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Madison Chock, Evan Bates back on Grand Prix circuit with ‘new power’

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GRENOBLE, France – Madison Chock and Evan Bates have always been known for their mastery of edges, their footwork, and sheer generosity they display on the ice. Since they arrived in their new training base in Montréal some 18 months ago, they have developed a new charisma and interpretation skills, which give each of their performances an enhanced intensity, impact, and visibility.

How did they achieve such a transformation?

“I don’t know! The charming of the snake maybe?” Chock suggested with a laugh after their “Egyptian snake” themed free dance in at Grand Prix France, where the couple earned silver a silver medal.

The “charming” is efficient: one could even argue there has been a complete change of style for the team, who is now much more consistent and powerful than it used to be. That change was obvious from their rhythm dance and confirmed by their free dance during their first Grand Prix outing of the season.

“That may be due to our evolution as performers, more than [as] athletes,” Bates added. “Performing has become our new motto: at the point we are in our careers, it’s more about the performance than about the technicalities. Our free program is a good example of this. Now we are more focused on our story, on the energy of the program, on the connection between the two of us. It’s a good a mindset to have, and it has changed our skating.”

Managing such a transformation is not easy, at a point in their career when most skaters just capitalize on their names and past performance. After all, Chock and Bates have been Olympians together twice already (in 2014 and 2018), they have won medals at two world championships (silver, 2015; bronze, 2016) and at two Grand Prix Finals (silver in 2014 and 2015). And they claimed gold at Four Continents in 2019.

“They allowed us to put them in discomfort, so that we could help them crack the mold they were in,” explained Marie-France Dubreuil, who coaches them with Patrice Lauzon and Romain Haguenauer in Montréal.

“We’ve always been willing to keep learning and improving – in our sport, but that applies also to all the aspects of our lives,” Chock confirmed.

“There is a new dynamic between the two of them,” Haguenauer added.

“And even a new power,” Dubreuil continued. “At one point, when [Chock] was injured, I saw [Bates] skate by himself and I was struck to see how powerful he was when he was by himself. As if he was re-training himself when his partner was with him. Evan is tall, powerful. We tried to help him be more aligned with his blade-to-ice contacts, more controlled. Both are hyper-elegant. So, we tried to free the machine and let it go.”

“Since we’ve arrived in Montréal, we have become more dancers, and less skaters,” Bates added. “This is also what you see from [training partners] Gabriella [Papadakis] and Guillaume [Cizeron]. They can be on skates and they could be off skates, and they would still be just as beautiful. They transcend the ice.”

Part of the impact of Chock and Bates’ performances is due to a renewed set of interpretation skills, something the school in Montréal has also been known for.

“Madison has always been a great performer,” Bates acknowledged. “I am working not to be only the guy next to her, or who is presenting her. It’s more our couple now, a man and a woman on the ice. It’s so natural for her to drive everybody’s eyes. But at the same time, it’s also a big responsibility for me to skate with someone who is so talented.”

“Of course, the choreographic work is paying off,” Dubreuil explained. “For us every movement has to bear a meaning. A movement is not there to fill the music, but to bring to it.”

That’s also a part of Chock and Bates’ transformation: embodying each of their movements.

“A lot of it is a feeling,” Bates explained. “When we are choreographing, some things work and some don’t. Those things that come to us naturally, that’s where the movement becomes authentic.”

“Also, every program evolves with time,” Chock added. “It changes with the speed and more complex elements you add on through the season. Gestures have to come from a very genuine place within us. When a movement comes organically, it becomes clear that it needs to be in the program.”

The transformation of the team should also be highly visible in Chongqing, China, where they are due to compete this weekend for Cup of China, just one week after Grand Prix France.

“Doing two Challenger Series earlier in the season [they won both the U.S. Classic and Finlandia Trophy] was a good thing for us,” Bates offered. “Our two programs are now in place.”

Their new style is, too. For the better.

MORE: Will Nathan Chen return to six quad jumps in his free skate?

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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