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Saturday sports: COVID is knocking out the competition in skating, tennis and the NBA

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And now it's time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Some of the best U.S. figure skaters COVID-test out of competition. Will Novak Djokovic spend the Australian Open in immigration detention? And some retired NBA stars shine once again on the court. Joining us from Nashville, Tenn., where the U.S. figure skating competition's underway, is NPR's Tom Goldman. Tom, thanks so much for being with us.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Always a pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: But a lot of people are missing after COVID testing - aren't they? - some of the top competitors.

GOLDMAN: Yeah. You know, positive tests took out two of the top skaters from the women's competition yesterday - two-time U.S. champion Alysa Liu and Amber Glenn, last year's silver medalist. Glenn had a really bad short program Thursday. It appears she skated sick. She said she'd gotten slower and sluggish and weaker over the previous couple of days. And also, last year's U.S. pairs champions, Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier - they withdrew after Frazier tested positive.

So, Scott, a U.S. skating official told me the positive tests were a wake-up call for the organization's medical staff. And they plan to limit media access even more for an extra layer of safety for the players. But, you know, the show goes on. And last night, Mariah Bell put on quite the show. She won her first U.S. national women's title at the ripe old age of 25, making her the oldest U.S. women's champion since 1927.

SIMON: I thought this was great. I was so heartened by that story. Twenty-five and she can still skate - isn't that amazing (laughter)? The men skaters?

GOLDMAN: Yes. Later today, the men's competition begins in Nashville, led by Nathan Chen, who is trying for a sixth straight U.S. title. He finished fifth at the 2018 Olympics. He is considered a gold medal contender this time around. The women - it's going to be an uphill battle to try and kick some Russians off the medals stand. And the Russians are expected to sweep in Beijing.

SIMON: Novak Djokovic had a vaccine medical exemption for the Australian Open but was detained when he arrived in the country. What's going on?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, you know, it's being reported that Djokovic tested positive last month but didn't have symptoms. And that's the reason his lawyers say he was given the exemption to the country's very strict vaccination rules before he flew to Australia. Border authorities disputed the exemption, canceled his visa. So that's why he's waiting a weekend in an Australian hotel until Monday, when it's expected he'll have a hearing to appeal the decision. It's being reported if his appeal's denied, he could be banned three years from Australia. And, you know, while he waits, the world weighs in, pro and con, about his situation. Scott, he's become the international focus for the raging political debate over COVID vaccines.

SIMON: And as terrible as COVID has been, it's nice to see some old NBA stars getting a new chance at stardom.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, we've had a record number of players appearing in NBA games because so many of these replacements are coming in. Some we know - Lance Stephenson, the former flamboyant Indiana Pacer who got brought back to Indiana as a replacement and went bananas in one of his first games back. He scored 20 straight points in about six minutes. Most of the players we haven't - we don't know. Some of them will stick. Most will return to the basketball wilderness. But even for those who don't stick around, many have had moments where they've competed right along with NBA players, and it's been somewhat heartening.

SIMON: NPR's Tom Goldman, thanks so much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPADOSIO'S "MR. TURTLES CLOUD KINGDOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.