Yuzuru Hanyu, Alina Zagitova make NHK Trophy podium and set Grand Prix Final fields

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Yuzuru Hanyu handily won NHK Trophy on home ice in Japan on Saturday, setting up a head-to-head Grand Prix Final with American Nathan Chen. The Dec. 5-8 event takes place in Torino, Italy and will stream live for NBC Sports Gold subscribers.

Also, reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova will take on three of her younger training partners at the Grand Prix Final after a bronze medal finish at NHK Trophy.

Hanyu won four Grand Prix Finals from 2013-16, and Chen won the event in 2017 and 2018. Hanyu did not compete in the Final in 2017 or 2018, but at their head-to-head battle at the world championships in March, Chen took gold to Hanyu’s silver.

But at NHK Trophy, Hanyu was untouchable in a field that included few real threats. He executed four quadruple jumps in a free skate (loop, Salchow, toe, and quad toe, triple toe in combination) that racked up 195.71 points for a total score of 305.05.

“For now I’m happy that I was able to get through, leading up the free program, stayed healthy, had no pain and no injuries. I’m also now going to the [Grand Prix] Final. I want to recover by then and do some more training and coordination to be ready for the Final,” Hanyu said through the ISU.

France’s Kevin Aymoz was second to Hanyu by 55.03 points. Aymoz makes the Grand Prix Final with his silver medal at NHK Trophy. Canada’s Roman Sadovsky took bronze with 247.50 total points.

American Jason Brown needed a bronze medal or better to have a shot at the Grand Prix Final, but a shaky short program left him eighth. He placed fourth in the free skate for a fifth place finish — but it wasn’t enough for him to get to Torino.

A full breakdown of how NHK Trophy could’ve impacted Grand Prix standings can be found here.

Grand Prix Series Standings: Men | Ladies | Pairs | Ice Dance

Zagitova was briefly in danger of possibly missing the Grand Prix Final after a fourth place short program, but she ended up with a bronze medal behind Japan’s Rika Kihira (silver) and Russia’s Alena Kostornaia (gold). All three will head to the Grand Prix Final.

Kostornaia and Kihira both included two triple Axels in their free skates. Kostornaia opened her program with a clean triple Axel, double toe combination followed by a solo triple Axel that was called under-rotated. Kihira’s triple Axel, double toe and solo triple Axel were both called clean. Zagitova has never landed a triple Axel in competition.

“After the short program I was upset of course, but I pulled myself together for the free skating thanks to my coaches that found the right words. In the program, I was just thinking from one element to the next what I need to do,” Zagitova said via the ISU.

American Karen Chen was in bronze medal position after the short program, but placed 11th (of 12) in the free skate for an overall ninth place finish. After a season off the ice due to injury, Chen is juggling figure skating with studying at Cornell University.

MORE: Alina Zagitova focused on artistry, while other Russians push technical boundaries

China’s two-time world champion pair Sui Wenjing and Han Cong won NHK Trophy and earned themselves a spot in the Grand Prix Final. The teams that joined them on the podium, Canada’s Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro with silver and Russia’s Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov with bronze, will also join them in Torino.

In ice dance, French duo Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron earned 226.61 points on the way to the gold medal, which included a free dance performance to spoken word poetry set to music. They out-distanced silver medalists Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin by nearly 20 points, though the Russians will also compete in Torino.

Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri of Italy took the bronze medal at NHK Trophy, though missed qualifying for the six-team Grand Prix Final by finishing seventh in the standings.

MORE: Gabriella Papadakis, Guillaume Cizeron on ‘Fame,’ chasing history

NHK Trophy Results
Men
1. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN)  — 305.05
2. Kevin Aymoz (FRA) — 250.02
3. Roman Sadovsky (CAN) — 247.50
4. Sergei Voronov (RUS) — 239.05
5. Jason Brown (USA) — 231.27
6. Sota Yamamoto (JPN) — 226.27
7. Makar Ignatov (RUS) — 222.45
8. Anton Shulepov (RUS) — 218.38
9. Koshiro Shimada (JPN) — 213.65
10. Tomoki Hiwatashi (USA) — 207.30
11. Alexei Bychenko (ISR) — 197.63
12. Conrad Orzel (CAN) — 196.34

Women
1. Alena Kostornaia (RUS) — 240.00
2. Rika Kihira (JPN) — 231.84
3. Alina Zagitova (RUS) — 217.99
4. Yuhana Yokoi (JPN) — 189.54
5. Mako Yamashita (JPN) — 189.25
6. Sofia Samodurova (RUS) — 183.27
7. Eun-Soo Lim (KOR) — 172.47
8. Starr Andrews (USA) — 166.72
9. Karen Chen (USA) — 165.70
10. Kailani Craine (AUS) — 165.46
11. Mae Berenice Meite (FRA) — 159.98
12. Megan Wessenberg (USA) — 131.73

Pairs 
1. Sui Wenjing / Han Cong (CHN) — 266.96
2. Kirsten Moore-Towers / Michael Marinaro (CAN) — 208.49
3. Anastasia Mishina / Aleksandr Galliamov (RUS) — 203.35
4. Alisa Efimova / Alexander Korovin (RUS) — 189.34
5. Riku Miura / Ryuichi Kihara (JPN) — 179.94
6. Tarah Kayne / Danny O’Shea (USA) — 178.73
7. Alexa Scimeca Knierim / Chris Knierim (USA) — 173.33
8. Nicole Della Monica / Matteo Guarise (ITA) — 171.43

