Madison Hubbell, Zachary Donohue turn to a legend for final Olympic ice dance run

Madison Hubbell, Zachary Donohue
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Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue know just how difficult it can be to reach the top of American ice dancing. It took seven years the first time around.

Now, after a hiccup U.S. silver medal last season, they strive to not only regain their national title, but to also win an Olympic gold medal. Hubbell and Donohue have 16 months until what they plan to be their second and final Olympics together in Beijing.

“It’s really sad to think that, in 18 months, show skating will be my only option of skating with Zach,” Hubbell said before Skate America, the first top-level competition in eight months, starts Friday in Las Vegas without ticketed spectators.

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Hubbell and Donohue, partners since May 2011, may compete beyond the Beijing Winter Games, but not together as far as the 2026 Olympics in Italy, their agent confirmed this week. No U.S. ice dance couple has ever competed in three consecutive Olympics.

From 2011 through 2017, Hubbell and Donohue finished third or fourth at the U.S. Championships.

Their time didn’t come until a month before the PyeongChang Olympics, after Sochi gold medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White stepped away from competition and subsequent turns from Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani at nationals (and trips to the world championships podium).

After that breakthrough national title, they just missed an Olympic medal after free dance errors in PyeongChang.

Hubbell and Donohue rebounded for silver at the March 2018 World Championships, then went undefeated in the fall 2018 Grand Prix Series (winning the Final in the absence of world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France), repeated as national champions and won another world medal in 2019 (bronze).

The 2019-20 season felt a little bit like a struggle, Hubbell said. After winning Skate America, they dropped to second at Skate Canada and third at the Grand Prix Final. Chock and Bates supplanted them at the U.S. Championships.

In their last competition before the pandemic, Hubbell and Donohue topped the rhythm dance at February’s Four Continents Championships and ended up third after the free dance.

“The pieces didn’t come together at the beginning of the season, and we didn’t perform our best, and it kind of shook us more than we expected,” Hubbell said. “Certainly coming in silver at Skate Canada made us kind of doubt our programs, doubt where we were. And once that little seed gets planted, it proved to be a more mental game for us last year. I think we have all the pieces, we have the talent to make our goals, but we just weren’t really believing in ourselves.”

Hubbell and Donohue felt they finally put the puzzle together before March’s world championships at their training base of Montreal. But that event was postponed one week before it was to start and later canceled.

Between then and now, Hubbell and Donohue added a very notable name to their team: 2010 and 2018 Canadian Olympic ice dance champion Scott Moir, a former training partner who helped choreograph their free dance to “Hallelujah.”

“You just want to win the Olympics when you talk to him,” Hubbell said. “He’s very motivational.”

Moir knows all about returning to the top of ice dance.

With Tessa Virtue, he won Olympic gold in Vancouver. After silver in Sochi behind Davis and White, they took two full seasons off. It was around this time in the last Olympic cycle that they came back to top-level competition, winning all but one of their starts en route to another world title and Olympic title before retiring.

“[Moir] came back the last two years with exactly the intention that we want to have the next two years, doing it for the love of skating, doing it for creating these moments together,” Hubbell said.

Donohue said their mindset shifted from replicating an idea they didn’t fully understand to creating, exploring and feeling authentic in everything they’re doing.

“They said, this season in particular, they’ve been able to reignite that spark, that motivation, which they themselves admitted was lacking last season,” said Tanith White, an NBC Sports analyst and 2006 Olympic silver medalist. “They’re not the type to be shy when talking about their goals. So, they told me outright, ‘We want to win the gold medal at the 2022 Olympic Games.'”

To do that, they must get past Papadakis and Cizeron, whose only defeats from December 2014 through 2019 were to Virtue and Moir.

The French were undefeated since a silver medal in PyeongChang until last January’s European Championships — when Russians Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov edged them by .14 of a point.

That upset came on the same day that Hubbell and Donohue were dethroned at the U.S. Championships, after which Hubbell said of the unpredictable Euros result, “There’s nothing more boring than knowing the outcome before it happens.”

Hubbell and Donohue bid this weekend to join Davis and Charlie White and Tanith White and Ben Agosto as the only dance couples to three-peat at Skate America. They may not face Chock and Bates until the U.S. Championships in January, and Papadakis and Cizeron at the world championships in March.

“Last season showed that it’s not impossible,” to defeat Papadakis and Cizeron, Tanith White said. “I don’t think anyone will be headed to the Beijing Games assured that the gold is theirs. A lot of it is going to come down to the right program selection for each team.”

NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.

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Germany opens bobsled worlds with double gold; Kaillie Humphries gets silver

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Germans Laura Nolte and Johannes Lochner dethroned the reigning Olympic and world champions to open the world bobsled championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, this weekend.

Nolte, the Olympic two-woman champion driver, won the four-run monobob by four tenths of a second over American Kaillie Humphries, who won the first world title in the event in 2021 and the first Olympic title in the event in 2022. Another German, Lisa Buckwitz, took bronze.

In the two-man, Lochner became the first driver to beat countryman Francesco Friedrich in an Olympic or world championships event since 2016, ending Friedrich’s record 12-event streak at global championships between two-man and four-man.

Friedrich, defeated by 49 hundredths, saw his streak of seven consecutive world two-man titles also snapped.

Lochner, 32, won his first outright global title after seven Olympic or world silvers, plus a shared four-man gold with Friedrich in 2017.

