Coco Gauff’s French Open final exam: Iga Swiatek, tennis’ toughest test

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Coco Gauff celebrated her virtual high school graduation in front of the Eiffel Tower two weeks ago, but she still has one more final exam in Paris. It is the toughest tennis in today.

Gauff, 18 and the youngest Grand Slam finalist since Maria Sharapova won 2004 Wimbledon, plays top-ranked Iga Swiatek of Poland, live on NBC, NBCSports.com/live, the NBC Sports app and Peacock Premium on Saturday at 9 a.m. ET.

Gauff has been ticketed for this stage for years, but Swiatek has owned the WTA Tour for months, winning her last 34 matches dating to February.

“I have nothing to lose,” the 23rd-ranked Gauff said after winning her semifinal over 59th-ranked Italian Martina Trevisan. “She’s definitely the favorite.”

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Swiatek won both of their previous meetings in straight sets, though Gauff pushed her to a tiebreak on clay last year.

“From what I see on court, she’s developing every year basically,” Swiatek said after sweeping 20th-ranked Russian Daria Kasatkina in her semifinal. “When I see her, I tend to forget that she’s 18.”

A tournament both players remember is the 2018 French Open. Gauff, then 14, beat future U.S. Open runner-up Leylah Fernandez of Canada to reach the final.

As Gauff cooled down, a 17-year-old Swiatek was leading American Caty McNally in the other semifinal.

“I was actually preparing to play her kind of in the final,” Gauff said.

But McNally saved a match point, forced a third set and prevailed. Gauff ultimately won the tournament, becoming the youngest junior Grand Slam champion since Martina Hingis in 1994.

A month later, Swiatek won the Wimbledon junior title. That run included upsetting the top-seeded American Whitney Osuigwe in the first round and a quarterfinal 6-0, 6-1 thrashing of future U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu.

“I was so angry that I didn’t win junior French Open that I kind of took it on Wimbledon,” Swiatek, who listens to Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses before matches, said last year. “I think physically I was better than my opponents, than any junior player there. My motivation to win any Grand Slam, my anger at French Open, it really gave me a lot.”

In 2020, Swiatek entered the French Open ranked 54th in the world. Like Gauff this year, she was coming off her completion of high school. She romped through the draw, not dropping a set in the best display of unheralded dominance in more than 40 years.

Though Australian Ash Barty was the talk of tennis in 2021, Swiatek was the only woman to reach the second week of all four Grand Slams. She now credits the experience gained from that consistency that propelled her to this streak, seizing the No. 1 ranking after Barty’s shock retirement in March handed the crown to the Pole.

“She kind of plays like a guy,” said American Jessica Pegula, dispatched by Swiatek in the quarterfinals this week. “Ash was a similar way, where they don’t play like a typical girl hitting it kind of flat and the ball kind of goes through the court. She plays a little more unorthodox in the fact that she has a really heavy forehand, but at the same time she also likes to step in and take it really early, and I think clay gives her more time, and I think it makes her forehand even harder to deal with.

“Her game is suited for clay, definitely.”

Swiatek’s streak is now tied with the longest in women’s tennis since 2000, but as timing would have it, has not included a major title. Swiatek has acknowledged the pressure that her ranking, and her run, bring, making it a completely different situation than her other Roland Garros final.

“I try not to hold it inside, and I try to talk with the team, the whole team about it,” she said. “I couldn’t get rid of the expectations like fully, but I tried to accept that, that they are going to be there and it’s going to stress me a little bit more.”

Gauff, despite the Coco Mania of her 2019 Wimbledon fourth-round run at age 15, largely played outside of the mainstream radar at this Roland Garros. The focus was on Swiatek’s streak or the Rafael NadalNovak Djokovic showdown or another teen phenom, Carlos Alcaraz.

As the rest of the high seeds dropped early, Gauff became the first woman to reach a major final without facing a top-30 opponent. Saturday figures to be a test unlike any she has seen this tournament.

“I’m going to try to be aggressive at the right moments and patient at the right moments,” Gauff said. “She’s not going to give you much opportunities.”

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Japanese pair edges Americans for historic Grand Prix Final figure skating title

Riku Miura, Ryuichi Kihara
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Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara won the biggest title ever for a Japanese figure skating pair, taking the Grand Prix Final and consolidating their status as the world’s top active team.

Miura and Kihara, last season’s world silver medalists, barely outscored world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier in Turin, Italy, in both Thursday’s short program and Friday’s free skate to win the six-pair event that is a preview of March’s worlds.

