NHK Trophy Goes On Despite Disappointment of Top Home Stars
Voronov capitalizes on late withdrawal of Hanyu to win; Medvedeva less perfect than usual but wins anyway; Sui & Han break a record for second gold in as many weeks; Virtue & Moir keep things steady while winning the dance.
At the current time, there a few countries where figure skating is bigger than it is in Japan. This has now been true for about a decade, much to the benefit of their longtime home event, the NHK Trophy. But the home fans who gathered in Osaka for it this weekend had to have come away a bit disappointed. Of Japan’s top two singles stars, one had to withdraw at the last minute, and the other didn’t do nearly as well as hoped. Still, they got to watch plenty of good skating, even if they also had to sit though some bad skating in the men’s event especially. Even if those of them smarting from another of their skaters arguably being robbed of gold last week might have not liked how high some of the Russians were scored here. There were some presentation scores higher than they ought to have been, but nothing this time that actually altered the overall results.
At the beginning of the week, this was looking like an easy victory for Yuzuru Hanyu, even as he battled illness. Then during Thursday’s practice, he fell on a quad lutz and busted an ankle ligament. Despite the valiant efforts of him and his doctors that night, he was forced the next day to withdraw. Another update today brings us the news he will need to rest completely for ten days, then take another month to recover completely. He may or may not be completely recovered in time for Japanese Nationals late in December, but should be good enough to compete. Though if his recovery is unexpectedly delayed, he’s the one skater in Japan who doesn’t actually need to, so long as he’s ready for the Olympics.
With both the seeded skaters now out, the field became a free for all. It brought out the best in some, and the worst in others. None rose to the occasion more than Sergei Voronov. Armed with only a quadruple toe loop-triple toe loop jump combination, he skated a clean short and a close to clean free, though he two-footed a second quad in the latter, blew away his personal best in the latter, and won easily. Perhaps more easily than he deserved; his long program presentation scores especially were a little higher than they ought to have been. But ultimately, you couldn’t argue with the placement. At 30, he’s the oldest man to ever win a Grand Prix event, though all three medalists were also the three oldest men in the field.
There was a point where post-Hanyu favorite Jason Brown was in serious danger of being robbed. But in the end, he blew it anyway. In the short he’d first flipped out of his triple axel and doubled a jump. Then in the free he fell on both axels, underrotating one, and stumbled on a lutz. When he never even tried a quad, the best presentation of the field wasn’t enough to even make the podium; he finished fourth. As one American fell, another rose. Adam Rippon first held onto his jumps-and his final spin-in a quadless short. In the free he went for the quad lutz, underrotated it, then landed everything else, including a three-jump with a triple axel in a beautiful free skate worthy of his 28th birthday. He arguably should’ve taken the segment, and did take silver, ten points behind the winner.
Bronze went to Alexei Bychenko. For his short he did the quad toe as a solo jump, and skated clean. He landed both solo and with a triple toe in the free skate, though the last was shaky. His free was a little shaky all together, and also had a doubled loop and a stumble on an axel. Still, what he landed put him a level above everyone besides the top two technically. This was largely because the bottom half of the field was an utter mess.
In fifth, Keegan Messing took some advantage of his unexpected second crack at the Grand Prix. He too landed a quad-triple in the short, only to fall on his axel. Coming down from the quad in the free his knee nearly hit the ice, then he tripled a second attempt at it. That resulted in his second triple axel turning into an illegal element and getting invalidated, but he landed the first in a three-jump. This was still a far better showing than his disastrous free in Canada, and gave him a better chance to properly display his superb showman skills. And what with the way all the Canadians are skating this fall, he now might just be a favorite to make the Olympic team in January.
For countryman Nam Nguyen, however, this competition might have just been the final nail in the coffin. He followed up a short with two falls with a free with two doubled quads, and even a quad salchow-triple toe, the hardest quad combination landed by anybody here, couldn’t get him higher than tenth. Nor do things look good for eight-place Dmitri Aliev, whose quad toe combinations were accompanied by too many falls and underrotations. At least Michael Brezina, who came in between them, doesn’t have to worry about any of that, but his free was even worse than theirs.
Evgenia Medvedeva has already been surprisingly less than perfect this fall, but this week she really shocked. Her short program was well enough, though bending forward on her double axel kept her score from breaking 80. But her free program opened with her falling on her triple flip, and then two-footing her triple lutz. Then she pulled it together, and things were good for the rest of the program. She even landed both her harder and easier triple-triples in the second half, attaching the triple toe to what was supposed to her solo flip. But for the first time in a long time, she has made mistakes enough to be potentially beatable, although ultimately it didn’t happen here.
