Japan wins first pairs’ title at figure skating worlds; Americans grab silver


Japan has 13 world figure skating championships gold medals from singles skaters. Now, it has its first gold medal from a pairs’ team.

Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara dethroned Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, who last year became the first Americans to win a pairs’ world title since 1979.

Miura and Kihara totaled 222.16 points between Wednesday’s short program and Thursday’s free skate on home ice in Saitama, holding off the Americans by 4.68. Miura fell on their throw triple loop in the free, but their 6.08-point cushion from the short was enough as the Americans also had jumping errors.

“I know it wasn’t our best free skate, but I told [Miura] we should be proud of ourselves,” Kihara said, according to the International Skating Union. “I told her to look up at the audience, look at how many people are cheering for us. I didn’t know how the result would turn out, but I told her let’s be proud of ourselves and go home with pride. Hearing the crowd for the other pairs, I knew they all skated well, so all three of us [including coach Bruno Marcotte] just prayed waiting for our score. I’m not sure why we got a personal best score.”

Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii took bronze for Italy’s first world pairs’ medal, denying fourth-place Canadians Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Maxime Deschamps.

Stellato-Dudek, 39, was trying to become the oldest world medalist in decades, after winning the 2000 World junior silver medal in singles and ending a 15-year retirement in 2016.

FIGURE SKATING WORLDS: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Miura, 21, and Kihara, 30, have trained in Ontario since teaming in 2019, just about the time that Kihara was ready to retire after two Olympics with other partners and a recent concussion. They ranked outside the top 20 pairs in the world that first season, but since set milestones for pairs in Japan, which has a rich figure skating history in singles events.

They placed 10th at the 2021 Worlds, then seventh at the February 2022 Olympics and took silver behind Knierim and Frazier at the March 2022 Worlds, which included none of the top teams from Russia (banned) and China (haven’t competed since the Olympics).

They went undefeated this season despite not returning to full training until mid-September after an offseason of skating shows and Miura’s shoulder injury.

Now, they join a list of world champions in one of Japan’s most popular sports that was previously all solo acts. It began with Midori Ito in 1989 and continued through 2006 Olympic champion Shizuka Arakawa, three-time world champion Mao Asada and two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu.

“With this result, it would be very much appreciated if new boys or girls would want to take on the challenge to start pairs,” Kihara said, according to the ISU. “I hope more pair skaters will increase, and in 10 or 20 years, people will look back to this day and say this day was the turning point for the Japanese pair discipline.”

Knierim, 31, and Frazier, 30, have said they will likely retire after this season, though they also thought they would stop after last season. They competed this week without Todd Sand, one of their primary coaches, who has been hospitalized after a March 2 heart attack.

“This whole week, this whole time, this program, it was all for our coach — and that’s what our hearts are,” Knierim said, according to the ISU. “[I felt] fulfillment because I gave it everything I could and, for me, that’s always enough when you know that you’ve exhausted all of yourself to make the best opportunity.

“I was very proud of us. We never dreamed that we would have two world medals, and for us this is an achievement, and the color is beautiful.”

If Knierim and Frazier retire, it’s clear that Emily Chan and Spencer Howe will become the leading U.S. pair. They finished fifth in their worlds debut.

Worlds continue Thursday night (U.S. time) with the rhythm dance, followed Friday morning with the women’s free skate, live on Peacock and USA Network.

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At the French Open, a Ukrainian mom makes her comeback

Elina Svitolina French Open

Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, once the world’s third-ranked tennis player, is into the French Open third round in her first major tournament since childbirth.

Svitolina, 28, swept 2022 French Open semifinalist Martina Trevisan of Italy, then beat Australian qualifier Storm Hunter 2-6, 6-3, 6-1 to reach the last 32 at Roland Garros. She next plays 56th-ranked Russian Anna Blinkova, who took out the top French player, fifth seed Caroline Garcia, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 on her ninth match point.

Svitolina’s husband, French player Gael Monfils, finished his first-round five-set win after midnight on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. She watched that match on a computer before going to sleep ahead of her 11 a.m. start Wednesday.

“This morning, he told me, ‘I’m coming to your match, so make it worth it,'” she joked on Tennis Channel. “I was like, OK, no pressure.

“I don’t know what he’s doing here now. He should be resting.”

