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With new outlook and new coaching team, Knierims look ahead

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Two-time U.S. champions Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, who placed fourth at Skate Canada in Kelowna, British Columbia last week, know the U.S. pairs’ scene is growing more competitive with each event this season, and they’re OK with it.

After four podium finishes at the U.S. Championships, including two U.S. titles and five trips to the World Championships, the couple placed seventh in the U.S. last season. At the start of 2019-20, for the first time in years, “the Knierims” were not top on everyone’s list.

“We feel that many people probably have kind of written us off, because we’re an old married couple and we’re kind of labeled ‘can’t get it together,’” Scimeca Knierim said. “That’s almost an advantage, because I feel like for so long, we were considered the front-runners. I still believe we are. We’re trying to show we can get it together.”

“We found out after the first U.S. title we won (2015), that is was a lot of pressure to come back and try and win again,” Knierim said. “It doesn’t really matter what we did last competition, or last year, or four years ago. We’re kind of fresh every year now, not worrying about the past.”

After seven years of partnership, highlighted by a team bronze medal at the PyeongChang Olympics, the couple – married since June 2016 – could have retired to enjoy domestic life. Instead, they spent the off-season regrouping, starting with Knierim’s surgery in February to repair a torn wrist tendon.

“We had this really cool flip into our short program lift, and it put strain on his wrist to push me up for the press,” Scimeca Knierim said. “Over time, he damaged it. But we just kept doing it anyway, because it was cool.”

Her husband added what might be a motto for all pair skaters.

“If it’s cool, you gotta keep doing it, even if it hurts,” he said.

After many years in Colorado Springs, Colorado, followed by far shorter stints in Chicago and Obertsdorf, Germany, the skaters completed their move to Southern California, where they began training with Jenni Meno and Todd Sand last November. An earlier coaching arrangement with German Olympic pair champion Aliona Savchenko ended after just a few months.

“There were assumptions of what maybe happened there, but it’s all very positive for us,” Scimeca Knierim said. “We’re on very good terms. We don’t talk every day, but Aliona is supportive and so is her husband Liam (Cross). He texts us a lot.”

As married athletes, Meno and Sand – who won three U.S. pairs titles and three world medals – have a lot in common with their students. The two couples clicked right away.

“I think Jenni and I are very similar in the sense that we are pretty aggressive and assertive on the day-to-day,” Scimeca Knierim said. “She helps listen to me when I have thoughts or emotions, and helps me kind of organize them. Whereas I feel like Todd and Chris are very similar in more of a lowkey energy on the day-to-day.”

“They’ve been through what we have,” Knierim said of their coaches. “They were married and competing and going through all of it. They can understand where we’re coming from, I think better than anyone has.”

The Knierims plan to compete through the 2022 Olympics. Meno and Sand  support that vision.

“It’s very obvious to me they love skating, they love competing,” Sand said. “They feel, and I feel, they have a lot left to give skating, and I’ve really seen that now that we’ve been with them not quite a year yet. Their commitment level to what they do is really impressive.”

The couple opened the season with a silver medal at Nebelhorn Trophy, where excellent lifts showed Knierim’s wrist fully healed. As often happens, though, errors on triple jumps cost them points. To improve that relative weakness, they added Rafael Arutunian to their Irvine coaching team.

Schedules permitting, Scimeca Knierim said, “We work with Rafael privately two days week, and we take his class two days week. That’s been a huge asset training (in Irvine).”

“They’ve made a commitment to working with Rafael on their jumping,” Sand said. “That’s a process as well, but they’re really committed to it. I’m committed to it. It’s something you have to get into your bodies. It’s about putting old habits away and making new habits.”

In Kelowna, the couple landed side-by-side triple Salchows in their free skate, but small errors on triple throws and on their side-by-side combination spins in the short program cost them a medal.

“We’re very disappointed in our spins. They’ve been very good and are something we’ve improved on since last season,” Scimeca Knierim said after the short. “The positive is that it was a great skate. Last year we would have been ecstatic if we skated like this.”

Knierim thinks the free skate in Kelowna was an improvement over Nebelhorn.

“No falls. I fell on the jump at Nebelhorn. All the elements were good,” he said.

Other experts are on hand in Irvine. The skaters occasionally work with five-time world pairs champion Robin Szolkowy, as well as two-time Olympic pairs champion Katia Gordeeva.

“Katia often talks to me off the ice and kind of gives me encouragement or advice if she sees that I’m struggling a bit mentally,” Scimeca Knierim said. “She’s been there and she knows how hard it is to stay optimistic and positive all the time …. She’s very warm and loving and she kind of gives me the confidence and inspiration that maybe I need sometimes. Her belief in us goes deep with me.”

Then there’s Nina Mozer, coach of Russia’s 2014 Olympic champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov, who consults with several top U.S. pairs including U.S. champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, and the Knierims’ training partners, Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson.

“She’s been very helpful, it’s been interesting to gain her insight,” Sand said. “We have a lot of the same ideas, and then we have some ideas – I don’t want to say  completely different, but maybe she has a different way of going about it. I found that very refreshing. I like the way she works. She’s been extremely helpful in periodizing our skaters a little differently.”

It all adds up to, if not a clean slate, then a new outlook, and a determination to make the final years of their career count.

“I think that this year, we’ve worked really hard with Rafael (on jumps) and I think that’s going to come out through the year,” Knierim said. “It’s exciting to know we can improve. We’re skating because we love to skate. We have just a few more years before we’re moving on from this part of our life.”

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.

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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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