2009 Cup of China Preview

This week the 2009-10 ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating moves to Beijing, China, for the third stop on the six week series.  Sixty skaters from 11 countries will compete in the Cup of China, attempting to earn points towards qualification to the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final in December in Tokyo.  World Champion Evan Lysacek makes his season debut, as do World silver medalists Joannie Rochette, Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto in dance, and Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang in pairs.

LADIES

The ladies competition marks the debut of World silver medalist Joannie Rochette’s season debut, and the Canadian Champion has a clear path to the podium.  None of the other ladies in the field match the competition experience or success that Rochette boasts, but she will have to present two solid programs to take the title.

Rochette is coming off the best season in her career, winning two Grand Prix events, a silver medal at the Four Continents Championships, as well as her fifth consecutive Canadian title.  This season, Rochette has her sights set on skating in her home country in the Olympic Games, but realizes that there is much work to do before she can enjoy that experience.

“This is one of the most important seasons in my career,” admitted Rochette, “but I want to take it one competition at a time and use each one to build for the Olympics.”

The 23-year-old  has planned two new programs for this season: a  sassy short program  to La Cumparsita and a dramatic free skate to Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delilah.

“In my free program, I am Delilah who is this woman who wants to seduce this man to get the secret to his strength,” Rochette explained.  “I learn that the secret is in his hair, so I just cut his hair off.  Delilah is not a very nice person, and it is something that I haven’t really done before.  In the beginning, I am a nice pretty girl who has an angelic look on her face, and then I turn around and just be the devil.”

Rochette’s strength is that she has no weaknesses to her skating; everything is secure, exact, and well-timed.   She pays attention to the details of every aspect of her programs and presents a polished and refined package.  If there were a weakness to her skating, it would be that she does not always go for triple-triple combinations.

“I have been working on a triple-triple combination that we can put into the free program,” Rochette offered, “but we are not planning one for the short program.  The risk is generally too high, and it is good enough to do a triple Lutz-double toe.”

Rochette’s biggest hurdles will come via American Rachael Flatt and Japan’s Fumie Suguri.  Flatt made her first trip to the World Championships last season where she finished a very respectable fifth.  In her Grand Prix debut last season, the 2008 Junior World Champion won the silver medal in Russia and placed fourth at Skate America.  This season, Flatt could better that effort if she skates to her potential.

Like Rochette, Flatt has planned two new programs for the season, and both will be an artistic challenge for the high school student.  For the short program, she will skate to Louis Prima’s version of Sing, Sing, Sing, and to Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for the long.  Flatt is widely known for skating to music that charges the intellect rather than the artist, and this season her choices go against that grain.

“My short program is very upbeat, up-tempo, and I think that it really allows my personality to show through,” the 17-year-old explained.  “The music cuts for my long program were put together by Lenore Kay, and she has put together both lesser known segments of this work as we all as the very recognized variations.  Between Lori Nichol (choreographer)and Lenore, they have created a very compelling, balanced, and powerful program.”

Flatt is a fierce competitor who usually performs well under pressure.  This season, her results will depend on how well she is able to assimilate to her new style.  A podium finish should come easy in this event for Flatt.

“I have been working hard on improving my speed, carriage, projection of choreography, and all of the details to the complete package,” Flatt said.  “I am also working on more powerful jumps and combinations.  I have the triple toe-triple flip in both my programs again this season.”

Suguri is coming off a disappointing showing at the Finlandia Trophy, but the veteran competitor seems to hit her stride in Grand Prix events.  The two-time World medalist skates with great speed and has fast spins, but her jumps have been known to abandon her in important competitions.

Suguri skates to Bach’s Air on the G String and Toccata and Fugue for the short program, and Khachaturian’s Spartacus for the free skate.

Suguri’s teammate Akiko Suzuki was catapulted into the spotlight last season when she surprised everyone by winning the silver medal at the NHK Trophy.  Suzuki followed that up with a fourth place finish in the Japanese Championships, and earned her first trip to the Four Continents Championships where she finished in eighth.

This season, Suzuki is competing in her first full season on the Grand Prix, and is looking to establish herself as a contender for the Japanese Olympic team.  In the short program, Suzuki will skate to music from Riverdance, and West Side Story for the free skate. A solid outing could give the 24-year-old her second career Grand Prix medal.

