Grand Prix Series Opens in Russia
Chen pulls an upset in a messy men’s event; Medvedeva dominates a still better ladies field; Russia sweeps the pairs; Shibutanis come out swinging to win the dance.
Most years, the Grand Prix series opens with Skate America. But this isn’t the first time the order of events hasn’t been very different for the Olympic season. This time, the U.S. gets to close the series, while Russia gets both the honor and the trial of holding their event first.
The problem with the opening of the Grand Prix is that most of its top stars are preparing themselves to peak much later in the season, and how they skate now is much less important. That can make for a less than pretty event sometimes. Even by those standards, the men’s event was downright ugly. The ladies acquitted themselves better, though, with the help of Russia’s current biggest skating star. Russia also got a pairs sweep, something that happens much less at senior than at junior events, and took two of the three ice dance medals, but not the gold.
Like all the Grand Prix men’s events this year, this was set up to be a battle between two skaters. Since one of those was Yuzuru Hanyu, it was an uphill affair for the other one, but he actually managed to pull the upset off. Despite them both having their issues, they went untouched by the rest of the men. That hadn’t been completely inevitable. It was a strong field, even after one medal contender, Keiji Tanaka, pulled out late. But half the field skated badly.
Nathan Chen was decent in both programs, no small thing this week. The short especially, where he ultimately got all his jumps. He had to fight for them, though including his quadruple flip, though his quadruple lutz-triple toe loop combination suffered the effects less. That got him five points over Hanyu, who underrotated his quad loop and fell on his quad-triple, even as he maxed out the possible score for a brilliant triple axel jump. Fans, however, cried foul when Chen got presentation scores lower than that of home skater Mikhail Kolyada, who was fourth when he lost his quad combination to a fall. It might have even been federation favoritism, since he got higher even than the more artistic Dmtri Aliev. Aliev landed only a quad toe, doing only a triple lutz with his triple toe, but playing it safe got him third.
In the free, it was the World champion’s turn to hold on to his jumps, including his quad salchow. Hanyu pulled off the quad lutz in competition for the first time, though, and the quad toe-triple toe also went well-after he’d tripled the first quad toe, his only actual error in the program. Chen also had a doubled toe loop, which resulted in a Zayak violation later, as well as rough triple axels. But the other toe came complete with two legal doubles after, and he landed three more. The flip went better, and the quad lutz-triple toe set a record score for a jump combination. Much higher presentation scores for Hanyu still won him the segment, but Chen held onto gold by three points.
Perhaps had he been skating his best, Denis Ten could’ve challenged the two of them. But he never skates well this time of year, plus he was coming back from injury, and it showed. When he got off the ice after his free skate, coach Frank Carroll congratulated him for surviving. He finished tenth. Two other men who might have contended for the bronze, Grant Hochstein and Daniel Samohin, skated even worse to bring up the rear. Another casualty of the event was Nam Nguyen. With only the easier quads, he can no longer afford major mistakes, and making them in both programs left him seventh.
With them all out, bronze ended up being instead between the two Russians, even when they both fell three times in their free programs. But even if Kolyada fell on the quad lutz and salchow, and on a triple lutz, he got credit for rotating all of his jumps, including a clean quad-triple. He also still somehow got higher presentation scores than Chen. Aliev, skating an altered version of his still artistic free, landed the quad-triple too. But he underrotated his quad lutz, then underrotated and fell on a quad toe and triple axel. He rotated the other axel, but fell on that too, which cost him his third combination. When he also lost all value on the final spin, it was too much lost, and he barely held on to sixth. Kolyada got bronze by enough points the questionable presentation scores proved irrelevant.
That was over Misha Ge, who, in contrast to everyone else, hypnotized with two programs where it didn’t look like he’d dream of stepping wrong. His low scores were solely due to his lack of quads; he had everything else. Moris Kvitelashvili, who came in as Tanaka’s replacement, wasn’t quite as perfect in his season debut. He even had a fall on a quad toe in the a cliché short, though he landed a quad salchow combination. In the free he landed the salchow solo and the toe with a triple, though he stumbled on a solo quad toe, his only error. Any other shakiness was happily forgiven by the audience when he started singing along in his choreographic steps, and his free is the kind of entertaining he brings, even if low presentation scores still helped leave him in fifth.
The ladies short program was a pleasant affair to watch, even if most of the participants ran afoul of the technical panel in some way. As usual, Evgenia Medvedeva wasn’t one of them. She had a clean skate which got her to within a tenth of her personal best. Her triple flip-triple toe was also one of two completely clean difficult triple-triples landed that day. Carolina Kostner with her triple toe-triple toe arguably nailed her emotional program even harder, getting a comfy second. The other clean triple flip-triple toe and clean program came from a less expected Japanese contender: Kaori Sakamoto. The reigning Junior World medalist came in below the radar, until she delivered, and with increasing grace and feeling.
Still her performance quality isn’t yet up to the level of some, which was part of the reason she was only fourth, a point behind countrywoman Wakaba Higuchi. The latter looked good, but had an underrotation on her triple lutz-triple toe. Elena Radionova, who opened with a rougher version of the same error, came in within a tenth of Sakamoto. Also within a tenth of each other were Elizabet Tursynbaeva and Mariah Bell in sixth and seventh, the latter who apparently isn’t getting a new short program after all. They both performed well too, despite one underrotation each. The only truly ugly program from a contender was Mirai Nagasu’s, which dragged her down to ninth.
