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Naomi Osaka upset by Belinda Bencic at U.S. Open

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NEW YORK — Naomi Osaka‘s U.S. Open title defense came to an abrupt (but perhaps not too surprising) end, two days after she co-authored the moment of the tournament.

Belinda Bencic, the No. 13 seed from Switzerland, beat Osaka (7-5, 6-4) for the third time in three meetings this year to reach the U.S. Open quarterfinals on Monday. Osaka also cedes her No. 1 ranking to Australian Ashleigh Barty, who was also eliminated in the fourth round on Sunday.

Bencic gets No. 23 Donna Vekic, a good friend and fellow former teen star, in Wednesday’s quarterfinals.

“The challenge cannot be bigger, against Naomi,” Bencic said. “I had to be at the top of [my] game.”

Osaka’s exit means Serena Williams, who plays No. 18 Wang Qiang in a Tuesday quarterfinal, is the only woman left in the draw who has made a Grand Slam final. Williams eyes a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title and her first as a mom after losing three Slam finals the last two seasons.

Also Monday, American Kristie Ahn‘s unexpected run ended at the hands of No. 25 Elise Mertens 6-1, 6-1. Ahn, a wild card ranked 141st, went 11 years between U.S. Open main-draw matches. Mertens gets another surprise American, Taylor Townsend, or No. 15 Bianca Andreescu of Canada in the quarters.

In men’s action, No. 20 Diego Schwartzman upset No. 6 Alexander Zverev 3-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3, continuing the 22-year-old Zverev’s struggles at Slams. Schwartzman, a 5-foot-7 Argentine, plays No. 2 Rafael Nadal or No. 22 Marin Cilic in Wednesday’s quarterfinals.

U.S. OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

Osaka’s follow-up the last week to her first Grand Slam title last year included another emotional post-match scene. After sweeping 15-year-old American Coco Gauff on Saturday night, Osaka urged Gauff to join her for the traditional on-court victor’s interview. Gauff obliged.

Osaka, whose U.S. Open title last year was accompanied by boos directed toward chair umpire Carlos Ramos for penalizing Williams, was lauded for her sportsmanship.

“Right now I have this feeling of sadness, but I also feel like I have learned so much during this tournament,” she said. “I grew. I don’t feel like I put so much weight on one single match.”

While Osaka finished last season as the WTA Tour’s new phenom, she goes into the last portion of this season having not made a final since the Australian Open in January. She withdrew from her last tournament before the U.S. Open with a knee injury, had that knee wrapped in every match this week, and took a painkiller and walked gingerly late in Monday’s match.

“I don’t want to say that that’s the reason that I lost, because I obviously had played, like, three matches before this,” Osaka said.

Then next year, she’ll be tasked with defending those ranking points in Australia and answering more questions about the Tokyo Olympics, where she will be one of the host nation’s biggest names across all sports.

Bencic knows the spotlight well. Formerly coached by Martina Hingis‘ mom, she was a junior No. 1, a U.S. Open quarterfinalist at 17 in 2014 and a top-10 player at 18. Injuries followed. Her ranking dropped to No. 318.

“There were times when you’re injured you ever wonder if you can play at this level again,” she said. “Then I also believed if I’m going to get back and healthy, I can play on this level, because I proved it so many times.”

Now 22, Bencic is having her best season, making her first Slam quarterfinal since that 2014 U.S. Open run. In addition to beating Osaka three times, she earned her first WTA Tour title since 2015 and made the semifinals at Indian Wells, considered the sport’s fifth major.

Now Bencic faces the biggest opportunity of her career as the highest seed left in the top half of the draw.

MORE: Roger Federer undecided on Olympics

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Carreira, Ponomarenko understand the depth of U.S. ice dance at nationals

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GREENSBORO, N.C. Heading into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro this week, up-and-coming ice dancers Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko focused on their “quads” not four-revolution jumps, but still pretty tough to execute.

“(Our coaches) have us doing double run-through weeks, triple run-throughs, even quadruple run-throughs, to make sure we’re fully ready,” Carreira said. “We’re drilling a lot more, so at nationals we go in 100 percent confident.”

Pasquale Camerlengo, who trains the team along with primary coach Igor Shpilband, agreed that the run-up to Greensboro has been grueling for the skaters from Novi, Mich.

“We always plan a week we call the quads, performing (programs) four times,” Camerlengo said. “We’re trying to make them ready physically and work their stamina, to handle their programs in competition, which is a little bit different than in practice. Physically, they’re ready for it.”

Tough practices are just one component of what’s been a challenging but productive sophomore senior season for the two-time world junior medalists, fifth in the U.S. in 2019.

Thus far, they’ve competed at six international competitions, stretching from Lake Placid, N.Y., in August to NHK Trophy in Sapporo, Japan, in late November. Six is a lot, considering other top teams they’ll compete against in Greensboro have competed three to five times so far this season.

“Igor wants to get more experience at the senior level, and also more world points,” Carreira, 19, said. “For that we have to compete. We get out there and compete as much as we can, so our programs feel more trained.”

Those programs – a rhythm dance to Cole Porter’s “It’s Too Darn Hot” and flamenco free dance to “Farrucas” – stretch their abilities far more than last season’s routines. Competing every two weeks or so left little time to make adjustments, so the past six weeks were the key to their preparation for Greensboro.

