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Alina Zagitova pushes artistry while younger Russians focus on jumping prowess

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Russia’s Alina Zagitova, the 2018 Olympic gold medalist and 2019 world champion, has been under intense scrutiny since winning in PyeongChang some 21 months ago. No doubt she will be again when she skates at NHK Trophy (this weekend, live and on-demand for NBC Sports Gold subscribers).

Her last outing, at Grand Prix France, was no exception. Zagitova placed second, some 19.94 points behind 16-year-old Alena Kostornaia, her training partner at the Sambo-70 school in Moscow lead by coach Eteri Tutberidze.

Kostornaia is capable of two triple Axels in a free skate. Anna Shcherbakova is capable of two quad Lutzes in a free skate. Alexandra Trusova is capable of a quad Salchow, quad Lutz, and quad toe. She attempted four in her winning Rostelecom Cup free skate.

Talk has swirled on social media and in the press, as audiences wonder if Zagitova may experience the feeling of being pushed out by younger, more technically acute skaters. Zagitova won Olympic gold by defeating older training partner Yevgenia Medvedeva, then a nearly undefeated two-time world champion. But a year ago, Zagitova lost the European championship to another young Russian, Sofia Samodurova (coached by Alexei Mishin). Zagitova managed to bounce back to win the World title two months later.

Zagitova is not ready to admit that the wheel of fortune was turning too fast for her, however.

“I also was one of these junior skaters who did all their jumps with a hand above their heads,” she said after Grand Prix France. “I was one who did their jumps in the second half of their program, because it gave you more points. I was even the first one to land a triple Lutz, triple loop combination, also in the second half. Rules have changed since, what can I do?”

At the same time, she genuinely acknowledged her teammates’ prowess.

“I think that those girls who do quads are great,” she said enthusiastically, though Zagitova nonetheless had tears in her eyes when she understood that she had lost to Kostornaia.

The technical disruption that ladies’ skating has undergone these few last years caused this pattern, but it won’t last forever, according to Daniil Gleikhengauz. He choreographs for both Zagitova and Kostornaia at the school in Moscow.

“When Alina was younger, no one thought of quads for ladies,” he explained. “She learned the most difficult jumps of that time. Then, we pushed to have our pupils land them in the second half of their programs [because it was worth more points under the rules]. Then, we asked ourselves ‘what’s next?’ We thought that maybe quads would be coming up, and we taught quads to the newcomers. They learned harder jumps.

“Alina is very smart,” Gleikhengauz continued. “She understands that she is 17 years old, not 11 or 12. The current generation will learn quads and land them for several years. At this point in time, ladies’ skating is at the top of technique, so it’s a little bit tough to maintain yourself many years, as technique is going so fast. Tomorrow will be different. Quads will be there for 10 to 15 years. So those girls who are mastering quads [now] will have many more years.”

The technical route is not the only path to winning, however.

“There are two ways to succeed: either you skate like Carolina Kostner, who takes your heart and each move is perfect. The other way is to do what young girls are doing,” Kostornaia said after her win in Grenoble.

Zagitova understands that as well.

“Quads are too dangerous for me for the time being,” Zagitova acknowledged. “I will need to prepare for them physically and mentally. I will also need to lose some weight, something like three kilos, to decrease the risk of injuries.

“If it’s really necessary for me to land a quad, I may train for landing one. But it will be difficult. It won’t be a quad Salchow or a quad toe, though, as they wouldn’t be the easiest for me.”

Zagitova thought she may try to train a quad Lutz first, like another young teammate of hers is landing. Shcherbakova’s free skate this season includes two quad Lutzes, and she won both Skate America and Cup of China.

“Learning a quad is a question of mentality,” Gleikhengauz said. “When you are 11 or 13, you’re falling every day, as you are learning triple jumps. Then you master them. You start learning triple Axels and quads – and again you fall, fall, fall. And then you master them and you don’t fall anymore. What happens next is that you forget about falling and how to fall. When you have to learn triple Axel or quad later on, then you’re really scared about it and it may become dangerous for you.”

Zagitova, though, may be on the “Kostner route” for the time being.

“For now, I can’t skate like Carolina Kostner yet,” Zagitova said while laughing, “but I’m working at it.”

Kostner, the 2014 Sochi Olympic bronze medalist, won her first European title at age 20. She is known for her artistic qualities on the ice.

This season, Zagitova chose a Flamenco piece, Yasmin Levy’s “Me Voy,” for her short program. Her free skate is a medley of music she called “Cleopatra” which includes pieces from Peter Gabriel’s “The Feeling Begins,” Maurice Jarre’s “Lawrence of Arabia” soundtrack, and Khatir Hicham’s “Ramses.”

“We tried different kinds of choreography, but we felt this music was good for me,” Zagitova said. “I think it suits my style and my skating well, and I loved it right away. My short and my free programs are very different, with two different styles. Fans are telling me that I can do a lot more than ballet music. I’m glad I can show that on the ice.”

“Alina is a really beautiful skater,” Gleikhengauz said. “She is amazing. When we make a program, she always makes something bigger than a program. She always comes up with new ideas: ‘why don’t we do this?’ ‘why wouldn’t we try that?’ She is such an artist.”

Eventually, Zagitova wants to work her way through a list of various different styles.

“We work on them, thanks to the many specialists who come teach us,” she said. “We dance a lot on the floor. We have jazz dance or twist right now. That helps us develop our programs, and gives us huge possibilities to develop ourselves.”

No one knows how long Zagitova will take to master her most difficult jumps. But as for now, she still is the reigning Olympic and world champion, and she intends for that to last.

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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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.

In the last featured match of the night, No. 10 Madison Keys defeated Arantxa Rus 7-6 (7-3), 6-2.

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.

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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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