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Sweden beat Finland 3-1 in Nordic rivalry game

GANGNEUNG, South Korea- A diving shot by Patrik Zackrisson proved the difference as Sweden edged Finland 3-1 on Sunday to claim the men’s Olympic ice hockey tournament’s top seeding going into the knockout rounds.

In a renewal of their fierce Nordic rivalry, Sweden were able to get just enough of an upper hand to prevail in a close, physical game featuring a number of big hits and limited scoring opportunities for either team.

The Swedes, winners of two Olympic gold medals in hockey, have won three straight games, collecting nine points in the group stage. They get a bye directly into the quarter-finals as the top-ranked team in the standings.
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Anton Lander got Sweden on the board first with a breakaway goal. After Swedish goalie Viktor Fasth stopped a hard shot, Linus Omark picked up the rebound, streaked up the right side and fed it ahead to his left to a wide-open Lander, and the former Edmonton Oiler snapped it past goaltender Mikko Koskinen.

Finland, who have won a medal in three straight Olympics but have never earned a gold, evened the score early in the second. Miika Koivisto attempted a backhander from close to the net but it got deflected off a Swedish stick and wobbled over Fasth’s shoulder. Joonas Kemppainen reached behind the goaltender and tapped it over the line.

In the third period it was Zackrisson’s acrobatics that put the Swedes on top to stay.

Johan Fransson blasted a hard shot from the point and Koskinen gave up a big rebound. Zackrisson dived at the loose puck and managed to get his stick on it, lifting it over the goaltender’s outstretched glove.

“I tried to jump at it, I tried to reach it and I got my stick on it, so it felt good,” Zackrisson said. “It’s pretty cool to score in the Olympics.”

“We wanted to win the group, and we win the group so that’s what it’s been all about, so now we can focus for the quarter-final.”

Oscar Moller made it 3-1 with an empty-net goal with five seconds to go.

The game was emblematic of the long and hard-checking rivalry between the two Northern European neighbours, with a number of shoving matches and big hits.

In the first period, Swedish defender Jonas Ahnelov took a blow to the head on a heavy body check from Finland’s Petri Kontiola and was clearly shaken up. He was later led to the dressing room and did not return to the ice during the game.

(Clare Fallon)

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IOC gives Pyeongchang Games thumbs-up at halfway mark

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea- The International Olympic Committee on Sunday gave the thumbs-up to the Pyeongchang winter Olympics at the halfway mark, saying organisers had delivered on promises despite some empty seats in the venues.

The Feb. 9-25 winter Games — the first to be held in Asia outside Japan — have not drawn sold-out crowds, with several venues far from filled and organisers bringing in volunteers to fill the seats but the Olympic body said it was satisfied so far.

The Games have seen no major operational disruption, as was the case in previous Olympics such as in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

“Halfway through is a very important point, especially if you can speak about the field of play and athletes’ performances and competitions,” said the Olympic Games Executive Director Christophe Dubi.

“What is particularly pleasing is the quality of the fields of play. This is the result of long and hard work.”

The Games also got a major sports boost on Saturday when Czech Ester Ledecka, a rank outsider, caused one of the biggest upsets in winter Olympics history to win the Alpine skiing Super-G title.

“Like everyone else we were amazed. It is an incredible story, a most amazing story,” said IOC spokesman Mark Adams of Ledecka, a world champion snowboarder.

“She is already maybe the Queen of the Games and if she wins that (snowboard competition), then who knows.”

One broadcaster who missed the winning run by the Czech was U.S. rights holder NBC — the biggest single source of income for the Games — which decided Austrian favourite Anna Veith, in the lead at the time, had done enough to win and cut away before Ledecka’s charge down the mountain.

Victory for Ledecka, who is a world champion snowboarder, was a welcome distraction for organisers from questions about the empty seats in venues, which they say were due to some postponements at the start due to winds, the Lunar New Year and a cold snap at the start of the Games.

Pyeongchang organisers say they have sold more than 90 percent of their one million-plus tickets but regularly bring in volunteers and other staff to plug the gaps in the tribunes.

Even venues such as Alpine skiing and short track speed skating — hugely popular in South Korea — were not full during preliminaries.

“Some of the sessions do not have 100 percent tickets sold,” Dubi said, adding organisers were giving tickets to people who had contributed to the Games to have full venues.

“This is a great thing organisers have done here. We have really great competitions and performances and also a very good job done by the (volunteers) of the athletes.”

(Karolos Grohmann)

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Vonn edges Goggia for second day running

GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, Germany- American Lindsey Vonn showed that she has hit peak form ahead of the Winter Olympics by winning her second downhill in as many days on Sunday and the 81st World Cup race of her career.