Italy’s Carolina Kostner is trying to return to the form that propelled her to win two European titles and two World medals.  However, the European silver medalist seems to be in the middle of a rebuilding period with new coach Frank Carroll.  Two weeks ago in Paris, Kostner finished in a disappointing sixth place, and never challenged for a medal among some of the World’s best.

Kostner’s programs are well planned, and seem to fit her long-limbed style, however, the jumps just are not solid enough to be reliable under the pressure of competition.  With more time and growth in confidence, Kostner could return to the upper echelon of skating’s elite.  For now, the Italian Champ will have to wait for everything to gel as she acquaints herself to her new skating technique.

Former U.S. Champion Mirai Nagasu will try to come back from an emotionally difficult season last year when she crumbled under the pressure of expectations.  In addition to a disappointing Grand Prix debut, Nagasu was suffering from an ankle injury, a significant growth spurt, and a lack of self-confidence.  At the U.S. Championships, the 16-year-old was unable to defend her title, and slipped to fifth place in the standings.

This event could tell the story for Nagasu’s season; a good competition might give the two-time Junior Worlds medalist the confidence that she needs to climb back up the competition ladder.  A disappointing competition could contribute to the young skater’s downward spiral.

Joining Flatt and Nagasu in China will be teammate Beatrisa Liang, a former World Championships competitor who has been in an even bigger slump.  Liang finished in a dreadful 14th place at last year’s U.S. Championships, and has not shown signs of life since then.  Earlier this season, the 21-year-old skated horrifically in the Japan Open, scoring less than 100 total points in the competition as she struggled to land double jumps.  Finishing in the top half of this competition would be a huge success for Liang, but it is more likely that she will be fighting to stay out of the cellar.

Rochette’s teammate Diane Szmiett makes her Grand Prix debut in China, and could challenge for a spot in the top six.  Kiira Korpi of Finland will try to better her eighth place finish at Trophée Eric Bompard two weeks ago, while Yan Liu of China will try to build on her third place finish at the Nebelhorn Trophy.  Liu’s teammates Bingwa Geng (18th, 2009 Junior World Championships) and Binshu Xu (15th, 2009 Four Continents Championships) complete the roster.

MEN

The men’s competition marks the season debut of World Champion Evan Lysacek who will look to continue his winning ways against a tough field of very diverse skaters.  The 24-year-old will be facing the likes of Japan’s Nobunari Oda, Italy’s Samuel Contesti, as well as a fearless youngster – Kazakhstan’s Denis Ten.  Lysacek, however, is ready for the challenge, and is chomping at the bit to return to competition ice.

“I’m really looking forward to getting this exciting season underway,” Lysacek said.  “I really love my new programs and the costumes that Vera Wang created for me.  I can’t wait for my fans to see them.”

Lysacek is a workhorse who always shows up to competitions well-trained and mentally prepared to compete.  The World Champ is known for his passionate skating and dramatic step sequences, but Lysacek sometimes struggles with the triple axel.  If Lysacek is unable to complete his axel attempts, it is unlikely that he will be able to overcome the challenge by Oda.

The World Champ will skate to Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird for the short program, and has selected Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade for his free skate.

Oda has quietly made a return to competitive skating after a season away in 2007-08 due to personal reasons.  Last season, Oda won his only Grand Prix event, but his promising season was marred as he failed to make the podium at both the Four Continents and World Championships.

This season Oda already has a win to his credit, defeating Worlds bronze medalist Brian Joubert at Trophée Eric Bompard just two weeks ago.  In Paris, the 22-year-old sent a message that he is ready to contend for medals, and with the win, he sets himself up for a run for an Olympic medal in 2010.

Oda has a beautiful short program to Maksim Mrvica’s Danse Macabre, and skates to a Charlie Chaplin medley for the free skate.  The short program was well received in Paris, though he placed second behind the Czech Republic’s Tomas Verner.  Oda’s playful free skate is jam-packed with technical difficulty, and could be difficult for Lysacek to beat if skated well.

Returning to the Grand Prix for the first time since 2005, Contesti is hoping to challenge for a medal in China.  Contesti made a huge splash in his international return last season, winning the silver medal at the European Championships before shocking everyone with a fifth place finish at the World Championships in Los Angeles.

“I’m very happy to compete in the Grand Prix again,” said Contesti.  “I will try to do my best, and I am really looking forward to skating in China.”

