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Russian Troika of teenage figure skaters drives into Grand Prix Final

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Johnny Weir calls them the Troika.

Russians Alexandra TrusovaAlena Kostornaia and Anna Shcherbakova, none older than 16 and all in their first senior international seasons, were the story of figure skating’s fall Grand Prix Series.

Armed with quads (virtually nonexistent at the senior women’s level) and triple Axels (rare until recently), they combined to sweep the six biggest competitions of October and November.

They compete against each other for the first time this season at this week’s Grand Prix Final in Turin, where they are favored to pull off a medals sweep for one nation that hasn’t been done in any discipline in 21 years.

“It isn’t just that they’re winning Grand Prix, they’re winning them by miles over more seasoned veterans and Olympic and world champions,” said Weir, a two-time U.S. Olympian and NBC Sports analyst. “The only people they can lose to are each other, it seems at this point.”

The jumping beans, who all train under Russian Eteri Tutberidze, are distinguishable.

Trusova, the two-time world junior champion who is now ranked No. 1 among seniors, has the best technical content — four quadruple jumps in a free skate, matching the top men. World champion Nathan Chen marveled at her quads from just off the ice at an October exhibition event in Japan, posting an Instagram story of a TV screen showing slow-motion replays captioned, “mind BLOWN.”

“I want to see longevity of it,” Chen said. “I hope that they’re able to continue throwing the quads, continue developing the consistency with the quads. I know that being at that age, you’re really prone to injuries through growth. I hope that they’re able to stay healthy.”

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On the same day that Kostornaia won the most recent Grand Prix (with a score just 1.02 points shy of Trusova’s world lead), an Instagram video was posted on Tutberidze’s account of Trusova landing a triple Axel that, if she adds it to competition programs, could make her unbeatable. 

“I remember talking to her coaches recently at Skate America, and Eteri saying out of the three, Trusova is the most aggressive, is the most fearless,” NBC Sports analyst and 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski said. “But artistically, she’s the weakest out of those three Russians, really struggles with connecting choreography between the jumps and difficult elements. Seamless transitions aren’t there and the skating quality isn’t there. She kind of just keeps her head down and skates from jump to jump. The jumps are really impressive, but I think her weakness is the component score.”

In separate interviews, Lipinski and Weir each dubbed Shcherbakova “the middle child.” Last season’s Russian senior national champion at age 14 has quads, but not as many as Trusova.

“She has great jumping ability, and, of course, she has a beautiful quad Lutz,” Weir said, “but I think, artistically, she is behind Kostornaia and, technically, of course she’s behind Alexandra Trusova.”

Kostornaia, who beat Trusova and Shcherbakova at last year’s Junior Grand Prix Final, is a favorite of Lipinski, Weir and traditional fans. She combines artistry and jumps like no other Russian. She doesn’t have a quad, but she does have a triple Axel that neither of her training partners has landed in competition.

“She can blend the two aspects of the sport together that makes her, I think, almost a hope for figure skating purists who are probably in this time of change quite worried about what will happen to ladies’ figure skating with all these quads,” Lipinski said. “She is the skater who is proving to everyone that you can technically advance the sport as she has with her triple Axels — and quads to come, I’m assuming — and also not forget about the balance of what figure skating’s all about and bringing the skating skills and skating quality and emotion to the ice.”

The title may be Trusova’s to lose because of her jumping prowess, but Weir said if women’s artistic judging was given the same weight as the men, it could be different. Men’s artistic scores are multiplied by one and two in the short and long programs, respectively. The women’s multipliers are .8 and 1.6.

“It could be an absolute runaway for Trusova until the [International Skating Union] changes the way that ladies’ skating is valued,” Weir said, “and I think it’s definitely time, just from an equality standpoint. Ladies are valued less on their skating skills and artistry than the men are.”

For now, it’s difficult for some of the world’s best skaters to keep up. That includes another Tutberidze pupil, reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova, who has not landed a quad or a triple Axel. Same goes for Bradie Tennell, who this year became the first U.S. woman to qualify for the Grand Prix Final since 2015.

“Right now, everyone is sort of waiting on [14-year-old U.S. champion] Alysa Liu [who is in this week’s junior field] to become [senior] age eligible by the next Olympics to carry the torch and be the face of American ladies’ skating, but Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell [second alternate for the Final] both had very strong Grand Prix seasons,” Weir said. “In a different year with a different shakeup of results over the events, both of them could have possibly made the Grand Prix Final.

