A “new” Alysa Liu in a good place for a transformative season

courtesy Massimo Scali

Choosing FaceTime rather than a telephone as the medium for an interview with Alysa Liu last week was fortuitous.

The video connection revealed a Liu who smiled constantly – and punctuated the smile with frequent laughs – during a 30-minute conversation.

Liu, talking from a hotel room in the small northern Italian town of Egna, clearly was in a good place.

And not only because the mountain scenery Liu could see outside the hotel is beautiful.

It also was because Liu’s new view of herself has put her in a good headspace.

“I’m much happier now,” Liu said. “I feel better. Mentally, I’m in a very good spot.”

You could see that clearly from Liu’s confident, mature skating in her first two events as an international senior competitor, the Cranberry Cup International in August and the Lombardia Trophy in September. She won both events by huge margins and, more significantly, her performance quality showed a striking maturity.

It was evidence that, at age 16, Liu has suddenly gone beyond the image of jumping prodigy that once captured her skating.

“That transformation was the goal for this season,” said Massimo Scali, who heads Liu’s three-person coaching team, which now includes Jeremy Abbott and Lorenzo Magri. Liu trained at Magri’s skating school in Egna during most of June and the time between the Lombardia Trophy and the Nebelhorn Trophy that begins Thursday in Oberstdorf, Germany.

“She needed to be presented as something that wasn’t just jumping,” Scali continued. “One thing that impresses me, and that I keep reminding her about, is to get to that level of change and maturity normally takes years, maybe a full Olympic cycle. Now there are times already when see her on the ice, and Jeremy and I and Lorenzo look at each other and go, `Wow, look at what she became.’”

She is faster, more powerful, better at expressing movement and emotions that fit the choreography Scali created to two imposing pieces of classical music, the gypsy dance from Minkus’ ballet, “Don Quixote,” for the short program and excepts from Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto (deftly assembled by Hugo Chouinard) for the free skate. Such music, especially the Tchaikovsky, would have overwhelmed the artistically callow Liu who won U.S. titles in 2019 and 2020.

“They are programs that really gave me the feeling of an Olympic season, of a new Alysa who could arrive at an elevated level of feeling and interpretation,” Scali said.

Sonia Bianchetti of Italy, a longtime International Skating Union official and judge, went to Lombardia Trophy as a spectator. She came away very impressed by Liu, whose total and free skate scores were second best ever by a U.S. woman, with easily her highest component scores ever internationally.

“She skated very well both in the short and the free,” Bianchetti said in an email. “All her jumps are very well executed, effortless, high and long. She has also beautiful spins. What is even more important for me is that she glides well on the ice, with deep edges, and she moves her hands and body according to the music. She is very elegant considering her age.”

At the same time, Liu seems to be slowly regaining command of one of the big jumps, the triple axel, which had been her competitive plus. Her first attempt, at Cranberry Cup, ended in a fall and downgrade. The next, at Lombardia, was landed slightly under-rotated. She has no reservations about trying it again at Nebelhorn, where the stakes include her needing a top-six finish to earn the U.S. a third spot in women’s singles at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

“I was very shocked and pretty honored when they (U.S. Figure Skating) picked me to compete for the third spot,” Liu said. “I don’t feel any pressure. I think that must be a change in my mindset. I’m kind of skating just for myself right now.”

It took only what she showed at Cranberry Cup and the subsequent Champs Camp for USFS to pick Liu for the Nebelhorn assignment. Her strong showing at Lombardia reinforced that decision.

“This is where I wanted her to be,” Scali said. “What blows my mind is it has happened so fast.”

Such rapid change is something that defined Liu in the phenom phase of her career.

That phase lasted about 26 months, beginning with her becoming the 2018 U.S. junior champion at age 12 and ending with her taking the bronze medal at the 2020 World Junior Championships.

During that time, she became the youngest U.S. senior champion ever (age 13, in 2019), the youngest to win two senior titles (14, in 2020), the first U.S. woman to land a triple axel in a nationals short program, the first U.S. woman to land two triple axels in any free skate, and the first U.S. woman to land a quadruple jump in competition.

She was on the “TODAY” show. She was on Time magazine’s 2019 “100 Next” List, with Michelle Kwan writing in the magazine, “Alysa has a long and bright future.” At a time when U.S. Figure Skating longed for an athlete who could challenge the ever-more-dominant young Russian phenoms in women’s singles, Liu was the great (if then physically tiny) hope, no matter that she wouldn’t be age eligible for senior international competition until this 2021-22 Olympic season.

