As Alpine skiing World Cup starts, the men’s spotlight is shared

Henrik Kristoffersen, Alexis Pinturault
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Three men go into the World Cup Alpine skiing season with legitimate claims to alpha status, a little more than one year after the longtime dominant Marcel Hirscher retired.

Norwegians Aleksander Aamodt Kilde and Henrik Kristoffersen and Frenchman Alexis Pinturault are all on the start list for Sunday’s giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, the first of a scheduled 38 individual races through March. The coronavirus pandemic, plus the usual weather variables, will determine how many of those 38 races happen.

Kilde, the latest of Norway’s Attacking Vikings, won last season’s overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing, in anticlimactic fashion. The last seven races were canceled at the start of the pandemic. Kilde earned the crystal globe by a slim 54 points over Pinturault, who was a significant favorite after winning the Soelden opener last year.

Had the virus not wiped out the last two weekends, and Kilde and Pinturault repeated their average results per discipline, Kilde would have prevailed by just 28 points.

Kilde’s previous best overall finish was seventh in the era of Hirscher’s record eight straight overall titles. The 28-year-old from the same hometown as Magnus Carlsen owns zero senior world championships medals and won a single race in the 2019-20 season.

He eked by Pinturault with his consistency. The Frenchman won six races but had five fewer top-10s than Kilde.

But both Pinturault and, perhaps even more, Kristoffersen are targeted this season.

Kilde excels in the speed events of downhill and super-G. This year’s schedule includes a greater percentage than last year of the technical events of slalom and giant slalom — specialties for Pinturault and Kristoffersen.

If all three men repeat their average results per discipline from last season, Kristoffersen will win the overall by 124 points over Kilde.

“Henrik is the great favorite this year with this calendar,” Pinturault told French TV, according to Olympic Channel. “He’s a great slalomer, and slalom is the discipline with most races this year.”

Kristoffersen was ticketed as Hirscher’s successor in early 2014 — when he became, at 19, the youngest World Cup male race winner in 32 years and the youngest Olympic male Alpine skiing medalist in history. Kristoffersen, like Hirscher, is coached by his dad. He finished second or third in the overall each of the last five seasons.

Then there’s Pinturault, the most accomplished of the trio across disciplines with wins in super-G, giant slalom, slalom and combined. The 29-year-old led last season’s overall going into what turned out to be the last race, a downhill where Kilde finished second to move ahead.

Pinturault’s Norwegian mother, Hege, taught him to ski from age 2. He went from failing to finish or qualify for the second run in his first 14 World Cup starts to becoming France’s career wins leader and a triple Olympic medalist.

He had a volatile 2019-20. Pinturault won three giant slaloms, but finished no better than eighth in the other four. Pinturault earned his first slalom win in nearly six years, but he failed to finish four other slaloms.

“Pinturault still has yet to show that he can be consistent from the beginning of the year to the end,” NBC Sports analyst Steve Porino said. “Kristoffersen has marginally done so more to where he is more of a favorite for the overall, particularly because it’s tech heavy.”

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Frances Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz exit French Open, leaving no U.S. men

Frances Tiafoe French Open

Frances Tiafoe kept coming oh so close to extending his French Open match against Alexander Zverev: 12 times Saturday night, the American was two points from forcing things to a fifth set.

Yet the 12th-seeded Tiafoe never got closer than that.

Instead, the 22nd-seeded Zverev finished out his 3-6, 7-6 (3), 6-1, 7-6 (5) victory after more than 3 1/2 hours in Court Philippe Chatrier to reach the fourth round. With Tiafoe’s exit, none of the 16 men from the United States who were in the bracket at the start of the tournament are still in the field.

“I mean, for the majority of the match, I felt like I was in control,” said Tiafoe, a 25-year-old from Maryland who fell to 1-7 against Zverev.

“It’s just tough,” he said about a half-hour after his loss ended, rubbing his face with his hand. “I should be playing the fifth right now.”

