How the ice dance podium favorites stack up in Stockholm

U.S. Figure Skating Championships
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Tanith White is no fool.

When a title is as up for grabs as the ice dance crown is at the 2021 ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Stockholm this week, the five-time U.S. ice dance champion – wife to Charlie White, 2014 Olympic champion with Meryl Davis, and mom to 2-year-old Charlie – wisely hedges her bets.

Who will it be: Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, two-time world medalists who won their third U.S. title in Las Vegas in January? Or Madison Chock and Evan Bates, also two-time world medalists, who were defeated in Las Vegas by less than three points?

And where do reigning world silver medalists Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia stand?

“I have to sit with a spreadsheet and think, okay, these two were a little bit faster, this lift was definitely more creative and better executed, but overall the speed over here was better,” said White, who as Tanith Belbin won the 2006 Olympic silver medal with Benjamin Agosto.

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The ice dance event crossed new terrain in January, when Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, winners of four of the last five world titles, announced they would not compete.

“I spoke with them a couple of days ago, and when they explain their reasoning for [skipping] the world championships, it is very solid and understandable,” White said. “With all of the question marks of preparing for each event they had scheduled in the fall, and then having each one canceled, it started to feel questionable to them whether or not they were spending their time [preparing] wisely for the Olympic season.”

“They are the only team, in my mind, who has the luxury of choosing this option,” she added. “There is some risk involved, but I don’t think for them it is as big of a risk as it would be for anybody else, because they have been so dominant.”

White, who will provide commentary on the event for NBC, refuses to pick a winner, although she thinks one couple arrives in Stockholm with an advantage.

“I would say that Hubbell and Donohue have the momentum of the season, with their wins at Skate America and nationals,” she said.

The rhythm dance happens on Friday, while the free dance – the final event contested in Stockholm – is on Sunday. Here are White’s thoughts on each of the three top contenders:


The Case for Hubbell and Donohue

The 2019-2020 season was one the U.S. champions prefer to forget. In interviews since, they admitted they never felt completely comfortable with their free dance, set to music from the 2018 film “A Star is Born,” and judges didn’t respond as they had hoped to their Marilyn Monroe-inspired rhythm dance.

They scrapped the numbers in favor of two new routines: a racy rhythm dance to music from “Burlesque,” and a deeply emotional free dance to a mix of Jeff Buckley and k.d. lang’s renditions of “Hallelujah.”

“We really connect in both programs – when I look into his eyes in ‘Burlesque’ it gives me something very different than it does in ‘Hallelujah,’” Hubbell said. “And luckily, we have each other to keep ourselves in the moment.”

Neither routine required major adjustments during the season, and they arrive in Stockholm basically intact.

“There are a few things we want to tweak, based on the feeling we want to provide or what we feel is going to add to the performance,” Donohue said. “But for the most part you are going to be looking at a well-repeated choreography.”

White thinks that, too, works in the couple’s favor.

“The previous two seasons, they consistently had to deal with constantly making changes,” she said. “I think the fact that they haven’t had to go that route this season is just a testament to how wisely they chose the [free dance] theme, and how well it matches them naturally.”

Another big plus: their health.

“They are the only one of the top teams who hasn’t dealt with a setback from injury or illness this season,” White said. “They’re riding that positive momentum for not only returning to the top of the U.S. podium, but also reevaluating what kinds of programs work for them, and their mental and physical approach to how they train. It’s all paying off for them and they are right to have a lot of confidence heading into the world championship.”


The Case for Chock and Bates

The U.S. silver medalists, who like Hubbell and Donohue train under Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon and Romain Haguenauer in Montreal, had a setback late last July, when Chock suffered a concussion in an off-ice fall. It limited their training for several months and forced them to withdraw from Skate America.

Recently, the couple spoke of other, unspecified training challenges, that kept them from showing their best form at the U.S. Championships.

“The second half of the year was really challenging for us,” Bates said. “We were determined to go and compete at nationals…. We had to rely a lot on our years of experience.”

Now, though, both skaters say they are more prepared to compete than they have ever been.

“We are in the best possible shape of our lives, honestly,” Chock said. “We feel really strong and really confident in the work we’ve done leading up to this event.”

Those words carry great weight with White.

