2006 Cup of China Preview

The ISU Grand Prix continues with the third of six events, held in Nanjing, Jiangsu, China from November 9 – 12. One of the strongest emerging powers in figure skating, China has especially excelled in the pairs event.

Former world champions and two-time and reigning Olympic bronze medalists lead the way at Cup of China. Shen and Zhao, who overcame a serious injury to triumph at the Olympics with an inspired and emotional skate, are back for another season. With Olympic Champions Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin having moved on, Shen and Zhao are joint favorites to win the world title, along with both of their training mates, Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang (Olympic and World silver medalists) and Qing Pang and Jian Tong (reigning World Champions.)

Pang and Tong withdrew from Skate America last month (Pang was suffering from a kidney infection) and will make their lone Grand Prix appearance at home in China. The duel between China’s first pairs world champions and the current pairs world champions should be the highlight of the event. Throughout the season, the rivalry among all three Chinese teams will build to the World Championships, where they are favored to sweep the medals.

Many questions surround the German team of Aljona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, one of the few teams with the potential to break a Chinese sweep at Worlds. Coach Ingo Steuer (former World Champion and Olympic medalist with Mandy Woetzel) has been shunned by the German Federation for alleged Stasi involvement in the 1980s. Despite all efforts to force another coach on Savchenko and Szolkowy, the team has maintained that they will not skate without Steuer and has been successful to date in obtaining court injunctions to allow Steuer accreditation as their coach.

Other challengers in this field are Canadians Valerie Marcoux and Craig Buntin, who placed third at Skate Canada, and Dorota and Mariusz Siudek of Poland, silver medalists at Skate America two weeks ago. World Junior medalists Julia Vlassov and Drew Meekins of the U.S. will be making their Grand Prix debut aiming for a top-six finish.

Evan Lysacek is making a habit of losing competitions in the short programs – at Olympics, Worlds, and most recently Skate America, poor short programs kept him from achieving the podium position that his free skate alone might have earned. Favored to win the men’s event at Cup of China, Lysacek wants to prove that he can get through a whole competition consistently. Any medal here is likely to be enough to qualify Lysacek for the Grand Prix Final, but anything less than gold will be a disappointment.

Lysacek’s main challenge is perhaps the world’s biggest headcase, Canadian Emanuel Sandhu, who for all of his ability has never even come close to the world podium. As one of the most brilliant stylists and one of the world’s most natural jumpers, Sandhu’s head has managed to defeat him more times than be counted. Despite the disappointments, Sandhu has managed to put it together on occasion, with a couple of Canadian Championships and a Grand Prix Final title to his name. As always, he’ll be a wildcard who could finish anywhere from first to last.

China has two men with medal chances. Chenjiang Li, the veteran who has competed in the last seven World Championships and two Olympics games, is capable of performing both the quadruple toeloop and quadruple salchow. His recent performances have been uneven, however, with just ninth place at the world championships and sixteenth at the Olympics. Countryman Song Gao has also struggled in recent years but qualified for the Grand Prix Final in 2004 after winning a medal at the NHK Trophy.

Looking to challenge the home team will be Belarus’ Sergei Davydov, fifth at Skate America; Kensuke Nakaniwa, last year’s bronze medalist at Japanese Nationals; France’s Yannick Ponsero, third at World Juniors; and Scott Smith of the U.S., looking to rebound from a disappointing eighth at Skate America. The bronze medal is wide open and a huge opportunity for any of these men.

In the ladies event, Russia’s Elena Sokolova is the highest ranked skater and the favorite to win on paper. Sokolova has a reputation, however, as a slow starter and usually does not reach top form until the world championship.

If Sokolova is not in top form, Japan’s Yukari Nakano will be ready to win. Third at last year’s Grand Prix Final and just one place below Sokolova at Worlds, Nakano is among just a few women capable of doing the triple Axel. With so many Japanese ladies vying for three spots at Worlds, good early season performances are key to building momentum for Japanese Nationals.

Mai Asada, sister of wunderkind Mao, is one of the Japanese ladies battling Nakano for a world team berth. After a less-than-impressive sixth at Skate America, Asada has something to prove at Cup of China, her last opportunity before Japanese Nationals in December.

Other challengers include American Emily Hughes, who showed excellent programs amidst some jump errors at Skate America. Countrywoman Beatrisa Liang makes her Grand Prix debut here, with lowered expectations after some rough summer/fall club competitions in the U.S. Also struggling is Hungarian Julia Sebestyen, who has had two less-than-impressive seasons plagued by jump inconsistencies.

China’s own skaters, Yan Liu and Binshu Xu all have outside shots at medal. Liu is a reliable jumper who needs to up the levels of her other elements as well as her program components. Xu has had a fair amount of success on the junior level but was sidelined by injury much of last year.

Elene Gedevanishvili, a precocious jumper from Georgia, was scheduled to compete but has pulled out amidst the personal turmoil of being deported from her training base in Russia due to Russian–Georgian conflicts. Gedevanishvili is now training in Estonia under the tutelage of Anna Kondrashova. Her triple-triple combinations are among the most difficult in the world, but thus far, Gedevanishvili has been known primarily as a short program skater. She is scheduled to compete at the NHK Trophy in December.

In the ice dance event, Olympic silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto make their Grand Prix debut in arguably the weakest field, with just one other team in the top 10 in the world. Belbin and Agosto will skate their free dance to That’s Entertainment, returning to the all-American style they showed in 2003 and 2004. Belbin and Agosto will almost certainly win, but the margin of victory and program component scores will tell the story as to whether Belbin and Agosto will spend the season fighting for gold or fighting to retain bronze.

Oksana Domina and Maxim Shabalin, the heirs apparent to a great tradition of ice dance in Russia, may be Russia’s best hope for a medal at the World Championships in any discipline this year if Slutskaya and Plushenko sit out the season. If this team is going to benefit from the political push of being Russia’s number-one, their program components will likely show it here.

The next highest ranked team, Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski, are just twelfth in the world but will face little competition for the bronze medal in a field of relatively unknown teams.

The next Grand Prix event (Trophee Eric Bompard) will be held in Paris, France, November 16-18, 2006.

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