Ryan Murphy, backstroke king in Rio, motivated by foes foreign and domestic


Nine years later, Ryan Murphy still remembers that moment from the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials for the London Games.

After his junior year in high school, Murphy made both backstroke finals and finished a promising fourth and sixth as the youngest man in each field. The top two per event made the team for London, but Murphy, already a prep star, seemed destined for a future Games.

After one of those races in Omaha, Matt Grevers, who a month later became the fifth straight American man to win the 100m back gold medal, came up to the young Murphy. You’re next, Grevers told him.

“It made me feel so confident that someone who went on to win the Olympic gold that year saw that potential in me,” Murphy said.

Murphy now sees himself in Grevers’ position (though Grevers is still swimming, at age 35).

Murphy, who swept the backstrokes at the Rio Olympics, including breaking the 100m back world record, is racing the next generation of U.S. backstrokers at this weekend’s Pro Series meet in San Antonio.

Namely Shaine Casas, a Texas A&M junior who is ranked second and third in the U.S. in the backstrokes since the start of 2019. On Saturday night, Murphy surged past Casas in the final 50 meters, winning by .77 of a second in the 100m back.

Justin Ress, another backstroker eyeing his first Olympics, swam faster than both of them at the Pro Series site in Richmond, Va.

While swimmers such as Michael Phelps have looked at domestic competition as picture-in-the-locker rivalry, Murphy is following the path set by Grevers and others in his events.

Memorably in Rio, past U.S. Olympic champion backstrokers wrote letters that were presented to that Olympic back crew the day before the Games.

“In the U.S. we’ve come to expect having a lot of really, really good backstrokers,” said Murphy, who in Rio extended a run of the U.S. men winning the 100m and 200m back titles at every Olympics starting with the 1996 Atlanta Games. “We’re allowed to have two guys on the podium.”

Since Rio, Murphy made plenty more podiums, but did not reach the top step individually at the world championships in 2017 or 2019. Chinese Xu Jiayu and Russian Yevgeny Rylov gobbled all of the gold medals in the 100m and 200m backs.

The 2019 World 100m back final was the toughest defeat to digest. Murphy led at 50 meters but finished fourth. One of the medalists told the American something afterward that irked him. Murphy declined to name who said it or what was said.

“I hate to make races personal, but I personally want to beat that guy,” Murphy said in 2019.

Murphy returned to Cal Berkeley, where he formerly raced collegiately and has been coached by Dave Durden for the last seven years.

“This is probably the most bought in I’ve been to my training plan as long as I’ve been at Cal,” he said.

In other events Saturday, world-record holder Regan Smith prevailed in the deepest final of the night, beating the next three fastest Americans in the women’s 100m back since the start of 2019.

Smith, who lowered the record to 57.57 at the 2019 Worlds, clocked 59.75 to hold off world bronze medalist Olivia Smoliga by .19 of a second. Kathleen Baker, the Olympic silver medalist and former world-record holder, was third, .22 behind.

Nic Fink won a battle among the three fastest Americans in the 200m breaststroke since the start of 2019. Fink clocked 2:11.28, beating Will Licon by .02. Licon owns the top time over the last two years of 2:07.62.

Four of the top five U.S. women in the 200m breast since the start of 2019 raced between San Antonio and Richmond on Saturday.

Emily Escobedo produced the top time — 2:23:46 — in Richmond. Lilly King, the Olympic champ and world-record holder in the 100m breast, won the San Antonio final in 2:25.83. Annie Lazor, not racing this weekend, remains fastest in the nation over the last two years with a 2:20.77, followed by King.

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Iga Swiatek wins third French Open title, fourth Grand Slam, but this final was not easy


Iga Swiatek won her third French Open title and her fourth Grand Slam overall, pushed to a third set in a major final for the first time.

Swiatek, a 22-year-old Pole, outlasted unseeded Czech Karolina Muchova 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 on Saturday at Roland Garros. Muchova tested Swiatek, the only singles player in the Open Era to win their first seven major final sets. She became the first player to take a set off Swiatek in the tournament.

Swiatek looked en route to another major final sweep, up 3-0 in the second set. She then committed 11 unforced errors (versus four winners) over the rest of the set as Muchova rallied back (with 10 winners versus 11 unforced errors).

Muchova then won the first eight points of the third set. Swiatek, under the most pressure of her career on the sport’s biggest stages, passed the test. The players exchanged breaks of serve, and Muchova had another break point for a chance to serve for the championship, but Swiatek fended her off.

“After so many ups and downs, I kind of stopped thinking about the score,” Swiatek said. “I wanted to use my intuition more because I knew that I can play a little bit better if I’m going to get a little bit more loosened up.”

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men | Broadcast Schedule

No woman lower than the 14th seed has beaten both world Nos. 1 and 2 at a Grand Slam since the WTA rankings began in 1975. Muchova, ranked 43rd, nearly pulled it off.

“The feeling is a little bitter because I felt it was very close,” she said. “But overall, I mean, to call myself Grand Slam finalist, it’s amazing achievement.”

