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No burnout for ‘Rocket Man’ Nathan Chen

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Last season, Nathan Chen made it all look so easy.

An undefeated Grand Prix series, including his second Grand Prix Final victory. His third U.S. title. A second world title, won with personal best scores.

All while navigating his freshman year at Yale, and earning solid grades. He hasn’t lost a full competition since PyeongChang.

As a sophomore, though, the 20-year-old figure skater expects a tougher road. Yale’s fall academic schedule isn’t quite as cooperative as last year. Chen, who opens his season at the free skate-only Japan Open on Oct. 5 and Skate America two weeks later, will miss some classes when he travels to Grenoble for Internationaux de France the first week of November.

He also expects to burn a bit more midnight oil than he did as a freshman.

“School will be a little harder, with harder classes,” Chen said while attending U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp at his hometown training rink in Irvine, Calif., in late August. “A lot of my classes last semester were pre-reqs for the major requirements. Now I’m starting to actually hit the major requirements, so that’ll be pretty challenging classes, but it should be all right. I may get tutors to help me.”

Experience taught the Statistics and Data Technology (STEM) major how to best arrange his schedule. Last year, he took Spanish as one of his electives, with the class meeting five times a week. This season, Chen said, he’s focusing on courses that meet once or twice a week.

“The first semester wasn’t ideal, but I’m arranging my schedule so that it is a little bit more manageable to some degree, while at the same time fitting in all the requirements that I need,” he said. “I will leave language for when I come back.”

Chen means after the 2022 Beijing Olympics, where he will challenge for a gold medal after placing fifth in PyeongChang (17th in the short program; first in the free skate). While he has not announced concrete plans, he has talked of the possibility of taking a sabbatical from Yale prior to Beijing.

Chen’s offseason gave him little respite from travel. His schedule included skating shows in Japan last month. There, he performed his new competitive short program, choreographed by Shae-Lynn Bourne to Charles Aznavour’s “La Boheme.”

Then Chen showed much of his new free skate at a show in Sun Valley, Idaho. It’s set to selections (including “Rocket Man” and “Bennie and the Jets”) from the Elton John biopic “Rocketman.”

Marie-France (Dubreuil), the choreographer I’m working with, was really inspired by the movie and wanted to do a piece to it,” Chen said. “If the choreographer is really inspired or feels as though they can do a good job with it, I can let them run free with it.”

Despite his busy summer, Chen thinks he’s had plenty of time training with California-based coach Rafael Arutunian.

“The way that he teaches us is not really on a day-to-day basis,” Chen said. “He kind of just gives us general ideas and we work on his concepts and stuff like that. … We just need to be on the same page.”

This season, Arutunian – who also trains U.S. bronze medalist Mariah Bell, Canadian junior star Stephen Gogolev and many others – may make a few trips to Connecticut to sharpen Chen’s technique, especially his all-important quadruple jumps.

“We were planning on that last season, but (it) never actually ended up happening, so we’ll see what happens this year,” Chen said. “I want Raf to come, but he has a lot of skaters. He has a lot of other people that he’s committed to, so it’s kind of difficult for him to pop out. But, at the end of the day, if he can that would be great.”

MORE: Alysa Liu becomes first U.S. woman to land quad

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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Coco Gauff upsets 9th seed to start French Open

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Coco Gauff notched yet another impressive Grand Slam match win, taking out ninth seed Jo Konta in her French Open main draw debut on Sunday.

Gauff, a 16-year-old American, upset the Brit Konta, a 2019 French Open semifinalist, 6-3, 6-3 on the first day of play at Roland Garros despite 12 double faults. Konta had 41 unforced errors to 22 winners.

“Every match is a great win,” said Gauff, the youngest player in either singles draw. “I don’t really take anything for granted because I’m just happy to be playing. I don’t think maybe winning Slams, matches at Slams is something I’m used to. Especially, this is my first main draw Roland Garros. When I’m on the court. I can act like I’m used to it. When I’m off the court, I’m just happy to be here.”

The clay-court Slam was postponed from May due to the coronavirus pandemic, is being held with damp temperatures in the 50s and has limited spectators to 1,000 per day.