Contesti has a knack for masking his skating deficiencies by grabbing the audience with the first note of his music.  Ever the showman, the two-time Italian Champ prepares his programs with the audience in mind, and is able to charm them into wanting more.

“My new programs have a good rhythm,” Contesti explained.  “For the short program, I am skating to a harmonica blues piece, and for the free skate I will skate to some Chilean music.”

This season, however, Contesti will be held to a higher standard as one of the world’s elite, and will be forced to add more in-betweens to his programs. Contesti has admitted to working hard in the off-season, and is looking forward to showing what he can do.

“I have added more steps, more transitions, and placed more jumps at the end of my programs,” said the 26-year-old.  “My goal is to do my best and have fun while I am skating.”

Another surprise from last season was Ten, who finished in eighth place at the World Championships.  The 16-year-old began last season on the Junior Grand Prix, winning an event along the way and qualifying for the Final. Ten seemed to gain momentum as the season went along, placing fourth at Junior Worlds and ninth at the Four Continents Championships before his coming out party in Los Angeles.

Ten skates with a sophistication that belies his age, and is armed with a beautiful triple Axel that allows him to place well in competition.  The unknown factor is that Ten just doesn’t have a lot of experience on this level of skating, and this season will be a great test for the teenager.  Should Ten continue to skate as well as he did last season, a top five placement is not out of the question.

American Stephen Carriere will also make the trip to China, looking for some redemption after a disappointing end to his season last year.  After earning his first trip to the World Championships in 2008, Carriere went into the U.S. Championships as a heavy medal favorite.  However, the 2008 U.S. bronze medalist faltered throughout the competition and finished in a dismal ninth place.

“The end of last season was not as desirable as I wanted,” Carriere admitted,  “so going in to this season, I obviously want to do better than that.”

Over the summer, the 2007 Junior World Champion left his longtime training base in Boston, and headed south to Pennsylvania to train with Priscilla Hill and Karl Kurtz.

“I think that (the coaching change) has improved my skating all around,” Carriere explained.  “Last season, my triple Axel was not very tame – especially towards Nationals. I think that Priscilla and Karl are really helping me find my rhythm, and I feel like I am slowly and surely improving my spins and overall skating.”

The 20-year-old finished second in China last season, and already has an international medal to his credit this season – a bronze from the Finlandia Trophy.

“I felt good about winning a medal in Finland,” Carriere explained.  “It really gave a kick start to my confidence for the season.”

France’s Yannick Ponsero will compete in his second Grand Prix of the season after finishing in fifth place in Paris.    The French Champ has all of the goods necessary to place in the top three in China, but  lacks consistency.  Ponsero will have to skate his best to reach the podium, but it is not out of the question.

Russia’s Sergei Voronov also competed in Paris, finishing just behind Ponsero in sixth place.  The Russian champion has not been able to crack the Grand Prix podium since a second place finish back in 2007.  In this field, Voronov would do well to place in the top five.

Canada’s Kevin Reynolds will also compete in China.  The 2007 Junior Grand Prix Final bronze medalist is armed with quadruple jumps and triple Axels, but he lacks the polish and sophistication that will allow him to take advantage of his technical prowess.

American Armin Mahbanoozadeh will make his Grand Prix debut in China after a successful career on the Junior circuit.  Mahbanoozadeh won the bronze and silver medals at the Junior Grand Prix Final in 2008 and 2009 respectively, and always seems to skate better in international events than he does at home.  In China, however, it will be difficult for Mahbanoozadeh to finish in the top five in such a tough field.

Rounding out the field is a group of three Chinese men who could shake up the standings if any of them hit both programs.  Junior Worlds bronze medalist  Jinlin Guan, veteran Ming Xu (11th, 2009 Four Continents Championships), and Chao Yang (6th, 2009 Junior World Championships) all have the capabilities to skate well, but they have to skate cleanly.

PAIRS

Perhaps the most anticipated competition of the Grand Prix is the pairs competition in China due to the much-celebrated return of Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao.  Talk about the former World Champions and Olympic medalists has been rampant since the announcement this summer that the duo would return to competition.  However, Shen and Zhao will have to earn their place back into the skating world immediately, competing against their teammates Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang as well as the strong Ukrainian team of Tatiana Volosozhar and Stanislav Morozov.

