The operative word for the Men’s competition is “comeback”. With 38 skaters representing 30 countries, the list of the contenders for the title consist mostly of the skaters who have been out of competition for a while.
The 2006 Olympic Champion Evgeni Plushenko (RUS) is coming back after a four-year hiatus and has not competed at the European Championships since he took the title in 2006.
Fellow 2006 Olympic silver medalist Stéphane Lambiel (SUI) had announced his retirement due to injury a year and a half ago, and his last ISU Championships was at 2008 Worlds where he finished fifth.
Defending European Champion Brian Joubert (FRA) is combing back after more a recent, but perhaps no less, disruptive training accident which forced him to withdraw from both the 2009 Grand Prix Final and the French National Championships in December.
Another skater on the road to recover the lost ground is the 2008 European Champion Tomas Verner (CZE). Unlike others, he had participated in all major events in the past seasons, but his recent performances have been far from the level he needs in order to return to the continental championships’ podium.
Plushenko, who is currently ranked 92nd in the ISU World Standings due to the lack of the recent international results, skated in the first warm-up group of the second half of the event, and set an insurmountable standard for the rest of the field.
The Russian Champion knocked off his three opening elements: a quad toe loop – triple toe lop combination, a triple Axel, and a triple Lutz out of steps. He then proceeded to deliver the rest of his elements without the slightest hesitation.
“The morning practice did not go well,” offered Plushenko. “I could not get a consistent quad. I jumped and I fell, I jumped and I fell… but in the warm-up, I immediately landed a clean quad and then a quad combo. This was very important for me.”
Plushenko is steadily improving the flow of his routine to Concerto d’Aranjuez, however, his trademark energy and command over the audience were somewhat lacking. Still, his technical expertise was undeniable and the judges gave him a warm welcome back’ by awarding him a record breaking score of 91.30 points.
“I am quite satisfied with the way I skated today,” said Plushenko. “The main thing is that I have regained my competitive spirit. It happened at exactly the right time and at the exactly right competition. This is the benchmark against which I judge myself right now.”
“Let’s say I’m not quite ready to fly to the moon,” the 27-year-old added, “because I know that there is gonna be a big competition tomorrow. But it’s a great feeling to sit here in the middle [as the winner of the short program], and I have a small gold medal to show for it.”
The Russian Champion, who has been struggling with a knee injury since he began intense training, said that he is perfectly healthy right now. “I feel healthy today, I don’t have any problems right now and I hope tomorrow I won’t have any problems either.”
Regarding the choreography of his routine, Plushenko denied that it has any deeper meaning. “It’s just my skating. It’s what I want to do. To skate and to enjoy it.”
In contrast, his main opponent Joubert was the last skater to perform his short program. The Frenchman gave an upbeat and enthusiastic performance, but only executed a quad – double toe loop combination, and is currently behind the leader by nearly three points (88.55).
“I know I can do better,” said the 25-year-old. “I was very nervous to be the last skater in the short program, but it makes me very comfortable for tomorrow. It’s going to be very interesting for everyone tomorrow, a big fight.”
The double toe loop at the end of Joubert’s combination was an accident according to the 2009 World Championships bronze medalist. “As I’ve said, I was very nervous, but still I came onto the ice planning to do a quad-triple combination. The quad landing was good and I wanted to do a clean combination. It was the most important. I’m a bit upset about this little mistake, but I am looking forward towards tomorrow.”
Joubert, who cut his foot with his own blade in practice earlier in the season, has completely recovered from the injury. “I don’t feel any pain in my foot. I put protection in my boots, which makes me more confident, especially about the triple Lutz.”
Joubert admitted watching Plushenko’s performance from the hotel and was complimentary about his rival. “I watched him on TV, just jumps, and they were perfect. Then I saw the score I thought ‘It’s gonna be difficult to beat him, but it is possible.’ Exactly the same thing happened at the 2006 Olympic Games, but at the Olympics, I skated very poorly in the short, and I now I skated well.”
Plushenko returned the compliment with a challenge. “I skated early and I’ve watched all other skaters. I saw Brian Joubert. Good job, good job. But everyone is strong here. Everyone is on more or less the same level, and it’s going to be big fight. [Joubert] said he can beat me. I say let him try.”
Plushenko’s game plan for tomorrow will depend on how others skate. “I have a strategy. I have to see how Brian skates,” he said, but quickly added, “I plan one quad.”
Joubert, on the other hand, has more ambitious plans: “I don’t have a strategy. I consider this event a preparation, so I want to try to do two quads: a toe loop and a Salchow.”
Teammate Yannick Ponsero was the only other skater to execute the quad successfully, and is currently third with a new personal est of 82.40 points. The French silver medalist’s other elements were equally strong, but he only did a triple Salchow out of steps compared to more difficult triple Lutzes attempted by Plushenko and Joubert.
However, Ponsero’s sheer entertaining value in his performance to La Corrida was second to none.
