Anna Shcherbakova, 17, chases youth at Grand Prix France; TV, live stream schedule

Anna Shcherbakova
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Anna Shcherbakova, a 17-year-old from Moscow, toted the two most prestigious titles in figure skating into this Olympic season: world champion and Russian national champion. But the sport’s top label — Olympic favorite — has been swiped by her 15-year-old training partner Kamila Valiyeva.

It is so far playing out like a sequel of the last Olympic season in 2018. Then, reigning world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva was usurped by her 15-year-old training partner, Alina Zagitova. All four skaters were coached by Eteri Tutberidze.

“Competing as a Russian woman right now is almost like running from an avalanche,” NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir said during Shcherbakova’s short program at a Grand Prix in Italy two weeks ago. “You can always be taken over if you look over your shoulder, even for a second.”

Shcherbakova, a knitter, has time, and several competitions, to change the script. Such as this week at Internationaux de France, the fifth of six stops on the annual Grand Prix Series leading up to December’s Grand Prix Final, the sport’s most exclusive event taking the top six in the world per discipline.

Shcherbakova is the showcase skater this week in Grenoble, live on Peacock. The field includes another accomplished Russian, Alena Kostornaya, the world’s top skater when the pandemic hit. Plus U.S. Olympic hopefuls Karen Chen and Mariah Bell.

In the big picture, Shcherbakova’s primary competition is not a person but a score: Valiyeva set the standard with a whopping 265.08-point outing at Skate Canada three weeks ago, landing two triple Axels and three quadruple jumps between two programs. Shcherbakova is the only skater within 30 points of her this season — a distant 28.3 points behind.

Valiyeva is not in Grenoble, but Shcherbakova could have up to three head-to-heads with her between now and the Olympics — the Grand Prix Final and Russian Championships in December, plus the European Championships in January.

Shcherbakova doesn’t yet have a triple Axel, and without it will likely be playing catch-up to Valiyeva in any competition, given quads are not allowed in short programs.

“Out of the top contenders for Olympic gold, Anna, to me, feels a bit in the shadows,” NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said two weeks ago as Shcherbakova began her Grand Prix Italy free skate. Shcherbakova went on to hit a personal-best program with one quad and all positively graded jumps. Her score was 15.84 points shy of Valiyeva’s free the previous week.

At Skate Canada, Lipinski and Weir were at times left speechless and wondering if Valiyeva was of planet Earth for her total package of jumps (putting both arms over her head to show the ease of her quads), spins and artistry. Valiyeva was touted as a junior skater a year ago by Weir, who said then that she had “the biggest opportunity for Olympic glory.”

“If anybody can put it all together and be better than Kamila Valiyeva was today in less than 100 days at the Olympic Games, I will be shocked,” Weir said on the Skate Canada broadcast. “She makes everyone happy on either side, the technical purists or the artistic purists. She has it all, and that is ultimately who is supposed to win these competitions.”

In the men’s field this week, world silver medalist Yuma Kagiyama of Japan is the favorite. Jason Brown, after a silver at Skate Canada, has a chance to join countrymen Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou in the Grand Prix Final. He qualified for the Final once before in 2017.

Four-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron head an ice dance field that also includes world bronze medalists Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier of Canada. The French won all eight of their Grand Prix starts in this Olympic cycle and again rank No. 1 in the world this season.

Pairs features world bronze medalists Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy of Russia and U.S. champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier.

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2021 Internationaux de France Broadcast Schedule

Day Time (ET) Event Network
Friday 7 a.m. Women’s Short Peacock | STREAM LINK
9 a.m. Rhythm Dance Peacock | STREAM LINK
10:45 p.m. Men’s Short Peacock | STREAM LINK
12:45 p.m. Pairs’ Short Peacock | STREAM LINK
Saturday 7 a.m. Women’s Free Peacock | STREAM LINK
9:10 a.m. Free Dance Peacock | STREAM LINK
11 a.m. Men’s Free Peacock | STREAM LINK
1:10 p.m. Pairs’ Free Peacock | STREAM LINK
Sunday 4 p.m. Highlights NBC | STREAM LINK

French Open doubles team disqualified after tennis ball hits ball girl

2023 French Open

French Open doubles player Miyu Kato and her partner were forced to forfeit a match when Kato accidentally hit a ball girl in the neck with a ball after a point on Sunday.

In the second set on Court 14 at Roland Garros, Kato took a swing with her racket and the ball flew toward the ball kid, who was not looking in the player’s direction while heading off the court.

At first, chair umpire Alexandre Juge only issued a warning to Kato. But after tournament referee Remy Azemar and Grand Slam supervisor Wayne McEwen went to Court 14 to look into what happened, Kato and her partner, Aldila Sutjiadi of Indonesia, were disqualified.

