look at the score and look at it in a positive way even though it’s lower than usual, there’s always something you can do to make it better.”

The same goes for the rest of the group behind Mikulak that is hoping to make what will likely be a very young five-man world championship team.

“I do wish we had a lot more of the high-level difficulty that we had pre-2016 (Olympics) but we got what we got,” Mikulak said. “I’m just hoping everyone can catch a little bit more of a rhythm and get some more confidence going into Day 2.”

That won’t be a concern for Mikulak. Even with a massive lead, he has no plans on coasting to the finish. He picked up his first world championship medal last fall when he won a bronze on high bar. Now on the back half of a solid career that he admits hasn’t always lived up to its considerable potential, he is going to put together significant upgrades for Saturday, well aware that it will be required when the stage and the stakes get bigger in October.

“I have a little bit of leeway,” Mikulak said. “I proved to the committee, ‘Hey, consistent Sam can do these easy routines and still score well. Let’s see what event finalist Sam can do going into Saturday.’”

The rest of the field hopes it can put up a fight.

“Everyone wants to beat Sam,” Moldauer said. “He’s the top dog in the U.S. and you know, everyone is trying to get to his level and stuff. But you can’t blame him. He’s a veteran. He’s a pro. He’s been in multiple Olympics, you’ve got to give him respect and just kind of follow his steps.”

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Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis eyeing Grand Slam record

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Serena Williams travels with “like 50 masks” and has been a little bit of a recluse since early March and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t have full lung capacity, so I’m not sure what would happen to me,” Williams said Saturday, two days before the start of the WTA’s Top Seed Open in Lexington, Ky., her first tournament since playing Fed Cup in early February. “I’m sure I’ll be OK, but I don’t want to find out.”

Williams, 38, has a history of blood clots and pulmonary embolisms. She faced life-threatening complications following her Sept. 1, 2017, childbirth that confined her to a bed for six weeks. She said her daily routine was surgery and that she lost count after the first four.

More recently, Williams enjoyed “every part” of the last six months at home in Florida, her longest time grounded since her teens.

“I’ve been a little neurotic, to an extent,” on health and safety, she said. “Everyone in the Serena bubble is really protected.”

Williams is entered to play next week in Lexington and at consecutive tournaments in New York City later this month — the Western & Southern Open and U.S. Open, the latter starting Aug. 31.

Williams is the highest-ranked player in the Lexington field at No. 9. Others include 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, older sister Venus Williams and 16-year-old Coco Gauff.

She has been bidding ever since having daughter Olympia to tie Margaret Court‘s record 24 Grand Slam singles titles, albeit many of Court’s crowns came before the Open Era and, notably at the Australian Open, against small fields lacking the world’s best players. Williams reached the last two Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals, losing all of them.

She showed her seriousness in committing early to this year’s U.S. Open by installing a court at home with the same surface. Three of the top 10 female singles players already said they will skip the U.S. Open due to travel and/or virus concerns, including No. 1 Ash Barty.

“Tennis is naturally a socially distanced sport, so it was kind of easy to go back and just walk on my side of the court and have my hitter walk on his side of the court,” Williams said.

The French Open starts two weeks after the U.S. Open ends. Williams was asked if she will fly to Europe for tournaments this autumn.

“I see myself doing it all, if it happens,” she said.

The Tokyo Olympics are too far away to make plans.

“We’ll have to kind of wait to see what happens in the fall,” she said. “One thing I have learned with this pandemic is don’t plan.”

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Conseslus Kipruto tests positive for coronavirus, canceling world-record bid

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Conseslus Kipruto, the Olympic and world 3000m steeplechase champion, tested positive for the coronavirus without symptoms, which will keep him from a world-record chase on Friday, according to his social media.

The Kenyan was to race in the first in-person Diamond League meet of the year in Monaco on Friday.

“Our World is going through a challenging period and we all have to take our responsibilities,” was posted. “Unfortunately my covid-19 test, as part of the Monaco-protocol, came back positive and therefore I can’t be part of the Monaco Diamond League.

“I don’t have any symptoms and I was actually in great shape. I was planning to go for the WR: it has stayed too long outside Kenya. As the World & Olympic Champion I feel strongly its something I should go for as well.”

Kipruto, 25, is the 14th-fastest steepler in history with a personal best of 8:00.12. The world record is 7:53.63, set by Kenyan-born Qatari Saif Saaeed Shaheen in 2004.

Last year, Kipruto won the world title by .01, extending a streak of a Kenyan or Kenyan-born man winning every Olympic or world title in the event since the 1988 Seoul Games. He was sidelined by a stress fracture in his left foot until opening his season extremely late on Aug. 24.

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Our World is going through a challenging period and we all have to take our responsibilities. Unfortunately my covid-19 test, as part of the Monaco-protocol, came back positive and therefore I can’t be part of the Monaco Diamond League on August 14th. I don’t have any symptoms and I was actually in great shape. I was planning to go for the WR: it has stayed too long outside Kenya. As the World & Olympic Champion I feel strongly its something I should go for as well. Wish to thank Monaco for all the work they have done and I wish them and my colleagues a wonderful competition. Athletics is back and I will be back as well. Anyone willing to organise a steeple once I can be cleared? @diamondleaguemonaco #nike #quarantine #WR #Kenya

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