The culmination of the ISU Grand Prix circuit, the Grand Prix Final, takes place from December 14-17, with the top six skaters in each discipline facing off in St. Petersburg, Russia.
New stars dominated the ISU Grand Prix circuit in the wake of the retirements and/or hiatuses of perennial favorites like Michelle Kwan, Irina Slutskaya, Sasha Cohen, Evgeny Plushenko, Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin, and Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov.
The “new guard” includes some expected names, like Mao Asada and Nobunari Oda of Japan, Yu-Na Kim of South Korea, and Dan and Hao Zhang of China, but also some unexpected ones like France’s Alban Preaubert, Russia’s Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, and Sarah Meier of Switzerland.
Some promising stars, such as World Champions Kimmie Meissner, Stephane Lambiel, and Qing Pang and Jian Tong, are notably absent from that list. A rocky start to the season due to injury, poor performances, and lone events leaves these early-season favorites watching the Grand Prix Final on television (or the stands) while hoping for a better second half to the season.
The old guard will still be represented at the Grand Prix Final by 2006 World Champions Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski of Bulgaria, world silver medalist Brian Joubert of France, former World Champions Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao of China, and former European Champion Julia Sebestyen of Hungary. All qualified for the Final first or tied for first in their respective disciplines, but will face serious challenges from younger upstarts looking to establish themselves as early favorites for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.
Defending Grand Prix Final Champion Mao Asada of Japan started the season with a disappointing performance at Skate America. After a rousing short program, Asada popped two triple Axel attempts, downgraded a planned triple-triple combination to a double flip, and dropped to fourth in the free and third overall. On the bubble for the Grand Prix Final, Asada skated near-perfect performances at her second event, the NHK Trophy, and set a new record for total points scored by a woman. Hot off that victory, Asada will be favored to defend her Grand Prix Final title, still at the age of sixteen.
South Korean rival, Yu-Na Kim, who won the 2006 World Junior Championships over Asada, has owned the all-important triple flip-triple toeloop combination this season. Landing this combination successfully in the short program propelled Kim to first place in the short program in both Skate Canada and Trophee Eric Bompard. Like Asada, Kim had a rough free skate in her first event, Skate Canada, and finished third. However, in France, the deepest field of the series by far, Kim held on with an excellent (though not perfect) free program. Kim also brings momentum to the Final, but may need clean programs to challenge Asada and her triple Axel.
The only finalist to actually skate two back-to-back clean programs thus far is Japan’s Miki Ando, who dazzled at Skate America with triple lutz-triple loop combinations in both programs and seven clean triples in the free skate. Ando, who was just sixth in her own country last year, has managed one of the most stunning turnarounds in recent history. Despite her success this season, Ando was placed behind both Mao Asada and Yu-Na Kim in the short program on the Grand Prix circuit, and a fall on her opening triple lutz combination was enough to keep Ando behind Kim overall at Trophee Eric Bompard. While Ando is the top qualifier to the Grand Prix Final, early results seem to indicate that judges prefer Asada’s and Kim’s overall skating quality.
Japan’s Fumie Suguri, the only lady in the final not to have won an event, placed second at both Skate Canada and NHK Trophy with even, reliable performances. A veteran of the World Championships since 1997, Suguri does not have the technical content of Asada, Kim, or Ando; however, the maturity and evenness that won her the 2004 Grand Prix Final title could propel her to a medal if others falter.
Sarah Meier of Switzerland landed her first-ever Grand Prix medal gold with a victory at Cup of Russia. A longtime favorite of skating fans, Meier seems poised to contend for the European title this season. Unfortunately for her, contending for a medal in this field will be considerably tougher, and like Suguri, she will need to rely on the mistakes of others to contend.
Not even the mistakes of others can help Hungary’s Julia Sebestyen, who – through luck of the draw – ended up at the two easiest Grand Prix events. Miki Ando, who tied with Sebestyen as the top qualifier, managed as many clean triples in one free skate as Sebestyen completed in her two short programs plus two long programs combined. While Sebestyen is a mature skater with large jumps, she will almost certainly finish last in this field barring a meltdown by another competitor.
France’s Brian Joubert has been unpredictable for most of his career. Politics, coaching changes, and inconsistencies seemed par for the course, especially in the early season. This year, however, Joubert came out with all guns blazing, landing two quads in the free skate at Trophee Eric Bompard. Not to be outdone, Joubert then knocked off three quads in another near-perfect free skate at Cup of Russia. With few men having reliable quads, Joubert’s mastery of this jump sets him apart from the field. He should be the favorite at the Grand Prix Final, but will need to remember to work the Code of Points system by using all allotted combination jump slots and aiming for the highest levels in spins and step sequences.
