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Isabell Werth, Olympics’ greatest equestrian, faces Tokyo question: which horse to take?

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Over 27 years after winning her first of six Olympic gold medals, German dressage rider Isabell Werth is beating herself in the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) world rankings.

Werth, 50, sits in second with her three-time World Cup winner and Olympic gold and silver medalist horse Weihegold Old, a 2005 Oldenburg mare. But it’s her self-described “dream horse” Bella Rose 2 who takes the FEI’s top spot.

Werth can only compete with one of the two horses at the Tokyo Games.

In less than a year span, she swept the 2018 Tryon World Equestrian Games, won her fifth World Cup title and took her 20th title at the European Championships. After a busy year, Werth has her sights set on a bigger goal: a sixth Olympics.

Already the winningest equestrian in Olympic history, at Tokyo, Werth could build on her collection of 10 Olympic medals and claim a gold medal from four different decades.

This would extend her era of winning Olympic titles from 24 years (tied for the women’s record) to 28, which would tie the overall record held by Hungarian fencer Aladar Gerevich.

Werth debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games, picking up team gold and individual silver on Gigolo FRH. The pair swept both the team and individual titles in 1996, and Gigolo went out on a high note, picking up one more team gold and individual silver in 2000 before retiring a few months later.

Werth returned to the Olympics in 2008 with Satchmo 78, taking team gold and individual silver.

After passing the bar eight years post-Barcelona, Werth worked in law and marketing until beginning her own training stable in 2004.

She initially thought she would retire from riding around her 30s—until Madeleine Winter-Schulze, a prominent and longtime supporter of German equestrians, offered her sponsorship that remains active to this day.

At the Rio Olympics, Werth was relegated to individual silver after Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin defended her individual dressage title, but two years later, Werth flipped the script to take gold in Tryon.

Like many elite equestrians, Werth started riding at a young age. She show jumped and evented as a teen until Uwe Schulten-Baumer, a six-time European Champion, introduced her to dressage and his horse Gigolo.

Unlike many riders at such an elite level, Werth is known for bringing her own horses along from the beginning stages to the world stage.

Werth, known as the “Dressage Queen,” first laid eyes on Bella Rose when the horse was 3 years old. Werth, already a four-time gold medalist with six World Equestrian Games titles, saw something special in the Westfalen mare.

“I saw her, and I got goosebumps,” Werth said. “I said, ‘Wow, the charisma of the horse, the way she moves, the way she showed herself, she presents herself and her character’ — that was what touched me in the first second. And then of course later on, I was really happy that she also was very, very kind and really motivated every day.”

In 2014, Bella Rose was part of Germany’s team gold at the World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France.

Then a stretch of soundness issues kept the mare out for the next four years. She announced her return to competition with a roar in Tryon, and then followed it up less than a year later with team gold, special gold and freestyle gold at the European Championships last August.

“Most people know that my heart is so close to this horse,” Werth has said about Bella Rose. “She is a gift. I saw that when I first met her as a three-year-old and she has never lost it.”

Sitting just below Bella Rose on the FEI dressage world rankings is Weihegold Old, Werth’s Rio mount. Together, they captured team gold and individual silver at the Rio Games.

As Tokyo approaches, Werth must decide between her No. 1 “dream horse” Bella and her proven Olympian Weihegold.

Chief among her concerns is the potential for extreme heat and humidity in Japan during summertime. Training in Germany can’t prepare a horse for those conditions.

“Of course, I have a little plan for each horse in my mind, but most of the time you have to be flexible because the horse makes their own plan,” Werth said. “We will see what happens next spring.”

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MORE: Former U.S. Olympic equestrian coach charged with attempted murder

Bradie Tennell delivers her punch, seizes figure skating nationals lead

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Bradie Tennell punched the air when she finished her winning short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships Thursday night.

For most athletes, that is a common reaction to a strong performance.

For Tennell, whose default mood is self-containment, it was an unusual outpouring of emotion.

And maybe it showed just how well she understood the way her choreographer, Frenchman Benoit Richaud, wanted her to perform a program in which her confident, sometimes sassy skating complimented the staccato, robotic music.

After all, she would be skating it in a look-at-me bright red dress.

When they first began working on the program, Richaud felt Tennell was characteristically trying to disappear into the woodwork by turning what were meant to be bold physical statements into understated movements.

“You need to make a splash,” he told her. “You need to feel like you’re the center of everyone’s attention.”