A few weeks ago, a training video of Shen and Zhao surfaced chronicling their return to competition.  In the video, the duo appeared to be fit and showed signs of returning to their former greatness.  However, Shen and Zhao have to prove that they are once again worthy of international success, and this competition is their first test.

Zhang and Zhang are the current and three-time World silver medalists, and are accustomed to competing at this level.  Like Shen and Zhao, this team has all of the technical tools  they need in order to win competitions.  Where Zhang and Zhang fall behind is in the connection that they have with each other and with their music.

Between the two teams, there is some of the most technically proficient skating in the world, and it will be exciting to see how this competition unfolds.  Shen and Zhao will most likely show up with programs that reach the audience, but the technical weapons might be a little rusty.  Conversely, it is expected that Zhang and Zhang will show up with some of most spectacular technical elements, however, they will need to demonstrate growth in their maturity to compete with their teammates.

Volosozhar and Morozov have been improving rapidly over the past few seasons, and have the advantage of training with the current World Champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany.  The Ukrainian champions have been on the cusp of a major international breakthrough for two seasons now, and qualified for their first Grand Prix Final last season.

This season, Volosozhar and Morozov have a new short program to DJI’s Dreams Illusion, but have kept last season’s  free skate to Hans Zimmer’s Pearl Harbor soundtrack.  Both programs were received well at the Nebelhorn Trophy last month, and the duo earned the silver medal behind their training mates.  Against the Chinese teams, Volosozhar and Morozov will need to be perfect, but a bronze medal should be theirs with a typical performance.

Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Craig Buntin will skate in their fourth career Grand Prix together, and hope to earn their second medal in China.  The past two seasons have been an introduction to each other for team, and this season could be the season in which the partnership gels.

Duhamel and Buntin will skate to an instrumental version of Hotel California for the short program, and to music by Pierre Port for the free skate.  The Canadian silver medalists have all of the tricks, but they have to land them all in one program to have a shot at a medal.

Americans Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig are still searching for their first Grand Prix medal, and could win their first in China.  After a successful summer season within the United States, Evora and Ladwig seem more prepared to compete for medals this season.

“This summer we competed at the Liberty Open and at the Indy Challenge and placed well at both competitions,” Evora explained.  “Our programs were well received and the feedback from U.S. Figure Skating helped us to prepare for our Grand Prix competitions.”

Evora and Ladwig have had some of the most inventive and difficult programs in the world for several seasons now, but have struggled to land the solo jumps in most competitions.

“The system has been very critical of our jumps,” said a matter-of-fact Evora.  “It was in the middle of the season last year that we start to see the results of our improvement on them.  We have been working hard on our jumps, and plan to continue our success as the season continues.”

The American pewter medalists will skate to music from the soundtrack of Love Actually for their short program, and to Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 for their free skate.

Lubov Iliushechkina and Nodari Maisuradze from Russia are returning to the Grand Prix circuit after placing fourth at last year’s Cup of Russia.  Last season, the young team won everything on the junior level including the Junior Grand Prix Final and the Junior World title.  This competition will be a good test for Iliushechkina and Maisuradze as they will be skating with competitors who can challenge them to be better skaters.

For the short program, the Russian bronze medalists will skate to Yesterday by the Beatles, and will perform to Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise for the free skate.

Huibo Dong and Yiming Wu (9th, 2009 Four Continents Championships) of China, and Vanessa James and Yannick Bonheur (12th, 2009 European Championships) of France complete the competition roster.

DANCE

The dance competition will feature one of the most intriguing match ups thus far this season.  World silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto from the United States will be hunted by European Champions Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski of Russia.

The Americans head into this season hoping to win their first gold medal in a Grand Prix competition since this event two seasons ago.  After two silver medals in their events last season, Belbin and Agosto had earned a trip to the Grand Prix Final.  However, an injury to Agosto’s back caused the duo to withdraw from the competition, and put the rest of their season in jeopardy.  Belbin and Agosto chose to skip the US Championships, and received a bye to the World Championships where the equaled their highest finish.

This season, Belbin and Agosto will skate a Moldavian folk original dance that could stand out this season among the large number of Russian folk dances and flamencos that many of their competitors will be performing.  For their free dance, the World silver medalists will present a completely different picture with a medley of Giulio Caccini’s Ave Maria and Gioachino Rossini’s Amen from Stabat Mater.

