The big story in pairs this week: The Chinese pairs sweep the podium at Cup of China! Although the field here was depleted by Volosozhar/Trankov’s withdrawal, this result was nonethless a big statement for the Chinese pairs program.
Back in 2010, the Chinese stood atop the pairs world, with their teams placing 1-2-5 at the Vancouver Olympics. This followed a 2-3-4 placement at the 2006 Torino Olympics. Triumph, indeed.
But then, after Vancouver, the Chinese pairs program suffered major losses with the retirement of Shen/Zhao, the unexpected breakup of Zhang/Zhang, and various injuries to Pang/Tong. The quad saw disappointing results: only 1 World medal and no Olympic medals. There was also a leadership change, with 2010 Olympic gold medalist Hongbo Zhao taking over from Yao Bin as leader of the pairs program (although Yao Bin remains actively involved). The biggest issue was the lack of clear successors to the original three pairs (S/Z, P/T, Z/Z) who had carried the program since 2002. Sui/Han emerged, but their results were mixed their first few senior seasons, and many doubted whether the partnership would survive Sui’s growth spurt.
Now, in 2014, it seems clear the Chinese pairs program has reloaded and is starting to build toward another dominant phase. Sui/Han appear to have reached physical maturity with their technical skills intact. And there are the three teams who won medals at COC: Peng/Zhang, Yu/Jin, and Wang/Wang. Altogether, a potentially formidable group.
Meanwhile, China will host the World Figure Skating Championships this year–for the first time ever. What does this mean for the Chinese pairs? My guess is, everything. There is no doubt in my mind that their goal is victory in Shanghai, and that Hongbo Zhao will do everything within his power to make that happen. Of course, winning gold is everyone’s goal . . . But it will certainly be a matter of national pride for the Chinese. The question is: Do they actually have a chance to win gold in Shanghai? Let’s look at the pairs performances from COC and discuss!!
Peng Cheng/Hao Zhang
Peng/Zhang recorded their first Grand Prix victory in China. They completely dominated the competition, finishing 21 points ahead of Yu/Jin.
Their Arabian Dance short program was excellent. They hit the SBS 3Ts, and all their other elements were clean. The program was also . . . beautiful. Two things stood out for me. First, my eyes are just irresistibly drawn to Peng. She is like a little diamond, shining brighter all the time. Second, Zhang’s role in this team is also important and underrated. He provides most of the speed and power in their transitional moves and crossovers, allowing his partner to float and shine.
Their Shostakovich long program was very good, but lacked the magic of the SP. They started the program with a stunning quad twist. That earned 9.74 points and was the highest-scoring element in the whole event. However, Peng then stumbled forward out of the SBS 3T and fell on the SBS 2A. That took some of the lustre off the program. They went on to land both throw jumps very nicely, and all their other elements were quite good. However, the program suffered a bit from the earlier mistakes. Nevertheless, they won this segment easily over Yu/Jin.
Overall, Peng/Zhang improved on their performance at Skate America. Their short program here was much better and scored 6+ points higher than at SA. Their long program was technically about the same as SA, but they did skate with a bit more attack and flair in China, and their PCS score was correspondingly higher. Final point totals: 182.43 at SkateAmerica, 194.05 at Cup of China. Although it’s tricky to compare scores across competitions, the score differential here shows clear improvement.
I love, love, love their programs this year. I’m not always a huge fan of Lori Nichol’s choreography, but she must find Peng/Zhang inspiring, because she has created wonderful programs for them last year and this year. What I love about the new programs is the subtleness, sophistication, and daring musical choices. I’ve always loved the “Arabian Dance” from Nutcracker, and the Shostakovich piece is also fascinating. In only their third season together, I think these programs are a stretch artistically for Peng/Zhang; but I love that they’re trying something challenging. The negative aspect? Because the programs are subtle and understated, they will only have their full impact if skated very cleanly. When you’re skating to something like Carmen with big, exciting flourishes, you can sometimes make the audience forget about a fall or stumble. But not so with this music. These programs will require the maximum effort of Peng/Zhang to really shine.