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men | Broadcast Schedule

Svitolina made at least one major quarterfinal every year from 2017 through 2021, including the semifinals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2019. She married Monfils one week before the Tokyo Olympics, then won a singles bronze medal.

Svitolina played her last match before maternity leave on March 24, 2022, one month after Russia invaded her country. She gave birth to daughter Skai on Oct. 15.

Svitolina returned to competition in April. Last week, she won the tournament preceding the French Open, sweeping Blinkova to improve to 17-3 in her career in finals. She’s playing on a protected ranking of 27th after her year absence and, now, on a seven-match win streak.

“It was always in my head the plan to come back, but I didn’t put any pressure on myself, because obviously with the war going on, with the pregnancy, you never know how complicated it will go,” she said. “I’m as strong as I was before, maybe even stronger, because I feel that I can handle the work that I do off the court, and match by match I’m getting better. Also mentally, because mental can influence your physicality, as well.”

Svitolina said she’s motivated by goals to attain before she retires from the sport and to help Ukraine, such as donating her prize money from last week’s title in Strasbourg.

“These moments bring joy to people of Ukraine, to the kids as well, the kids who loved to play tennis before the war, and now maybe they don’t have the opportunity,” she said. “But these moments that can motivate them to look on the bright side and see these good moments and enjoy themselves as much as they can in this horrible situation.”

Svitolina was born in Odesa and has lived in Kharkiv, two cities that have been attacked by Russia.

“I talk a lot with my friends, with my family back in Ukraine, and it’s a horrible thing, but they are used to it now,” she said. “They are used to the alarms that are on. As soon as they hear something, they go to the bomb shelters. Sleepless nights. You know, it’s a terrible thing, but they tell me that now it’s a part of their life, which is very, very sad.”

Svitolina noted that she plays with a flag next to her name — unlike the Russians and Belarusians, who are allowed to play as neutral athletes.

“When I step on the court, I just try to think about the fighting spirit that all of us Ukrainians have and how Ukrainians are fighting for their values, for their freedom in Ukraine,” she said, “and me, I’m fighting here on my own front line.”

Svitolina said that she’s noticed “a lot of rubbish” concerning how tennis is reacting to the war.

“We have to focus on what the main point of what is going on,” she said. “Ukrainian people need help and need support. We are focusing on so many things like empty words, empty things that are not helping the situation, not helping anything.

“I want to invite everyone to focus on helping Ukrainians. That’s the main point of this, to help kids, to help women who lost their husbands because they are at the war, and they are fighting for Ukraine.

“You can donate. Couple of dollars might help and save lives. Or donate your time to something to help people.”

Also Wednesday, 108th-ranked Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis ousted three-time major champion Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-3 in four and a half hours. Wawrinka’s exit leaves Novak Djokovic as the lone man in the draw who has won the French Open and Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz as the lone men left who have won any major.

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Marcell Jacobs still sidelined, misses another race with Fred Kerley

Marcell Jacobs

Olympic 100m champion Marcell Jacobs of Italy will miss another scheduled clash with world 100m champion Fred Kerley, withdrawing from Friday’s Diamond League meet in Florence.

Jacobs, 28, has not recovered from the nerve pain that forced him out of last Sunday’s Diamond League meet in Rabat, Morocco, according to Italy’s track and field federation.

In his absence, Kerley’s top competition will be fellow American Trayvon Bromell, the world bronze medalist, and Kenyan Ferdinand Omanyala, the world’s fastest man this year at 9.84 seconds. Kerley beat both of them in Rabat.

The Florence Diamond League airs live on Peacock on Friday from 2-4 p.m. ET.

Jacobs has withdrawn from six scheduled head-to-heads with Kerley dating to May 2022 due to a series of health issues since that surprise gold in Tokyo.

Kerley, primarily a 400m sprinter until the Tokyo Olympic year, became the world’s fastest man in Jacobs’ absence. He ran a personal best 9.76 seconds, the world’s best time of 2022, at last June’s USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships. Then he led a U.S. sweep of the medals at July’s worlds.

Jacobs’ next scheduled race is a 100m at the Paris Diamond League on June 9. Kerley is not in that field, but world 200m champion Noah Lyles is.

The last time the reigning Olympic and world men’s 100m champions met in a 100m was the 2012 London Olympic final between Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake. From 2013 to 2017, Bolt held both titles, then retired in 2017 while remaining reigning Olympic champion until Jacobs’ win in Tokyo, where Kerley took silver.

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