The four-times overall World Cup winner, who pipped Sofia Goggia by two hundredths of a second in Saturday’s sprint downhill at Garmisch, again edged the Italian in Sunday’s conventional race on the Kandahar mountain, this time by 0.11 seconds. Tina Weirather of Liechteinstein was third.

The U.S. team also had a scare, one day after Jacqueline Wiles crashed and was ruled out of this month’s games in Pyeongchang after fracturing her fibula and tibia and suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

This time, Stacy Cook fell at over 100 kilometres per hour, crashing dramatically into the safety netting, but staggered to her feet after a few tense minutes and brushed herself down.

There was no immediate comment on her condition from the U.S. skiing federation.

Laurenne Ross, another American who crashed on Saturday but emerged unscathed, completed the course but was nearly two seconds slower than Vonn’s time.

It was Vonn’s fourth win of the World Cup season and her third in a row in the
The 33-year-old, the finest woman skier of her generation, won the downhill gold at the Vancouver games in 2010 but missed Sochi four years ago through injury.

She suffered an 11-month layoff after suffering a knee injury in Andorra in February 2016 and then broke her arm in training in Colorado the following November, requiring an intensive programme of rehabilitation.

She was also left with lingering nerve damage.

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Alpine skiing – American Wiles ruled out of Pyeongchang after crash

 

American ski racer Jacqueline Wiles has been ruled out of this month’s Winter Olympics after sustaining serious leg injuries in a crash during a World Cup downhill in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany on Saturday.

The 25-year-old fractured her left fibula and tibia and suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament, according to German media reports.

The race was won by Wiles’ team mate Lindsey Vonn.

“We are all extremely disappointed that Jackie suffered this injury so close to the Games,” said Luke Bodensteiner, U.S. Ski & Snowboard Chief of Sport, in a statement.

“It’s a big loss to our alpine ski team, especially after her very strong results this season.”

Wiles, who competed in the downhill at the Sochi Games, finished third in the downhill in Cortina d‘Ampezzo, Italy last month.

A decision on whether Wiles will be replaced in the U.S. squad had yet to be made, the statement said.

The Olympics run from Feb. 9-25 in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

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From Hanyu’s shadow, Uno leaps eagerly to the attack

TOKYO-Shoma Uno first stepped on the ice at five, but it was the rough-and-tumble of hockey he had his eyes on – until a chance meeting with a Japanese figure skater changed everything.

The skater was Mao Asada, now a Japanese household name and two-time Olympian who retired earlier this year. She told Uno he was cute, and asked if he’d ever thought of figure skating.

Now Uno, at 20, is known as a phenomenal jumper who in 2016 became the first to successfully land a quadruple flip in competition and is hard on the heels of compatriot and Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu for a rising number of podium finishes.

“There he was, learning hockey, and Mao was on the ice nearby. She suggested he try figure skating,” Uno’s grandfather Fujio told weekly magazine Shukan Shincho in April 2017.

“If he hadn’t been living that close to a rink, he might never have gone or gotten that invitation.”

Some 13 years after that meeting, Uno was world junior champion. In April 2017, he won silver at the world senior championships, finishing just points behind Hanyu.

“I haven’t really felt I’ve met that many obstacles up to now,” Uno said after taking silver at the Grand Prix Final last year, after Hanyu withdrew with an injury.

”If at first I‘m nervous and think something is a big barrier, then I just do the same thing every day and what I’d thought was an obstacle, a wall, just becomes normal.

“So far I’ve been able to come along doing what I like, what I can only do at this age.”

His narrow loss to Hanyu at the world championships made him start to believe that he might actually be beatable.

“The general image is that Hanyu is first, and then there are a lot of skaters right after him,” Uno told the Nikkan Sports daily in October.

“I want to become good enough to line up there with him.”

“POCKET ROCKET”

Known in some circles as the “Pocket Rocket” for his diminutive height – he stands only 1.59 metres tall, compared to Hanyu’s 1.72m – and his jumping ability, Uno is charging into his first Olympic season.

Ahead of the Grand Prix series, he told a news conference his motto for the year is “attack” – and apart from the Grand Prix silver, he also set a personal best in September’s Lombardia Trophy.

Uno, however, has tried to downplay the significance of his form this season heading into next month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeonchang.

“If you ask me how I feel about the season so far, I’d say I‘m unhappy with more competitions than I am happy,” he said at the Grand Prix Final.

“As for my goals for the season, not making mistakes isn’t everything. I want to grow, I want to make this a growing year, so I‘m always challenging myself.”

While Uno has his own fans, he remains somewhat stuck in the shadow of Hanyu, whose presence is so ubiquitous in Japan that his face adorns advertisements ranging from chocolate to mattresses.

Uno has said at the moment prefers to remain in Hanyu’s shadow because he it reduces his stress, but he still has that burning desire to beat everyone, including his compatriot.