The Japanese totaled 214.58 points, distancing the Americans by a mere 1.3 points after Frazier erred on both of their side-by-side jumping passes in the free skate. Italians Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii took bronze.

“We had a very late start to our season than initially planned, so as we have been performing at each event, I see us getting stronger, improving things,” said Frazier, who with Knierim had their best short program and free skate scores of the autumn.

Knierim and Frazier didn’t decide to continue competing together this season until July.

“I feel a little personally disappointed tonight just for myself for my jumps,” Frazier continued. “I was a little all over the place and, normally, I can execute better, so I feel a little bad, but I’m very proud of us overall. We’ve done a great job of improving each competition and looking forward to the second half of the season where we can start tapping into our best skating.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Miura and Kihara, who partnered in June 2019 and train in Ontario, both waited with trepidation for their final score to be posted, worried that each’s separate mistake on jumps might cost them the title. When they learned they won, both burst into tears.

“This was the first time in eight years that I made a mistake with a Salchow, so I thought we might not get a good score, and it would be my fault,” Kihara said.

Miura and Kihara entered the competition ranked No. 1 in the world by best scores this season ahead of Knierim and Frazier, who in March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979.

Last season, Miura and Kihara became the second Japanese pair to make a Grand Prix podium and to earn a world championships medal. Their ascension helped Japan win its first Olympic figure skating team event medal in February (a bronze that could be upgraded to gold pending the Kamila Valiyeva case).

In Grand Prix Final history, Japan had won 11 gold medals and 40 total medals, all in singles, before this breakthrough.

Knierim and Frazier, already the first U.S. pair to compete in the Grand Prix Final since 2015, became the first U.S. pair to win a Grand Prix Final medal. The Final has been held annually since 1996, though it was canceled the last two seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Miura and Kihara and Knierim and Frazier ascended to the top of the sport while the top five teams from the Olympics from Russia and China have not competed internationally since the Winter Games.

All Russian skaters are ineligible for international competition due to the war in Ukraine. China’s pairs, including Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, didn’t enter last March’s worlds and did not compete in the fall Grand Prix Series.

Later Friday, world champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan led the women’s short program with 75.86 points, 1.28 ahead of countrywoman Mai Mihara. American Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old world junior champion, was fifth of six skaters in her Grand Prix Final debut.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier topped the rhythm dance with 85.93 points, edging Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates by .44. Both couples are bidding for the biggest international title of their careers. None of the Olympic medalists competed internationally this fall.

The Grand Prix Final ends Saturday with the men’s and women’s free skates and free dance, all live on Peacock.

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A Winter Olympic medal still being decided, 10 months later

Fanny Smith, Daniela Maier
It's still unknown whether Fanny Smith (green) or Daniela Maier (blue) is the Olympic ski cross bronze medalist. (Getty)
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There is a second Winter Olympic medal result still in question, 10 months after the Games.

While the figure skating team event results are still unknown due to the Kamila Valiyeva case, the bronze medal in women’s ski cross is also in dispute.

Originally, Swiss Fanny Smith crossed the finish line in third place in the four-woman final at the Winter Games in February. Upon review by the International Ski Federation (FIS) jury, she was minutes later demoted to fourth place after making contact with German Daniela Maier near the end of the course. Maier, who originally was fourth, was upgraded to bronze.

“I tried to be OK with the fourth place. I was very disappointed, I have to say, [then] the jury was like this,” Maier said then. “I am really sorry for Fanny that it’s like this right now. … The jury decided like this, so accept it and be happy with the medal.”

Smith and the Swiss ski federation appealed. FIS reinstated Smith as the bronze medalist nine days after the race and six days after the Closing Ceremony. A FIS appeals commission met four times and reviewed video and written documentation for several hours before deciding that “the close proximity of the racers at that moment resulted in action that was neither intentional or avoidable.”

But that wasn’t the end. The case ended up reportedly going to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), whose rulings are usually accepted as final. The CAS process is ongoing, European media reported this week.

CAS has not responded to a request for comment. A FIS contact said Friday, “There is currently no update to provide in regards to the bronze medal in ski cross. Should there be any update, we will inform you.”

Smith said there should be news soon regarding the case, according to Blick.

Maier still has the bronze medal at her home and enjoys looking at it, according to German media, which also reported that the German ski federation expects Maier to win the case and keep the medal. Smith and Maier spoke extensively about it in recent training sessions and cleared things up. Maier said the best outcome would be bronze medals for both of them, according to the report.

For now, FIS lists Smith as the bronze medalist. The IOC lists Maier as the bronze medalist.

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