In an interview today, Russian coach Oleg Vasiliev said of Peng/Zhang: “Technically, they are very strong. They lack [the] personality and brilliance of Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao.” It’s certainly true that P/Z are not at S/Z’s level yet. But the question is, how good are they exactly? And can they challenge for gold at Worlds in Shanghai?
Let’s consider Peng/Zhang’s top scores this season versus Kavaguti/Smirnov and Duhamel/Radford. (Again, comparing across competitions is risky . . . but at least gives us some kind of ballpark.)
Peng/Zhang’s short program here was on par with D/R’s and K/S’s season-best short programs. A little below D/R, but not out of the range. The long program is the issue. P/Z’s best score is 15 points off K/S’s season-leading score. Can Peng/Zhang make up the points? I think they can. If they could land both SBS jump sets with decent quality in the LP, they’d pick up about 10 points right there. (In both LPs this season, they’ve earned less than 2 points total for their SBS jumps!) They could get 1 additional point by improving their death spiral, which is only a level 1 or 2 now. The other 4 points would have to come from PCS. And I believe it’s not out of the question they could get that PCS with a very clean, beautifully skated program.
Has Hongbo Zhao sat in his office in Beijing and done this same calculation? You can bet on it.
Next: GP Final is likely, though not yet confirmed
This is Yu/Jin’s first full season as seniors. With them coming in as world junior champions, I was interested to see what they could do. They did not disappoint, putting out two strong performances to finish with the silver medal.
Their short program, set to Yulunga Spirit Dance, was clean except for a fall on the throw 3Lp. Otherwise, it was very well skated. Their long program was even stronger. They hit great SBS 3Ts, then followed up with a SBS 2A/2A sequence. Both throws had excellent height (although the landing on the throw 3F was low). The only real error came on the second lift, which suddenly went down after a rotation or two.
Both of their programs are set to soft, gentle music, which suits their style and does not overwhelm them. They have great elements and seem very sound technically. Going forward, I’d like to see them get a little deeper into the ice and add more speed & power to their skating. However, they skated an excellent competition and show great promise. At ages 18/20, I expect we will see this pair competing for China at least through 2022. It will be interesting to see how far they can go.
Next: NHK Trophy
This team is relatively new by Chinese standards; only together since 2012. Last season, they competed at Cup of China, placed 4th, and caught the eye of many with two very elegant programs. This year, they have 2 GP events, so we’ll see them at least twice. That’s a good thing, because this is a really talented and promising team. They have nice line and presentation, and Xuehan, in particular, is a very engaging performer. She smiles often, which helps draw the audience in, and really is quite delightful to watch.
Wang/Wang skated a lyrical short program that featured beautiful positions in the lifts and death spiral. The program was going very well until he unexpectedly fell out of the SBS spins at the end. Odd. Still, they managed second in the SP. Their long program, set to My Fair Lady, is more lighthearted and charming than most Chinese pairs programs and, again, really shows off Xuehan’s performance ability. They had a few jump errors in the LP and dropped to third in this segment. However, their level 4 SBS spins were some of the best we’ve seen—well-synchronized, fast, with difficult positions. Excellent. All three lifts were also very nice and smooth.
Like Yu/Jin, the Wangs need more speed and power in their skating. Also, their jumps need to get stronger and more consistent. But they’re a very nice team to watch, and I look forward to seeing more of them this season and in the future.
Next: Trophee Bompard
This team’s first appearance on the Grand Prix was awaited with much anticipation. Bazarova/Deputat did not win a medal here, but I think they performed well, considering they’ve only been together 6 months. Although some fans were expecting a medal, I think they discounted the strength of the younger Chinese teams.