Japan’s Nobunari Oda, twice foiled by the Code of Points system last season, has exhibited smarter skating this season, maximizing the value of all of elements. With fluid edge quality and rare ease of movement, Oda has been a favorite of judges in the program components. However, despite his mastery of skating, Oda was outdone by teammate Daisuke Takahashi at the NHK Trophy, where Takahashi landed a quad toeloop in each program. Until Oda masters the quad, he will be at a qualitative disadvantage against a competitor performing multiple quads even if he can somehow make up the points through smart skating.
Daisuke Takahashi had two excellent skates at the NHK Trophy that belie the extreme troubles he had a few weeks earlier at Skate Canada. Takahashi’s past competitive unevenness will be put to the test at the Final. Will he be fighting with Joubert and Oda for the gold medal, or will he be trying to hang on for bronze against the Americans and the young Frenchman? Back-to-back good skates would be a significant breakthrough.
American Evan Lysacek, two-time World bronze medalist, entered the series hoping to establish himself as a contender for the World title. Although Lysacek did win at Cup of China, weak short programs in both of his events – plus no attempt at the quad – did not do much to improve his image. In the shadow of Joubert and the Japanese men, Lysacek will need near-perfect programs to even medal here. That said, the young American has a history of outperforming expectations.
France’s Alban Preaubert has done just that this season, with two medals and strong performances on the Grand Prix circuit. However, Preaubert recently withdrew from French Nationals due to a back injury and is a question mark in this field.
Johnny Weir, three-time U.S. Champion, but still without a World medal, is always a question mark. His new programs, choreographed by 2002 Olympic dance champion Marina Anissina, are interesting and unique, but he has yet to deliver on the Grand Prix. Weir must deliver on the world stage at some point this season, or he risks becoming written off for good.
Two-time World Champions and Olympic bronze medalists Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao have been in top form this season, fully recovered after Zhao’s torn Achilles tendon put their season and entire career at risk last year. With two wins on the Grand Prix, Shen and Zhao enter the Grand Prix Final as favorites in what may be their last season as eligible skaters.
Training mates Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang, Olympic and World silver medalists, won Skate Canada convincingly but could not sneak past their training mates Shen and Zhao at home in China. Known for their aptitude at side-by-side triple jumps, the Zhangs have had uncharacteristic problems accomplishing those jumps thus far this season. In order to challenge Shen and Zhao, they will have to overcome those issues.
Veterans Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov have also struggled with their side-by-side triple toeloops, narrowly losing the Cup of Russia at home due to mistakes on the triple toeloops in both programs. Petrova and Tikhonov will be looking to avenge that loss and win a medal for the Russian pairs program, which has been struggling tremendously as of late.
Germans Aljona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy have seemingly been unaffected by the controversy surrounding coach Ingo Steuer’s involvement with the German Stasi in the former East Germany. Though their Grand Prix performances were not perfect, Savchenko and Szolkowy have added a triple twist and upgraded their levels of difficulty for this season. They will put up a strong challenge for a spot on the podium at the Final.
Americans Rena Inoue and John Baldwin had a successful Grand Prix on paper, with three medals; however, Baldwin’s inability to land a triple toeloop continues to plague the team’s chances at more important medals. Even with their trademark throw triple Axel, Inoue and Baldwin have little chance of cracking the top three without the side-by-side jumps. Realistically, they will be looking to stay ahead of Canadians Valerie Marcoux and Craig Buntin, the last team to qualify for the final.
World Champions Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski of Bulgaria will challenge fast-rising Russians Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin on the Russians’ home turf. Domnina and Shabalin, ranked just sixth in the world last year, have made a quantum leap forward in the world rankings thus far this season. After defeating Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto at Cup of China, the Russians were on their way to defeating the Americans again at Cup of Russia until a fall in the original dance stymied their chance of gold. Nevertheless, their sky-high program components scores set them up well for a turn at a world medal, and possibly the title, for this season. The battle between Denkova and Staviski and Domnina and Shabalin here will establish who goes into the European and World Championships as the favorite.
Canadians Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon are wildcards in this field. The World silver medalists earned extremely high Grand Prix scores but have yet to face a team ranked higher than eighth in the world. The Grand Prix Final will serve as a good indicator as to whether the Canadians will be putting pressure on the top teams for the gold medal or whether they will be fighting to hang on to any medal.
Americans Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto, Olympic silver medalists and reigning World bronze medalists, have received a cold reception from the judges so far this season. Improved programs and a higher level of fitness will be essential to their medal chances at Worlds. Given the program components they have been receiving relative to the top teams, a medal here will be a long shot.
Note: Belbin and Agosto withdrew on Dec 12.
Crowd favorites Isabel Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder of France are seemingly once again getting lost in the shuffle of top teams. Having lost to all three of Denkova/Staviski, Domnina/Shabalin, and Belbin/Agosto on the Grand Prix, the French are unlikely to challenge for a medal even if their “Bonnie and Clyde” free dance wins the crowd vote.
Rounding out the field are Americans Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov, newcomers to the Grand Prix Final who are not expected to challenge the top teams.