Khokhlova and Novitski are coming off an up and down season in which they triumphed at the European Championships, but then failed to medal at the World Championships just a few weeks later.  After medaling at the World Championships the previous season, the Russians seem to be on their way down the standings with their poor showing in Los Angeles.

This season, the Russian Champions  will skate a Russian folk for the original dance, and Lev Knipper’s Polyushko Pole for the free dance.  A win over the Americans in China would reestablish Khokhlova and Novitski as part of the elite skating world, but anything worse than a silver medal will be a message that it is time to re-evaluate.

The Italian team of Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali, like the Russians, are coming off a season of triumphs and disappointment.  After winning their first Grand Prix event and qualifying for their first Final last season, Faiella and Scali won the silver medal at the European Championships.

All signs seemed to assume that the duo would equal, if not improve, their standing at the World Championships.  Instead, the Italian champions struggled in Los Angeles from the start, falling in their compulsory dance, and finishing the competition in a disappointing eighth place.  This season, Faiella and Scali will have to skate as if each event is their last, and must show growth immediately if they hope to climb back up the ranks.

Faiella and Scali will skate to Tamurriata Napoletana for the original dance, and to Nino Rota’s Gli Emigranti for the free dance.  The stark contrast between the two programs could set them apart from the rest of the pack, and if the Italians want to make a move, it will have to be at this competition.

Americans Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein will make their Grand Prix debut in China.  The World Junior Champions won every competition they entered last season, including the National title and Junior Grand Prix Final title.

“I am very excited to compete in our first Grand Prix,” Zuerlein gushed.  “I think that we are ready to show that we can compete with the best senior teams in the world.”

For their debut, Chock and Zuerlein will present an Afro-Cuban folk original dance, and will skate to La vie est belle by André Rieu for their free dance.

“We hope that we can place in the top five in China,” Zuerlein admitted.  “Our programs suit us well, and we are ready to show them.”

A top five finish is not out of the question for Chock and Zuerlein, but the duo will have to skate a strong compulsory dance to establish themselves as a senior team to have any chance of accomplishing this goal.

Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje are returning to the Grand Prix for a third season, and look to improve on their sixth and seventh place finishes from the  previous two seasons.

The Canadian bronze medalists will skate a Spanish Flamenco for their original dance, and will tackle Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantasia for their free dance.

“Andrew and I think that our programs this season are very special,” Weaver offered.  “We have put a lot of heart into them.  First, we traveled to Madrid to work with Antonio Najarro, a professional flamenco dancer and choreographer.  We learned all of our flamenco movements and steps on the floor for a week before we began to translate it on the ice. We are very proud that our flamenco is very authentic and real, and that we are truly representing the flamenco dance with very authentic costumes.”

“Our free dance was choreographed by our coaches,” Weaver continued. “The idea of the program is to continue to grow on our expression, which really evolved last year with our free dance.  Our “Phantom” routine has a modern touch with the music and choreography which was difficult to learn, but we relate well to the characters and love to skate it.”

An improvement in placing is within reach of Weaver and Poje, but like the World Junior Champs, they must step up in the compulsory dance.  A good placement there will set them up well for the rest of the competition.

“We really just hope to have a great competition in China,” Weaver concluded.  “We are very excited about our programs this year, and will continue last year’s trend of unveiling them for the Chinese audience.”

The brother and sister team of Alexandra Zaretski and Roman Zaretski are trying to rebound from a disappointing campaign last season.  After cracking the top ten at both the European and World Championships in 2008, Zaretski and Zaretski slipped back a few places last season.

This season, the Israeli Champions are taking a risk in skating two Jewish-themed programs: Hava Nagila for the original dance and music from the film Schindler’s List for the free dance.  The lack of variety in theme might hinder this budding team, and it will be interesting to see how the judges in this competition receive the them.

The Ukrainian team of Anna Zadorozhniuk and Sergei Verbillo will skate a Ukrainian folk dance in the original dance and to Vivre Pour Le Meiller for their free dance.  The Ukrainian Champs hope to return to the Grand Prix podium as they did in Russia in 2007.

Completing the roster are three home teams, China’s Jiameimei Guo and Fei Meng (11th, 2008 Four Continents Championships), Xintong Huang and Xun Zheng (22nd, 2009 World Championships and 7th, 2009 Four Continents Championships), and Xiaoyang Yu and Chen Wang (8th, 2009 Four Continents Championships).

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