That is the last thing Tennell normally wants to be.

“It’s weird,” Tennell said. “I guess when I’m on the ice, that’s what I’m aiming for, but when I’m off the ice, I’m more introverted, so it’s not something I’m used to.”

Tennell, the 2018 U.S. champion, commanded the judges’ attention with a flawless performance begun with a strong triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination and ended with consecutive eye-catching spins. They gave her 78.96 points, leaving her 3.56 ahead of Alysa Liu, 14, who last year became the youngest senior champion in U.S. history.

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That is almost exactly the same situation as last year, when Tennell had a 2.71-point lead over Liu going into the free skate. Mistakes by Tennell and Liu’s higher-valued jump content reversed the order in the final standings.

Tennell was battling not only her reserved persona but nervousness over a lingering arm problem.

She had hit her elbow on a wall after a bad spill a few months ago, leading to swelling that went up and down intermittently since then. “For some reason, this week it got really swollen and really painful,” she said.

When she woke up Wednesday, she could not bend her arm. She went to the event medical staff for help. They told her she had an infected hematoma and gave her antibiotics. Her mother, an emergency room nurse for 25 years, added her expertise to the treatment.

That did not calm her nerves, though. It took the first jumping pass to do that.

“As soon as I landed the Lutz-toe, I was like, ‘I can get through this,’’’ she said.

Tennell has spent all season getting beaten by young Russians with more formidable jump arsenals. She insists being at such a disadvantage is not frustrating.

“I don’t think about it that way,” she said. “Luckily, I don’t have to compete against them here, so it’s not really on my mind this week.”

Yet a glance at the short program scores shows just how much an impact Liu’s more difficult jumps can have.

Liu started with a technical base value 5.18 points higher than Tennell’s. Despite Liu’s weaker spins and a wonky landing on a triple Axel, which resulted in a loss of 1.94 points on grade of execution, her overall technical score was only .16 behind Tennell’s.

“I did make a few mistakes,” Liu noted.

Liu’s base advantage increases in Friday free skate, where she plans to do two triple Axels and a quadruple lutz. Those three jumps are worth 10.4 points more than Tennell’s three highest-value jumps.

Of course, Liu has to execute those things, and ice is slippery, as Mariah Bell showed in falling on footwork at the end of her strong short program.

Bell (73.22) was third, 2.18 behind Liu. Amber Glenn was a close fourth (73.16) after giving the most captivating performance of the evening, flush with speed, power and emotion.

Karen Chen, the 2017 champion returning to nationals after a 2019 season lost to injury, was a solid fifth (70.41).

Two-time champion Gracie Gold, whose comeback from depression and an eating disorder has been widely celebrated, struggled to 13th. She botched the landing of a triple lutz and got no points after singling a planned triple loop.

The top three finished in the same order as a year ago. Once again, it was Tennell’s night. It isn’t so bad being the center of attention.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: Gracie Gold rebuilds herself to return to nationals

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 stuns Naomi Osaka at Australian Open; Serena upset, Federer escapes

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Perhaps Serena Williams, now 38, will win a 24th Grand Slam title someday.

And maybe Coco Gauff, still just 15, never will earn her first major championship.

Sure felt, though, as if a generational shift was being signaled Friday at the Australian Open, with a pair of monumentally significant third-round results hours apart in the same stadium: a surprising first-week loss by Williams, then a historic victory by Gauff.

First, Williams faltered down the stretch for her earliest exit at Melbourne Park in 14 years, a 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5 loss to 27th-seeded Wang Qiang of China. It pushed Williams’ gap between Slam trophies to three years.

“I’m way too old to play like this at this stage of my career,” Williams said. “Definitely going to be training tomorrow, that’s first and foremost — to make sure I don’t do this again.”

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Gauff also was planning a practice session for Saturday, but hers was to prepare for a fourth-round match.

That’s because the 67th-ranked Gauff took the latest step in her quick progression, becoming the youngest player in the professional era to eliminate the defending women’s champion at the Australian Open, beating former No. 1 Naomi Osaka 6-3, 6-4.

Only once the last point had been played did the preternaturally poised Gauff turn into a rather typical teen, joking about wanting to take “a selfie for Instagram” with Rod Laver, the 11-time major champion after whom the tournament’s main stadium is named.

“Honestly, like, what is my life? Like, oh, my gosh!” Gauff told the crowd. “Two years ago, I lost first round in juniors and now I’m here. This is crazy.”

