Getty Images

Rafael Nadal beats Nick Kyrgios, who honored Kobe Bryant at Australian Open

Leave a comment

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Rafael Nadal left the muttering and the preening, the underarm serving and the ’tweening, to his younger, flashier opponent, Nick Kyrgios.

Surely, Nadal was content to collect the win in the latest installment of their rivalry.

The No. 1-ranked Nadal kept his thoughts to himself and limited his shot-making to the more traditional variety in an entertaining 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (4) victory over home-crowd favorite Kyrgios on Monday to reach the Australian Open quarterfinals and get closer to a record-tying 20th Grand Slam title.

These two guys don’t like each other. But Nadal had nothing but nice things to say after improving his head-to-head record to 5-3 against Kyrgios.

“When he wants to play, when he is focused on what he’s doing, I think he’s a very important player for our sport,” Nadal said, “because he has a big talent and is one of these players that can be very, very interesting for the crowd.”

While Kyrgios was up to some of his usual trick shots and antics, what he never did was waver in his effort, something folks often accuse him of.

“Today,” Nadal said, “I think he played very serious, tried all the time his best.”

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

It certainly meant a lot to Kyrgios, who said: “I’m shattered to have lost tonight. These are the matches that I want to win the most.”

Here’s how the elevated stakes and tension affected both men: At 5-all in the pivotal third-set tiebreaker, Kyrgios double-faulted. That offered up a gift-wrapped set point. But Nadal failed to take advantage because he double-faulted right back.

Still, two points later, the 23rd-seeded Kyrgios put a forehand into the net, and the set was Nadal’s. Not long after, Kyrgios double-faulted again to get broken at love.

That put Nadal ahead 2-1 in the fourth, seemingly in charge.

“Against Nick,” Nadal would say afterward, “you are never (in) control.”

Sure enough, Nadal faltered while serving for the win at 5-4, double-faulting to create a pair of break points, the second of which Kyrgios converted with a jumping forehand and celebrated by throwing his head back and screaming. Spectators rose and roared and waved their Australian flags in support of the 24-year-old from Canberra.

“A scary game,” Nadal called it, acknowledging he was hampered by nerves.

But he regrouped and pulled the win out in the closing tiebreaker, which ended with Kyrgios putting a forehand into the net.

Sure, the cool, breezy conditions played to Nadal’s advantage and dulled Kyrgios’ power-based style. But there also was this: Nadal finished with more than twice as many winners as unforced errors, 64-27.

“I’d have to win a point three times to win a point,” Kyrgios said.

Kyrgios delivered 25 aces and some memorable moments — including walking out on court and warming up for the match in a No. 8 Los Angeles Lakers jersey to honor Kobe Bryant, the five-time NBA champion and 18-time All-Star who died in a helicopter crash Sunday at age 41.

Kyrgios switched to a No. 24 Bryant shirt for his post-match news conference and described himself as emotional at the news.

A video tribute to Bryant was played on the Rod Laver Arena scoreboards before Monday’s match.

On Wednesday, the 33-year-old Nadal’s 41st career Grand Slam quarterfinal will be against No. 5 Dominic Thiem in a rematch of the past two French Open finals, both won by Nadal.

The other men’s quarterfinal on the top half of the bracket is No. 7 Alexander Zverev vs. No. 15 Stan Wawrinka.

Nadal vs. Kyrgios was fascinating to watch, in part because of the quality of the play and in part because of the subplot of their negative feelings toward each other.

“When I criticized him in the past,” Nadal said, “it’s because I thought he did a couple of things that are not right and not the right image for our sport and for the kids.”

They traded verbal barbs through the media last year after Kyrgios beat Nadal at a tournament in Mexico (which is why a spectator kept yelling “Acapulco!” in the stadium Monday). When they met again at Wimbledon in July — with, coincidentally, the exact same scoreline as Monday — Kyrgios ripped a shot right at Nadal’s midsection, then refused to apologize.

Kyrgios came into this one following a five-set win that lasted nearly 4½ hours, sapping energy and emotion, and it appeared to hurt him in the early going.

Nadal, meanwhile, looked like he was just back from vacation — some fishing, some golf, some beach time — and fresh as can be. That spin-filled forehand of his was at its uppercutting best: Nadal accumulated eight forehand winners before Kyrgios managed to produce one.

The entire tenor shifted in the second set, which was preceded by a bit of confusion for Nadal. He left two rackets at his sideline seat while he headed to the bathroom after the opening set, telling a ballkid he wanted one re-strung. When Nadal returned, he realized the wrong one had been removed.

The show must go on, though, and Nadal generated three break points in the first game of the second set. Kyrgios erased the first with a 132 mph ace. The second vanished amid some of his typical outrageousness: Kyrgios chased down a lob and, back to the net, flicked the ball through his legs to prolong a point that ended when he bashed a forehand that forced an error. He took care of the third in a more traditional manner.

And then, 63 minutes in, Kyrgios earned his first break opportunity and used it for a 3-1 lead with a squash forehand passing shot that Nadal let float by. The ball landed on the back of the baseline and Kyrgios marked the occasion with a leap and a fist in the air.

Soon enough, it was a set apiece, and Kyrgios was strutting to the sideline with a towel dangling from his teeth.

Truthfully, Kyrgios should be “Mic’d Up” every time he plays, and his patter was strong, whether he was complimenting Nadal with “Too good!” or admonishing his entourage to “Say something!” or sarcastically criticizing himself by shouting “Well done!” after a bad backhand or smacking himself in the head with his racket.

Later he received a warning for destroying a racket by spiking it after flubbing a shot in the third-set tiebreaker. The way the fourth set ended probably angered Kyrgios, too, but he quickly packed up his things and left.

Comparing this loss with his last one to Nadal, Kyrgios said: “I felt a lot closer this time.”

MORE: Top U.S. tennis player leaning toward skipping Olympics

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

MORE: Takeaways from abbreviated 2019-20 winter sports season

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Laurie Hernandez, Maggie Haney react to coach’s suspension