Coco Gauff on track for another Wimbledon run

Coco Gauff
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WIMBLEDON, England — Do not get the wrong idea about Coco Gauff and assume that, just because she’s already displayed so much talent and promise by age 17, occasions such as Thursday’s, when she played a woman twice her age at Centre Court, are in any way glossed over as “Been there, done that.”

This is, after all, the most famous arena in tennis. This is, after all, Wimbledon. And Gauff is, after all, still relatively new to a lot of this: She began the week having played a total of two grass-court events and seven Grand Slam tournaments, one of which, of course, was her captivating run to the fourth round at the All England Club as a 15-year-old qualifier two years ago.

So, yes, there was some shakiness early against Elena Vesnina, a 34-year-old Russian who said afterward, “I saw that she was nervous.” Gauff acknowledged so afterward. So maybe that’s why she was the first to face break points. Or managed merely one groundstroke winner in the opening set. Still, the newcomer did what veterans do — find a way — and emerged with a 6-4, 6-3 victory to return to Wimbledon’s third round.

WIMBLEDON DRAWS: Men | Women

“With a little bit of adversity for the first time, she went for her shots and she stayed committed to the serve,” said Gauff’s father, Corey. “So I was impressed with that — her poise.”

That matters at this level and on these stages, where one bad afternoon can send someone home.

While many familiar faces still are chasing the men’s title this fortnight — eight-time champion Roger Federer and No. 2 seed Daniil Medvedev, No. 4 Alexander Zverev and No. 7 Matteo Berrettini all won; No. 1 Novak Djokovic’s bid for a sixth title resumes Friday — Elina Svitolina’s loss Thursday means eight of the top 11 women in the WTA rankings are missing from the bracket due to defeat, withdrawal or injury.

“Mentally, for sure, I need to reset. I need to rest,” No. 3 seed Svitolina said after producing 20 fewer winners than her foe in a 6-3, 6-4 loss to Magda Linette. “I need to feel, again, fresh to play the upcoming tournaments.”

No. 1 Ash Barty, who retired mid-match against Linette at the French Open last month because of a hip injury, was not at her best but overcame nine double-faults to advance with a 6-4, 6-3 win on a day with no rain, some slices of blue sky and even the sun sneaking through the clouds as the temperature finally topped 70 degrees.

“Not my best serving day,” Barty said. “I was just out of rhythm a little bit. Some days you feel like you’re 8 feet tall and you can’t miss the box. Other days, like today, you feel like you’re 3-foot-nothing.”

Gauff’s serve provided nine aces, including seven in the first set when a lot else wasn’t really working.

A 118 mph delivery on match point was dumped in the net by Vesnina. Up in the player guest box, Gauff’s parents rose. Dad clapped, then kissed Mom, who captured their daughter’s moment with a cellphone camera. It was a bit more subdued than the raucous celebrations two years ago, when Gauff was a revelation.

Ranked outside the Top 300 and the youngest player to make it through qualifying in tournament history, she went on to beat five-time champion Venus Williams in the first round and 2017 semifinalist Magdalena Rybarikova in the second, before saving two match points to get past Polona Hercog in the main stadium.

Next came a fourth-round exit against Simona Halep, who went on to collect the trophy (three of Gauff’s major appearances ended with losses to the eventual champion, including Barbora Krejcikova at the just-concluded French Open).

“The biggest thing is, I don’t really remember much from my Centre Court experience in 2019,” said Gauff, who is based in Florida. “I don’t know. I felt like it was all a blur.”

Back then, everything was so fresh and new and unexpected. The question on everyone’s mind: Is she really doing this?

Now the vibe is: She most certainly can.

Her parents know it. So do the spectators. And the 20th-seeded Gauff’s opponents.

“Such a talented and promising player,” said Vesnina, a three-time Grand Slam champion in women’s doubles who was treated by a trainer for a back spasm she said was caused by stretching to try to reach Gauff’s serves. “She has a bright future in front of her.”

Sure does. Most important, Gauff herself knows it.

“I don’t really like the word ‘expectations.’ I don’t like that word. I think I use more the other word: ‘belief.’ I believe that I can win. I think I believed that back in 2019, and I believe that now. I don’t think anything has changed. My goal is to always win the tournament, regardless of my ranking or what people think of me,” she said. “What I will say is that goal, I guess, is more clear right now than it was in 2019. I think just my belief is a lot stronger now, the feeling that I can go far.”

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World Athletics Athletes of the Year: Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, Mondo Duplantis

Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone
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Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone and Mondo Duplantis were named World Athletics Athletes of the Year after world record-breaking performances in 2022.

