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Storylines to watch at the Grand Prix Final

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The Grand Prix Final is an exclusive figure skating event that caps the first part of the season before skaters move toward their national championships. The 2019 edition in particular is significant, marking the halfway point between the Olympic cycles.

Skaters score points at up to two Grand Prix events throughout the fall, and the top-scoring finishers are invited to the Grand Prix Final, Dec. 5-8 in Torino, Italy. (Streaming live and on-demand for NBC Sports Gold subscribers.)

With only six skaters/teams in each discipline, it is a small preview of March’s world championships; however, it brings a prestige all its own. Let’s examine the major storylines.

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

Men
Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan returns to the Grand Prix Final for the first time since 2016. Hanyu missed the previous two editions due to injury; however, Hanyu owns four straight Grand Prix Finals from 2013-16.

Two-time world champion Nathan Chen won the 2017 and 2018 Grand Prix Finals in Hanyu’s absence. They competed head-to-head at March’s world championships, where Chen won and Hanyu earned silver.

But this will be their first Grand Prix Final head-to-head since Chen began his winning streak, undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics in 2018.

The men’s field:
1. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN)
2. Nathan Chen (USA)
3. Alexander Samarin (RUS)
4. Dmitri Aliev (RUS)
5. Kevin Aymoz (FRA)
6. Jin Boyang (CHN)

MORE: Nathan Chen on his hip-hop “Rocketman” free skate

Women
The top three Russians to qualify for the Grand Prix Final — Alena Kostornaia (16), Alexandra Trusova (15), and Anna Shcherbakova (15) — were the same top qualifiers for last year’s Junior Grand Prix Final. Kostornaia won, followed by Trusova, and Shcherbakova was fifth.

All three are in their first senior season. They train together in Moscow under coach Eteri Tutberidze, alongside reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova (17).

While Zagitova has never landed a quadruple jump or triple Axel in competition, Kostornaia’s free skate includes two triple Axels; Trusova’s free skate includes up to four quads; and Shcherbakova’s free skate includes two quad Lutzes.

For her part, Japan’s Rika Kihira (17) is capable of two triple Axels in her free skate, as well.

American Bradie Tennell is the oldest in the field by four years at 21.

The women’s field:
1. Alena Kostornaia (RUS)
2. Alexandra Trusova (RUS)
3. Anna Shcherbakova (RUS)
4. Rika Kihira (JPN)
5. Alina Zagitova (RUS)
6. Bradie Tennell (USA)

MORE: Bradie Tennell’s personality shines through at Skate America

Pairs
China’s Sui Wenjing and Han Cong are the most decorated team in the Grand Prix Final with two world championships and an Olympic silver medal. Last year, they had an abbreviated season due to Sui’s stress fracture in her right foot but rallied for a Four Continents title and their second world title. They won both of their regular-season Grand Prix events: Cup of China and NHK Trophy.

Relative newcomers Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy of Russia also won both of their regular-season Grand Prix events, too: Skate Canada and Rostelecom Cup.

Notably, Russia’s Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov (two-time European champions who have taken three trips to the Grand Prix Final, even winning in 2016) were seventh in the overall standings and missed the cut.

The pairs’ field:
1. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN)
2. Aleksandra Boikova/Dmitriy Kozlovskiy (RUS)
3. Peng Cheng/Jin Yang (CHN)
4. Anastasia Mishina/Aleksandr Galliamov (RUS)
5. Kirsten Moore-Towers/Michael Marinaro (CAN)
6. Daria Pavliuchenko/Denis Khodykin (RUS)

Ice dance

Four-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France missed last year’s Grand Prix Final because they pulled out of one of their regular-series events and were unable to qualify. But in their most recent Final, in 2017, they won and defeated eventual PyeongChang Olympic gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada.

In their stead, American training partners Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, the two-time U.S. dance champions, took the 2018 Grand Prix Final. Another team they train with in Montreal, Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates, also return to the Grand Prix Final after missing the Grand Prix regular season last year due to injury.

The ice dance field:

1. Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA)
2. Viktoria Sinitsina/Nikita Katsalapov (RUS)
3. Piper Gilles/Paul Poirier (CAN)
4. Madison Hubbell/Zach Donohue (USA)
5. Alexandra Stepanova/Ivan Bukin (RUS)
6. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA)

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

An American lens

Nathan Chen is making his fourth consecutive appearance in the Grand Prix Final, an event he’s won twice. The Yale sophomore will be the only American man in the field.

The American women have their first representative in the Grand Prix Final since 2015, when Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner competed. This is Tennell’s first appearance in a Grand Prix Final.

The top two American ice dance teams are into the Final: Hubbell and Donohue, who won the event last year, and Chock and Bates. Prior to missing last year’s Final, Chock and Bates made four straight Finals and won two silver medals. This should offer a preview of what audiences can expect at the U.S. national championships in January from these two teams, who train together in Montreal.

