2009 Trophee Eric Bompard

The 2009-10 ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating begins this week in Paris, France, with the Trophée Eric Bompard.  It is the first season that the series begins in another country other than the United States.  Approximately 60 skaters from 15 countries will attempt to earn points towards qualification to the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final to be held in December in Tokyo.

LADIES

The ladies division has the potential to be one of the most competitive and exciting competitions on the Grand Prix circuit in recent memory.  The roster includes three World Championship medalists including current World Champion Yu-Na Kim of Korea and 2008 World Champion Mao Asada from Japan.

Kim dominated the international stage last season, winning four of her five competitions, and narrowly lost the Grand Prix Final title to Asada in December.  In winning her first World title, Kim set world records in the short program and overall score, setting herself up as the clear favorite heading into Vancouver.

Kim opens her season in Paris, and will stick with the same formula that was so successful for her last year.  Brian Orser has continued to coach the record holder, while Canadian choreographer David Wilson constructed both of Kim’s competitive programs for the season.  For her short program, Kim will skate to a James Bond medley, which should play to her strengths of powerful skating and saucy presentation.  Her freeskate is more refined, and is set to George Gershwin’s Piano Concert in F.

Asada, on the other hand, is trying to rebuild after a somewhat disappointing campaign last season, and has some work to do to if she hopes to challenge Kim in this competition.  After winning the World title in 2008, Asada struggled to get back in form for the 2008-09 season, placing second at Trophée Eric Bompard.  After winning the NHK Trophy, it appeared that she was back on track, even defeating Kim on her home ice at the Grand Prix Final.  However, Asada again struggled at the Four Continents Championships, harvesting a disappointing bronze medal, and missed the podium at the World Championships altogether in Los Angeles.

Asada’s struggles have continued thus far this season after coming off a disappointing three-triple performance at the Japan Open earlier this month.  The Japanese champion’s freeskate to Rachmaninov’s Prelude Op.3 No.2 in C sharp minor fits her artistically, however, her jumping passes just don’t seem comfortable.  Though it might be too soon after the Japan Open for Asada to have reordered her program, it seems likely that she will make major tweaks to the program as the season progresses.

Former World medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy has made some major changes in her skating team since her disappointing 12th place finish at the World Championships.  Over the summer, Kostner left long time coach Michael Huth, and moved to the United States to train with Frank Carroll and Christa Fassi in California.  Carroll is a master at creating consistency among his skaters —a factor that has always been missing from Kostner’s skating.  This competition will most likely serve as a  “work in progress” experiment in Kostner’s development heading towards Vancouver; however, she could surprise if everything comes together.

Japan’s Yukari Nakano is a factor in almost every event that she enters, and she could play the role of spoiler if she is in top form.  Nakano has made the Grand Prix Final three out of the last four years, and rarely has an off-performance.

This season, Nakano is skating to The Phantom of the Opera for her short program, and to The Firebird for her freeskate.  Both pieces of music match Nakano’s powerful skating style, and she is armed with a triple Axel that could propel her past her more accomplished teammate.

American Caroline Zhang struggled in competition over the summer, finishing far behind the top skaters at Golden West.  Additionally, she changed coaches from Li Mingzhu to Charlene Wong in June, and then back to Li Mingzhu in August.  This event will be a great test of Zhang’s mental toughness, and it will also show if she has been able to overcome all of the changes that she endured over the summer.

“I hope to just skate my best and improve on last year,” Zhang said.  “I think it’s great that so many great skaters will be in Paris.   It gives me a chance to test myself against them.”

Teammate Alexe Gilles will make her Grand Prix debut in Paris, and has the technical content to be an outside shot for a medal.  Over the summer, however, Gilles struggled to match the form that propelled her to the 2008 U.S. Junior title and a top 10 finish in her first season as a senior at the 2009 U.S. Championships.

“We had done one long program, and then we decided to change it completely in July,” Gilles offered.  “I had to learn a new program and then compete with it about three weeks, and that was really tough. Since those competitions, the improvements we made based on judge’s feedback have made a huge difference in the program and I feel like it is going to be great.”

Gilles admits to having some nervous excitement heading into this event, though, but is taking it all in stride.

“In my first Grand Prix I am competing against (Kim) and (Asada), and it is a little nerve racking,” Gilles confessed.   “I have met both of them, and I have skated with (Kim) before in Toronto. I’m really looking forward to it, and I will gain a lot from competing against them.”

Georgian Elene Gedevanishvili has demonstrated in the past that she can compete with the top skaters in the world, finishing an impressive 10th place at the World Championships last season.  However, the Georgian champion finished a dismal 25th place at Europeans just a few months earlier, demonstrating her inconsistency from one competition to the next.

