Kyle Snyder, Abdulrashid Sadulaev
United World Wrestling

Kyle Snyder fueled by ‘Miracle’ scenes for Russian Tank showdown

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Kyle Snyder rewatched last year’s world wrestling championships final — where he was pinned in 68 seconds by Russian rival Abdulrashid Sadulayev — about five or 10 times, but not once in the six weeks leading up to a potential rematch at worlds on Sunday.

“I don’t want to watch myself get thrown on my back any more,” he said last week by phone from Germany, before traveling to Kazakhstan for the competition. “I have everything I feel like I need from the film.”

There wasn’t a whole lot to learn, technically, from a 68-second bout. Even if they are some of the most memorable 68 seconds in recent wrestling history.

Snyder-Sadulayev II at the 2018 Worlds was called the Rematch of the Century. In 2017, Snyder handed Sadulayev his first defeat in four years at the senior international level in the world final, a 6-5, last-minute comeback win. They were both Rio Olympic champions, but Sadulayev, nicknamed the Russian Tank, then moved up in weight to take on Snyder at 97kg.

But Snyder did change his mindset after last year’s loss, his first at an Olympics or worlds after earning titles in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

“Up until this year, I just thought that I could wrestle hard enough that I could beat people. It worked out well for a lot of tournaments,” said Snyder, who in Rio became the youngest U.S. Olympic wrestling champion in history at age 20. “I’ve prepared and learned more about Sadulayev and a couple more guys in my weight class that present some difficult challenges that I just want to understand more. I do well when I have something to focus on. I think that loss last year probably sparked this way of thinking.”

Sadulayev wrestles Snyder differently than he wrestles everybody else. Snyder learned this in the film room. They are about the same height, listed at 5-foot-11. Snyder posted a pre-match photo of them, at the same eye level, three weeks ago with the caption, “Lord willing, we stand here again.”

He tagged Sadulayev in it and said that the man from Dagestan commented back that he knows the fans are looking forward to their third installment.

“We’ve had a couple Instagrams back and forth, but no contact outside of that,” since the 2018 Worlds, Snyder said last week. “I’m sure I’ll see him next week in the hotel. So maybe a few awkward elevator rides.”

Snyder said that Sadulayev beat him last year by wrestling higher in his stance. Snyder was taken up out of his normal stance, and Sadulayev got to his leg for the pin.

“He does that because one of my best attributes is my hand fighting and my overall pace and staying in a stance low,” Snyder said. “If I get him down into his stance, he won’t be as comfortable.”

Snyder’s coaches told him for years to tailor training for specific opponents, but he more or less kept an approach of focusing on his own strengths. “It makes my mind clear when I don’t game plan,” he said. Now, he heeds the coaches.

“If I did a live go 100 percent, last year I wasn’t thinking at all how I would wrestle somebody I was competing against at worlds,” he said. “Now, I even have my partners give me different feels for different guys that I know are going to wrestle a specific way.”

He’s watched Sadulayev from afar. The Russian Tank looks as strong as ever.

Snyder changed his mental prep in another way recently. He supplemented daily Bible reading and his latest book, “Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity,” with scenes from “Miracle,” the Disney film about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.

“I like the way the coach [Herb Brooks] talks about beating the Russians,” Snyder said. “The No. 1 thing is taking the action to them and being offensive, and I think about the comparison to the way I need to wrestle Sadulayev, if we wrestle again.” 

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Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff set Australian Open duel

Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff
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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Plenty was going badly for Coco Gauff in the second round of the Australian Open.

The double-faults kept coming Wednesday, nine in all. The deficits, too: First, she dropped the opening set against 74th-ranked Sorana Cirstea.

Then, after forcing a third, Gauff fell behind by a break, ceding 14 of 16 points with a series of mistakes. Later, after getting even at 3-all, Gauff was a mere two points from a loss.

None of that mattered. As she keeps showing, over and over, Gauff is not a typical 15-year-old. Not a typical tennis player, either.

And by getting past Cirstea 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 in a little more than two hours thanks to a more aggressive approach in the late going, she now has set up yet another Grand Slam showdown against Naomi Osaka.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

“I kind of felt the momentum changing,” Gauff said about turning things around against Cirstea. “I knew I had to keep pressing.”

Less than five months after their memorable meeting at the U.S. Open — Osaka won that one in straight sets, then consoled a crying Gauff on court and encouraged her to address the spectators — the two will face each other again. Like that time, Osaka is the major’s reigning champion and Gauff is making her debut at the tournament.

“I think I’ll be less nervous this time,” said Gauff, who eliminated seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams in the first round Monday. “I think I’m more confident this time around.”

As for what sticks with her about the post-match comforting Osaka offered in New York, Gauff said: “If I had a child or something, that’s something I would want my child to see. It just shows what being a competitor really is. You might hate the person on the court, but off the court you love them — not really, like, ‘hate,’ but you want to win. Sometimes when we’re on the court, we say things we don’t mean because we have that mentality. When it’s all said and done, we still look at each other with respect.”

