The ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating enters its penultimate week with Cup of Russia in Moscow. As the series draws to a close, the focus of top skaters will be increasingly on qualifying for the Grand Prix Final.
With nearly all of Russia’s top champions having retired from eligible skating or on hiatus, hopes for 2007 rest primarily on two teams, Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov in pairs, and Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin in dance.
The two teams are a study in contrasts. Petrova and Tikhonov are veterans, ancient by skating standards 28 and 35, who have been skating on the elite level for the past four Olympic cycles. They have won four medals, including one gold (2000), and initially announced their retirement after the 2006 World Championships.
Domnina and Shabalin are a team on the rise. The 2003 World Junior Champions have steadily improved from tenth to seventh at Worlds. Now Russia’s number-one dance team, Domnina and Shabalin appear to be moving into world medal contention as evidenced by a surprise victory over Olympic silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto at Cup of China.
Together, these two teams will carry the flag for Russia in their home event, both with real chances to win.
In the pairs event, Petrova and Tikhonov’s primary challenge will come from Germans Aljona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, one of the hottest rising teams in the world. Savchenko, of Ukrainian descent and a former junior world champion for that country, and Szolkowy qualified for the Grand Prix Final last year and will be looking to do so again this year. They narrowly missed the silver medal (behind World Champions Qing Pang and Jian Tong) at Cup of China; they should be good for at least silver here but will undoubtedly be hungry for gold.
The favorites for the bronze medal are a team who has been around even longer than Petrova and Tikhonov, Dorota and Mariusz Siudek of Poland. The Siudeks plan to stick around through the end of the season only in order to compete in the European Championships in their home country. Their performances thus far in the season have been hot and cold; they’ll need to be “hot” to fend off two Canadian challengers, Anabelle Langlois and Cody Hay, and Utako Wakamatsu and Jean-Sebastien Fecteau.
In dance, Domnina and Shabalin are scheduled to face Belbin and Agosto once again. Though the Russians have home-ice advantage, Belbin and Agosto will have the benefit of making changes to their program as a result of the protocols from their last meeting at Cup of China. One lift that was intended to be level four but was called as level two would have been the difference for the Americans. That said, the seventh-place dance team in the world beating the third-place dance team in the world – particularly in program components – is often a signal of a shift in the way the judges view the teams. Belbin and Agosto need a strong showing here more than ever.
Domnina and Shabalin will also have to go up against crowd favorites Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder of France. Delobel and Schoenfelder came close to dethroning World Champions Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski at Trophee Eric Bompard and will be hungry for gold here, as they are ranked higher in the world than the Russians. With a career full of fourth and fifth place finishes at the world level, the French are looking to establish themselves as legitimate world medal contenders.
Unlikely to challenge for medals, Sinead and John Kerr of Great Britain and Morgan Matthews and Maxim Zavozin of the U.S. should round out the top five. Both of these teams, however, will be battling to get into the top ten at the world championships, perhaps against each other. Matthews and Zavozin defeated the Kerrs on home ice at Skate America and will aim for a repeat in Russia.
The ladies event is an interesting field of skaters who have skated well but not won medals in their previous Grand Prix event and other skaters who have won medals without particularly skating well in their previous event.
Julia Sebestyen of Hungary, who has struggled for much of the past two seasons, was the surprise winner of Cup of China despite only four clean triples jumps in the short program and free skate combined! Sebestyen will have to skate better at Cup of Russia to win any medal, much less than gold, and place herself in good standing for the Grand Prix Final.
Sarah Meier of Switzerland, who shined at Skate America but ended up the formidable trio of Ando – Meissner – Asada, skated perhaps the best of anyone in this field in her first competition. The competition here is wide open for the elegant and balletic Meier to win her first big international.
American Alissa Czisny, historically inconsistent but at times great, also has an opportunity to surprise the competition. With countrywoman Kimmie Meissner looking unlikely for the Grand Prix Final, Czisny likely has the last opportunity for a U.S. woman to qualify, but she will need a win to do so.
Yoshie Onda of Japan had a bad short program at Skate Canada followed by a nearly flawless free skate. Though often forgotten amidst the new generation of young phenoms in Japan, Onda’s technical prowess could get her to the podium in this very inconsistent field.
Russia’s Elena Sokolova got off to a rough start at Cup of China and will not likely be a factor unless her condition has improved miraculously in the past two weeks. Teammate Viktoria Volchkova, who has been mostly absent from competition in the past few years, is an unknown factor. Others with an outside chancel at a medal are Kiira Korpi of Finland, Aki Sawada of Japan, and Yan Liu of China.
In the men’s event, France’s Brian Joubert is fresh off a win in his home country and favored to repeat here. His primary challengers, Johnny Weir of the U.S. and Emanuel Sandhu of Canada, have not shown top form thus far this season, while Joubert showed two quads in a near-perfect performance at Trophee Eric Bompard. Though Sandhu and Weir can never be counted out, Joubert has the momentum and should be a heavy favorite to win.
The most interesting battle in the men’s event may come from the three Russians who compete – veteran Ilia Klimkin, “chosen one” Andrei Griazev who has struggled for much of the past two seasons, and relative newcomer Sergei Dobrin, who has begun to eclipse both of them. Dobrin landed two quad salchows in his free skate in Paris and could challenge not only his teammates, but also the likes of Weir and Sandhu if he repeats in Russia. Perhaps he is the new star Russia has been looking for to replace Evgeny Plushenko.