Alexis Pinturault will remember an Alpine skiing season, and offseason, unlike any other

Alexis Pinturault
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Two months before it began, Frenchman Alexis Pinturault knew this past Alpine skiing World Cup season would be like no other in his 10-year career.

Last August, he received a message from Austrian rival Marcel Hirscher‘s team. Hirscher, the record eight-time World Cup overall champion, among the greatest all-time ski racers, was going to announce his retirement.

They wanted Pinturault, who four times finished second or third behind Hirscher in the overall standings, to be one of the skiers to film a message for Hirscher’s live-streamed farewell announcement.

Pinturault was shocked that Hirscher, who at last earned elusive Olympic gold medals in 2018, was walking away at age 30.

Like many who follow the sport, Pinturault knew Hirscher teased retirement for years, saying at the end of seasons that he didn’t know if he would return the following autumn. But Hirscher, who carved snow while carrying the immense weight of Austria’s biggest star in its national sport, had always showed up again.

“That’s the reason why I didn’t really believe it at the beginning [of 2019], when he started to say, yeah, I’m not sure I will continue,” Pinturault said this week by phone from Courchevel. “I didn’t really want to accept it because, as I said, I never expect it. And also, I think, I really like my rivalry with Marcel because he was a really strong opponent, and he was bringing many good things for the sport. But also for me, because to push always the limit is something really valuable also.”

In Hirscher’s exit interview, he was asked to predict a successor as the new king of the sport. He noted Henrik Kristoffersen of Norway and Pinturault, the latter finishing runner-up to Hirscher the previous season.

Pinturault acknowledged the new expectations going into the World Cup opener in Soelden, Austria, on Oct. 27. He won the Rettenbach glacier giant slalom by .54 of a second. Kristoffersen was 18th. The favorite for the biggest annual prize in Alpine skiing became clear.

“It’s not so easy for us that Marcel isn’t there anymore,” Pinturault said that day, according to The Associated Press. “We have a lot of pressure, more than before. Usually all the pressure was on Marcel. But this is a wonderful start for me.”

Pinturault won five more times that winter. He led the overall standings by a slim 26 points going into the last eight races of the season in March. Then the World Cup Finals in Italy were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, leaving a downhill and super-G in Norway and a giant slalom and slalom in Slovenia.

Norwegian Aleksander Aamodt Kilde took second in the downhill, as part of an ascendant campaign, to overtake Pinturault by 54 points. Kilde, whose best previous overall finish was seventh, was the latest in his nation’s line of Attacking Vikings, known for prowess in the speed events of downhill and super-G.

Pinturault, better in giant slalom and slalom, remained confident. The last super-G was canceled due to poor weather. He could still outscore Kilde in the giant slalom and slalom in Slovenia to snatch the title.

“Everything was still possible,” said Pinturault, bidding to become the first French man or woman to claim the overall since Luc Alphand in 1997.

Then that Thursday, two days before the season-ending races in Slovenia, Pinturault returned from morning training. He received a text message from the International Ski Federation. The races in Slovenia were canceled due to coronavirus concerns. The season was over. Kilde was overall champion.

“It was, I would say, really big disappointment, but also something I was thinking about and expecting a little bit,” Pinturault said. Kilde texted the Frenchman, appreciating their tight title battle through the winter. Pinturault replied with his own well wishes.

“He was the most — how do you say — regular athlete the whole winter,” Pinturault said of Kilde, who had one victory all season but finished in the top 10 a total of 22 times (to Pinturault’s 17). “He didn’t get a lot of victories, but he was always there.”

Pinturault, whose Norwegian mother, Hege, taught him to ski (first on skis at age 2), retreated to France. He had grown up in the ski resort of Annecy, where his dad operated the luxury Hotel Annapurna.

The nation went on containment on March 17, a week after the Slovenian races were canceled.

Pinturault celebrated his 29th birthday with family on March 20. Around that time, older sister Sandra and their dad began feeling sick. Then Pinturault and his other sibling, younger brother Cedric, started to feel symptoms: headaches (“not that bad”) and a fever. Then the loss of taste and smell.

“This stays for 10 days at least,” Pinturault said. “Those 10 days were very special because you don’t really know when it will come back.”

Then Pinturault’s wife since 2017, Romaine, got sick. The Pinturaults’ cases were mild enough that none needed hospitalization. Alexis didn’t get checked out until after his symptoms faded. He took an antibody test.

“I was positive in everything,” he said. “It was not big deal. I was still able to live, so walking, cooking, walking outside, playing a little bit. Of course I was ill, and I felt not that great, but it was never that bad that I had to stay in bed and sleep and hoping that it was getting better. For me, at least, it was pretty OK.”

This week, Pinturault trained at the French Alps resort of Courchevel feeling, he estimated, 90 percent. Not quite fully recovered. But still confident he would travel to Val d’Isere for more ski training before a summer break.

Pinturault chose a ski career over soccer at age 15, then debuted on the World Cup at age 17. In his first 14 races over nearly two years, he failed to finish all of them, either skiing out or not qualifying for a second run.

