The ISU Grand Prix enters its second half this week, with Trophee Eric Bompard in Paris. This fourth of sixth events has become a staple of the Grand Prix, with its longstanding location in Paris and ornate decorations carried over from its days as the “Lalique” Trophy. French figure skating has endured a series of political and monetary problems over the past decade, yet still produces arguably the most interesting Grand Prix year after year.
All eyes will be on French Champion and World silver medalist Brian Joubert, who turned in the finest performances of his life in Calgary after two seasons of mainly disappointment. Known for frequent coaching changes, Joubert trains in his hometown of Poitiers, away from other skaters and top coaches. He enters Trophee Eric Bompard as a heavy favorite, yet can be a temperamental and sometimes inconsistent skater. Joubert will be looking for his first Grand Prix win in just over two years.
Joubert’s strongest competition may come from countryman Alban Preaubert, who won the bronze medal at Skate America with very strong performances that set new personal bests for the short program, free skate, and overall. A unique looking skater with an equally unique style, Preaubert’s choreography makes the most of his odd looks, odd build, and offbeat sense of humor. His short program, which involves chasing a “buzzing bee,” typically has the audience (and presumably the judges) chuckling so much that they hardly notice hunched shoulders and unorthodox technique. Preaubert is truly a skater who makes the most of what he has, and his placement at Skate America suggests that he has arrived as a contender on the international level. Another medal here will put Preaubert in excellent standing for the Grand Prix Final.
Russia’s Ilia Klimkin is another skater who marches to the beat of his own drummer. Known for reverse spins, jumps that come out of nowhere, and strong proficiency at the quad toe loop, Klimkin never seems to stay healthy long enough to gain the momentum to contend internationally. After missing the entire 2004 – 05 season due to injury, Klimkin returned last season to place fifth at Europeans, eleventh at the Olympics, and tenth at Worlds. Yet, his talent promises so much more. Now Russia’s number-one skater on paper, Klimkin must be a leader as well as a novelty. A medal at Trophee Eric Bompard is expected.
Hot on Klimkin’s heels is Andrei Griazev, a student of Tatiana Tarasova’s who was favored to be the “next one” in Russia…until he placed ninth at his own Nationals last year. A darling of judges when he skates well, Griazev was just seventeenth at the World Championships in Calgary and has yet to achieve a top-ten placement at Worlds. Griazev needs to show the judges and his own federation the type of skating he produced when he won the 2004 World Junior Championships.
Men with outside chance of medals include Shawn Sawyer of Canada, an elegant skater who placed third in the free at Skate Canada; Samuel Contesti, a French skater at the center of a controversial Olympic selection process who claims to be leaving for Luxembourg as soon as residency can be approved; and Xiaodong Ma of China, who placed fourth in this event two years ago.
Though the French have no competitive ladies and did not even field an entrant in the most recent Olympic Games, the crowd in Paris will see what promises to be the finest showdown in the Grand Prix. World Champion Kimmie Meissner faces off against World Junior Champion Yu-Na Kim, Skate America Champion Miki Ando, and Skate Canada Champion Joannie Rochette.
Thus far, Meissner, the 17-year-old American and surprise 2006 World Champion, has had reasonably solid performances reflecting her strong work ethic and cool head. After a disappointing performance in the short program at Skate America, Meissner rallied back with a six-triple free skate that was essentially clean (if rough in places). Though certainly not the biggest talent, Meissner’s proficiency in competition is the secret weapon that so many would-be champions would kill to have.
Trophee Eric Bompard will be the first indicator of whether Japan’s Miki Ando has acquired that talent. After a rough season where she placed a dismal sixth at her own Nationals and fifteenth in the Olympics, Ando delivered personal bests in the short program and free skate at Skate America. In fact, her performances rank as some of the best delivered by any lady in recent memory — they were arguably strong enough to have won either of the past two World Championships or Olympics. With seven planned triples, including a triple lutz-triple loop combination, Ando will set an extremely high bar for the other ladies in the field. If she delivers two clean performances again at Trophee Eric, Ando will additionally establish herself as the early favorite for the World Championships in Tokyo, Japan.
One skater who will be looking to change that is Korea’s Yu-Na Kim, who won the short program at Skate Canada but had an uncharacteristic off-night in the free skate that left her in third place – her first defeat in more than a year. Kim, too young for last year’s Olympics and Worlds, won everything in sight as a junior, knocking off triple-triple combinations in nearly event. Kim will want to regain her form and fight for a spot at the Grand Prix Final.
Also looking to qualify for the Grand Prix Final is Skate Canada Champion, Joannie Rochette. Typically, winners of one event are almost guaranteed a spot in the final, but Trophee Eric Bompard is such a deep field that nothing is certain. Rochette’s victory at Skate Canada is an important step for a skater who has had trouble putting it together in the past. She’ll look to back up that strong showing with another medal in Paris; however, a medal in this loaded field may be more of a challenge than winning was in Canada.
Fifth at Skate Canada, Finland’s Susanna Poykio has an outside shot at a medal, but too many of her recent performances have been filled with “would haves,” “should haves,” or “could haves”. American Christine Zukowski, bronze medalist at Junior Worlds, makes her Grand Prix debut in Paris with a top-six finish the best she can likely achieve. The three French ladies, plagued by years of disappointments, will be aiming to finish anywhere but last.
In the pairs event, Olympic and World silver medalists Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang compete in a third, non-scoring event, adding excitement to an otherwise ho-hum field. Zhang and Zhang trounced the field at Skate Canada, despite a relatively poor skate, and are heavy favorites to win in Paris.
Russia’s Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov announced their retirement after a bronze medal at Worlds, but this pair – known as much for their snail-like skating pace as for their four world medals – are back for another season. The 2000 World Champions have placed in the top four at Worlds for eight consecutive seasons (often with the same program, used year-after-year), but lack the dynamism to realistically contend for a world title against the Chinese team. Still, their slow and steady pace is likely to hold them in good standing at Grand Prix events.
Petrova and Tikhonov may be remaining in the hunt because the heirs apparent to the Russian throne, Yulia Obertas and Sergei Slavnov, have turned in performances ranging from disappointing to downright awful for the past two seasons. Having recently made a coaching change from Tamara Moskvina to the Velikovs, Obertas and Slavnov will be looking to salvage some of the great potential they showed two to three years ago.
Americans Rena Inoue and John Baldwin, winners of Skate America and second at Skate Canada (a non-scoring event), will be looking to wrap up a spot at the Grand Prix Final. Another Grand Prix medal would almost certainly guarantee them a trip to the final in St. Petersburg.
In the dance event, the two “D and S” teams will battle, with the World Champions (Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviyski of Bulgaria) facing off against the home team (Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder of France). Both teams are highly popular with audiences, but the French crowd will definitely be looking for Delobel and Schoenfelder, who have a long history of fourth-place finishes at the most important events, to pull ahead. Though it would be unusual for the fourth-place team in the world to overtake the world champions, it seems as if anything is possible in ice dance, especially when skating at home.
World Junior Champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada made an impressive Grand Prix debut at home with a silver medal. Italians Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali are partially responsible for that medal, as they stumbled and tumbled their way into several deductions and an overall third-place finish despite defeating the Canadians in the compulsory and free dance. Faiella and Scali will be looking to redeem themselves here, but they have to fend off not only Virtue and Moir, but also hometown favorites (and Skate America bronze medalists) Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat of France. And stay on their own feet throughout a competition, which seems to be the most difficult task of all for this team.
The next Grand Prix event (Cup of Russia) will be held in Moscow, Russia November 23-26, 2006.