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Alina Zagitova took a break; what does that say about figure skating?

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All the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the potential end of Alina Zagitova’s competitive career at age 17 has had enough time to die down that everyone can take a less emotional look at the situation.

And what better time to do that than just before the Russian National Championships? Had Zagitova, reigning Olympic and world champion, been competing in Krasnoyarsk this week, she would have been hard-pressed to improve on her startlingly poor fifth-place finish of a year ago, when three junior skaters swept the senior podium. Those three are likely to get all the medals again.

Yes, Zagitova insisted in a clarification Instagram post two days after announcing her plans that she is only taking a competitive break, while performing in ice shows and continuing to train. Wait until she sees how much better it feels not to be beating herself up and down – trying to contend with skaters in just her own Moscow club like the current top three in the world and the 11-year-old girl who just landed a quadruple toe loop.

And this is a lot bigger story than whether one skating champion like Zagitova can no longer keep up with the competition.

That Zagitova is stepping away, at least temporarily, less than a year after winning worlds and less than two years after winning the Olympics seems singular on the surface, especially given how little time it took her to reach the top – from ninth at the Russian Junior Championships in 2015-16 to Olympic champion in 2018.

It is actually just a figure skating version of déjà vu all over again. Three previous examples of a seemingly early exit all predate — by 15 to 25 years — the jump revolution in women’s singles. Short careers are not unusual for Olympic champions.

*Oksana Baiul of Ukraine was 12th in the Soviet Championships in 1991, world champion in 1993, then, in 1994 at age 16, the second-youngest Olympic singles champion ever to that point. Having grown up poor as an orphan, Baiul immediately left Olympic-style competition for a career in what was, in 1994, a very lucrative professional scene.

*Tara Lipinski of the United States barely qualified for the free skate final at the 1996 Worlds (she wound up 15th), won the 1997 worlds at 14 and the 1998 Olympics at 15. Lipinski, now an NBC Sports analyst, still is the youngest world and Olympic singles champion ever. (Zagitova, No. 2, was 23 days older when she won the 2018 gold.) Lipinski turned pro a month after winning the 1998 Olympics.

*Sarah Hughes of the United States had a more predictable progression – fifth in the 2000 Worlds, third in 2001 – but her triumph at the 2002 Olympics still was utterly unexpected. Hughes won at 16 (she now is fifth-youngest ever), competed the next season, then went to college, eventually taking a one-year break from Yale to capitalize on her golden stature by skating on the Stars on Ice tour. Her final competition was the 2003 Worlds, in which she placed sixth.

*Adelina Sotnikova of Russia was 12 when she won her first of four senior national titles, 17 when she became the fifth-youngest Olympic champion at the time she won in 2014. Sotnikova caught lightning in a bottle; in her only senior worlds, a year before the Olympics, she was ninth. Her efforts to continue after the Olympics were compromised by injury, and her final competition was the 2015-16 Russian Championships 

Baiul and Hughes bookended a three-Olympiad period in which, to borrow from college basketball terminology, it was one and done.

Of course, few women’s Olympic champions continued competing past their season of triumph, so Sonja Henie of Norway (1928-32-36) of Norway and Katarina Witt of East Germany (84-88) are the only repeat winners. Yuna Kim of South Korea is the only one to have followed gold with another medal, a silver (2010-14.)

So why does Zagitova’s case seem so dramatically — and even cataclysmically — different?

Like everything in the social media age, it has been exaggerated by hot takes with woe-is-me, the sky-is-falling comments.

Truth be told, though, it is different for several reasons:

*The sport’s points-based scoring system has finally led to an unexpected exponential explosion in women’s jump difficulty this season.

“It has come so quickly,” said Finnish Olympian Kiira Korpi, 31, who retired in 2015 and now is a liberal arts student concentrating on psychology at The New School in Manhattan. “I don’t know if the word ‘shock’ is too strong, but it is a big surprise how fast the sport is changing. 

“It is not a new phenomenon that we have young skaters at the top – but not this kind of massive, massive evolution with the quads by these young skaters.”

*There now is a critical mass of these jumping phenoms, especially in Russia. Their dominance of the sport seems assured for the long term even if The Troika atop the sport now, aka The Three A’s — Alena Kostornaia (age 16), Alexandra Trusova (15) and Anna Shcherbakova (15) — do not make it past or even to the 2022 Olympics.

That means twentysomethings (and even late teens) have become “women of a certain age” in singles skating, with little-to-no chance for medals in major competitions at an age when artistic maturity and life experience has made them much more compelling performers than the little women (OK, girls) jumping onto the podiums.

When Hughes completed the first “baby ballerina” era in 2002, the other two medalists were 23 (Irina Slutskaya of Russia, who would go on to win bronze four years later) and 21 (Michelle Kwan of the United States.) When Sotnikova won in 2014, the podium also had two older skaters: Kim (23) and Carolina Kostner (27).

(Interestingly, the aggregate youngest Olympic podium was way back in 1956, with Tenley Albright, 20, and Carol Heiss, 16, of the U.S. and Ingrid Wendl, 15, of Austria. No idea if that provoked doomsaying.”

“That maturity is what many figure skating fans think is missing,” Korpi said. “In these young skaters’ programs, the jumps are amazing, but there is no so much room for artistry.”