Over the summer, Gedevanishvili competed several times at club competitions in the New York metro area, and skated relatively well.  Even if she skates her best in Paris, however, it would be a stretch for her to make the podium.

The field is rounded out with former European medalist Kiira Korpi (FIN), Candice Didier (FRA), Gwendoline Didier (FRA), and Anna Jurkiewicz (POL).  Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen was set to return to competition ice here in Paris, however, she withdrew from the competition on Friday citing tendonitis in her right calf.  Cohen plans to make her season debut in Lake Placid next month at Skate America.

MEN

The men’s event at Trophée Eric Bompard could be one of the most exciting of the season —or one of the most disappointing.  The top skaters in the event have been wildly inconsistent throughout their careers, and are as apt to perform miserably as they are to be amazing.

Brian Joubert, the former World Champion and current bronze medalist leads the pack.  After a disappointing finish to his 2008-09 season, Joubert parted ways with coach Jean-Christophe Simond, and is now back under the tutelage of Laurent Depouilly.

Joubert competed last month at the French Masters in Orleans, and did not appear to be in top form. In the short program, Joubert performed well enough to finish in second place behind 19 year-old Florent Amodio. In the freeskate, Joubert landed six triple jumps, but fell on his quad attempt and did not get full credit for his triple Axel. He placed second overall behind the young upstart.

At the end of the event, Joubert commented that he was overweight and that he would work hard between then and now in order to get into top form.  Joubert has a history of struggling at this event (Trophée Eric Bompard), and things are not looking good for him to win the title based on his performance in Orleans.  However, if Joubert was true to his word and has put his nose to the grindstone, he could be tough to beat here.

Joubert’s main competition should come in the form of the Czech Republic’s Tomas Verner, the 2008 European Champion.  Verner earned his first trip to the Grand Prix Final last season, but then struggled to defend his European title and finished in 6th place.  At the World Championships in Los Angeles, Verner was more prepared, and finished in 4th place —one place behind Joubert.

Verner doesn’t feel any pressure to perform well in Paris, and that could stand him in good stead against his rival Joubert.

“I work hard and I can only hope I will show everything I can at this early point of season,” Verner explained.  “I know my programs will change a little bit during the season, and I am looking forward to getting some feedback from the judges.  To impress somebody with my programs is my goal, so it doesn’t matter if I am in first or last in the competition.”

“France is my first competition in the season, and I built two new programs for this season,” continued Verner. “I want to know if they work out as I expect them, or if I need to go back and change them with the help of (my choreographer) Lori Nichol. I worked with Lori Nichol to get complexity throughout my programs in every element.  These programs are a bit harder to skate, but on another hand they might be a bit more interesting to watch.”

Verner feels that he has evolved as a skater this season, and believes that he will be more competitive than ever.

Japan’s Nobunari Oda will look to improve his string of medal winning performances on the Grand Prix circuit.  After taking off the last half of the 2007-08 season for personal reasons, Oda returned to the international stage last year at the NHK Trophy and won the event in convincing fashion.  However, the Japanese champ faltered at both the Four Continents Championships and the World Championship, and will try to establish himself as someone to look out for in Vancouver.

Americans Ryan Bradley and Adam Rippon also have a shot at the podium in France, and could even come home with a title if the top skaters make mistakes.  Bradley won the silver medal last year at Skate Canada, and hopes to put together a strong Grand Prix season so that he can establish himself as a candidate for the US Olympic Team.

“My goal this Grand Prix season is to place on the podium in both of my events and make a push for the Final,” Bradley said confidently.  “I am really excited about going out early because I got a big head start with my training and I am ready to put out my programs at a high level.”

Rippon, the two-time Junior World Champion, has looked like a new skater since joining Brian Orser’s training camp midway through last season.  Rippon’s confidence is back, and his jumps have never looked more confident.  Rippon should easily improve on his 5th and 8th place finishes in his debut season, and could surprise everyone and win a medal in Paris.

Canadian silver medalist Vaughn Chipeur has all of the technical tools that he needs to compete with the top skaters in the world, but he has to land them all in one program.  In a tight race to make the Canadian Olympic Team, look for Chipeur to pull out all of the stops to make a case for his inclusion on the team.

Joubert’s teammates Yannick Ponsero and Alban Preaubert are always in medal contention on the Grand Prix circuit.  Both skaters performed well in the Masters event in Orleans, and look well prepared to make a push for the podium.

Rounding out the roster are Peter Liebers (GER), Sergei Voronov (RUS), Chao Yang (CHN), and Javier Fernandez (ESP).

PAIRS

The pairs competition features the current World Champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy from Germany along with a handful of other teams hoping to make an impact on the international scene at this competition.

