2007 World Figure Skating Championships Preview

The 2007 World Championships will take place from March 19 – 25 in Japan, a country on the verge of redefining figure skating. Phenoms Mao Asada, Miki Ando, Yukari Nakano, Daisuke Takahashi, and Nobunari Oda are all legitimate medal contenders in what is arguably the most talented singles team at Worlds. Yet, to date, none has won a World or Olympic medal. Tokyo is the perfect platform for that to change.

Unusual for a post-Olympic year, all four current World Champions will return to defend their title. Even more unusual, none are favored to win. Kimmie Meissner, Stephane Lambiel, Qing Pang and Jian Tong, and Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski have suffered through seasons of uncharacteristic mistakes, losses, self-doubt, and disappointment. All will be fighting just to stay on the podium against a surprisingly deep field.

LADIES

Few skaters have gotten more attention at a tender age than that of Mao Asada, the 16-year-old wunderkind who defeated all of the eventual Olympic medalists last year, but was too young to go to the Olympics or World Championships. Asada had a rough debut in her 2006-07 season at Skate America, but rebounded with superb, record-breaking performances at both the NHK Trophy, where she set an ISU total point record of 199.52, and Japanese Nationals, where she scored 211.54, winning the event by more than twenty-five points. Asada tends to skate best at home, making her a favorite to win the World Championships in her first appearance.

If Asada fails to deliver, another first timer, Yu-Na Kim of Korea, is poised to take the title. Kim, twenty days older than Asada, was also too young for the Olympics last year, but won the 2006 Junior World Championship, defeating Asada. The first South Korean skater of note on the international level, Kim had a shaky start to season at Skate Canada, but rebounded with wins at Trophee Eric Bompard and the Grand Prix Final. In early winter, rumors of injury, coupled with a poor performance at an Asian competition, cast doubts on Kim’s readiness for the World Championships. However, recent reports indicate that Kim will be ready to contend in her bid to become the first woman ever to win consecutive junior and senior World Championships.

Lost in the hype is American Kimmie Meissner, the 17-year-old who won last year’s world title in a huge upset. Meissner’s triple-triple combinations and overall consistency have been hit-or-miss this season. After failing to make the Grand Prix Final and finishing just third in the free skate at the U.S. National Championships, Meissner rebounded with a win at the Four Continents Championships. But, even there, she had a costly miss in the short program that would take her out of contention at Worlds if repeated. With a reputation as a fighter, Meissner should never be left off the list of medal contenders, but the defending champion has a lot to prove in Tokyo.

Japan’s Miki Ando, who bested Meissner at Skate America, is the comeback kid of the season, landing triple-triple combinations that have eluded her for much of the past two seasons. At her best, Ando could challenge for the title; however, with an up-and-down season which included a disastrous free skate at the Grand Prix Final and an uneven performance at Japanese Nationals, the 19-year-old is now more of a wild card than a favorite.

European Champion and 2005 World bronze medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy should also contend, but must avoid costly errors, particularly in the short program. Japan’s Yukari Nakano, armed with a triple Axel, has an outside chance at a medal, as do Americans Emily Hughes and Alissa Czisny, Canada’s Joannie Rochette, Switzerland’s Sarah Meier, and Elene Gedevanishvili of Georgia.

Notably, no Russians are expected to contend for medals for the first time in more than a decade. Elena Sokolova, 2003 World silver medalist and last year’s fourth-place finisher, has been out of shape and skating dreadfully all season. Russia’s second entrant, Arina Martinova, could not crack the top ten at even the Junior World Championships. Russian champion, Ksenia Doronina, and silver medalist, Alexandra Ievleva, were left off the team after disappointing skates at the European Championships.

MEN

Perhaps the most unpredictable event of the World Championships, the men’s discipline has no fewer than seven medal contenders with wildly different styles.

France’s Brian Joubert, who landed three quadruple jumps at Cup of Russia and established himself as the early season favorite, has had some tight performances since then. In pressure situations, the 22-year-old’s quads can become triples, and his triple-triple combinations often materialize as triple-doubles. Against such a tough field, the French Champion cannot afford the types of minor mistakes and omissions he experienced en route to winning the European Championships.

While Joubert is tough and athletic, Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi is passionate and explosive. Outstanding scores at the NHK Trophy, Japanese Nationals, and Winter Universiade position Takahashi as a co-favorite for gold in Tokyo. The 20-year-old typically does just one quad, but has a stronger overall package that includes rare level-four step sequences and high-level spins.

In addition to international competitors, Takahashi must face some competition from teammate Nobunari Oda. Oda, who will turn nineteen during Worlds, is a judges’ favorite for his strong basic skating and all-around ability, but he has yet to deliver a quadruple jump on the international stage. Without one here, the Japanese silver medalist will struggle to land on the podium unless others make mistakes.

USA’s Evan Lysacek has delivered a quadruple jump on the international stage, winning the Four Continents Championship in February with a near-flawless performance mirroring the one that won him a U.S. title just a few weeks prior. The 21-year-old is set to make a run for the big prize, the gold medal, if he can keep it together in the short program. Costly mistakes in his short program at both of his Grand Prix events and the Four Continents have put him at near-insurmountable deficits. With so much talent in Tokyo, the US Champion must skate cleanly in the short to position himself in gold medal contention. Otherwise, he will be left fighting for a third bronze medal to add to the ones he earned in 2005 and 2006.

