The ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating draws to a close this week in Nagano, Japan with the NHK Trophy. An emerging superpower in the skating world, Japan shows signs of eclipsing Russia and the United States in the singles disciplines with unsurpassed young talent. The time for that young talent is now.
Japan will field serious medal contenders, including strong contenders for gold in both disciplines, at the upcoming World Championships to be held on home ice in Tokyo. The NHK Trophy will be a prelude to what could be the coronation of the next biggest skating power in March.
No young talent is more heralded than Mao Asada, the sixteen-year-old who won last year’s Grand Prix Final and would have challenged for Olympic gold had she been able to compete. While Asada is unquestionably one of skating’s greatest talents, with the ability to complete triple Axels and triple-triple combinations like no other woman in history, her recent performances have not lived up to expectations.
At Skate America, Asada finished third (fourth in the free skate) after her triple Axels and triple-triple combinations failed to materialize. Now training in the U.S. and eligible for skating’s biggest prize, Asada may be feeling the pressure of media expectations, which have haunted many Japanese skaters in the past. She needs a strong performance at the NHK Trophy, not just to rebuild her confidence, but also to qualify to defend her Grand Prix Final title – something virtually everyone took for granted even just several weeks ago.
Asada’s primary challenge will come from her countrywoman, Fumie Suguri, who is nearly a decade older than Asada. As the World silver medalist and reigning Japanese Champion, Suguri is currently the most decorated Japanese lady competing. However, her level of difficulty has not improved in several years, and it seems likely that both Asada and Miki Ando (not competing at NHK but with gold and silver already on the series) will surpass her. Suguri skated well at Skate Canada, however, and has a history of outperforming expectations in the long run. A win here would seemingly cement her position on the Japanese world team.
Yukari Nakano aims to complete a Japanese sweep of the medals here, but will be competing head-to-head with Suguri for what may likely come down to the final berth on the Japanese world team. Nakano had an opportunity to win in a weak field at Cup of China but placed second with a lackluster skate and some downgraded jumps. She will need to establish that she can compete with her countrywomen in order to garner respect at Japanese Nationals and consideration for a berth to the World Championships. If she finishes well below Suguri and Asada at NHK, her chances of competing at Tokyo Worlds will be very slim.
The Japanese sweep can likely be stopped only by Italian Carolina Kostner, scheduled to make her lone appearance in the Grand Prix after recovering from injury, or Georgia’s Elene Gedevanishvili, who has been dealing with deportation from her training base in Russia due to conflicts between Russia and Georgia. Even if these ladies compete, it will be unlikely to see them in top form. The two American entries, Beatrisa Liang and Christine Zukowski, will be aiming for the top six finishes.
If the ladies rivalry sounds heated, take a look at the men’s rivalry in Japan between Nobunari Oda and Daisuke Takahashi, where the difference between gold and silver at Nationals came down to a scoring system error. After the Solomonic comprise of sending Takahashi to the Olympics and Oda to the Wworld Championships, the Japanese are fortunate to have two spots for the World Championships this season thanks to Oda’s fourth-place finish last year. Don’t expect the rivalry to be any less intense, however.
Oda won the gold medal at Skate America with nearly perfect programs and should be the favorite to win here. Takashi took silver at Skate Canada, but with a very disappointing free skate; however, he has a reliable quad whereas Oda does not and could play spoiler if he delivers.
And both Japanese men will have to deal with World Champion Stephane Lambiel, who has looked less than sharp this season thus far but won Skate Canada by virtue of being the least awful. With his triple Axel missing in action and even his normally reliable quad looking shaky, Lambiel may need to be satisfied with just making the podium at this event. Challengers to keep him off the podium are few but include Kevin van der Perren of Belgium and Chengjiang Li of China.
Note: As of Nov 28, Stephane Lambiel withdrew from the competition due to health reasons.
In the pairs event, Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao of China will face off against their training mates and protégés, Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang. Shen and Zhao, 2003 and 2004 World Champions and two-time Olympic bronze medalists, are back for at least one more season after overcoming what could have been a career-ending injury to Zhao last season. In order to reclaim the world title that was once theirs, this ever-popular team will have to defeat their training mates, who have the most advanced side-by-side jumping in the world. Given Zhang and Zhang’s very fallible performance at Skate Canada, Shen and Zhao should be favored here, though not by much. This intense rivalry should continue throughout the season, culminating at Worlds, which could be a Chinese sweep of the medals.
One of the teams many thought would be on the world podium by now is Russia’s Julia Obertas and Sergei Slavnov. The Russians have spent two seasons faltering badly, and despite a recent coaching change, seem to be stuck in a downward spiral. Canadians Valerie Marcoux and Craig Buntin and Utako Wakamatsu and Jean-Sebastien Fecteau have real shots at overtaking Obertas and Slavnov for bronze.
In the dance event, world silver medalists Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon should skate away to a second gold medal without problem. The Canadians, who have faced no team ranked higher than eighth in the world on the entire Grand Prix circuit, will have to wait and see where they stand vis-à-vis the rest of the top teams at the Grand Prix Final next month.
Americans Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov are favored to take second and have a good shot at qualifying for the Grand Prix Final as well, thanks to a silver medal finish at Skate America. The Americans will be battling Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski of Russia for the final spot. If the Americans take silver, they go to the final. Otherwise, it will come down to a tiebreaker in this last event before the Grand Prix Final, held next month in St. Petersburg.