That made Marie Bouzkova of the Czech Republic and Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain the winners of the match.

“It’s just a bad situation for everyone,” Bouzkova said. “But it’s kind of something that, I guess, is taken by the rules, as it is, even though it’s very unfortunate for them. … At the end of the day, it was the referee’s decision.”

Bouzkova said she did not see the ball hit the ball girl, but “she was crying for like 15 minutes.”

She said one of the officials said the ball “has to do some kind of harm to the person affected” and that “at first, (Juge) didn’t see that.”

Bouzkova said she and Sorribes Tormo told Juge “to look into it more and ask our opponents what they think happened.”

During Coco Gauff’s 6-7 (5), 6-1, 6-1 singles victory over Mirra Andreeva on Saturday, Andreev swatted a ball into the Court Suzanne Lenglen stands after dropping a point in the first set. Andreev was given a warning by the chair umpire for unsportsmanlike conduct but no further penalty.

“I heard about that. Didn’t see it,” Bouzkova said. “I guess it just depends on the circumstances and the given situation as it happens. … It is difficult, for sure.

In the quarterfinals, Bouzkova and Sorribes Tormo will face Ellen Perez of Australia and Nicole Melichar-Martinez of the United States.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men | Broadcast Schedule

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Frances Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz exit French Open, leaving no U.S. men

Frances Tiafoe French Open

Frances Tiafoe kept coming oh so close to extending his French Open match against Alexander Zverev: 12 times Saturday night, the American was two points from forcing things to a fifth set.

Yet the 12th-seeded Tiafoe never got closer than that.

Instead, the 22nd-seeded Zverev finished out his 3-6, 7-6 (3), 6-1, 7-6 (5) victory after more than 3 1/2 hours in Court Philippe Chatrier to reach the fourth round. With Tiafoe’s exit, none of the 16 men from the United States who were in the bracket at the start of the tournament are still in the field.

“I mean, for the majority of the match, I felt like I was in control,” said Tiafoe, a 25-year-old from Maryland who fell to 1-7 against Zverev.

“It’s just tough,” he said about a half-hour after his loss ended, rubbing his face with his hand. “I should be playing the fifth right now.”

Two other American men lost earlier Saturday: No. 9 seed Taylor Fritz and unseeded Marcos Giron.

No. 23 Francisco Cerundolo of Argentina beat Fritz 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5, and Nicolas Jarry of Chile eliminated Giron 6-2, 6-3, 6-7 (7), 6-3.

There are three U.S women remaining: No. 6 Coco Gauff, Sloane Stephens and Bernarda Pera.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men | Broadcast Schedule

It is the second year in a row that zero men from the United States will participate in the fourth round at Roland Garros. If nothing else, it stands as a symbolic step back for the group after what seemed to be a couple of breakthrough showings at the past two majors.

For Tiafoe, getting to the fourth round is never the goal.

“I want to win the trophy,” he said.

Remember: No American man has won any Grand Slam title since Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open. The French Open has been the least successful major in that stretch with no U.S. men reaching the quarterfinals since Andre Agassi in 2003.

But Tiafoe beat Rafael Nadal in the fourth round of the U.S. Open along the way to getting to the semifinals there last September, the first time in 16 years the host nation had a representative in the men’s final four at Flushing Meadows.

Then, at the Australian Open this January, Tommy Paul, Sebastian Korda and Ben Shelton became the first trio of Americans in the men’s quarterfinals in Melbourne since 2000. Paul made it a step beyond that, to the semifinals.

After that came this benchmark: 10 Americans were ranked in the ATP’s Top 50, something that last happened in June 1995.

On Saturday, after putting aside a whiffed over-the-shoulder volley — he leaned atop the net for a moment in disbelief — Tiafoe served for the fourth set at 5-3, but couldn’t seal the deal.

In that game, and the next, and later on, too, including at 5-all in the tiebreaker, he would come within two points of owning that set.

Each time, Zverev claimed the very next point. When Tiafoe sent a forehand wide to end it, Zverev let out two big yells. Then the two, who have been pals for about 15 years, met for a warm embrace at the net, and Zverev placed his hand atop Tiafoe’s head.

“He’s one of my best friends on tour,” said Zverev, a German who twice has reached the semifinals on the red clay of Paris, “but on the court, I’m trying to win.”

At the 2022 French Open, Zverev tore ligaments in his right ankle while playing Nadal in the semifinals and had to stop.

“It’s been definitely the hardest year of my life, that’s for sure,” Zverev said. “I love tennis more than anything in the world.”

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