“I don’t really like the word ‘rival,’” Uno told Nikkan Sports in August 2017, referring to Hanyu.

“But I do want to beat him.”

(Greg Stutchbury)

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Haunted by Sochi, Chan fights overthinking

TORONTO- Patrick Chan is hoping the acknowledgement that his biggest enemy may well be himself could propel him to figure skating gold at the Pyeongchang Olympics at the third time of asking.

Chan, who finished fifth in Vancouver in 2010, clinched silver behind Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu in Sochi, where he had been favoured to win.

The result made the now 27-year-old the latest in a long line of Canadian male skaters who just missed the top podium place at the Olympics, capping an experience he remembers overall as a painful “whirlwind”.

”I lived those Olympic two weeks both times and I don’t remember much,“ Chan told Reuters in an interview of his previous Games experiences. ”I don’t think I remember much because I was so living in fear every single moment.

”After the competition I had to live with the disappointment of not winning gold, but before I remember clearly over-analysing every situation.

”The minute you step into the (Olympic) village you start analysing and (your) brain is on overdrive.

“Is eating this or touching this going to affect my program? To that point, to the -Nth degree. That ruined, absolutely ruined, the experience for me.”

Despite taking an additional silver in Sochi for the team competition, Chan subsequently sat out the next season before a comeback in 2015-2016.

A three-time world champion, Chan is known for his artistry in an era of ever-increasing quad jumps, a trend he has regarded with caution amid concerns about skater safety.

In the 2017 world championships in Helsinki, Chan landed three quadruple jumps in his free program for the first time, but still only finished fourth, with each of the podium finishers, Japanese duo Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno, and China’s Jin Boyang, landing four.

“When you see them doing all these jumps, it is amazing. It’s motivating, you want to try it,” Chan said.

“But I have to constantly remind myself that my plan is completely different. I‘m at a different point, my approach to competition and my prep is completely different.”

Still, at October’s Skate Canada Chan finished a disappointing fourth after scaling back the difficulty of his routine and even then falling on his opening quadruple toeloop.

He then skipped the next Grand Prix event to focus on training.

“Clearly I‘m not going to do … five quads in the amount of time I have left going into the Olympics, it is not possible,” said Chan, acknowledging that age is another factor making it hard to keep up.

Using his last two Olympics as a base, Chan is aiming for different goals this time.

“I don’t want to end my third Games being like, ‘why did I feel fear again?’ That is what I am working so hard on,” he said.

”My goal right now is not gold, it’s not a medal. It is after they announce my name, taking my position and before I hear my music to be like ‘Okay, I‘m ready. I want to be here.’

“Because I have never said that to myself when I start my program at a competition. I have never said ‘I want to be here.’ It’s always like ‘I can’t wait for this to be over’ or ‘Okay, here we go,’” he added.

”If I can master that on the biggest stage, take my position in front of thousands of people watching and have the confidence to say ‘right, let’s do this.’

“Imagine how I can take that into my life after skating.”

(Elaine Lies)

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Brignone revels in tough conditions to win Super G

BAD KLEINKIRCHHEIM, Austria- Italian Federica Brignone won the women’s World Cup Super G race on Saturday, saying she reveled in the tough conditions which forced organizers to switch the program.

The 27-year-old completed the course at Bad Kleinkirchheim in one minute 9.80 seconds to pip Lara Gut by 0.18 seconds, leaving the Swiss waiting for her first win since suffering a knee injury last February.

The organizers postponed the downhill which was supposed to be held on Saturday and brought forward the Super G after heavy rain earlier in the week damaged the course. The downhill will now be held on Sunday.

Most skiers struggled in the conditions, including four-times overall World Cup winner Lindsey Vonn who finished ninth, however Brignone said she relished them.

“When the race is tough, I‘m better,” she told Swiss broadcaster SRF after winning her second race of the season following her giant slalom win in Lienz in December.

“These are my conditions because it’s all in the head and you have to attack.”

“I did everything I expected and in this Super G you must know what you have to do in the right place. Everyone else made mistakes and I didn‘t.”

Gut was runner-up for the second time in a World Cup race following her comeback from the knee injury she suffered at the world championships in St Moritz last February, when she tore her anterior cruciate ligament.

She might have won but for a mistake at the end of the course when she hit a gate with her arm, costing her crucial tenths of a second.

American Mikaela Shiffrin, a slalom specialist who holds a huge lead in the overall World Cup race, did not take part. The 22-year-old heads the overall standings with 1381 points, an almost insurmountable 821 clear of Swiss Wendy Holdener.

(Brian Homewood)

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Kyrgios overcomes Dimitrov, to face Harrison in Brisbane final

Australia’s Nick Kyrgios battled past defending champion Grigor Dimitrov 3-6 6-1 6-4 to set up a final against American Ryan Harrison at the Brisbane International on Saturday.