There hasn’t been a U.S. pair team in a Grand Prix Final since 2015 (Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim). Before that, Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker skated in the 2007 Grand Prix Final, but withdrew after the short program due to injury.

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

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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Coco Gauff delivers speech, demands change, promises to use platform

Coco Gauff
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Coco Gauff, the 16-year-old tennis star, delivered a speech at a peaceful protest in her hometown on Wednesday, demanding change and promising to use her platform to spread vital information.

“I’ve been spending all week having tough conversations, trying to educate my non-black friends on how they can help the movement,” Gauff told a crowd, holding an affixed microphone atop a lectern in front of Delray Beach City Hall in Florida, after her grandmother spoke. “You need to use your voice, no matter how big or small your platform is. You need to use your voice. I saw a Dr. [Martin Luther] King quote that said, ‘The silence of the good people is worse than the brutality of the bad people.'”

Earlier this week, Gauff posted links on her social media accounts — with more than 800,000 combined followers — to register to vote and a petition for justice for the death of George Floyd. On Wednesday, she shared video of her participating in a march, saying her hometown police chief was part of the group.

Click here for NBC News’ coverage of Floyd’s death and protests in Minneapolis and around the country.

Last summer, Gauff, then 15, became the youngest player to reach Wimbledon’s fourth round since Jennifer Capriati in 1991. She followed that with third- and fourth-round runs at the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, sandwiched between her first WTA Tour title.

The full text of the beginning of her speech, which she shared on social media:

“Hello everyone. My name is Coco, and who just spoke was my grandma. I think it’s sad that I’m here protesting the same thing that she did 50-plus years ago. So I’m here to tell you guys this: that we must, first, love each other no matter what. We must have the tough conversations with my friends. I’ve been spending all week having tough conversations, trying to educate my non-black friends on how they can help the movement. Second, we need to take action. Yes, we’re all out here protesting, and I’m not of age to vote, but it’s in your hands to vote for my future, for my brother’s future and for your future. So that’s one way to make change. Third, you need to use your voice, no matter how big or small your platform is. You need to use your voice. I saw a Dr. [Martin Luther] King quote that said, ‘The silence of the good people is worse than the brutality of the bad people.’ So, you need to not be silent, because if you are choosing silence, you’re choosing the side of the oppressor. So, I’ve heard many things this past week. One of the things I’ve heard is, well, it’s not my problem. This is why I have to tell you this. If you listen to black music. If you like black culture. If you have black friends. Then this is your fight, too. It’s not your job. It’s not your duty to open your mouth to say, ‘Lil Uzi Vert‘s my favorite artist, but I don’t care what happened to George Floyd.’ Now how does that make sense? So, I demand change now. It’s sad that it takes another black man’s life to be lost for all of this to happen, but we have to understand that this has been going on for years. This is not just about George Floyd. This is about Trayvon Martin. This is about Eric Garner. This is about Breonna Taylor. This is about stuff that’s been happening. I was 8 years old when Trayvon Martin was killed. So why am I here at 16 still demanding change? And it breaks my heart because I’m fighting for the future for my brothers. I’m fighting for the future for my future kids. I’m fighting for the future for my future grandchildren. So, we must change now, and I promise to always use my platform to spread vital information.”

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MORE: Olympic tennis: Key questions for Tokyo Games in 2021

Hayato Sakamoto, Japanese baseball MVP, tests positive for coronavirus

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Hayato Sakamoto, an MVP of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league, is one of two players from the Yomiuri Giants to test positive for the coronavirus, according to several Japanese media reports.

Sakamoto, a 31-year-old shortstop, and catcher Takumi Oshiro tested positive ahead of the NPB’s planned June 19 start to the season that had been delayed to the coronavirus.

The tests showed traces of the coronavirus, according to Kyodo News.

The Giants canceled Wednesday’s practice game with the Seibu Lions to limit the spread of the virus.

Sakamoto is the reigning Central League MVP. He has been called the Derek Jeter of Japan for playing the same position as the Yankee great and being the veteran captain of Japan’s equivalent club, the Giants, which own a record 22 Japan Series titles.

Sakamoto, who played in the last two World Baseball Classics, has been considered a lock for Japan’s baseball team at the Tokyo Games in 2021 as the most well known active player who hasn’t left for Major League Baseball. MLB is not expected to allow its top players to participate in the Olympics, which would keep the likes of Shohei Ohtani and Masahiro Tanaka off the Olympic roster.

The sport returns to the Olympic program for the first time since 2008, though it is not on the 2024 Olympic program nor guaranteed a place at the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

Japan reached the semifinals of all five Olympic baseball tournaments when the sport was previously on the medal program but never took gold.

In a 2018 survey, Sakamoto was ranked as Japan’s eighth-most popular athlete across all sports, foreign or domestic, active or retired.