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Lindsey Vonn, Maria Riesch set for 4-day, 4-race World Cup duel

By Graham Dunbar

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, March 15 2011 2:22 p.m. MDT

Germany's Maria Riesch speeds down the course on her way to clock the eleventh fastest time during a training session for the alpine ski, World Cup women's downhill final, in Lenzerheide, Switzerland , Tuesday, March 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Alessandro Trovati)

Associated Press

LENZERHEIDE, Switzerland (AP) — Four days, four races.

Lindsey Vonn and Maria Riesch are ready to begin their showdown Wednesday for the overall World Cup title. After 31 races, four more at the World Cup finals will decide if Vonn wins her fourth straight title or Riesch, the current leader, wins an elusive first.

The best friends have elevated their rivalry to new heights this season, their closest contest yet for the giant crystal globe trophy. The finals start with their strongest event (downhill) and end Saturday with their weakest (giant slalom).

"This is crunch time. I'm sure it's going to come down to the last race," Vonn predicted Tuesday.

Riesch has been runner-up the past two years, but the German has never led so late in the season.

"That would be great tension until the end, to decide it in the GS on Saturday, but we will see," said Riesch, a double Olympic champion whose 23-point advantage can quickly vanish with race victories worth 100 points.

"It would be a great dream coming true," she added. "But, if not, then maybe next year or the year after. I don't have to do this now."

Alpine racing has not had such a finish since Sweden's Anja Paerson edged Croatia's Janica Kostelic by three points in 2005. On the same Lenzerheide slope, Kostelic would have won had she been 0.09 seconds faster in the GS finale.

Vonn smiled while thinking of the number-crunching permutations.

"I've run a couple of scenarios through my mind how it could play out differently," she said. "I can't control what Maria's doing, but I can control my skiing. So I'm going to give it my best shot."

The American arrives with fresh momentum after gaining ground last weekend. A career-best third place in GS at the Czech resort Splinderuv Mlyn was followed by a solid slalom result, with Riesch surprisingly skiing out.

"As you saw last weekend, anything can happen. I have to keep the same approach, and ski with intensity, focus and determination," said Vonn, who has already won the downhill, super-G and super-combined discipline titles.

Riesch reflected it was "not easy to keep cool" amid talk of her shrinking lead.

"It can go so fast from 96 (points) to 23. I try to just concentrate on my skiing and not calculate the points too much," she said.

The men's racing drama is set to peak in the downhill that opens the finals program Wednesday. For the seventh straight year, the downhill title is nearly certain to be won by Michael Walchhofer or Didier Cuche. Both seek a fourth discipline title, second only to the five won by Austrian great Franz Klammer between 1975-83.

Walchhofer, who leads by 14 points, is keeping his promise to retire at season's end with no regrets.

"This was always an important thing for me," the 35-year-old Austrian said after being fastest in training Tuesday. "To be there until the end and really have the chance to achieve something."

The 36-year-old Cuche, who confirmed Tuesday he will return next season, called the downhill finale a "perfect situation."

"It couldn't be better. It's great for the sport, and to be an actor in this drama is very enjoyable," the Swiss star said.

Walchhofer's teammate Klaus Kroell can spoil the script, although he trails by 79 points.

Cuche is favored to win his first super-G title Thursday, with Walchhofer leading an Austrian trio holding outside chances.

Ivica Kostelic, the undoubted star of 2011, can also add crystal globes in super-G and the slalom on Saturday to his discipline title in super-combined. The Croat clinched his runaway victory in the overall points race last weekend.

Both giant slalom titles have come down to the final race, despite Ted Ligety's three-win streak before Christmas. Ligety leads Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal by 77 points, with Frenchman Cyprien Richard also in contention Friday.

"It's a pretty good course for me," said Ligety, who seeks his third World Cup GS title.

The women's GS crown will go to Olympic champion Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany or Tessa Worley of France, although their contest might just be a footnote to the Vonn vs. Riesch conclusion on Saturday.

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