It certainly is remarkable.

With a booming serve, a top-flight backhand and a winner’s mentality, Gauff reversed the result from the first time she was across the net from Osaka, a former No. 1 who already owns two major titles at the age of 22.

When they played each other at the U.S. Open last September, Osaka won in two quick sets and then consoled Gauff, encouraging her to speak to the spectators who were pulling for her.

One reminder of just how young Gauff is: Most of the entrants in this year’s junior Australian Open are older than she is.

Another: She is taking online classes and said she’s been given permission to turn in homework late, “considering the circumstances.”

Yet another: She doesn’t have an official driver’s license quite yet, stuck practicing behind the wheel with a learner’s permit.

But put a tennis racket in her hands and move out of the way: Gauff is now 8-2 in her nascent Grand Slam career, with three of those wins coming against women who have multiple major titles. Her next match is against No. 14 Sofia Kenin, a 21-year-old American who beat Zhang Shuai of China 7-5, 7-6 (7).

The most intrigue in men’s action came at the very end of the night — at nearly 1 a.m., actually, when Roger Federer reeled off the last six points to edge 47th-ranked Australian John Millman 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (8).

It lasted more than four hours in humid conditions, and Federer needed to overcome a hard-to-believe 48 unforced errors from his forehand and an 8-4 deficit in the last tiebreaker, which is first-to-10.

Federer had lost to Millman at the 2018 U.S. Open and it sure seemed this one might be headed that way again.

“Oh, God, it was tough,” Federer said.

Williams vs. Wang was a rematch from Flushing Meadows last season — and the reverse result also happened for them. At the U.S. Open, Williams won 6-0, 6-1 in 44 minutes.

Wang credited that with prompting her to spend more time in the gym so she could add more oomph to her shots.

“I always believed I could do this one day,” Wang said with a laugh. “I didn’t know which day.”

Like Wang, Gauff was much better Friday than in New York. Gauff’s improvement revealed itself in her serving — she put 15 of her initial 16 first serves in play — and her steadiness.

Gauff declared herself more calm for this matchup.

“That,” she decided, “made the difference.”

So did letting Osaka make the mistakes, 30 unforced errors in all, compared to 17 for Gauff.

With that, Gauff became the youngest player to beat a top-five opponent in a women’s tour-level match since Jennifer Capriati did it at 15 in 1991.

“You don’t want to lose to a 15-year-old, you know?” Osaka said.

So, Naomi, could you have done something differently?

“Put the ball in the court,” came the reply.

Williams had similar issues, and even though she went from a massive deficit to even as can be, she could not do what was required in the late going.

Down to what sure felt like her last chance, Williams came through with a cross-court forehand winner to close a 24-stroke point, then raised her arms, held that celebratory pose and looked over toward her guest box.

Finally, on her sixth try, after 1½ hours of action, she had managed to convert a break point against Wang. Soon enough, they were headed to a third set and it appeared that the comeback was on.

It turned out that Williams only was delaying a surprising defeat.

So tough at the toughest moments for so many years, Williams was the one who came undone, often displaying what she later called “the signature ‘Serena frustration’ look.”

Since grabbing major championship No. 23 at the 2017 Australian Open, while she was pregnant, Williams hasn’t added to her total.

She appeared in four major finals over the past two seasons, losing each one.

Williams owns seven trophies from the Australian Open and hadn’t lost as early as the third round at either of the hard-court Grand Slam tournaments — in Melbourne or at the U.S. Open — since all the way back in 2006.

This was the first Grand Slam tournament in 11 years with each of the top 10 seeded women reaching the third round. Who would have suspected Williams would be the first to lose, followed soon thereafter by No. 3 Osaka?

Williams was only seeded No. 8, on account of how infrequently she has competed since being away from the tour while having a baby in September 2017.

She started 2020 well enough, winning a hard-court tuneup title in Auckland, New Zealand, this month for her first trophy of any sort in three years — and first as a mom.

But Williams wasn’t able to carry that success to the Grand Slam level, where it matters the most to her.

She began her news conference by crediting Wang but eventually shifted to criticizing herself for not playing well enough to win.

“I didn’t return like Serena. Honestly, if we were just honest with ourselves, I lost that match,” Williams said. “I can’t play like that. I literally can’t do that again. It’s unprofessional. It’s not cool.”

MORE: Top U.S. tennis player unlikely to play Olympics

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