Two seasons ago, Zagitova was a budding artist and on the technical cutting edge of her sport. Now, without a quad or a triple Axel, she simply is outmoded, old before her time.

It reminds me of how legendary coach Carlo Fassi once compared three U.S. skaters he had trained, world champion Jill Trenary (1990) and Olympic champions Dorothy Hamill (1976) and Peggy Fleming (1968).

“It’s like comparing a Porsche, 1956 Ford and Model-T,” Fassi said. “I’m sorry to compare Peggy to a Model T, but I was a bicycle when I competed.” 

Older women now are Model Ts in a sport full of Ferraris and McLarens. The question is why would they keep driving themselves?

Korpi, a three-time European Championships medalist, had the best results of her career from ages 22 through 24 (2010 through 2013.) Although recurrent injuries precipitated her retirement just before her 27th birthday, Korpi has a hard time imagining the idea of competing at that age today, even if she were healthy.

“Many skaters and coaches are struggling, because they know it is almost impossible to compete with these young girls,” Korpi said. “But it’s the sport you love, it’s what you do, so you have to kind of keep hope, to keep pushing.”

Denise Myers, who coaches 2018 U.S. champion Bradie Tennell, saw it similarly when asked why Tennell, soon 22, with no quads or triple Axel, hangs in when the gap between her and the world’s top skaters keeps getting bigger.

“She may never catch them, but we keep pushing forward, trying to improve on both components and technical,” Myers said. “She is not settling for where she is now.”

*Rules changes to rebalance the sport between technical and artistic may be hard to pass. They will seem to be targeting Russia at a time when interest in figure skating never has been higher there, while interest in the sport has declined significantly in North America and Western Europe. Russian skaters also are very popular in the sport’s biggest current hotbed, Japan.

Yet leaders of the sport’s governing body, the International Skating Union, are aware that the imbalance needs to be rectified – perhaps by raising minimum ages and/or by restricting the number of quad jumps and/or redoing some of the scoring system to give more weight to artistry as reflected in component scores that measure performance, composition of a program and interpretation of the music.

“The idea of raising the age limit is one possible solution and one of the main subjects being discussed at present, even among the top coaches,” said Fabio Bianchetti of Italy, chairman of the ISU singles and pairs technical committee. “The matter will very probably be considered at the next ISU Congress (summer 2020.)”

An 11th-hour, so-called “urgent” proposal for a higher age limit failed to get enough votes even to be discussed formally at the 2018 Congress. Since then, more of the sport’s influential voices are advocating for it, including decorated coach and TV commentator Tatiana Tarasova of Russia.

The current rule says skaters must be 15 by the July 1 before the ensuing season to compete as seniors. The talk has been of raising that minimum to 17 or 18.

“A higher age limit would make sense,” Korpi said. “Then you would make sure the technique for a quad is a technique that lasts beyond puberty, that skaters have longer careers than ages 14 to 17.”

It is too early to know whether skaters like The Troika will keep the big jumps as they mature physically. There is no doubt such jumps are easier for female skaters with pre-pubescent bodies – light, short, straight-line shapes. The three members of The Troika range from just under 5 feet tall to 5 foot, 1 inch.

It also is too early to know what the impact of doing the demanding jumps will be on the future health and well-being of the athletes doing them, since the women’s jump revolution is barely two years old. And it is the nature of elite athletes to keep pushing their sport forward by challenging physical limits.

Zagitova, whose body has matured into that of a woman, told the Olympic Channel in November she would need to lose six pounds (from where?) to reduce injury risk if she is to try quads.

Bianchetti thought the idea of limiting the number and types of quads women can do in the free skate “has merit” as a form of preventive medicine.

“There is no doubt that the health of all these ‘kids’ must be taken into serious consideration,” Bianchetti said.

Trusova has attempted five quads in a free skate, Shcherbakova three (Alysa Liu of the United States, 14, attempted two — plus two triple Axels — in the Junior Grand Prix Final.) Kostornaia for now is content with a free program that has two triple Axels, a jump added to her repertoire this season.

The scoring system values the big jumps so highly that anyone would be foolish not to work on them if their goal is the tangible rewards of success — titles and medals. The question of, “At what price?” has yet to be answered.

I once wrote this in the Chicago Tribune:

“On the surface, the changing face of the sport seems harmlessly cosmetic, with tiny teenagers doing stunning (…) tricks instead of more mature women mixing substance with style.

“But the problem is that the keen competition to perform more difficult and spectacular moves has sparked an ongoing physical self-selection process that is producing smaller and younger champions. Those little girls are then subjected to considerable physical and emotional stress as they are asked to achieve extreme levels of fitness and performance.”

That story, from late 1992, was about gymnastics. It could easily be written about figure skating in 2019.

“This is the part that I and many other people are worried about, the psychological and physical strain that doing these jumps and performing and training like professional athletes at such a young age are putting on children,” Korpi said.

“We need to be discussing whether it is impossible with the rules we are making to have our athletes healthy not only during their career but the rest of their lives. It’s not worth it to risk your physical and mental health for some external success that fades away very soon.”

Alina Zagitova will be an Olympic champion forever. 

She may have chosen just the right moment to back away and assure enjoying that forever status in good health.

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

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MORE: Figure skating season TV schedule

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.

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.”

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