It probably would’ve taken either Satoko Miyahara or Carolina Kostner’s absolute best to do it. And the former had a far bigger disappointment with how she skated here. Her short program score was even surprisingly low, even when her triple lutz-triple toe attempt had both an underrotation and a double in it. The judges were kinder to her in her free program, but in that one she underrotated the triple-triple and an axel, doubled two more jumps, and just generally wasn’t at her best. The program, which she debuted here, could’ve been stronger in terms of performance too. She finished all the way down in fifth.
Kostner fared better. In fact, she was the only non-Russian to escape the wrath of a more active technical panel than last week throughout the competition. She skated a good short program, making up for a turnout in her triple toe-triple toe with everything else, including a silky-smooth step sequence she maxed out the possible score for. But her already technically easier long program took further hits when she doubled a planned triple toe, which resulted in her planned second double toe becoming an illegal third and getting invalidated. Falling on her three-jump didn’t help either. She was third in the free skate, but managed to hold on to silver by two points.
Bronze went to the real surprise: Polina Tsurskaya. She came in under the radar, having suffered a disappointing final junior season. But she put together two flawless skates, reminding everyone of why she stunned the junior scene when she first debuted. She was also the only skater besides Medvedeva to land a difficult triple-triple in both programs, and she also had a double axel-triple toe-double toe. In fact, both the second two Russian ladies skated up to potential, which was big for both of them. But since the other one was Alena Leonova, though she too nailed both programs and had a very emotional reaction to doing so, sixth was as high as she could get.
Also having a pretty good competition despite the lack of medal was Mirai Nagasu. This time she stood up on the triple axel in both programs, and rotated it in the short, though she still had two-footing issues. She got slapped with two underrotations elsewhere in the short, but was clean through the rest of her free, even landing her triple flip-triple toe. She finished fourth. Also landing one difficult triple-triple was Rika Hongo in her short. But she underrotated her lutz there. In the free she underrotated both triple-triple and double-triple-double attempt, and her solo flip was fully downgraded. That brought her down to seventh.
At least she didn’t have as hard a time as Mariah Bell or Alaine Chartrand. The former rotated only one clean jump combination in the entire competition, not even able to finish her triple-triple attempt in the free, where she fell on both underrotations. She finished ninth. The latter actually skated a little better than she had in Canada, especially in the free, where she even landed her triple lutz-triple toe. But she still failed to land most of her jumps, and finished eleventh.
There was nothing, ultimately, that could touch Wenjing Sui & Cong Han. Competing two weeks in a row didn’t even seem to tire them any. Once again they nailed their short program, then upped the ante for the free skate, where they remained close to clean. In fact, they got even closer to perfection on the latter, pulling off a split quadruple twist and side by side salchows with only a little awkwardness, and she only having a little bit of trouble on their three-jump combination. All together it was good enough a skate to squeak out a world record free skate score:
Ksenia Stolbova & Fedor Klimov might not have been able to match them, but they too had one of their better competitions. Parts of their short were even more beautiful than the Chinese, though they did have trouble with him barely catching her in the twist. That difficulty repeated itself in the free skate, where they both also stumbled attempting triple toe-triple toes. But the rest was done fairly well, including their own salchows. The won silver by nearly twenty points.
Both these teams saved the salchows for their free programs, combing throw triple flips with triple toes in the short instead. The three teams vying for bronze, on the other hand, made six attempts at each difficult element between them, with all six of the former but only two of the latter successful. It was Kristina Astakhova & Alexei Rogonov who landed the salchows in their short, which they did perfectly. In the free, on the other hand, her doubling them was their only mistake. They made up for the technical deficiency with the competition’s only clean three-jump, and when they won their second bronze of the fall, they once again deserved it.
It is up to debate, however, whether they also deserved to be third in the segment over Julianne Seguin & Charlie Bilodeau. They’d been down in fifth after the short, where she struggled far more with the salchow, and they had to hold on to twist and throw too. But they had the only completely clean free of the night. The elements were all on the awkward side, and their combination was an easy one, so the lower technical score was still fair. But one still wonders how the Russians are getting higher presentation scores than them. That left them unable to get more than fourth either in the segment or overall.
Alexa Scimeca Knierim & Chris Knierim, now back to both old programs and thus adding to the Moulin Rouge overload, got through the short with only a stumble from him on the salchows. But in the free, he not only stumbled on them again, he also doubled out their combination. Plus, while all three teams started to show fatigue by the end, they had the most trouble with their closing pairs spin. They finished fifth.
Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir might have been able to Latin dance with a level of heat and feeling no one else here was capable of, but they were lucky he was able to cover up a twizzle error near the end of their short dance as well as he did. They even still got the highest technical tariff in the segment. They tied for that in the free dance, but there performed with their usual flawlessness. Maxing out the score on the more value three of their four lifts helped them squeak out a new personal best score there. Winning, of course, had never been in doubt.