Then in his 15th, Pinturault placed sixth from bib 62 (podium finishers are usually among the first 30 racers). His senior career took off. He would eventually become France’s all-time World Cup wins leader, earn three Olympic medals and a 2019 World title in the combined.

The 2019-20 season was characterized by learning, Pinturault said. Then the virus. In one way, it did not hit him too hard. “Like a big cold,” he said. In another way, its affect on the end of the World Cup season, it was more difficult to handle.

“That was, for me, the hardest,” he said. “It was more about the head. You are a little bit depressed.”

Pinturault continued, noting it was not a situation he could control. He is proud of how he raced during a season where, for the first time, he was the targeted star. He feels confident of stepping up again whenever racing resumes.

“Nobody wanted to live this situation,” he said. “All I could do, I made it really good.”

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Primoz Roglic wins Giro d’Italia over Geraint Thomas

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Primoz Roglic expanded his Grand Tour portfolio by winning the Giro d’Italia on Sunday to add to his three Spanish Vuelta titles.

The former ski jumper became the first Slovenian rider to win the Giro and he did it in dramatic fashion, claiming the lead in the penultimate stage — taking the pink jersey from Geraint Thomas in Saturday’s mountain time trial.

It was the direct opposite of what happened in the 2020 Tour de France, when fellow Slovenian Tadej Pogacar took the lead from Roglic in another penultimate-day mountain time trial.

During the podium celebration, Roglic’s son, Lev, joined him on the stage and seemed more excited than his dad.

“I’m trying to enjoy all the emotions, and everything that happened yesterday,” Roglic said. “At the end, it’s always nice to win, in this spectacular city … all these amazing buildings, it’s super beautiful.”

Riding a pink bike and wearing a pink helmet and pink socks, Roglic took it easy during the mostly ceremonious final stage, an 84-mile leg through the cobblestoned streets of Rome that concluded next to the Roman Forum.

Mark Cavendish, who recently announced that he will retire at the end of this season, won the 21st and final stage in a sprint finish.

Roglic, who rides for the Jumbo-Visma team, finished 14 seconds ahead of Thomas and 1 minute, 15 seconds ahead of Joao Almeida in the overall standings.

It’s the smallest finishing gap between the top riders in the Giro since Eddy Merckx won by 12 seconds ahead of Gianbattista Baronchelli in 1974.

Roglic’s time trial victory on Monte Lussari was his only stage win of the race. He was injured after crashing on a wet and slippery descent in Stage 11, one of several falls he had during the three-week race.

It was Cavendish’s 17th career stage win in the Giro, to go with his 34 victories at the Tour de France and three at the Vuelta — for a total of 54 stage wins at Grand Tours. The British rider started his sprint early enough that he was ahead of a crash in the final straight involving several competitors.

Also, at age 38 Cavendish became the oldest rider to win a Giro stage, beating the record held by Paolo Tiralongo, who was 37 when he won a stage in 2015.

“It was a long hard slog to get here to the end of the Giro but we’ve come close a couple of times before and my boys did incredible,” Cavendish said. “I’m pretty emotional, to be fair.

“My first Grand Tour victory was in 2008 in the Giro, down in Reggio Calabria,” Cavendish added. “To win here in Rome it’s beautiful. That’s a bucket-list win to do, outside the Colosseum.”

Alex Kirsch finished second in the stage and Filippo Fiorelli crossed third.

Cavendish will next attempt to break his tie with Merckx for the most career wins at the Tour.

Roglic has now won all three races he’s entered this year after also finishing first in the Tirreno-Adriatico and the Volta a Catalunya — both week-long races.

Roglic, who excels at climbing, descending and time trialing — won three consecutive Vueltas in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

Before he became a professional cyclist, the 33-year-old Roglic was a competitive ski jumper. He won a gold medal in the team jumping event for Slovenia at the 2007 junior Nordic ski world championships. He stopped jumping in 2012 and took up cycling.

The final stage concluded with six loops of an 8.5-mile circuit in the center of Rome, taking the peloton past the Baths of Caracalla, the Colosseum, the Vatican and the Circus Maximus.

The 24-year-old Almeida won the white jersey as the race’s top under-25 rider. Thibaut Pinot won the mountains classification and Jonathan Milan won the points classification.

The Tour de France starts July 1, airing on NBC Sports and Peacock.

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French Open: Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk says crowd ‘should be embarrassed’ for booing her

Marta Kostyuk, Aryna Sabalenka
Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus (left) and Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine before their French Open first round match./Getty
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Unable to sleep the night before her first-round match at the French Open against Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, the Grand Slam tournament’s No. 2 seed, Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine checked her phone at 5 a.m. Sunday and saw disturbing news back home in Kyiv.

At least one person was killed when the capital of Kostyuk’s country was subjected to the largest drone attack by Russia since the start of its war, launched with an invasion assisted by Belarus in February 2022.