A few more visible errors did show up for the free, including, surprisingly, one from Medvedeva. After being flawless through all her triples and triple-triples (though the flip-toe now leads off her program again), she fell on her late double axel! She was grinning as she got up, perhaps because she knew she’d win anyway. And she did, fifteen points over Kostner. This time the Italian delivered the cleaner as well as the more beautiful program, though of course it was one far easier technically than what most of her competitors were doing. Wakaba Higuchi too skated a very good program to have no trouble staying in third. This time she rotated the clean triple-triple twice, though she did double a salchow.
Perhaps Sakamoto couldn’t have beaten her anyway, but she certainly lost her chance when she slipped on her opening flip. The rest of the program was close to clean, and included her triple-triple and double axel-triple toe-double toe. But with her presentation weakening, she again fell behind another skater who had been less clean. Radionova did have the goods to win bronze. But she underrotated her triple-triple again, slipped trying to get her loop up in the air, and even her clean triples were shaky. In terms of expression and aggression, she outperformed Sakamoto enough to squeak ahead of her anyway, taking fourth by half a point.
Tursynbaeva landed all her triples clean and had only minor issues on her axels. But her technical content was low, and her presentation couldn’t make up for it. She was ninth in the segment, and dropped to eighth overall. Bell took sixth in both with a strong program that had a good triple-triple, if a couple of stumbles. Nagasu’s free skate was a bit less messy than her short. She even landed a shaky triple flip-triple toe. But the triple axel she attempted in both programs went underrotated both times. That wasn’t her only underrotation in the free skate either. She was seventh in the segment, but didn’t move up.
This was set up for a duel between Russia’s top two pairs, but only one delivered. It started in the short. Ksenia Stolbova & Fedor Klimov followed up a weak split triple twist with a fall from her on side by side triple toes. Evgenia Tarasova & Vladimir Morozov had trouble with the toes themselves, but nailed everything else. In the free, both pairs did shaky twists, but in Tarasova & Morozov’s case, it was a quadruple one. He had to hold onto to triple salchows, and their throw loop was rough, but their three-jump was excellent. Stolbova & Klimov, meanwhile, also landed salchows, but lost the three-jump when she fell. Neither throw jump was clean, and she fell on the easier one too. Tarasova & Morozov won by nearly twenty points. Stolbova & Klimov held on to silver simply be being above everyone below on level of skill.
Of the four teams in contention for the bronze, three delivered clean short programs. They all landed side by side salchows and difficult throws. That left Valentina Marchei & Ondrej Hotarek, Kristina Astakhova & Alexei Rogonov, and Julianne Seguin & Charlie Bilodeau within three points of each other. None of them were clean in the free, but Astakhova & Rogonov were extremely close. Here they combined the salchows with a three-jump, and fought for the throw flip, though they two-footed their easier throw. They even eked out the highest presentation scores of the three teams, which they hadn’t done in the short. Whether they deserved that or not, the close to clean skate meant that unlike last year, their deserving their bronze is undisputed, and Russia swept the podium fair and square.
Marchei & Hotarek had been third after a high-energy short due to their higher presentation scores. Their free was a good one, and even included the competition’s hardest three-jump. But they lost the bronze when she went down on underrotated toes. Getting hit with a time violation didn’t help either. Seguin & Bilodeau had stumbles from him on both salchows and combination, plus a scary moment where he had troubled touching her down from a lift. They finished fifth.
The fourth pair, Marissa Castelli & Mervin Tran, had one of their all too common bad shorts where they missed both jump elements. They missed both their side by side elements on the free skate too. But when they avoided actually falling any, and held on to both their throws, it was still one of the cleanest free skates they’ve ever managed. They finished seventh.
This week Maia Shibutani started what will be a season long blog, which among other things discussed the pair of programs we’ve waited the entire summer to see. She spoke in general terms about her and brother Alex’s short dance, a creative and engaging piece that they nailed. The free dance she described as a culmination of the two programs that came before it. And indeed, “Paradise” combines the emotional rise and fall of “Fix You” with the breathless abstract beauty of “Evolution,” and was perfectly done:
Ekaterina Bobrova & Dmitri Soloviev also had one of their stronger and freer short dance performances. They couldn’t quite match the Shibutanis’ spark, but they initially came within a point of their score. In the free dance, too, they showed a much more nuanced level of performance than they’ve often shown in the past. But then she lost her balance in the spin, which cost them any chance of beating the Americans. They had to settle for silver.
In fact, their free dance score was barely above that of countrymen Alexandra Stepanova & Ivan Bukin. They were third throughout for a very strong bronze medal. In the short dance, there was some debate as to whether they had more of a lead than they deserved over Piper Gilles & Paul Poirer. The Canadians did have a slightly weaker rumba pattern and general second half, but home ice advantage also might have also played a part. However, Gilles & Poirier were a touch flat in their free dance. Stepanova & Bukin were much stronger in both skating and performance. They even managed to more or less rise above their atrocious choice of music.
Gilles & Poirier might have been lucky Charlene Guignard & Marco Fabbri took a hit to their technical tariff in the free dance. They’d stayed close in the short dance with the help of a higher tariff there, and their free dance was very elegant and expressive; it might have otherwise overtaken the Canadians for fourth. As it was, they impressed for fifth.
View full results here. The series continues next week with Skate Canada.