Vera & Andrei started their My Way short program with a 3T fall from Vera. However, the program improved from there, with a competent triple twist and nice throw 3F. The highlight of the program was Vera’s beautiful, elegant line and presentation. Now that Vera is skating with Andrei, I feel like we can finally fully appreciate the beauty of her skating. Andrei also has very nice line, and he complements and presents her so well (unlike her previous partner).
Their Adios Nonino LP is an attractive program and works fairly well for them. They stayed vertical on most of the elements, showing progress in this area. Vera did have slight errors on each jump, but only fell on the throw 3Lp. There were some very nice positions in the lifts and spins. They scored 56.58 in PCS, really very good for such a new pair. I think there is great potential with this team. One area to work on is their connection. They are very elegant, but need more intensity and interaction and emotion in their skating. But I felt this was a fairly strong debut. As Vasiliev said afterward, Vera still lacks confidence in her jumps. I think that for them, this season is about getting experience together. My expectation is we will see real improvement and perhaps major progress next season.
Next: NHK Trophy
This team surprised me a bit. Although they made a number of mistakes, I like how strong and confident they are on the ice. They work well together on the transitions, have pretty good unison and connection, and seem improved since last season. In their Cinderella SP, she fell on the SBS 3S and stumbled out of the throw 3Lp. However, their footwork sequence and SBS spins were nice, and the triple twist not bad. I think their Mask of Zorro LP is a good choice; the powerful music suits their athletic style. They did, unfortunately, have a number of jump errors in the LP. The biggest concern is the lifts. I noticed in slo-mo that some of the lift position changes and exits looked a bit shaky, and Peter Carruthers said on Universal Sports that Matteo’s footwork on the lifts needs improvement. Despite the errors, though, I did enjoy their programs.
Next: Trophee Bompard
This new team from Canada had a very good debut at this competition. I really like their bluesy short program to 3 Hours Past Midnight. This music is great for them, because it’s relaxed and well-paced and doesn’t call for too much precision on their part. They had a very good skate in the SP, hitting all their elements pretty cleanly. Their triple twist does need work, though. The twist is low and got only level 1 in both programs here.
Their long program to The Artist soundtrack was not bad at all. The program is choreographed at a good level for them–not above their abilities, but still with some interesting transitions. Long programs tend to expose the flaws in new teams more than short programs, and they did have a few errors in this segment. The entrance to their throw 3S seemed a bit rushed, and she fell on that element. However, the throw 3Lz was very good. Overall, I like this team. What’s interesting is they bring different strengths to the partnership. He has very good line and a nice straight back. Her line is not quite so good, but she has spark and charisma.
Next: Canadian Nationals (I think)
All the off-season splits in U.S. pairs skating have opened the door for this U.S. pair, who were only 11th at Nationals last year. They earned bronze and silver medals at their Senior B events this fall, which led to 2 Grand Prix invitations.
Unfortunately, this was not a good GP debut for Jessica & Zack. In their SP, both made mistakes on the SBS 3S. Their triple twist has a nice high catch, but needs more flow out on the landing. Their other elements were completed, but not with great quality. The throw 3F was landed, but a bit small. Their footwork lacked power and unison. Overall, not a great SP, but they did manage to get decent PCS in this segment.
Their Romeo & Juliet LP did not go well. The SBS jump elements both had mistakes, and the throw 3S turned into a single and earned 0.20 points. The best elements in the program were their throw 3Lz and the lifts. This pair has nice lifts, but I feel like they need to improve in a lot of areas. They need more speed and better connection. Better programs would help, too. The SP feels dated to me in concept and packaging, and the Romeo & Juliet LP is simply dull. Jessica does have a lot of spark, though, which helps.
This Russian team is just up from juniors. They landed some elements here, but finished 14 points behind Calalang/Sidhu. I’m not sure how well-matched this team is. He expresses the music well and seems to enjoy performing, but he also skates quite high up in his knees. He needs to bend and get down more and improve his skating skills. She has stronger basic skills, but less expression than him.
Next: NHK Trophy
Onward to Rostelecom Cup!!!