Savchenko and Szolkowy have proven themselves to be the clear front runners in this or competition they enter, winning the last two World titles and the last three European titles.  Furthermore, the duo has not been off the podium at any event since the World Championships back in 2006.

At the Nebelhorn Trophy last month, Savchenko and Szolkowy took the early lead in the short program with their “Send in the Clowns” program, and easily won the freeskate with their  routine to You’ll Never Walk Alone to earn their third consecutive title.    The Germans’ total score was twenty points higher than the silver medalists and thirty points more than the bronzed medalists.

The World Champions could face tough competition from Russians Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov from Russia, who can be magical when they skate their best.  In fact, at last year’s Skate America competition, the Russians beat the Germans in the short program with a mesmerizing performance, but were unable to hold onto the lead after the freeskate.

Mukhortova and Trankov have established themselves as short program skaters who have not been able to follow through with an acceptable freeskate.  If in the off-season, the Russian silver medalists have been able to overcome their freeskate issues, they could challenge for the top spot on the podium.

Former World bronze medalists Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison could be the dark horses at the event.  The Canadians have created two new programs for this season, and believe that they have what it takes to make a major breakthrough in Paris.

“We’ve noticed that the top five to seven teams in the world are doing anything crazy,” Davison explained.  “They are all going for the entire package. It’s more about clean skating, and that’s what we’re going for too.”

“You want to go up against the best to see how much work you have done and how much more you need to do,” Davison added.  “These (Savchenko and Szolkowy) are the kinds of people we want to beat, so we have to compete against them whenever we can.”

Dubé and Davison will skate to Requiem for a Dream for their short program, a departure of sorts for the lyrical and romantic duo.

“This program is really powerful and something more dramatic than we normally do,” said an excited Dubé  “We are very comfortable with it.”

For their freeskate, the Canadian champs will skate to Marvin Hamlisch’s The Way We Were.

“The program is choreographed by David Wilson, and it has a great story to it,” Davison explained.  “We hope to make people cry with this program.  We want them to be emotionally attached to us, and we feel like that if even we make small mistakes technically, we can still draw them in.”

Americans Rena Inoue and John Baldwin look to return to the upper echelon of pairs skating after a year’s absence from the World scene.  Unlike the Germans, Inoue and Baldwin have been slowly heading down the ranks since the 2006 season, but still have everything they need to remain competitive.  The problem for this team has been commitment to a regular training regiment that has escaped them the past two seasons.

Over the summer, Inoue and Baldwin recommitted themselves to training for elite competition, and hired former World medalists Jenni Meno and Todd Sand to guide them through the Olympic season.  Interestingly, both Inoue (October 17th) and Baldwin (October 18th) will celebrate a birthday at this competition.  A medal could be the perfect present for the former American champs.

Filling out the roster are four teams who are beginning their climb up the international ladder, and it will be exciting to see who will come out on top.  China’s Huibo Dong and Yiming Wu finished 12th in their World Championship debut last season in Los Angeles, and have big tricks that could pay off for them.

The current Junior World bronze medalists Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir from the United States will make their Grand Prix debut in Paris, but don’t quite yet have the technical elements to compete with the top teams.

Two French teams will look to establish themselves as front runners for France’s only Olympic berth at this competition.  Vanessa James and Yannick Bonheur seem to have the inside track after placing 12th at the World Championships in Los Angeles.  James and Bonheur represented France at the Nebelhorn Trophy last month, and performed well enough to clinch their country a spot in the Games.  However, current French Champions Adeline Canac and Maximin Coia beat James and Bonheur at last year’s European Championships, and could do the same again here.

DANCE

The ice dance competition will be an exciting event from the first place team all the way down to the 10th place team.

Current World bronze medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir will look to hold off a charge by home-country favorites Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat, who are now training in Russia.

Virtue and Moir are excited to return to the Grand Prix circuit after missing last season. Virtue was diagnosed with chronic exertional compartment syndrome – a condition that stems from over training.  They were able to come back in time to win the silver medal at the Four Continents Championships and later the bronze in Los Angeles.  However, the Canadian champs were nowhere near their peak form of the previous season  in which they won the Four Continents title and the World silver medal.

“I’m close to pain free now,” Virtue said with relief, “but I have my moments and times when I’m not perfect.  I am a regular at physiotherapy so I can work those muscles.”

The team is using Farrulas by Pepe Romero for their Original Dance and a classical Free Dance to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.

“We worked with a flamenco dancer in the spring,” explained Virtue.  “It’s hard because the dance is typically performed on a small stage, and we have to convert that to a large ice surface.  It was difficult to figure out how to make the same impact on the ice while remaining true to the dance.  We have tried to transfer what we learned off ice to the ice, and the result is a very passionate and very strong character.”