“We pushed a lot of changes we needed to make until after NHK, to smooth out the programs and really train them,” Ponomarenko, 19, said.

He added that the grueling first half of 2019-20 was a necessary ice dance rite of passage.

“It’s very different from our first season. We really didn’t know what to expect. Now we kind of know where we’re at and how we can improve. We definitely feel the sophomore slump this year, but we just want to compete and keep putting our good performances.”

On paper, Carreira and Ponomarenko’s 2018 Grand Prix results – which included a bronze medal at Rostelecom Cup – look more impressive than the sixth-place finishes they earned at Skate America and NHK this season. But the skaters don’t think the placements tell the full story.

“Last season, results-wise, it might have looked better, because a lot of (top) teams took the Grand Prix season off last season,” Carreira said. “This season, I feel our programs are more difficult and we’re skating better. We want to improve our consistency so that we can compete with the top teams.”

It doesn’t take much to lose points in an ice dance routine, especially on step sequences and “twizzles,” a series of fast rotations moving across the ice. A few slips here – including a small mistake on their twizzles in the rhythm dance at Skate America – can easily drop teams out of the top group.

“They always have the feeling they could do more,” Camerlengo said. “But the season is a progression. They’re getting better and better. That’s the goal, to have them (be) more reliable.”

“They need to do what they’re capable of,” he added. “They just have to do what they’ve learned, with no fear, and just go for it.”

In Greensboro, Carreira and Ponomarenko will have to throw caution to the wind to grab one of the three U.S. ice dance spots at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal this March.

With Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, very likely battling for gold, the Michigan skaters have their sights set on bronze. It’s a herculean task, considering the reigning U.S. bronze medalists, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, qualified for the Grand Prix Final last season and notched career-best scores at Skate Canada this fall.

All three of those teams train together in Montreal. 

But Carreira and Ponomarenko think their programs, strengthened by adjustments and all of those quadruple run-throughs, give them a fighting chance.

“(A bronze medal) is more realistic now than last season,” Carreira said.

“I believe we’ve really grown as skaters,” Ponomarenko said. “Our programs are much more difficult, which has really helped us improve. I believe the podium at nationals is very reasonable. It could be achieved with some good skating.”

Other teams could be in the mix. Last season, Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter placed a strong fourth, but injuries forced them to withdraw from one of their Grand Prix events this fall. A new pairing, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, has gelled quickly, winning two medals at Challenger Series international events.

“The level of U.S. ice dance level is high, the depth in the U.S. is really the top worldwide,” Camerlengo said. “But the podium, it is reasonable for Christina and Anthony. They have been working hard and they have a very good level to fight for the medal. We’ll see how they will perform here. They’re ready for it.”

Not all of the team’s challenges are on the ice. The Montreal-born Carreira – who has lived and trained in Novi since she was 13 – faces hurdles gaining her U.S. citizenship, without which the couple cannot compete at the Olympics. Last May, she petitioned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to be deemed an “alien with extraordinary ability” under the immigration code, which would help smooth the way for legal permanent residency status. She was denied and filed suit against the USCIS, later dropping the action.

Carreira is still working to achieve a pathway to U.S. citizenship and prefers not to discuss the issue.

“I can’t really say anything,” she said. “We’re working on it, we’re hoping for the best.”

Citizenship issues never entered the skaters’ minds when they teamed up in the spring of 2014. Ponomarenko and his parents, 1988 Olympic ice dance champions Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, had long admired Carreira’s skating. When he and his former partner Sarah Feng split after the 2014 U.S. Championships, he tried out with Carreira in Novi.

“We really worked well together from the beginning,” Ponomarenko said. “I had wanted to skate with Christina for a really long time even before getting together, so it was no-brainer. The bump in the road (citizenship) can be worked through.”

“There were so many good factors it would be, I think, stupid to let something that can be fixed get in the way of (our partnership),” Carreira said. “We didn’t even think about it.”

The ice dance competition in Greensboro kicks off with the rhythm dance on Friday afternoon, with medalists decided with the free dance on Saturday night.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 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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Coronavirus forces Olympic soccer and boxing qualifiers to move

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Olympic qualifying events in two sports were moved from the Chinese city of Wuhan on Wednesday because of an outbreak of a deadly viral illness.

A four-nation Asian qualifying group for the women’s soccer tournament was switched from the city at the center of the health scare to Nanjing.

The Asia-Oceania boxing qualifying tournament scheduled for Feb. 3-14 in Wuhan was cancelled. No new plans were announced.

The decisions followed Chinese health authorities telling people in Wuhan to avoid crowds and public gatherings.

The Asian Football Confederation said the round-robin group — featuring host China, Australia, Taiwan and Thailand — will be played on Feb. 3-9, retaining the same dates, in Nanjing.

More than 500 people have been infected and at least 17 killed since the outbreak emerged last month. The illness comes from a newly identified type of coronavirus.

Cases have also been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. All involve people from Wuhan or who recently traveled there.

In the soccer qualifiers in China, two teams advance to a four-nation playoff round in March. That will decide which two teams from Asia join host Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

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