Nathan Chen, from flu-ridden on the floor, fights for 4th U.S. title

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Rafael Arutunian showed me a photo on his phone of Nathan Chen sleeping on the floor in a dressing room at Great Park Ice Arena when he was supposed to be practicing earlier this month.

Arutunian said he could have taken the same picture on eight days in the 2 1/2 weeks they spent together at his Irvine, Calif., training base during Chen’s semester break from Yale.

Arutunian would see the flu-ridden and feverish Chen curled up asleep, turn off the light, leave the room and wait until Chen woke up before trying to have him do any training.

In the past, Arutunian said, Chen could train through sickness. This time it was futile.

“He couldn’t move,” Arutunian said.

It wasn’t until about 10 days ago, after Chen returned to college on the East Coast, that he was able to do anything resembling training.

At that point, the coach knew he had to be more hands-on than usual, or as much as he could be from 3,000 miles away.

“This time, I was managing everything, calling every day to give him exactly what he needed to do to get ready for the U.S. Championships,” Arutunian said.

NATIONALS: Full results | World championships team named

What Chen did on the ice Saturday and Sunday left Arutunian shaking his head in admiration.

He landed six clean quads in six attempts, two in the short program Saturday, four in the free skate Sunday. The short program was of the surpassing excellence that forces writers to exhaust the superlatives in our language for accurate portrayals of his skating.

The free skate did not require consulting a dictionary for new ways to say extraordinary. That was not unexpected, given how diminished fitness figured to take a toll over the length of a free skate, four minutes, compared to the two minutes, 50 seconds in the short.

Yet Chen’s overall skating still drew superlatives from Arutunian, not a coach given to gushing.

“I don’t know anybody who could recover and do what he did after that sickness,” Arutunian said.

This time, his performance was one for historians more than lexicographers, making it one for the ages from a different perspective.

Chen, 20, became the first U.S. man to win four straight U.S. titles since Olympic champion Brian Boitano in 1988. Others who have done that since World War II include Olympic champions Scott Hamilton, David Jenkins, Hayes Jenkins and Dick Button, the last a winner of seven straight.

Chen was fifth at his only Olympics so far, in 2018.  He has won 10 straight events since, including two world titles, two Grand Prix Final titles and the third and fourth U.S. titles.

“It’s a huge deal for me to be able to take the next step to not necessarily being one of the legends but to sort of follow their footsteps,” Chen said. “These guys have done amazing things, well beyond what I have accomplished. It’s amazing to have that inspiration in front of you, to see how far I can take myself.”

For the fourth straight year, Chen was far ahead of his contemporaries, even if his winning margin of 37.29 points was less than any of the previous three: 58.21, 40.72, 55.44.

That smaller gap owed less to Chen’s flaws in the free skate than to Jason Brown’s having done what his coach, Tracy Wilson, thought was the best skating of Brown’s career, especially for its interpretive maturity.

Chen finished with 330.17 points to 292.88 for Brown and 278.08 for Tomoki Hiwatashi, who had a breakthough performance. World bronze medalist Vincent Zhou, who has had only a few weeks of good training after taking a leave from Brown University and moving to Toronto, was fourth at 275.23.

“A couple jump landings were a little shaky,” Chen said. “I wasn’t as controlled and calm as I was in the short program.”

Chen, Brown and Zhou were named to the U.S. team for the March world championships in Montreal. Better results over the past year, notably the world bronze, gave Zhou the third spot over Hiwatashi.

Brown, 25, once again failed to land a quadruple jump, with his quad toe attempt ending in a downgrade and two-footed landing. But he did everything else so brilliantly in a mesmerizingly beautiful performance to music from “Schindler’s List” that his individual grade of execution marks were higher than Chen’s. This was a Brown at a level he had not approached since his 2014 Olympic season.

“I think that was just a glimpse of what’s to come,” Brown said. “One hundred percent, it’s probably the best skating I have done. I think I still have a long way to go as far as the technical aspect as well as the skating skills, but as far as being strong and confident, I really feel things coming together.”

Chen, on the other hand, felt as unprepared as he ever had been for a nationals because of the illness. So he was “absolutely pleased” with his performance to music from the Elton John biopic, “Rocketman.”

“I was able to make good use of the week I had relatively healthy to sort of get myself back in check before this competition,” Chen said.  “I’ve had a lot of experience over the past few years competing in different sorts of situations, and that helped me here in how to still keep myself in a positive, confident mindset.”

Chen’s concession to his physical condition was no quad Lutz. His execution of three of the four quads he did, two toes, a salchow and a flip, was exceptional – especially the opening flip in combination and the final toe. The judges also rewarded him with 15 perfect component scores, six for composition and five for interpretation. 

As much as he impressed the judges, Chen impressed his coach more.

“Amazing,” Arutunian said. “Who else could do this?”

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: Why retired Adam Rippon was at nationals 

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2020 French Open women’s singles draw, results

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If Serena Williams is to win a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title at the French Open, she may have to go through her older sister in the fourth round.

Williams, the sixth seed, could play Venus Williams in the round of 16 at Roland Garros, which begins Sunday.

Serena opens against countrywoman Kristie Ahn, whom she beat in the first round at the U.S. Open. Serena could then get her U.S. Open quarterfinal opponent, fellow mom Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria, in the second round.

If Venus is to reach the fourth round, she must potentially get past U.S. Open runner-up Victoria Azarenka in the second round. Azarenka beat Serena in the U.S. Open semifinals, ending the American’s latest bid to tie Margaret Court‘s major titles record.

Venus lost in the French Open first round the last two years.

The French Open top seed is 2018 champion Simona Halep, who could play 2019 semifinalist Amanda Anisimova in the third round.

Coco Gauff, the rising 16-year-old American, gets 2019 semifinalist Jo Konta of Great Britain in the first round in the same quarter of the draw as Halep.

The field lacks defending champion Ash Barty of Australia, not traveling due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Also out: U.S. Open winner Naomi Osaka, citing a sore hamstring and tight turnaround from prevailing in New York two weeks ago.

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2020 French Open men’s singles draw, results

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Rafael Nadal was put into the same half of the French Open draw as fellow 2018 and 2019 finalist Dominic Thiem of Austria, with top-ranked Novak Djokovic catching a break.

Nadal, trying to tie Roger Federer‘s male record 20 Grand Slam singles titles, could play sixth-seeded German Alexander Zverev in the quarterfinals before a potential clash with Thiem, who just won the U.S. Open.

Djokovic, who is undefeated in 2020 save being defaulted out of the U.S. Open, could play No. 7 seed Matteo Berrettini of Italy in the quarterfinals before a possible semifinal with Russian Daniil Medvedev.

Medvedev is the fourth seed but is 0-3 at the French Open. Another possible Djokovic semifinal opponent is fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, who reached the fourth round last year.

The most anticipated first-round matchup is between three-time major champion Andy Murray and 2015 French Open champion Stan Wawrinka. In Murray’s most recent French Open match, he lost in five sets to Wawrinka in the 2017 semifinals.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

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