Two other American men lost earlier Saturday: No. 9 seed Taylor Fritz and unseeded Marcos Giron.

No. 23 Francisco Cerundolo of Argentina beat Fritz 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5, and Nicolas Jarry of Chile eliminated Giron 6-2, 6-3, 6-7 (7), 6-3.

There are three U.S women remaining: No. 6 Coco Gauff, Sloane Stephens and Bernarda Pera.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men | Broadcast Schedule

It is the second year in a row that zero men from the United States will participate in the fourth round at Roland Garros. If nothing else, it stands as a symbolic step back for the group after what seemed to be a couple of breakthrough showings at the past two majors.

For Tiafoe, getting to the fourth round is never the goal.

“I want to win the trophy,” he said.

Remember: No American man has won any Grand Slam title since Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open. The French Open has been the least successful major in that stretch with no U.S. men reaching the quarterfinals since Andre Agassi in 2003.

But Tiafoe beat Rafael Nadal in the fourth round of the U.S. Open along the way to getting to the semifinals there last September, the first time in 16 years the host nation had a representative in the men’s final four at Flushing Meadows.

Then, at the Australian Open this January, Tommy Paul, Sebastian Korda and Ben Shelton became the first trio of Americans in the men’s quarterfinals in Melbourne since 2000. Paul made it a step beyond that, to the semifinals.

After that came this benchmark: 10 Americans were ranked in the ATP’s Top 50, something that last happened in June 1995.

On Saturday, after putting aside a whiffed over-the-shoulder volley — he leaned atop the net for a moment in disbelief — Tiafoe served for the fourth set at 5-3, but couldn’t seal the deal.

In that game, and the next, and later on, too, including at 5-all in the tiebreaker, he would come within two points of owning that set.

Each time, Zverev claimed the very next point. When Tiafoe sent a forehand wide to end it, Zverev let out two big yells. Then the two, who have been pals for about 15 years, met for a warm embrace at the net, and Zverev placed his hand atop Tiafoe’s head.

“He’s one of my best friends on tour,” said Zverev, a German who twice has reached the semifinals on the red clay of Paris, “but on the court, I’m trying to win.”

At the 2022 French Open, Zverev tore ligaments in his right ankle while playing Nadal in the semifinals and had to stop.

“It’s been definitely the hardest year of my life, that’s for sure,” Zverev said. “I love tennis more than anything in the world.”

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2023 French Open women’s singles draw, scores

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At the French Open, Iga Swiatek of Poland eyes a third title at Roland Garros and a fourth Grand Slam singles crown overall.

The tournament airs live on NBC Sports, Peacock and Tennis Channel through championship points in Paris.

Swiatek, the No. 1 seed from Poland, can join Serena Williams and Justine Henin as the lone women to win three or more French Opens since 2000.

Having turned 22 on Wednesday, she can become the youngest woman to win three French Opens since Monica Seles in 1992 and the youngest woman to win four Slams overall since Williams in 2002.

FRENCH OPEN: Broadcast Schedule | Men’s Draw

But Swiatek is not as dominant as in 2022, when she went 16-0 in the spring clay season during an overall 37-match win streak.

She retired from her last pre-French Open match with a right thigh injury and said it wasn’t serious. Before that, she lost the final of another clay-court tournament to Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus.

Sabalenka, the No. 2 seed, is her top remaining challenger in Paris.

No. 3 Jessica Pegula, the highest-seeded American man or woman, was eliminated in the third round. No. 4 Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, who has three wins over Swiatek this year, withdrew before her third-round match due to illness.

No. 6 Coco Gauff, runner-up to Swiatek last year, is the best hope to become the first American to win a Grand Slam singles title since Sofia Kenin at the 2020 Australian Open. The 11-major drought is the longest for U.S. women since Seles won the 1996 Australian Open.

MORE: All you need to know for 2023 French Open

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2023 French Open Women’s Singles Draw

French Open Women's Singles Draw French Open Women's Singles Draw French Open Women's Singles Draw French Open Women's Singles Draw