“It’s something I cannot describe, probably. I try to put my emotions aside any time I go out on court. I think I’m better than before, and I don’t think it affects me as much on a daily basis, but yeah, it’s just — I don’t know,” Kostyuk said, shaking her head. “There is not much to say, really. It’s just part of my life.”

That, then, is why Kostyuk has decided she will not exchange the usual postmatch pleasantries with opponents from Russia or Belarus. And that is why she avoided a handshake — avoided any eye contact, even — after losing to Australian Open champion Sabalenka 6-3, 6-2 on Day 1 at Roland Garros.

What surprised the 20-year-old, 39th-ranked Kostyuk on Sunday was the reaction she received from the spectators in Court Philippe Chatrier: They loudly booed and derisively whistled at her as she walked directly over to acknowledge the chair umpire instead of congratulating the winner after the lopsided result. The negative response grew louder as she gathered her belongings and walked off the court toward the locker room.

“I have to say,” Kostyuk said, “I didn’t expect it. … People should be, honestly, embarrassed.”

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Kostyuk is based now in Monaco, and her mother and sister are there, too, but her father and grandfather are still in Kyiv. Perhaps the fans on hand at the clay-court event’s main stadium were unaware of the backstory and figured Kostyuk simply failed to follow usual tennis etiquette.

Initially, Sabalenka — who had approached the net as if anticipating some sort of exchange with Kostyuk — thought the noise was directed at her.

“At first, I thought they were booing me,” Sabalenka said. “I was a little confused, and I was, like, ’OK, what should I do?”

Sabalenka tried to ask the chair umpire what was going on. She looked up at her entourage in the stands, too. Then she realized that while she is aware Kostyuk and other Ukrainian tennis players have been declining to greet opponents from Russia or Belarus after a match, the spectators might not have known — and so responded in a way Sabalenka didn’t think was deserved.

“They saw it,” she surmised, “as disrespect (for) me.”

All in all, if the tennis itself was not particularly memorable, the whole scene, including the lack of the customary prematch photo of the players following the coin toss, became the most noteworthy development on Day 1 in Paris.

The highest-seeded player to go home was No. 7 Maria Sakkari, who lost 7-6 (5), 7-5 to 42nd-ranked Karolina Muchova in what wasn’t necessarily that momentous of an upset. Both have been major semifinalists, and Muchova has won her past four Slam matches against players ranked in the top 10 — including beating Sakkari at the French Open last year. Also out: No. 21 Magda Linette, a semifinalist at the Australian Open, who was beat 6-3, 1-6, 6-3 by 2021 U.S. Open runner-up Leylah Fernandez, and No. 29 Zhang Shuai.

The first seeded man to bow out was No. 20 Dan Evans, eliminated 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 by wild-card entry Thanasi Kokkinakis. No. 11 Karen Khachanov, a semifinalist at the past two majors, came all the way back after dropping the opening two sets to beat Constant Lestienne, a French player once banned for gambling, by a 3-6, 1-6, 6-2, 6-1, 6-3 score in front of a boisterous crowd at Court Suzanne Lenglen. Two-time Slam finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas came within a point of being forced to a fifth set, too, but got past Jiri Vesely 7-5, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (7). No. 24 Sebastian Korda, who missed three months after hurting his wrist at the Australian Open, was a straight-set winner in an all-American matchup against Mackenzie McDonald, the last player to face — and beat — Rafael Nadal. The 14-time French Open champion has been sidelined with a hip injury since that match in January.

Sabalenka called Sunday “emotionally tough” — because of mundane, tennis-related reasons, such as the nerves that come with any first-round match, but more significantly because of the unusual circumstances involving the war.

“You’re playing against (a) Ukrainian and you never know what’s going to happen. You never know how people will — will they support you or not?” explained Sabalenka, who went down an early break and trailed 3-2 before reeling off six consecutive games with powerful first-strike hitting. “I was worried, like, people will be against me, and I don’t like to play when people (are) so much against me.”

A journalist from Ukraine asked Sabalenka what her message to the world is with regard to the war, particularly in this context: She can overtake Iga Swiatek at No. 1 in the rankings based on results over the next two weeks and, therefore, serves as a role model.

“Nobody in this world, Russian athletes or Belarusian athletes, support the war. Nobody. How can we support the war? Nobody — normal people — will never support it. Why (do) we have to go loud and say that things? This is like: ‘One plus one (is) two.’ Of course we don’t support war,” Sabalenka said. “If it could affect anyhow the war, if it could like stop it, we would do it. But unfortunately, it’s not in our hands.”

When a portion of those comments was read to Kostyuk by a reporter, she responded in calm, measured tones that she doesn’t get why Sabalenka does not come out and say that “she personally doesn’t support this war.”

Kostyuk also rejected the notion that players from Russia or Belarus could be in a tough spot upon returning to those countries if they were to speak out about what is happening in Ukraine.

“I don’t know why it’s a difficult situation,” Kostyuk said with a chuckle.

“I don’t know what other players are afraid of,” she said. “I go back to Ukraine, where I can die any second from drones or missiles or whatever it is.”

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