Ice dance
1. Gabriella Papadakis / Guillaume Cizeron (FRA) — 226.61

2. Alexandra Stepanova / Ivan Bukin (RUS) — 208.81
3. Charlene Guignard / Marco Fabbri (ITA) — 198.06
4. Lilah Fear / Lewis Gibson (GBR) — 193.01
5. Wang Shiyue / Liu Xinyu (CHN) — 183.11
6. Christina Carreira / Anthony Ponomarenko (USA) — 182.26
7. Sofia Shevchenko / Igor Eremenko (RUS) — 178.08
8. Carolane Soucisse / Shane Firus (CAN) — 172.01
9. Lorraine McNamara / Quinn Carpenter (USA) — 170.21

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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Major League Baseball sponsors U.S. Olympic softball team

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NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Baseball is using its financial muscle to support the U.S. women’s softball team, which already is assured a spot in the Tokyo Olympics while the American men’s baseball team struggles to qualify.

MLB announced an agreement Thursday to become presenting sponsor of the women’s “Stand Beside Her” tour, a slate of exhibition games leading up to the Olympic tournament from July 22-28.

“We’re both bat and ball sports. Even though we’re not the same sport, there are so many similarities that you just can’t ignore,” said Kim Ng, MLB’s senior vice president for baseball operations. “It was important for us to make sure that they have this acknowledgment and recognition of their ability and their talent.”

Softball began as an Olympic sport for the 1996 Atlanta Games. The U.S. won gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004 with players that included Dot Richardson, Jennie Finch and Jessica Mendoza, then lost to Japan in the 2008 gold-medal game.

Baseball and softball were dropped for the next two Olympics, then restored for this year, when the U.S. and Japan will be joined by Australia, Canada, Italy and Mexico for games in Fukushima and Yokohama but not Tokyo. The sports are likely to be dropped for 2024 in Paris but could return four years later in Los Angeles.

The U.S. men’s baseball team stumbled in its first attempt to qualify, wasting a ninth-inning lead against Mexico in the final game of the Premier12 tournament in November and losing in the 10th. The U.S. has two more chances to join Israel, Japan, Mexico and South Korea in the Olympic field: an Americas tournament in Arizona from March 22-26 and a final tournament in Taiwan from April 1-5.

MLB is not allowing players on 40-man big league rosters to compete in qualifying, and few top pitching prospects were at the November tournament.

Softball has no such issues. The Olympics are the sport’s highest-profile event.

“The platform for us is 10 times bigger,” American outfielder Haylie McCleney said. “For us, it’s a great opportunity for people that have never watched softball before, people that have only followed it at the collegiate level, to really see how fun our game is to watch, how pure it is. If people are baseball fans, I guarantee they’re going to love softball because it’s pretty much just a faster game – it’s shorter, it’s quicker, it’s more entertaining to watch, in my opinion.”

The 2008 gold-medal softball game took 1 hours, 45 minutes — less than half the 3:45 average for this year’s World Series.

As part of the deal with MLB, the softball team’s official training facility will be at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Florida, the old Dodgertown spring training camp.

MLB Network will include programming from the tour, which currently starts Feb. 4 in Tampa and has about three dozen stops.

The U.S. women’s soccer team has attracted huge television audiences. MLB sees softball as an opportunity for the sport’s growth.

“These are world-class athletes,” Ng said. “Because we have not been in the Olympics for the last 12 years, they just haven’t had that stage. So it’s really important at this point that we show as much support as we can for them.”

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MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

Rafael Nadal advances at Australian Open; American back on Slam stage

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Rafael Nadal joined Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open third round, sweeping Argentine Federico Delbonis 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-1 on Thursday.

Nadal, whose lone Australian Open title came in 2009, gets countryman Pablo Carreno Busta in Saturday’s third round. He could face No. 23 Nick Kyrgios of Australia in round four, but neither Federer nor Djokovic until the final.

No. 4 Daniil Medvedeva and No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Simona Halep were also winners Thursday. Friday’s third-round action is headlined by defending champion Naomi Osaka facing 15-year-old U.S. phenom Coco Gauff.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

The only top-20 seed to lose so far Thursday was No. 20 Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic. American CiCi Bellis bounced her 6-4, 6-4.

This was a big deal for Bellis: Two full years and four right arm operations have come and gone since she was last healthy enough to participate in a Grand Slam tournament.

Bellis was something of a teen prodigy. In her very first tour-level match, at age 15 at the 2014 U.S. Open, she stunned 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, an Australian Open runner-up, to become the youngest American to win a match at Flushing Meadows in 28 years.

She reached No. 35 in the rankings at 17, when she won WTA Newcomer of the Year honors.

Then came the series of health problems, including for torn tendons in her wrist, to shorten a bone in her arm and for bone spurs in her elbow. All the time away from the tour has her at No. 600 in the rankings currently, but she was able to get into the draw in Australia via the protected ranking rule.

In other action, U.S. Open runner-up Medvedev  found himself seated in the nosebleed section at Margaret Court Arena, even though he was playing his second-round match there.

That’s because the No. 4-seeded Russian found himself dealing with something he said happens to him a couple of times each year: a nosebleed.

Medvedev blotted his nose with a towel and then was treated by a trainer while his 7-5, 6-1, 6-3 over Spanish qualifier Pedro Martinez was delayed for more than five minutes late in the second set.

“Can happen to me sometimes. Doesn’t usually happen during the match, so I had to stop (playing). Usually takes like four minutes — three, four minutes. … But it’s nothing,” Medvedev said.

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

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