“They tell me they haven’t felt this good since they were heading into the [canceled] world championships in Montreal last season, when they were in such an ideal position,” she said. “So if they feel like they’ve gotten themselves back up to that level, then I have to expect they can achieve the same that they could in 2020, which was to win at least the silver medal.”

Like their rivals, Chock and Bates’ programs this season are among their finest ever: a rhythm dance to Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot” and an exotic free dance nicknamed “The Snake and the Snake Charmer,” which led them to the 2020 U.S. and Four Continents titles.

“From the very first year that Madison and Evan competed together (2011), they always had a great strength in their acrobatic lifts,” White said. “But for the last few seasons, the way they have styled and designed their lifts to specifically fit the themes of their programs has taken them above and beyond what anyone else in the world is doing today. And because they’re capable of such fantastic acrobatics, they can execute them so effortlessly.”


The Case for Sinitsina and Katsalapov

In White’s mind, the Russians and their coach, Aleksandr Zhulin, saved the day when they scrapped the couple’s first free dance this season to return to their 2019-2020 program, set to a classical medley including Dvorak’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me.”

“They did some early domestic events where they had debuted a new free dance to the music of Michael Jackson that I thought didn’t suit them as well,” she said. “Zhulin said the same thing, that their previous program was more of a complete story.”

The couple has faced health challenges: both skaters have recurring injuries, and both contracted COVID-19 late last fall, with Sinitsina’s case being severe. It forced their withdrawal from the 2021 Russian Championships in December, which was won by Aleksandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin. Still, says White, a big advantage is their status as reigning European champions and world silver medalists.

“Last season ended with them on top of everyone, including Papadakis and Cizeron at Europeans, so they have established a precedent that, I think, puts them ahead even with the difficulties they’ve had,” she reasoned. “I think they come into these world championships with a great chance at winning their first world gold medal.”

Those pluses are balanced against the couple’s performance style, which White calls “exceptionally dynamic, but volatile.”

“I hold my breath when they compete,” she said. “[That style] is part of what makes them so good, but I am wondering how – with the opportunity of winning their first gold medal and the excitement that brings, coupled with a difficult season – that will all play out in the moment.”


The Wild Card: Skate Order

With no triple or quadruple jumps, or risky pair moves like throw jumps and twists, favorable skate order is arguably more important in ice dance than in the other disciplines.

“I think that in this case, skating order might have some small impact on the impression that each program gives [the judges], depending on who gets out of the gate last,” Belbin said. “Sometimes, it can have a pretty significant effect on the final impression that everyone is left with.”

Hubbell and Donohue, Chock and Bates, and Sinitsina and Katsalapov are not assured of the podium. Should any have a mishap – wobbly twizzles, a messy lift or (heaven forbid) a fall – other teams are ready to claim a medal.

“Stepanova and Bukin, the Canadians [Piper] Gilles and [Paul] Poirier, Charlène Guignard and Marco Fabbri of Italy, are very much capable of stepping through a door left open by a team who makes mistakes,” White said. “There are so many teams who can earn Level 4s (the highest level) on almost all of their elements, depending on how they execute on that day.”

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At the French Open, a Ukrainian mom makes her comeback

Elina Svitolina French Open

Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, once the world’s third-ranked tennis player, is into the French Open third round in her first major tournament since childbirth.

Svitolina, 28, swept 2022 French Open semifinalist Martina Trevisan of Italy, then beat Australian qualifier Storm Hunter 2-6, 6-3, 6-1 to reach the last 32 at Roland Garros. She next plays 56th-ranked Russian Anna Blinkova, who took out the top French player, fifth seed Caroline Garcia, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 on her ninth match point.

Svitolina’s husband, French player Gael Monfils, finished his first-round five-set win after midnight on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. She watched that match on a computer before going to sleep ahead of her 11 a.m. start Wednesday.

“This morning, he told me, ‘I’m coming to your match, so make it worth it,'” she joked on Tennis Channel. “I was like, OK, no pressure.

“I don’t know what he’s doing here now. He should be resting.”

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Svitolina made at least one major quarterfinal every year from 2017 through 2021, including the semifinals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2019. She married Monfils one week before the Tokyo Olympics, then won a singles bronze medal.

Svitolina played her last match before maternity leave on March 24, 2022, one month after Russia invaded her country. She gave birth to daughter Skai on Oct. 15.