“I am satisfied about my performance, that’s for sure!” exclaimed the 23-year-old. “Even more, that it is my season’s best performance. 82 points is very good. I would like to make the same happen tomorrow.”
Despite the fact that Ponsero has already missed his chance to make it to the Olympic team, he was nonetheless feeling under pressure in Tallinn. “Yes, of course, I was nervous. There is always pressure during competitions. My goal for tomorrow is to land one quad and skate a clean program.”
Another highly entertaining performance to Putting on the Ritz put Michal Březina, 19, of the Czech Republic into to the fourth place (79.60). The 2009 World Junior silver medalist did not attempt a quad, but landed all his jumping passes, including a triple Axel. He was clean and picked up good grades of execution and levels of difficulty for his non-jumping elements.
“The performance went really well,” said Březina, who also scored a new personal best. “Only one small mistake on the triple Axel, I did not land in the center, but it did work out well. I did the same program on the national competition. Same program, same triple. The feeling here was as it was on the national level. I felt very good. I take every competition as I am in practice. It does not matter to me whether I am at the national level or in a competition like this. I take all my skating seriously.”
Unfortunately for the numerous Stéphane Lambiel fans in the arena, the Swiss skater fared poorly in his performance. In addition to opting to do only a double Axel, he also fell out of the quad toe loop landing and therefore did not have a proper jump combination.
However, the quality of Lambiel’s spins and steps, along with the fact that the quad was ratified as fully rotated by the panel, allowed him to compensate for the mistakes a bit. He earned the eighth technical score of the night, which, combined with the highest program components score (he was tied with Joubert in this mark, 40.75), allowed his to finish in the fifth place (77.75 points).
“I was not a good performance for me,” admitted the former World Champion. “I made a big mistake in my combination jump where I wanted to do a quad-triple toe loop. But I am very happy to compete here. I was waiting very much for this moment, and next time it will be better.”
“After arriving in Tallinn I had great practices here,” added Lambiel, 24. “I don’t have any problems. The mistake I made is a mistake that can happen in competition because of the stress. I felt better after a year of rest and I could restart skating. I was motivated to qualify for the Olympic Games because I want to experience the Olympic Games one more time in my life.”
The Swiss skater remains cautiously optimistic about tomorrow’s free skate. “In sport you could never know what will happen, so I am a fighter by nature and I hope for the best.”
Ironically, Alban Preaubert of France, who placed behind Lambiel in the short program (76.37 points), chose largely the same piece of music for his routine: his Orange Mecanique (arranged by Maxim Rodriguez) featured the Wilhelm Tell Overture as a highlight tune for the final straightline step sequence. However, the two skaters’ approaches to interpretation could not have been more different.
Lambiel is clearly influenced by ballet traditions, with attention to lines and subtle emotions, while Preaubert was over-the-top exuberant in his comical routine.
“It [similar music] doesn’t bother me,” said Preaubert. “I think that we have a different interpretation of the music. Mine is more mixed, while Lambiel has a more classical version.”
On the technical level, Preaubert was almost perfect, nailing all his jumping passes, except for a somewhat wild landing on his triple Axel.
“I am satisfied with my performance today,” said the 24-year-old. “I would prefer to have done better. It was easy for me today, but tomorrow I will dare to do quad toe loop. This is my strategy here.”
Preaubert, who was only third at his national championships, was nonetheless named to the team in the place of the French Champion Florent Amodio.
“It was easy for me to motivate myself again after French Nationals,” said Preaubert. “I am grateful to the Federation that they trusted me, and I think they have made the right choice (to send him here).”
Italy’s Samuel Contesti finished seventh in the short program after an upbeat and expressive performance to Wish Me Well and Wammer Jammer, which went over extremely well with the audience. The defending bronze medalist also introduced a new element into his program: a triple flip instead of his normal triple loop out of steps.
“We had planned the flip already for some time,” explained his coach Peter Grutter. “Sometimes it happens that you miss the element that brings you the most points. I believe he can do it tomorrow. Sometimes it is just question of millimeters – you cannot do something you planned.”
Verner continues to struggle with consistency. The skater stepped out of an underrotated quad toe loop attempt and only did a triple Lutz – double toe loop combination. He is currently eighth with 72.75 points.
However, the most impressive comeback of the competition happened earlier in the morning. Germany’s Stefan Lindemann, whose last appearance at the ISU Championships is dated back to the 2006-2007 season, skated a clean program expect for a minor stumble a during step sequence. He placed ninth with a new personal best of 70.19 points.
“It was a fantastic feeling to be here again,” said the 29-year-old. “It has been three years since I competed at Europeans. I fought hard to come here. The program was great and I’m very pleased especially with jumps. I was too motivated (during the steps) and I got carried away in the circular steps. I wanted to do it too well.”
Kristoffer Berntsson of Sweden rounds up the top ten.