At first, Virtue and Moir wanted to use something with the flavor of a Canadian folk dance, but were unable to find something that they thought would work.

“We really wanted to go the Canadian folk route,” Virtue admitted.  “We listened to a lot of beautiful Canadian music, but we couldn’t find something as powerful as we wanted.  So, we settled on the flamenco and we think it was the right choice.”

Moir is most excited about the Free Dance, however.

“Marina (Zueva) told us that she had our music for the Free Dance, and would never let us listen to it,” Moir said with a hint of frustration.  “[Finally] one day she took us out to her car and played it for us, and Tessa and I knew the moment we heard it that it was what we wanted to use.”

Returning to the Grand Prix is exciting for the duo, and they believe that they are ready for the competition.

“We are excited to get out and compete against the best skaters,” Moir said.  “We are going to take as much feedback as we can from the judges, and use that to make us even better as the season progresses.  We want to be on top… but we’re not really concerned with what everyone else is doing.  We just concern ourselves with what we are doing.”

Pechalat and Bourzat are retuning to Trophée Eric Bompard for the first time since 2006, and should fare significantly better than their seventh place finish that season.  The French Champions are steadily climbing up the rankings, and finished just two spots below Virtue and Moir at the World Championships last season.

“Of course we come to Paris to win,” Bourzat said emphatically. “The Grand Prix series are major events in figure skating, and competing against Virtue and Moir is not that easy to handle. But it is good to see live what the other skaters are doing this year, and what we will need to work on.  We knew long ago that we would compete in Paris, so we have been preparing in order to be on top here.”

Pechalat and Bourzat are taking a completely different route than the Canadians in the Original Dance, skating to Thank God I’m a Country Boy by Roy Rivers and Dolly Parton.  For their Free Dance, they are using a medley of Kika by Ezekiel and Time by Maxime Rodriguez.

Great Britain’s Sinead Kerr and John Kerr are looking to improve upon their bronze medal winning performances last season at this event, but will have a difficult path with the Canadians and the French.

Kerr and Kerr are skating to I’ve Been Everywhere by Johnny Cash for their Original Dance, and are using American rock band Linkin Park’s Krwing for their Free Dance.

Over the weekend, the British Champions won their second consecutive title in Finland in impressive fashion, and have set themselves up nicely for a medal in Paris.

A trio of American teams will provide the backdrop for an interesting competition within the competition of sorts.  Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates are the current U.S. silver medalists, Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre won bronze at last year’s championships, while Madison Hubbell and Keiffer Hubbell were fourth.

Team USA has three spots for the Olympic Games, and these three teams will most likely be fighting for the final spot as Tanith Belbin/Ben Agosto and Meryl Davis/Charlie White have likely earned a trip to Vancouver based on previous performances.  Samuelson and Bates seem to have momentum on their side after finishing third at the Four Continents Championships last season and 11th at the World Championships.

“We will have the Hubbells with us at Skate Canada, but this will be our only opportunity to compete against Kim and Brent until Nationals,” Bates offered. “Obviously every team wants that third spot, so that should make the competition all the more exciting.”

Samuelson and Bates won their first Grand Prix medal last season at the NHK Trophy, and believe that they are in shape to skate well in Paris.

“We would like to get feedback for our programs from an international panel,” said Bates.  “This is our first event of the season, so obviously expecting perfection would be a bit ambitious, but we are definitely in shape and capable of giving strong performances.”

“This will be the first time most people have seen our new programs and we’re really excited to show them as well as we can,” added Samuelson. “Our main goal is to skate well and receive good feedback from the judges so we can continue to improve before Skate Canada, Nationals, and any future competitions we have.”

Navarro and Bommentre’s highest finish in a Grand Prix event was last season at Skate Canada where they finished fifth.  The duo lost all head to head competitions to Samuelson and Bates last season, and have their work cut out for them if they hope to move up in the standings.

Hubbell and Hubbell are making their Grand Prix debut in Paris, and it would be a great accomplishment to finish in the top five.

Two French and Russian teams round out the roster for the ice dance event.  The new French team of Pernelle Carron and Lloyd Jones, like Hubbell and Hubbell, will be making their Grand Prix debut in Paris, while teammates Zoe Blanc and Pierre-Loup Bouquet will try to improve on their ninth place finish from a year ago.  Should teammates Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder be unable or unwilling to return to competition due to Delobel recently having a child, these two teams will be fighting for France’s second Olympic berth (no pun intended).

Meanwhile, Russians Ekaterina Rubleva and Ivan Shefer will battle teammates Kristina Gorshkova and Vitali Butikov, for what could be their country’s third Olympic berth.  The top finisher here will certainly carry some momentum in their national championships.

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