Swiss Michael Vogt drove to bronze, one hundredth behind Friedrich. Geoff Gadbois and Martin Christofferson filled the top American sled in 18th.

Americans Steven Holcomb and Steven Langton were the last non-Germans to win a world two-man title in 2012.

Bobsled worlds finish next weekend with the two-woman and four-man events.

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Novak Djokovic wins 10th Australian Open, ties Rafael Nadal for most men’s Slam titles

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic climbed into the Rod Laver Arena stands to celebrate his 10th Australian Open championship and record-tying 22nd Grand Slam title Sunday and, after jumping and pumping his fists with his team, he collapsed onto his back, crying.

When he returned to the playing surface, Djokovic sat on his sideline bench, buried his face in a white towel and sobbed some more.

This trip to Australia was far more successful than that of a year ago, when he was deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19. And Djokovic accomplished all he could have possibly wanted in his return: He resumed his winning ways at Melbourne Park and made it back to the top of tennis, declaring: “This probably is the, I would say, biggest victory of my life.”

Only briefly challenged in the final, Djokovic was simply better at the most crucial moments and beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5). As a bonus, Djokovic will vault from No. 5 to No. 1 in the ATP rankings, a spot he already has held for more weeks than any other man.

“I want to say this has been one of the most challenging tournaments I’ve ever played in my life, considering the circumstances. Not playing last year; coming back this year,” Djokovic said, wearing a zip-up white jacket with a “22” on his chest. “And I want to thank all the people that made me feel welcome, made me feel comfortable, to be in Melbourne, to be in Australia.”

The 35-year-old from Serbia stretched his unbeaten streak in Melbourne to 28 matches, the longest run there in the Open era, which dates to 1968. He adds trophy No. 10 to the seven from Wimbledon, three from the U.S. Open — where he also was absent last year because of no coronavirus shots — and two from the French Open, to match rival Rafael Nadal for the most by a man.

Only two women — Margaret Court, with 24, and Serena Williams, with 23 — are ahead of him.

This was also the 93rd ATP tour-level title for Djokovic, breaking a tie with Nadal for the fourth-most.

“I would like to thank you for pushing our sport so far,” Tsitsipas told Djokovic.

Djokovic was participating in his 33rd major final, Tsitsipas in his second — and the 24-year-old from Greece also lost the other, at the 2021 French Open, to Djokovic.

On a cool evening under a cloud-filled sky, and with a soundtrack of chants from supporters of both men prompting repeated pleas for quiet from the chair umpire, Djokovic was superior throughout, especially so in the two tiebreakers.

He took a 4-1 lead in the first, then reeled off the last three points. He led 5-0 in the closing tiebreaker and, when it finished, he pointed to his temple before screaming, a prelude to all of the tears.

“Very emotional for us. Very emotional for him,” said Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic. “It’s a great achievement. It was a really tough three weeks for him. He managed to overcome everything.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Tsitsipas was willing to engage in the kind of leg-wearying, lung-searing back-and-forths upon which Djokovic has built his superlative career. How did that work out? Of points lasting at least five strokes, Djokovic won 43, Tsitsipas 30.

Then again, on those rare occasions that Tsitsipas did charge the net, Djokovic often conjured up a passing shot that was too tough to handle.

It’s not as though Tsitsipas played all that poorly, other than a rash of early miscues that seemed to be more a product of tension than anything.

It’s that Djokovic was too unyielding. Too accurate with his strokes, making merely 22 unforced errors, 20 fewer than his foe. Too speedy and flexible chasing shots (other than on one second-set point, when, running to his left, Djokovic took a tumble).

“I did everything possible,” said Tsitsipas, who also would have moved to No. 1 with a victory, replacing Carlos Alcaraz, who sat out the Australian Open with a leg injury.

Perhaps. Yet Djokovic pushes and pushes and pushes some more, until it’s the opponent who is something less than perfect on one swing, either missing or providing an opening to pounce.

That’s what happened when Tsitsipas held his first break point — which was also a set point — while ahead 5-4 in the second and Djokovic serving at 30-40. Might this be a fulcrum? Might Djokovic relent? Might Tsitsipas surge?

Uh, no.

A 15-stroke point concluded with Djokovic smacking a cross-court forehand winner that felt like a statement. Two misses by Tsitsipas followed: A backhand long, a forehand wide. Those felt like capitulation. Even when Tsitsipas actually did break in the third, Djokovic broke right back.

There has been more than forehands and backhands on Djokovic’s mind over the past two weeks.

There was the not-so-small matter of last year’s legal saga — he has alternately acknowledged the whole thing served as a form of motivation but also said the other day, “I’m over it” — and curiosity about the sort of reception he would get when allowed to enter Australia because pandemic restrictions were eased.

He heard a ton of loud support, but also dealt with some persistent heckling while competing, including applause after faults Sunday.

There was the sore left hamstring that has been heavily bandaged for every match — until the final, that is, when only a single piece of beige athletic tape was visible.

And then there was the complicated matter of his father, Srdjan, being filmed with a group of people with Russian flags — one with an image of Vladimir Putin — after Djokovic’s quarterfinal. The tournament banned spectators from carrying flags of Russia or Belarus, saying they would cause disruption because of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Djokovic and his father said it was a misunderstanding; Srdjan thought he was with Serbian fans.

Still, Srdjan Djokovic did not attend his son’s semifinal or the final.

No matter any of it, Djokovic excelled as he so often has.

“He is the greatest,” Tsitsipas said, “that has ever held a tennis racket.”

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