The French Open finishes Sunday with the men’s final. Novak Djokovic faces Casper Ruud, eyeing a 23rd major title to break his tie with Rafael Nadal for the men’s singles record. NBC, NBCSports.com/live, the NBC Sports app and Peacock air live coverage at 9 a.m. ET.

Go back to the fall 2020 French Open. Swiatek, a 54th-ranked teen, won the tournament without dropping a set for her first tour-level title.

Since, she climbed to the top of the rankings (and has stayed there for 62 weeks running), tied the longest WTA win streak in 32 years (37 matches in a row in 2022) and won majors on clay and hard courts.

She beat challengers from different categories in major finals: a Slam champ (Sofia Kenin), a teen phenom (Coco Gauff), an emerged rival (Ons Jabeur) and now an unseeded (because of injuries)-but-dangerous veteran in Muchova. Swiatek is the youngest woman to reach four major titles since Serena Williams in 2002.

Yet this French Open began with talk of a Big Three in women’s tennis rather than singular dominance. Since last year’s French Open, Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka and Russian-born Kazakh Elena Rybakina both won their first major and beat Swiatek multiple times.

Swiatek faced neither in Paris but still called it “a pretty stressful tournament,” noting a right thing injury that forced her to retire during her last match before the tournament.

Sabalenka was stunned by Muchova in Thursday’s semifinals, the erratic serving and nerves of her past reappearing. Rybakina had to withdraw earlier in the tournament due to illness.

Next up: the grass court season and Wimbledon, where Swiatek hasn’t made it past the fourth round in three tries. She did win the 2018 junior title at the All England Club. but Sabalenka and Rybakina have had more recent success there.

If Swiatek can lift the Venus Rosewater Dish, she will be an Australian Open shy of a career Grand Slam. Her chances of adding an Olympic gold medal to that collection are very high, given Roland Garros hosts tennis at the 2024 Paris Games.

“I’m not setting these crazy records or goals for myself,” she said. “I know that keeping it cool is the best way to do it for me.”

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Novak Djokovic into French Open final with records at stake after beating Carlos Alcaraz


Novak Djokovic heads into Sunday’s French Open final with all sorts of history at stake after eliminating a cramping Carlos Alcaraz in a showdown semifinal.

Djokovic faces Casper Ruud, eyeing a 23rd major title to break his tie with Rafael Nadal for the men’s singles record. NBC, NBCSports.com/live, the NBC Sports app and Peacock air live coverage at 9 a.m. ET.

On Friday, Djokovic took out the top seed Alcaraz 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1, but the match was even when Alcaraz began showing signs of right leg cramping. The 20-year-old Spaniard attributed it to the “tension” of the match, saying he was nervous for his first time facing Djokovic at a major.

“I have never felt something like I did today,” he said, adding that it was full-body cramps. “If someone says that he get into the court with no nerves playing against Novak, he lies.”

Alcaraz stopped play at 1-all in the third set and had trouble walking. He forfeited the next game, stipulated by the rules for receiving medical treatment for severe muscle cramping when not at a change of ends or end of a set.

Djokovic then won the next nine games. Alcaraz played with limited mobility and without the charismatic magic that’s charmed the tennis world.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men | Broadcast Schedule

“First and foremost, I have to say tough luck for Carlos. I feel for him. I feel sorry,” Djokovic said to begin an on-court interview. “I told him at the net he knows how young he is. He’s got plenty of time ahead of him, so he’s going to win this tournament, I’m sure, many, many times.”

Djokovic was told of Alcaraz’s reasoning for the cramps.

“I have experienced that several times,” he said. “Early in my career I was struggling quite a bit physically. I can understand the emotions and circumstances that affect you mentally and emotionally.”

The semi was billed as perhaps the greatest inter-generational match in men’s tennis history, the first time that Alcaraz played a member of the Big Three at a major.

Their 16-year age gap was the largest to take place for men this deep in a major since the 1991 U.S. Open (Jim Courier d. Jimmy Connors) and the largest age gap for any major match between Slam champs since 2006 Wimbledon (Rafael Nadal d. Andre Agassi).

Unlike Friday, most of the previous torch-passing meetings took place when one man was not yet at his peak or the other was past his prime.

Typically, the younger player wins these types of duels. Djokovic, by prevailing over a foe 16 years younger this late in a major, broke the Open Era men’s age gap record of 14-plus years set by Roger Federer, who beat Hyeon Chung at the 2018 Australian Open.

Now, Djokovic heads to Sunday’s final as an overwhelming favorite against the Norwegian Ruud, a 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 winner over German Alexander Zverev in the later semifinal. Ruud was runner-up to Nadal at last year’s French Open and runner-up to Alcaraz at last year’s U.S. Open.

Djokovic can become the first man to win all four majors at least three times. He can break Nadal’s record as the oldest French Open singles champion.

“I’ve been very fortunate that most of the matches in tournaments I’ve played in the last few years, there is history on the line,” he said. “The motivation is very high, as you can imagine.”

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