And yet she doesn’t think it would have been easier to handle the subsequent frustrations if success and its demands had come at her slower.

“I like fun stuff,” she said. “The more things that are going on, the better I feel.”

And then, about a week after the 2020 junior worlds, nearly everything stopped because of the pandemic.

“During the quarantine (period), when I wasn’t on the ice at all, I started thinking, `Do I even skate?’” she said.

What did go on would add to that unsettling feeling.

She left her longtime coach, Laura Lipetsky, in June 2020 and, after pandemic restrictions scuttled her plans to work with Lee Barkell and Lori Nichol in Canada, she began to train full time in the Bay Area with Scali, an Italian Olympic ice dancer. Four-time U.S. singles champion Abbott soon joined Scali in coaching her.

They found themselves with a Liu whose physical changes compromised her ability to do the big jumps that had been her calling card. A hip injury last fall made it problematic for her to jump at all early in a season where Covid would make live competition a rarity. Her performance at a team event in Las Vegas late last October was dismayingly poor.

She wondered whether it was worth trying to compete at the 2021 nationals in January, one of the few live events to take place. Simply finding the will to try pleasantly surprised her. And her fourth place, less than two points from a silver medal, proved heartening. It was something to build on.

U.S. Figure Skating Championships
Getty Images

The next phase of Liu’s career was about to begin. Given that this is an Olympic season, she and her coaches knew it had to begin posthaste.

That was a double-edged sword. An athlete to whom everything had come in a rush had to slow down to move forward, both last season and this one. Patience isn’t easy when irritation sets in over being unable to do what once seemed easy and effortless.

“I was actually surprised at how patient I was last year,” Liu said. “That probably came from my friends. They told me not to think too much (about her struggles) or to think it was the end of the world, because it wasn’t. They kept my spirits up.

“I used to be really hard on myself during practice. Now I’m better at not doing that. I’ve just become more patient.”

One rule of thumb is that it usually takes 18 months to two years for a skater to feel comfortable with a new coach and to fully understand the coach’s instructions and training methods. Scali said Liu is such a quick learner they were beginning to be on the same wavelength after about six months. The changes in her triple axel, with a different entry pattern and more reliance on arms and legs than on the quick rotation that had worked with a willowier body type, have started to have the desired effect in giving Liu a bigger, more reliable jump.

“I wasn’t used to thinking so much on the ice,” Liu said. “The way I use my arms and step into my jumps now, especially the axel, was hard getting used to.”

Scali designed Liu’s free skate to make room for a quad lutz if she can remaster it. Making the Olympic team is her primary goal for the season. Landing the quad lutz again is next.

She and Scali feel training in Egna has been critical in improving the jumps, both because of what Magri, an ISU technical specialist, has contributed to her learning and because of all the other talented skaters there. In June, all of Italy’s top three men’s singles skaters – Matteo Rizzo, Daniel Grassl and Gabriele Frangipani – were training with her.

“At home (in Oakland), I don’t skate with people doing the high-level jumps,” Liu said. “When I started skating with more people doing triple axels, it gave me confidence. I get a lot of motivation from being with other good skaters.”

Throughout all the on-the-fly changes in Liu’s life over the past couple years, one part of her trajectory went off just as planned. She finished high school in June, at age 15, freeing her mind and schedule of academic commitments until she begins college applications later this fall.

That has given her more time to bike and hike with friends, play volleyball with her family, and learn more about the world outside the rink. “I didn’t see the big picture of anything,” Liu said.

She would like to begin driver’s ed, especially since a Toyota sponsorship announced last December provided her a Highlander Hybrid seventh months before she was eligible for a California driver’s license.

Her father, Arthur, tells her to focus on skating, not driving, in a season that is to include her first senior Grand Prix appearances (Skate Canada and NHK Trophy) and, hopefully, a trip to his homeland, China, for the Olympics. He figures that dealing with any bumps on the road to Beijing may be challenge enough.

“I think my dad is just saying that so he can drive the car,” she said. “I think he is playing me. I’ll get him back.”

Alysa Liu underscored that thought with a wry grin. She did it again when asked about her chances to make the Olympic team.

“I definitely like them a lot better than I did last year,” she said.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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

Laura Nolte Bobsled

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

Novak Djokovic Australian Open

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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