Reigning World Champion Stephane Lambiel is a huge question mark after a disappointing outing at Skate Canada and withdrawing from the European Championships citing lack of motivation. Even on his best day, Lambiel’s triple Axel is far from textbook, and he’ll need it to even contend for a medal in the toughest field he has faced to date. His new flamenco free skate, debuted at a Swiss exhibition, has drawn considerable praise, however, and the 21-year-old has proven in the past that he can surprise when least expected.

Canada’s Jeffrey Buttle, Olympic bronze medalist, is a specialist at maximizing Code of Points, but will be at a strong disadvantage in this field without a quadruple jump or even strong consistency on his triple jumps. Never count out Buttle, though, as his basic skating holds up well in events where everyone makes mistakes. Similarly, American Johnny Weir has the talent, but perhaps not the nerves or the jumping ability to contend outright.

Buttle, Weir, and former Canadian Champion Emanuel Sandhu will be vulnerable to rising talents from Europe, including Kristoffer Berntsson of Sweden, Kevin van der Perren of Belgium, Alban Preaubert and Yannick Ponsero of France, Sergei Davydov of Belarus, and Andrei Lutai from Russia. While this new generation is not expected to contend for medals just yet, spots in the top ten will be highly coveted by all.

PAIRS

Entering the season, it appeared that the Chinese pairs would almost assuredly sweep at Worlds. Two-time World Champions, veterans, and crowd favorites Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao announced that they would continue skating in eligible competition. Reigning World Champions Qing Pang and Jian Tong also announced that they would defend their world title. Rising stars Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang, reigning Olympic and world silver medalists, would also continue to compete and push the technical limits of the sport.

Then came the European Championships. Germans Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, a team mired in the controversy surrounding their coach Ingo Steuer, delivered one of the best pair performances in recent years if not in history. With daring technical elements, choreography, and passion, the Germans won the competition in a landslide and established themselves as co-favorites for Worlds, at minimum.

While the Germans offer clean lines and explosive side-by-side jumps, veterans Shen and Zhao bring passion in the form of a Lori Nichol-choreographed free skate to Massenet’s Meditation, highlighted by back-to-back explosive throw jumps two-thirds of the way through the program. Accustomed to large margins of victory, Shen and Zhao will need to be picture-perfect in Tokyo in order to top a clean skate from the Germans. If both teams deliver, however, the maturity and elegance Shen and Zhao have acquired from eleven years at world-level competition could make the difference.

The other two Chinese teams, traditionally reliable on technical elements, have struggled this season. Dan Zhang has struggled with her double Axel and triple toe loop, and the current World silver medalists fell to third at the Grand Prix Final. Defending champs Pang and Tong have struggled with Pang’s kidney illness and Tong’s injury from a car accident on New Year’s Eve, and as a result, appear to be at less than full strength.

Beyond the Germans, however, there appear to be few teams with the ability to challenge the Chinese. Russia’s Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov, who initially announced their retirement last year, have appeared lackluster all season. The 1999 World bronze medalists Dorota (Zagorska) Siudek and Mariusz Siudek have excited audiences, but have not brought in marks indicative of medal contention. Last year’s fourth- and fifth- place teams, Americans Rena Inoue and John Baldwin and Canadians Valerie Marcoux and Craig Buntin, both lost their own national titles in a seasoned filled with turmoil on and off the ice.

The door is wide open for other young teams to make their mark. Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison of Canada have something to prove after a disastrous accident nearly ended Dube’s career at the Four Continents. New American champions Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski want to show that their win at Nationals was not a fluke. Russians Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov, coached by the legendary Tamara Moskvina, seem to be the last great hope of keeping Russian pairs skating alive. With so much inconsistency among the top teams, any of these teams could surprise for a top-five finish.

DANCE

In recent years, ice dance has gone from the most predictable event at the World Championships to the least predictable event. Last year, Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski of Bulgaria leapfrogged over two teams they were behind all season to win world gold. This year, they find themselves on the other end of the game, controversially dumped to third at the European Championships.

Another “D and S”, the popular Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder of France who have never won anything more than a bronze medal at an ISU Championship, placed only fourth at the Grand Prix Final, but ended up on the top of the European podium. The French Champions could slot in anywhere from first to fifth at Worlds. A twisted ankle by Delobel has hampered their preparations, but they expect to be at full strength for a gold medal run in Tokyo.

Russia’s Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, the third “D and S”, have had a breakthrough season with a gold medal at the Cup of China and victory in the free dance over every leading contender this season. To this point, Domnina and Shabalin have been hampered by lower scores in the compulsory and original dance, but expect improvement in those areas by Worlds. Given their consistent success in the free dance, Domnina and Shabalin have an excellent chance at pulling off an upset victory.

North America will be represented by reigning world silver medalists, Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon of Canada, and Olympic silver medalists, Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto of the U.S. The US Champions have had a rough season that involved scrapping their original free dance and starting over with Amélie. Dubreuil and Lauzon have had a better season, with victories at Skate Canada, NHK, and the Four Continents Championship, but a third-place showing in the free dance at the Grand Prix Final suggests some vulnerability for this team in a situation with more competitive teams than medals.

Rounding out the top ten, but unlikely to grab the top five, will be Russia’s Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski, Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov of the U.S., Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali of Italy, and Sinead and John Kerr of Great Britain. Also keep an eye out for rising teams Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada and Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S., each making their world debut and showing strong promise for the future.

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