The Grand Prix series concluded in Japan with the NHK Trophy, held in Kyoto from November 28 to December 1. The sixth and final event of the Grand Prix series, NHK was the last opportunity for skaters to earn points toward qualifying for the Grand Prix Final, which will be held in St. Petersburg in March 2003.
Japan’s rising star Yoshie Onda won the ladies event for her second victory on the Grand Prix. Though she stepped out of her opening triple Axel, Onda completed seven clean triple jumps – the most of any lady on the Grand Prix circuit this season — in her free skate to “Concerto for Cello and Orchestra” and “Serenade.”
Onda upset World Champion Irina Slutskaya, whose sluggish start to the season continued with a fall on the triple flip in the short program. Though she rebounded somewhat in the free skate, Slutskaya managed just four clean triple jumps.
Slutskaya’s placement over third-place finisher, Shizuka Arakawa of Japan, was particularly controversial because Arakawa completed seven triple jumps in her free skate. Alas, her music selection of “Titanic” proved prophetic as she ran into trouble at the end of her program, opening up on a triple toe and a double Axel – two costly mistakes that marred an otherwise clean performance.
Arakawa nevertheless beat countrywoman and world bronze medalist Fumie Suguri, who struggled with her jumps in both the short and free programs. Oddly, it is Suguri who has pre-qualified for the Japanese world team on the basis of qualifying through the Grand Prix Final, primarily because her second-place finish in a weak field in Germany. Onda and Suguri will automatically advance to the World Championships in March, while Arakawa must win the Japanese National title to earn the last berth.
The women’s field for the Grand Prix Final will include Onda, Suguri, Slutskaya, Viktoria Volchkova, Sasha Cohen, and Michelle Kwan – though Kwan entered just one event, the twelve points she earned for her victory at Skate America were enough to qualify her for the Final.
Japan had less luck in the men’s event, where world bronze medalist Takeshi Honda was upset by Russian Ilia Klimkin. Though Klimkin has been known as an erratic competitor, he delivered a clean free skate that included a quadruple toe-triple toe combination and a host of other triple jumps. Klimkin earned marks of up to 5.9 for presentation and received the first-place ordinals of all seven judges.
Honda won the short program convincingly but struggled in the long program, stepping out of many of the more difficult jumps and not executing the choreography with the same crispness as he has in the past. Honda will likely have a new free program for the Grand Prix Final.
China’s Chengjiang Li was third with an up-and-down program that included a clean quad-triple combination but was marred by misses on some easier triple jumps. Li will advance to the Grand Prix Final, along with Klimkin, Honda, Evgeny Plushenko, Alexander Abt, and Brian Joubert.
China’s Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao continued their undefeated streak this season, winning their third Grand Prix event with a near-flawless performance that earned marks as high as 5.9 for presentation. Though Shen and Zhao were overwhelming favorites, the field behind them was wide open.
Dorota Zagorska and Mariusz Siudek of Poland finished second to squeak into the Grand Prix Final for the first time in their career. The 1999 world bronze medalists are experiencing a rebirth in their skating due in large part to spending the summer in Montreal with Richard Gauthier, former coach of Olympic Champions Jamie Sale and David Pelletier.
Speaking of Sale and Pelletier, they have been assisting the third-place team at NHK Trophy, Anabelle Langlois and Patrice Archetto. The young Canadians who train under Jan Ullmark with choreography done by Nikolai Morozov, qualified for their first-ever Grand Prix Final and won their third medal on the Grand Prix circuit.
The top three teams at NHK will be joined at the Grand Prix Final by three Russian teams — world silver medalists Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin, former world champions Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov, and rising stars Yulia Obertas and Alexei Sokolov.
In the ice dance event, World Champions Irina Lobacheva and Ilia Averbukh took the gold medal with a 6.0, but not without a hitch. Part of Lobacheva’s costume came loose during the free dance, and the referee stopped their free dance midway through the program.
Israel’s Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovsky had already completed their two scoring events, but the NHK Trophy was nevertheless critical to their shot at a berth in the Grand Prix Final. If they beat Germany’s Kati Winkler and René Lohse, they would go to the Grand Prix Final. If they didn’t, Winkler and Lohse would earn enough points to overtake them. Chait and Sakhnovsky took the lead in the compulsory dance, but they relinquished it by a narrow margin in the original dance. In the final free skate, Winkler and Lohse once again nudged out Chait and Sakhnovsky for second place and the final berth to the Grand Prix Final on the final tiebreaker.
At the Grand Prix Final, Lobacheva and Averbukh and Winkler and Lohse will face competition from Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski of Bulgaria, Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon of Canada, Elena Grushina and Ruslan Goncharov of Ukraine, and Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov of Russia.