McLaughlin-Levrone, who lowered her 400m hurdles world record twice this year, won the award for the first time. She became the first American to win Athlete of the Year since fellow 400m hurdler Dalilah Muhammad in 2019.

“I would describe 2022 for myself by just saying incredible,” McLaughlin-Levrone said. “Everything that we aimed to do we were able to accomplish.”

The other finalists were Nigeria’s Tobi Amusan, who broke the 100m hurdles world record en route to the world title; Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who won her fifth world 100m title; Peru’s Kimberly Garcia, who swept the 20km and 35km race walk world titles, and Venezuela’s Yulimar Rojas, who broke her own triple jump world record and swept the indoor and outdoor world titles.

McLaughlin-Levrone has said she wants to add the flat 400m to her program in the coming years. She has never run that event at a senior championship meet, but showed her flat potential in the 4x400m relay at worlds in July. Her split — 47.91 seconds — made her the seventh-fastest relay performer in history and second-fastest in the last 33 years behind Allyson Felix.

At next summer’s world championships, the women’s 400m hurdles first round heats start 2 hours and 20 minutes before the women’s 400m semifinals. Top-level pros rarely race multiple times in one session in a distance longer than 200 meters at any meet.

Duplantis, the Louisiana-raised Swede, won the men’s award for the second time in three years. He upped his pole vault world record three times in 2022 and swept the world indoor and outdoor and Diamond League titles in the event.

“It’s probably been by far the best year that I’ve ever had,” Duplantis said.

The other men’s finalists were Moroccan steeplechaser Soufiane El Bakkali, who went undefeated in 2022; Norwegian runner Jakob Ingebrigtsen, the world outdoor 5000m champion who ran the world’s fastest mile in 21 years; Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, who broke his own marathon world record by 30 seconds, and American Noah Lyles, who broke Michael Johnson‘s 26-year-old national record in the 200m.

Duplantis will likely try to continue upping his world record one centimeter at a time like Ukraine legend Sergey Bubka did on an almost annual basis from 1984 through 1994. Duplantis’ current record is 6.21 meters. The next significant milestone is 6.25 meters, or 20 feet, 6 inches.

“We’ll so how high, but I want to push it higher than people think is even possible,” he said.

Erriyon Knighton became the first athlete to twice win the Rising Star award, given to the top U20 track and field athlete.

Knighton, 18, took 200m bronze at the world championships on July 21 in Eugene, Oregon, becoming the youngest individual sprint medalist in championships history. He was part of a U.S. medals sweep with Lyles and Kenny Bednarek.

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A wild Grand Prix Final has a quadruple Axel, the Brits and a figure skating tale for the ages

Ilia Malinin
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The world’s best figure skaters gather for the first time this season at this week’s Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy. The Who’s Who is a very different group than from February’s Olympics, as expected, with the fall Grand Prix Series also producing some unpredictable stories.

Of the 18 skaters who won Olympic medals outside of the team event, just two of them competed internationally this fall. As was known before the season, all Russians are banned indefinitely due to the war in Ukraine. China’s top skaters didn’t enter the Grand Prix Series. Nathan Chen and the French ice dance couple of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron are on indefinite, possibly permanent breaks after winning long-awaited golds.

It is time for new stars to emerge. That happened. American Ilia Malinin, last year’s world junior champion at age 17, became the first skater to land a quadruple Axel in competition in September. Then he did it again in October, and again in November.

It is time for new stories to emerge. The Grand Prix Final is the most exclusive event in figure skating — taking the top six per discipline from the Grand Prix Series — since it was introduced in 1996. This year, Belgium and Great Britain qualified skaters for the first time in more than a decade. Japanese men who were seventh and eighth at their national championships last season are in the field. As is a 39-year-old pairs’ skater from Canada who competed against Michelle Kwan in the 6.0 scoring era.

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Broadcast Schedule

The U.S. qualified skaters into the Final in every discipline for the first time in 15 years. The team is led statistically by Malinin, the world No. 1 bidding to be the second-youngest man to win a Final after Russian Yevgeny Plushenko.

Malinin, whose mom won the 1999 Grand Prix Final, is one half of the most anticipated head-to-head showdown this week. He takes on Japan’s Shoma Uno for the first time since the world championships in March, when Uno won and Malinin placed ninth in his debut on that stage. This season, Malinin and Uno each won their two separate Grand Prix starts, with Malinin having the best total score by a scant 61 hundredths of a point.

NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir called Malinin the favorite for the Final and for March’s worlds (which could include Olympic silver medalist Yuma Kagiyama of Japan, who has been sidelined this fall due to leg and ankle injuries). But Weir also said that if Malinin and Uno skate clean this week, the 24-year-old Uno has the advantage.

“He’s had the longevity. He’s had the time in front of these top judges. And artistically, he’s so excellent,” Weir said.

The world’s highest-scoring women’s singles skater this season will compete at the Final, but in the junior division. Japan’s Mao Shimada won both of her junior Grand Prix starts. She is 14 years old, and with the age limit being raised in coming seasons will not be old enough for the next Olympics in 2026 (reminiscent of countrywoman Mao Asada, who was too young the last time Italy hosted the Winter Games in 2006).

Without Shimada, and without the Russians who dominated recent seasons, the women’s field is the most closely bunched at the Final. Mai Mihara, who missed the Olympics after placing fourth at Japan’s Nationals last December, was the lone woman to win both of her Grand Prix starts this fall. Kaori Sakamoto, last season’s world champion in the Russians’ absence, has the top score this season among senior women (and a shout out from Janet Jackson). But the six skaters at the Final are separated by just 4.47 points in best scores this fall.

American Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old world junior champion, is the youngest woman in the field by four years. NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said that Levito has a total package of jumps, artistry and competitive fire not seen in U.S. skating in many years. Levito, who has made short films, including “The Pickle Murder,” is reminiscent of Sasha Cohen, the last U.S. women’s singles skater to win an Olympic medal in 2006.

“There’s never a hand, finger, hair out of place when it comes to Isabeau’s skating,” Lipinski said. “Looking back at my first year as a senior, I was terrified. I looked like a junior coming up to the senior ranks. Isabeau, she’s gone past that phase.”

Pairs’ skating saw the highest turnover. The top five teams at the Olympics were Russian and Chinese, and none have competed internationally since. Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier took advantage at March’s worlds, becoming the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979.

Knierim and Frazier won both of their Grand Prix starts this fall, but were flawed. Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who took silver at worlds, averaged 10 more points in their separate Grand Prix victories.

“Comparing people based on the scores that they accrue in different competitions is a nice way to see how people are faring in front of international panels, but it’s not a direct comparison between the two at all,” Weir said. “They’re very evenly matched.”

But the coolest story in pairs, and arguably in all of figure skating, is 39-year-old Canadian Deanna Stellato-Dudek. With partner Maxime Deschamps, she became the oldest Grand Prix podium finisher in October and the oldest champion in November. Stellato-Dudek, the 2000 World junior silver medalist in singles from Chicagoland, retired from figure skating in 2001 due to injuries, then came back in 2016 in pairs and switched nationality.

Weir recently came across photos of him with Stellato-Dudek when they competed at the same junior Grand Prix event in Norway in 1999.

“I’m pretty sure she was skating when I was skating, so that is a crazy feat in itself,” said Lipinski, whose last competition was winning the 1998 Olympics.

Ice dance, usually the most predictable of the four disciplines, sprung surprises this fall. Three-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates were the top returning couple based on results from last season’s Olympics and worlds, but the Americans rank outside the top three this fall by results and best total score.

Still, 2006 Olympic silver medalist Ben Agosto said they’re looking better than ever, having improved from their first Grand Prix to their second Grand Prix.

“The challenge for them is they’ve been so good for so long that they don’t want to get stale,” Agosto said of a couple that’s in their 12th season together. “They don’t want people to start to think, well, you know, two seasons ago was better than this, or five seasons ago was better than this. They want to always be reinventing, but then also capitalizing on their biggest strengths.”

Canadian veterans Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, ranked third among returning couples going into the fall, won both of their Grand Prix starts with the world’s top two scores across all events. Agosto believes that the field is closer than the point totals suggest and that some couples have been underscored, including Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who qualified into the Final in the sixth and last spot.

Agosto said that Lilah Fear and Lewis Gibson, Great Britain’s first Grand Prix Final qualifiers since 2009, can “blow the roof off” with their Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez rhythm dance and Lady Gaga free dance.

“You can just feel the the intensity that everyone is bringing after their Olympic experience and coming back and feeling rejuvenated and maybe feeling the adrenaline effect of having a little bit more of an opportunity because Papadakis and Cizeron are not there, because the Russians are not there,” Agosto said. “I’ve really seen across the board this group stepping up from last season, so I don’t think that it would just be a clear OK, well, if those other teams were in the game this year, they would, by default, be on top.”

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