Silver was far less foregone a conclusion, with both Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue and Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte performing well throughout the competition. But in the short dance, Cappellini & Lanotte were a little loose on their rumba especially, something which gave Hubbell & Donohue the advantage in the technical tariff too. The Italians got higher presentation scores, and the difference was less than a point, but the Americans prevailed.
In the free dance, on the other hand, the Cappellini & Lanotte were the ones to tie Virtue & Moir for the highest tariff, while Hubbell & Donohue’s was a point lower. But the Italians were still less than sharp on an element or two, while the Americans barreled through theirs no holds barred. It was enough they made up the gap and more. Cappellini & Lanotte’s emotional performance helped them eke out another presentation scores advantage, but that was only a tenth of a point. Hubbell & Donohue triumphed again for both segment and silver, leaving the Italians with the bronze.
Victoria Sinitsina & Nikita Katsalapov came in with their status as Russian #3s threatened and started their short dance with a set of twizzles that nearly turned disastrous. But when she held on to them in the end, the program they performed was eye-catching enough that even with an off rumba pattern they did quite well for themselves. They started their free dance extremely strong, including a stunning lift they nearly maxed out. Then fatigue crept in near the end, and they were left firmly below the top three. Still they scored high enough to reestablish themselves, and possibly even threatened for Russia’s second Olympic berth.
The men’s competition was not the only one to see a significant withdrawal close enough to the competition most federations wouldn’t have bothered with a replacement. Except when Isabella Tobias & Ilia Tkachenko pulled out of the dance, there was just enough time for the Japanese federation to bring in Penny Coomes & Nicolas Buckland, and they did. It was good just to see those two back on the circuit, after they were passed up for initial assignments. However, they still are lacking a little stamina after their year out, which showed near the end of both their programs. They also struggled technically. Their tariff in the short was the lowest of the top eight. Wobbles near the end of the free dance combined with tying for the lowest tariff all together took a further toll, and they only finished seventh.
View full results here.
Had Jason Brown won this event or even gotten silver, he would’ve locked himself for the Final. Instead, he might have blown an easy chance at it for the second year in a row. But skaters have gotten to the Final in the past with 2nd and 4th, and only last year Adam Rippon did it with two bronzes, which is the same amount of points but lower on the score tiebreaker. And this year is shaping up to be one where his chances might be better, especially with Yuzuru Hanyu having already taken 13 points out of play, and Javier Fernandez perfectly capable of taking out 15 more next week. View full men’s standings here.
Evgenia Medvedeva and Carolina Kostner become the first locks for the ladies event. It’s a testament to the latter’s longevity that she made it on the tenth anniversary of her first Grand Prix Final back in 2007. View full ladies standings here.
Similarly Wenjing Sui & Cong Han and Ksenia Stolbova & Fedor Klimov are the first locks in the pairs. It’s not impossible that Kristina Astakhova & Alexei Rogonov will pull a Rippon, but it’s highly unlikely. View full pairs standings here.
Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir are the first dance team to lock themselves in. Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue with silver and bronze are in second, ahead of Ekaterina Bobrova & Dmitri Soloviev due to a higher pair of combined scores. There’s a strong chance the score tiebreaker will determine which silver and bronze winning teams get the last two spots on the lineup, so that’s very good for them. View full standings here.
Two More Withdrawals
The NHK Trophy wasn’t the only event with withdrawals this weekend. Both the last two events are currently also down a man. Chafik Besseghier is out of the Internationaux de France, having apparently not recovered from his collapsed lung in time. Hopefully he will be ready for French Nationals next month. That leaves just one French man on the roster, which doesn’t make it look like the French federation will try to find another home skater to replace him. It’s close enough to the event they don’t have to replace him with anyone, though there’s time enough they can if they want to, and even with a foreign skater if need be. He wasn’t a factor in the medal race anyway.
Skate American, meanwhile, has lost Alexander Petrov. His coach Alexei Mishin was the first to break the news. He also explained that he’s struggling with a right leg injury, which he’s just aggravated in practice. That helps explain the four-fall free skate that happened in China last week. He may or may not appear in the Golden Spin of Zagreb, the fall’s final Challenger event, before Russian Nationals. Even if he makes it to the latter, this makes his already long odds of making the Olympic team longer. How competitive this event will be remains dependent largely on how many skaters outside the presumed top two deliver. There should be a replacement, however; there’s more than enough time for that.
As of right now, there is no explanation for Isabella Tobias & Ilia Tkachenko’s withdrawal from Japan, and they remain on the roster for Skate America. They weren’t favored to medal there, although the field would be a bit less deep without them. Meanwhile, the loss of them could cost Israel a top ten finished in the qualification for the Olympic team event. But as they are unlikely to finish lower than eleventh, and one of the countries ahead of them is Spain, which may not be eligible, they may get in anyway.