Other winners included Serena Williams — 6-2, 6-3 against Tamara Zidansek in a match that finished with the Rod Laver Arena retractable roof closed because of rain — No. 1 Ash Barty, 2018 Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki and two-time major champion Petra Kvitova, the runner-up to Osaka in Australia a year ago.

Defending men’s champion Novak Djokovic required all of 95 minutes to breeze past Japanese wild-card entry Tatsuma Ito 6-1, 6-4, 6-2, while Roger Federer swept Filip Krajinovic 6-1, 6-4, 6-1.

Gauff was not at her very best on a windy afternoon against Cirstea but managed to figure her way out of trouble repeatedly. Gauff demonstrated plenty of grit, yes, and also enthusiasm, pumping herself up by shaking a fist and yelling, “Come on!” after most of her successful points down the stretch.

All the while, Gauff was supported by a Melbourne Arena crowd that chanted, “Let’s go, Coco! Let’s go!”

Her father, Corey, was animated in the stands, too, except when he was squeezing his eyes shut at critical moments.

There were several of those for his precocious daughter, who was ranked only 313th last year when she became the youngest player in history to qualify for Wimbledon, then wound up beating Williams there en route to the fourth round.

It is a measure of her came-so-soon stardom that Gauff was playing at Melbourne Park’s third-largest stadium Wednesday, even though this was a matchup between a pair of players ranked outside the top 60 and with one career Grand Slam quarterfinal between them, more than a decade ago (Cirstea made it that far at the 2009 French Open).

Indeed, every Grand Slam singles match — “every” being a relative term, of course, because this was No. 9 — of the 67th-ranked Gauff’s nascent career has been placed on a show court.

This was the first main draw match at a major for Gauff in which she held a better ranking than her opponent.

Didn’t seem that way at the outset: Gauff dropped the first set. After forcing things to a third, she trailed 3-0. After making it 3-3, Gauff needed to get through one more gut-check: Twice, she was two points from departing.

But the American teenager broke in the next-to-last game, then held to win.

How did Gauff get through this test?

“Just my will to win,” she said. “My parents, they always told me I can come back, no matter what the score is.”

Osaka worked through some frustrations Wednesday by grabbing her racket with both hands and chucking it to the ground, tossing away a tennis ball and kicking the racket along the court, to boot.

Then she plopped herself down on her sideline seat and draped a towel over her head. Soon, she was gathering herself and defeating Zheng Saisai 6-2, 6-4.

“I mean, my racket just magically flew out of my hand. I couldn’t control it,” Osaka said with a mischievous smile. “I think that’s how I dealt with my frustration. It was a bit childish. I just want to play one match without throwing my racket or kicking it. That’s all I want.”

Perhaps because her news conference took place while Gauff and Cirstea were still playing, Osaka deflected a question seeking some sort of lookahead to the third round, saying simply she would go watch the end of that match.

MORE: Another top U.S. tennis player cools on Olympics

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John Isner leaning toward skipping Olympics again

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John Isner, the highest-ranked U.S. male singles tennis player, is considering skipping the Olympics for a second straight time.

“I haven’t put a ton of thought into it, but as of right now, I think I’m leaning towards not playing,” the 19th-ranked player said at the Australian Open on Tuesday. “It’s about scheduling. I know the Olympics, it’s a fantastic honor. There’s no doubt about that. … Right now, at this stage in my career, it’s not a huge priority for me. So that’s probably the main reason I won’t be going. I certainly love playing in the summer in America, and I’m going to focus on that.”

The Tokyo Games take place the same week as a lower-level ATP Tour event in Atlanta that Isner, a former University of Georgia star, has won five times.

Other notable male players already said they will pass on Tokyo, including Sam Querrey, the top American in Olympic qualifying standings.

Austrian Dominic Thiem, a two-time French Open finalist, is prioritizing an ATP event in Kitzbühel the week of the Olympics. The U.S. doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan are not planning to play the Olympics in their final season before retirement, their manager said in November.

“The Olympics is very tough on the schedule … especially with Davis Cup,” Isner said in 2016, according to USA Today. “I think the fact that they have no [ATP ranking] points [at the Olympics], to be honest, was a pretty big factor as well. Obviously the Olympics is not about the money, but no points I think hindered me a bit.”

Isner, who turns 35 on April 26, is likely giving up his last chance to play Olympic singles. In his only Olympic participation, he reached the quarterfinals of the 2012 London Games, plus lost an opening-round doubles match there with Andy Roddick.

The top four U.S. men qualify for Tokyo, assuming they are among the top 60 overall qualifiers (maximum four per country) after this spring’s French Open.

Taylor FritzReilly Opelka, Steve Johnson and Tommy Paul are the U.S. men currently in Olympic qualifying position if excluding Querrey and Isner.

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