“The fact that there are two strong American ladies, viable ladies to be in the mix is really encouraging, but going up against the three young Russians is hard for anyone from anywhere.”

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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Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis eyeing Grand Slam record

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Serena Williams travels with “like 50 masks” and has been a little bit of a recluse since early March and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t have full lung capacity, so I’m not sure what would happen to me,” Williams said Saturday, two days before the start of the WTA’s Top Seed Open in Lexington, Ky., her first tournament since playing Fed Cup in early February. “I’m sure I’ll be OK, but I don’t want to find out.”

Williams, 38, has a history of blood clots and pulmonary embolisms. She faced life-threatening complications following her Sept. 1, 2017, childbirth that confined her to a bed for six weeks. She said her daily routine was surgery and that she lost count after the first four.

More recently, Williams enjoyed “every part” of the last six months at home in Florida, her longest time grounded since her teens.

“I’ve been a little neurotic, to an extent,” on health and safety, she said. “Everyone in the Serena bubble is really protected.”

Williams is entered to play next week in Lexington and at consecutive tournaments in New York City later this month — the Western & Southern Open and U.S. Open, the latter starting Aug. 31.

Williams is the highest-ranked player in the Lexington field at No. 9. Others include 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, older sister Venus Williams and 16-year-old Coco Gauff.

She has been bidding ever since having daughter Olympia to tie Margaret Court‘s record 24 Grand Slam singles titles, albeit many of Court’s crowns came before the Open Era and, notably at the Australian Open, against small fields lacking the world’s best players. Williams reached the last two Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals, losing all of them.

She showed her seriousness in committing early to this year’s U.S. Open by installing a court at home with the same surface. Three of the top 10 female singles players already said they will skip the U.S. Open due to travel and/or virus concerns, including No. 1 Ash Barty.

“Tennis is naturally a socially distanced sport, so it was kind of easy to go back and just walk on my side of the court and have my hitter walk on his side of the court,” Williams said.

The French Open starts two weeks after the U.S. Open ends. Williams was asked if she will fly to Europe for tournaments this autumn.

“I see myself doing it all, if it happens,” she said.

The Tokyo Olympics are too far away to make plans.

“We’ll have to kind of wait to see what happens in the fall,” she said. “One thing I have learned with this pandemic is don’t plan.”

MORE: Past U.S. Open champions get wild cards

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Conseslus Kipruto tests positive for coronavirus, canceling world-record bid

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Conseslus Kipruto, the Olympic and world 3000m steeplechase champion, tested positive for the coronavirus without symptoms, which will keep him from a world-record chase on Friday, according to his social media.

The Kenyan was to race in the first in-person Diamond League meet of the year in Monaco on Friday.

“Our World is going through a challenging period and we all have to take our responsibilities,” was posted. “Unfortunately my covid-19 test, as part of the Monaco-protocol, came back positive and therefore I can’t be part of the Monaco Diamond League.

“I don’t have any symptoms and I was actually in great shape. I was planning to go for the WR: it has stayed too long outside Kenya. As the World & Olympic Champion I feel strongly its something I should go for as well.”

Kipruto, 25, is the 14th-fastest steepler in history with a personal best of 8:00.12. The world record is 7:53.63, set by Kenyan-born Qatari Saif Saaeed Shaheen in 2004.

Last year, Kipruto won the world title by .01, extending a streak of a Kenyan or Kenyan-born man winning every Olympic or world title in the event since the 1988 Seoul Games. He was sidelined by a stress fracture in his left foot until opening his season extremely late on Aug. 24.

MORE: Trayvon Bromell’s road back through destruction, death

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Our World is going through a challenging period and we all have to take our responsibilities. Unfortunately my covid-19 test, as part of the Monaco-protocol, came back positive and therefore I can’t be part of the Monaco Diamond League on August 14th. I don’t have any symptoms and I was actually in great shape. I was planning to go for the WR: it has stayed too long outside Kenya. As the World & Olympic Champion I feel strongly its something I should go for as well. Wish to thank Monaco for all the work they have done and I wish them and my colleagues a wonderful competition. Athletics is back and I will be back as well. Anyone willing to organise a steeple once I can be cleared? @diamondleaguemonaco #nike #quarantine #WR #Kenya

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