At worlds, a men’s short program filled with powerful emotion and exceptional skating

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If they did a highlight reel from the men’s short program at the 2022 World Figure Skating Championships, it might turn into a feature-length film.

It would include scenes of heartrending and powerful emotion. Scenes with one terrific performance after another. A scene showing almost improbable brilliance from a man making an unexpected second appearance at worlds and another scene showing confirmatory brilliance from a teen making a highly anticipated debut at worlds.

Numbers really can’t do justice to what took place over four hours Thursday in Montpellier, France, but they can provide some parameters to assess it.

Twelve of the 29 competitors had personal best scores, a group that included the first (Shoma Uno), third (Kazuki Tomono), fourth (Ilia Malinin) and fifth (Daniel Grassl) finishers.

Each of the top four, led by three Japanese, scored over 100 points, the first time that has happened in a men’s short program at the world championships. Uno had 109.63, Yuma Kagiyama 105.69 and Tomono 101.12, with Malinin of the United States at 100.16.

And the man who finished 22nd, Ivan Shmuratko of war-ravaged Ukraine, brought the crowd to its feet in a touching ovation just by being there, for wearing a simple blue practice shirt with a heart-shaped patch showing the colors of his country’s flag. How sad it was that officials saw fit to give him a deduction for a “costume / prop” violation.

“Today I skated with the Ukrainian people at my side. I do everything from my side to give people hope and to make them proud.” Shmuratko said. “Right now there is no room for different colors, and I decided to skate in the colors of my country with my flag on my chest.”

FIGURE SKATING WORLDS: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Shmuratko, 20, chose the platform of a global sporting event to make an eloquent statement about his country’s indomitable spirit. Given that perspective, going on to talk about sport as sport is less jarring.

So we still can appreciate the seamless beauty of Uno’s performance, one that showed he does not need to rely on lyrics to make a program sing. Uno, the two-time Olympic medalist, let an oboe speak, and he allowed himself the calm to interpret the music through phrasing with his skates and body.

“Recently in my skating, I was always looking forward to the next element,” Uno said. “It forced me to give a very hurried performance, and my emotions weren’t always present.”

This time, he did far more than race from one quad to the next quad and then to the triple axel, all executed with aplomb. Uno received his highest scores ever for both technical elements and artistry, the latter broadly expressed by the five component scores.

Uno has had major roles on the world stage for six seasons. He clearly was capable of such performances but often inconsistent in bringing them off.

During that time, Tomono has been a relative bit player. He seemingly came out of nowhere – or, in this case, a minor event that was conveniently close – to give Japan a shot in Saturday’s free skate at becoming the first country to sweep the men’s medals at worlds since the United States in 1956.

The 23-year-old Tomono was supposed to finish his season last weekend at the Coupe de Printemps in Luxembourg, where he won with underwhelming performances (just 77 points in the short program.)

While there, Tomono was asked to go to worlds as a replacement for a replacement, Kao Miura, whose leg injury forced him to give up the spot made available because two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu had withdrawn with an ankle injury. Tomono noted it was the fifth time he has been a replacement entry at an international event.

“I’ve been an alternate a lot, and I know how to handle it,” Tomono said. “I just had to shift plans very fast.”

Tomono said he wound up using the Coupe de Printemps as a practice for how he would do at worlds. With two clean quads Thursday, he fortunately performed much more like he had at his previous competition, the Four Continents Championships in January, when he also had a personal best short program score (97.10).

Malinin, at 17 the youngest U.S. men’s singles skater at worlds since 1966, topped his previous personal best by nearly 20 points with a performance he felt proved he belonged on the 2022 Olympic team. Although he finished second at January’s U.S. Championships, Malinin’s mediocre skating at his one prior international senior level event gave the selection committee justification not to pick him.

“This showed I was definitely supposed to go to Beijing, and I was meant to be there,” Malinin said.

“Watching all the other high-level skaters (at worlds) makes me feel I can fit in very well and even be better than some of them.”

Like the three men who finished ahead of him in Thursday’s short program, Malinin landed two clean quadruple jumps. The first was a quad lutz that received a mean grade of execution score topped this season only by Nathan Chen’s quad lutz in his Olympic gold medal free skate.

A sloppy step sequence kept Malinin from being in the top three.

“I was mainly trying to focus on staying on my feet,” he said.

For two-time Olympian and 2019 world bronze medalist Vincent Zhou of the U.S., the issue was trying to keep his head above roiling emotional waters after his 2022 Olympics turned into a nightmare.

A positive Covid test knocked Zhou out of the Olympic singles event and put him in quarantine for more than a week. Once cleared, he could not attend the Closing Ceremony because authorities said he was a Covid close contact. He has yet to receive the team medal (silver…or maybe gold?) because of the need to resolve the doping case involving Kamila Valieva, who helped Russia finish first in the team event.

No wonder Zhou didn’t want to pick up skates and go to practice for much of the time since returning from Beijing. No wonder he nearly decided to withdraw from worlds as recently as a week ago. No wonder he cried after a short program in which he finished sixth (95.84), his sense of accomplishment not diminished by some eight points lost after reviews led to under-rotation calls on the first two jump elements.

“That short program was a great moment for me,” Zhou said. “Last week, I couldn’t get through a full program or do a good jump.

“Once I made the decision to come, there was a big mental switch. Once I got here, I have been skating pretty well, just trying not to put any additional pressure on myself and accepting everything as it comes.

“Simply being here is a big win for me.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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

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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

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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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