After losing the first set, the number three seed stamped his authority on the second, converting two break points to force a decider for a third consecutive match this week.

“I knew that I had to do something a little bit differently today. I couldn’t give him too much rhythm,” Kyrgios said after the match.

The 22-year-old Kyrgios was dominant on serve, hitting 19 aces and winning 82 percent of his first-serve points, and broke Dimitrov in the seventh game of the final set to claim his first victory over the Bulgarian in three meetings.

World number 21 Kyrgios could clinch his first ATP Tour title on home soil on Sunday and make a huge statement ahead of the Australian Open, which begins at Melbourne Park on Jan. 15.

In the other semi-final, Harrison came back from a set down to end the dream run of Australian wildcard Alex De Minaur in a 4-6 7-6(5) 6-4 victory.

The 18-year-old De Minaur raced past Harrison to claim the first set before forcing a tiebreak in the second, where he cruised to a 5-3 lead.

Standing just two points away from his first career final, De Minaur committed a string of errors, including a double fault to concede a set point to Harrison, allowing the world number 47 back into the match.

De Minaur started flat in the decider and Harrison pounced on the opportunity, breaking his opponent’s serve twice to lead 5-1.

Harrison was broken while trying to serve out the match at 5-2 but recovered and held to love to reach only his third ATP Tour final, all of which have come since February last year.

Heading into the final, Kyrgios has a 2-0 head-to-head advantage with Harrison yet to take a set off the Australian.

“I know that he’s a dangerous opponent. He can serve very, very well and he’s obviously won a lot of matches here,”
Kyrgios said.

(Hardik Vyas)

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Halep warms up for Australian Open with Shenzhen title win

World number one Simona Halep continued her preparations for the Australian Open by lifting the Shenzhen Open title after a 6-1 2-6 6-0 victory over holder Katerina Siniakova on Saturday.

In a rain-delayed match that was moved to the indoor courts, Romanian Halep got off to a flying start and did not face a single break point as she easily won the first set.

Czech Siniakova, 21, fought back to take the second set as Halep appeared to lose focus but the top seed regained her composure to break the Czech’s serve three times in the third set and seal a comfortable win.

“We had a great match today. I tried everything to win… I just try to enjoy the moment even if it’s a little bit different indoors. It’s not easy but we did our job and I‘m happy that I could win the first title of the year,” Halep said.

The success will be a boost for Halep, whose last triumph was at the Madrid Open last May, with the 26-year-old among the favourites to win her maiden grand slam title at this month’s Australian Open.

“It’s a great beginning of course to start the year with a title but thinking about the grand slam title is too far,” Halep added.

“I‘m just taking it tournament by tournament and of course I will give my best in every match I will play and my dream is to win a grand slam.”

With holder Serena Williams having withdrawn from the first grand slam of the year, Halep and Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, who won the Brisbane International title on Saturday, have made strong statements ahead of the event, which begins on Jan. 15.

(Aditi Prakash)

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Federer leads Switzerland to third Hopman Cup title

Switzerland won their third Hopman Cup on Saturday as Roger Federer and Belinda Bencic beat Germany’s Alexander Zverev and Angelique Kerber 4-3(3) 4-2 in the deciding mixed doubles to secure a 2-1 victory in the final at the Perth Arena.

It was Federer’s second Hopman Cup triumph after victory in 2001 alongside then world number one Martina Hingis.

“She (Hingis) had a great career and to have that in a small country like Switzerland is very rare,” world number two Federer said after his country’s latest triumph.

“It made me also believe with hard work and dedication you get really far because I didn’t believe that much at that point when I was younger, I thought it was more all talent.”

Federer had earlier roared back from a set down to beat Zverev 6-7(4) 6-0 6-2 and give the Swiss a 1-0 lead.

Unbeaten in three singles matches in the tournament before the final as he prepares to defend his Australian Open title later this month, the 19-time grand slam champion failed to wrap up the first set despite hitting 20 winners.

However, it was only a matter of time before the 36-year-old Federer found his groove as he raced to win the second set 6-0 before sealing victory in the decider with a drop shot.

“I was trying to play as aggressively as possible. I‘m maybe better when we’re closer together,” said Federer.

“The court plays fast, so it helps if you approach (the net) and do it the right way. It was working out well, so I thought I’d keep going until I had to fix it. That never happened, so I was able to cruise all the way through.”

The tie went to a mixed doubles decider after Kerber continued her strong start to the campaign under new coach Wim Fissette by beating Bencic 6-4 6-1 to level the score at 1-1.

World number four Zverev finished with one singles win from four matches in a patchy preparation ahead of the year’s first grand slam at Melbourne Park starting on Jan. 15.

(Hardik Vyas)