Svitolina returned to competition in April. Last week, she won the tournament preceding the French Open, sweeping Blinkova to improve to 17-3 in her career in finals. She’s playing on a protected ranking of 27th after her year absence and, now, on a seven-match win streak.

“It was always in my head the plan to come back, but I didn’t put any pressure on myself, because obviously with the war going on, with the pregnancy, you never know how complicated it will go,” she said. “I’m as strong as I was before, maybe even stronger, because I feel that I can handle the work that I do off the court, and match by match I’m getting better. Also mentally, because mental can influence your physicality, as well.”

Svitolina said she’s motivated by goals to attain before she retires from the sport and to help Ukraine, such as donating her prize money from last week’s title in Strasbourg.

“These moments bring joy to people of Ukraine, to the kids as well, the kids who loved to play tennis before the war, and now maybe they don’t have the opportunity,” she said. “But these moments that can motivate them to look on the bright side and see these good moments and enjoy themselves as much as they can in this horrible situation.”

Svitolina was born in Odesa and has lived in Kharkiv, two cities that have been attacked by Russia.

“I talk a lot with my friends, with my family back in Ukraine, and it’s a horrible thing, but they are used to it now,” she said. “They are used to the alarms that are on. As soon as they hear something, they go to the bomb shelters. Sleepless nights. You know, it’s a terrible thing, but they tell me that now it’s a part of their life, which is very, very sad.”

Svitolina noted that she plays with a flag next to her name — unlike the Russians and Belarusians, who are allowed to play as neutral athletes.

“When I step on the court, I just try to think about the fighting spirit that all of us Ukrainians have and how Ukrainians are fighting for their values, for their freedom in Ukraine,” she said, “and me, I’m fighting here on my own front line.”

Svitolina said that she’s noticed “a lot of rubbish” concerning how tennis is reacting to the war.

“We have to focus on what the main point of what is going on,” she said. “Ukrainian people need help and need support. We are focusing on so many things like empty words, empty things that are not helping the situation, not helping anything.

“I want to invite everyone to focus on helping Ukrainians. That’s the main point of this, to help kids, to help women who lost their husbands because they are at the war, and they are fighting for Ukraine.

“You can donate. Couple of dollars might help and save lives. Or donate your time to something to help people.”

Also Wednesday, 108th-ranked Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis ousted three-time major champion Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-3 in four and a half hours. Wawrinka’s exit leaves Novak Djokovic as the lone man in the draw who has won the French Open and Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz as the lone men left who have won any major.

The top seed Alcaraz beat 112th-ranked Taro Daniel of Japan 6-1, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2. The Spaniard gets 26th seed Denis Shapovalov of Canada in the third round.

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Marcell Jacobs still sidelined, misses another race with Fred Kerley

Marcell Jacobs

Olympic 100m champion Marcell Jacobs of Italy will miss another scheduled clash with world 100m champion Fred Kerley, withdrawing from Friday’s Diamond League meet in Florence.

Jacobs, 28, has not recovered from the nerve pain that forced him out of last Sunday’s Diamond League meet in Rabat, Morocco, according to Italy’s track and field federation.

In his absence, Kerley’s top competition will be fellow American Trayvon Bromell, the world bronze medalist, and Kenyan Ferdinand Omanyala, the world’s fastest man this year at 9.84 seconds. Kerley beat both of them in Rabat.

The Florence Diamond League airs live on Peacock on Friday from 2-4 p.m. ET.

Jacobs has withdrawn from six scheduled head-to-heads with Kerley dating to May 2022 due to a series of health issues since that surprise gold in Tokyo.

Kerley, primarily a 400m sprinter until the Tokyo Olympic year, became the world’s fastest man in Jacobs’ absence. He ran a personal best 9.76 seconds, the world’s best time of 2022, at last June’s USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships. Then he led a U.S. sweep of the medals at July’s worlds.

Jacobs’ next scheduled race is a 100m at the Paris Diamond League on June 9. Kerley is not in that field, but world 200m champion Noah Lyles is.

The last time the reigning Olympic and world men’s 100m champions met in a 100m was the 2012 London Olympic final between Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake. From 2013 to 2017, Bolt held both titles, then retired in 2017 while remaining reigning Olympic champion until Jacobs’ win in Tokyo, where Kerley took silver.

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