“I’m pretty sure this is my first ever pro tournament, maybe even tournament in general, playing in weather like this,” said Gauff, noting she warmed up for 20 minutes before going on court so she could walk in with a sweat.

Gauff, the 2018 French Open junior champion, gets Italian qualifier Martina Trevisan in the second round after playing a match in leggings for the first time in about six years.

She’s coming off an impressive last year-plus, reaching the fourth round at the most recent Wimbledon and Australian Open. In between, she became the youngest WTA tournament champion since 2004. She recorded wins over Venus Williams and Naomi Osaka.

Gauff will bid over the next nine months to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team outright by being among the top four Americans in WTA rankings after the 2021 French Open. Therefore, her result at this French Open will not count toward Olympic qualifying.

She is currently ranked 51st overall and eighth among Americans.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Earlier Sunday, Williams finished her 2020 with a third first-round loss in as many Grand Slam tournaments — 6-4, 6-4 to Slovakian Anna Karolina Schmiedlova.

With the WTA’s autumn Asian swing canceled, Williams said she won’t play before next season starts in Australia.

Williams, 40 years old and ranked 76th, will need a scintillating start to 2021 to make the U.S. Olympic team in singles. She is currently the 14th-highest-ranked American. If she doesn’t make it in singles, Williams (or Gauff) could be chosen as a doubles-only player for the Tokyo Games.

Top seed Simona Halep took the last 10 games of her 6-4, 6-0 win over Spaniard Sara Sorribes Tormo. Halep, who is on a 15-match win streak dating to February, could play Gauff in the quarterfinals.

On the men’s side, Stan Wawrinka swept Andy Murray 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 in a battle of three-time major champions and a rematch of their life-changing 2017 semifinal in Paris.

“I need to have a long, hard think about it,” Murray said. “I don’t feel like the conditions are an excuse for it.”

It marked Murray’s first match on clay since that semi, won by Wawrinka in five sets. After that match three years ago, Wawrinka underwent two knee surgeries and Murray had two hip surgeries. Neither has made a Grand Slam semifinal since, and Murray nearly retired due to hip problems.

U.S. men went 3-0 on Sunday after winning one match total at the 2019 French Open.

The most notable victor: Sebastian Korda, the 20-year-old son of Czech 1998 Australian Open winner Petr Korda and brother of Nelly Korda, the world’s second-ranked female golfer.

Korda beat Italian veteran Andreas Seppi 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 to become the youngest U.S. man to win a French Open main-draw match since 18-year-old Andy Roddick defeated Michael Chang in 2001.

Korda, after his first tour-level win, gets John Isner in the second round.

Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal, each trying to tie Grand Slam singles titles records, play first-round matches on Monday.

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

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Julian Alaphilippe wins world road race title with late attack

Julian Alaphilippe
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Julian Alaphilippe became the first Frenchman to win a road cycling world title in 23 years, attacking late and holding on to prevail by 24 seconds in Imola, Italy, on Sunday.

Alaphilippe, who wore the Tour de France yellow jersey for 16 stages between the last two years, went clear from a star-filled group at the top of the last climb with about eight miles left of a 160-mile day.

“It was a dream of my career, you know,” said Alaphilippe, whose best previous worlds finish was eighth. “I came here with, for sure, a lot of ambition. It’s just a dream day for me.”

Belgian Wout van Aert took silver, followed by Swiss Marc Hirschi in a five-man bunch sprint for the last two medals. Van Aert also earned silver in the time trial on Friday.

Slovenian Primoz Roglic, who was second in the Tour de France, finished sixth in the same time as the silver and bronze medalists after more than six and a half hours of racing.

The top American was Sepp Kuss in 52nd place, 12:35 behind.

Full results are here.

The last Frenchmen to win world titles were Laurent Brochard (road race) and Laurent Jalabert (time trial) in 1997.

Slovenian Tadej Pogacar, who won the Tour de France last Sunday, attacked with 26 miles left. He led by as much as 25 seconds before being reeled back in with about 13 miles to go.

The cycling season continues with the last two Grand Tours, each starting later than normal due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Giro d’Italia begins Oct. 3, and the Vuelta a Espana starts Oct. 20, before the Giro finishes.

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MORE: A more equal future for women’s cycling? Lizzie Deignan has high hopes