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Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, armed with triple Axel, fights to compete with Russian teens

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Figure skating is moving fast, and 2015 World champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva is banking on an extra half-rotation to compete with a technical revolution led by quad-jumping countrywomen.

“I want to be on top,” Tuktamysheva told NBCSports.com/figure-skating in a phone interview following a bronze medal at Skate America. “If I want to do that, I have to work and keep improving in everything. Otherwise, I should stop skating.”

Five times a champion on the Grand Prix circuit – including at the 2014 Grand Prix Final – Tuktamysheva rallied from a solid short program but disappointing score of 67.28 (nearly six points below her season average) to land on the podium behind Russian national champion Anna Shcherbakova and 2018 U.S. champion Bradie Tennell.

“I was even happier to be third place here than I was when I was first place in Skate Canada last year, because I was thinking I could have been fifth because of the short program,” Tuktamysheva said. “I’m happy my free program was much better.”

Though the 22-year-old cleanly landed three of her signature triple Axels last weekend – including one in combination with a double toe loop in the free skate – she was nonetheless technically outgunned by Shcherbakova who, in her senior Grand Prix debut, became the first woman to land two quadruple Lutzes in international competition.

“Right now, it’s really hard to be on top in Russia, but you should keep trying so long as you feel like there’s a chance to win,” Tuktamysheva said. “I believe that I can compete. If there’s a girl who doesn’t believe, I don’t know why they would even try.”

Most fighting for one of three spots on the Russian team have a reasonable shot at earning medals – if not winning – at March’s world championships in Montréal, making December’s Russian Nationals a must-watch.

Besides Shcherbakova, Tuktamysheva must contend with Olympic champion Alina Zagitova, two-time world champion and Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva, reigning European champion and fellow Alexei Mishin pupil Sofia Samodurova, junior Grand Prix Final champion Alena Kostornaia – who attempted two triple Axels (landing one fully rotated) to win the Finlandia Trophy, and two-time world junior champion Alexandra Trusova, who landed four quadruple jumps at the free skate-only Japan Open on Oct. 5.

At an age where many skaters scale back their technical arsenals, Tuktamysheva continues to innovate, experimenting with a triple flip-triple toe loop short program combination while committing to three triple Axels at every competition.

Since beginning her season at the Russian Senior Test Skates – a veritable mini-Olympics featuring all eight women set to compete on the Grand Prix series – she has cleanly landed an impressive 12 of 14 triple Axels in competition.

“My technical conditioning is really good,” Tuktamysheva said. “This season, I hope to improve my components, programs, and also do the jumps. It’s so hard to be in your prime all season. It doesn’t work for me and, after all, I should be taking care of my health. I hope I’m going to do even better, but at the same time, I’m aware that I’m in my best-ever shape at the moment.”

Skate America saw more tinkering from Tuktamysheva, who unveiled a new transition into her “Drumming Song” short program’s triple Axel and changed the final edit of her Yiddish Jazz-themed free skate from “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” to a reprise of the opening “Caravan.”

“We had one day after between Finlandia and Skate America, but in one day we made so many changes,” she said. “When I did the free program in Finlandia, I felt that the music at the end might not be as powerful, so we took the time to change. I heard the new version and thought it was 100 percent better. This is the final part to the program, and this time, I feel much more power and happiness as I finish it.”

Her current free skate layout allows for seven triple jumps – one away from the maximum eight she was competing at the end of last season to win the World Team Trophy over triple Axel rival Rika Kihira. Tuktamysheva plans to retain that content ahead of her next competition at Cup of China, while re-introducing the flip-toe combination back into the short program.

MORE: Quad revolution within women’s skating

“I don’t want to make big changes now,” she said. “I just want to skate clean, with power. I want my programs to feel like films, with no empty places.”

Her two programs are an intriguing contrast, and an artistic evolution from last year’s “Assassin’s Tango” and “You Don’t Love Me/Petit Fleur/Catgroove” outings.

She called “Drumming Song” – an earthy and primal Florence and The Machine song – her favorite short program of her career. A mash-up of “Caravan” and “Utt Da Zay” in the free skate shows the powerful Russian at her most fun and flirty – a refreshing departure from some of the more dramatic numbers attempted by her younger competitors.

“I’m a different feel in figure skating,” she said. “It just comes from inside. I listen to the music and the choreographer, and try to do my best to feel. When I feel and understand, it all comes together and looks really nice.”

A near-lock for last year’s world team, a bout of pneumonia felled Tuktamysheva days after taking bronze at the Grand Prix Final, forcing her out of the national championships. A narrow defeat to Medvedeva at February’s Russian Cup Final handed the last spot to her compatriot, who went on to earn a bronze medal at the world championships in Japan.

Where last season was a return to form, this season forecasts the former world champion, one of the most decorated athletes to never make an Olympic Games, at her athletic and artistic peak. With the Winter Games in Beijing just over two years away, the otherwise amiable Tuktamysheva still has something to say on the ice and plans to use the next three months of competitions to make her point.

“I will skate until I no longer feel I can compete with the other girls,” she said. “Right now, I want, and I will, and I will fight.”

MORE: Final Skate America takeaways

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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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 Tennis.com 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.

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

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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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