The Grand Prix concluded this week with NHK Trophy. And what an event it was! There was a good pairs competition …. And then there was Yuzuru Hanyu’s world-record-shattering performance in the men’s event, which was the highlight of the season so far and will be remembered for many years to come.
The Brilliance of Yuzuru Hanyu
I know this is a pairs review, not a men’s review. But before we get into pairs, I have to take a moment to bow to the genius of Yuzuru Hanyu at NHK. It was so great, it dwarfed everything else that happened in Nagano.
Has there ever been a brighter star, a more exceptional talent, in figure skating than Yuzuru Hanyu? I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. Physically, Hanyu is gifted with preternatural jumping ability and wondrous speed. But what truly sets him apart is what lies within: His competitive nature and his innate musicality.
I’ve never seen a skater who has won so much, yet is still so hungry for more. It’s as if his Olympic gold never happened. Each time Hanyu steps on the ice, it’s like the first time: He is driven to show us once again how good he is, how much he deserves to be #1.
And why is he so good? For me, it’s not only the jumps but also his exceptional musicality. Hanyu is not, and will never be, that skater who neatly hits each beat of the music, or who has the most perfect carriage or classic positions. And yet, his feeling for the flow and the intent of music is extraordinary. What he does so well is make you feel the highs and lows and movement of the music—the inherent drama of each piece. He is always alert, intelligent, aware in his skating.
And, of course, he’s an incredible athlete. During the Olympic season, I thought to myself, “Maybe one day, Hanyu will go over 300 points.” But I never expected anything like the 322.40 he posted at NHK. It’s an achievement for the ages.
NHK pairs champion Meagan Duhamel tweeted: “Yuzu’s program at NHK15 is the best thing that I’ve ever seen in figure skating. In 20 years people will be talking about this performance.” Who knows, maybe Meagan will be inspired by Yuzu’s skate next month when she appears at the GP Final! 🙂 Certainly, he is an inspiration and ideal for skaters everywhere.
Now, on to the pairs event at NHK.
NHK Trophy: Pairs
The last pairs event of the GP series was similar to the first one at Skate America. We saw quite a few good short programs at this competition, but once again the performance level fell off a bit in the long programs.
Meagan/Eric easily won this event with a 10-point lead. However, they had some uncharacteristic mistakes in both programs.
Their short program to “Your Song” was good, but not great. Their SBS 3Lz was not as close together as usual, and Eric put a hand down. Also, the landing of the throw triple Lutz was a bit sticky. Their musical expression in this program felt a bit forced to me—not as easy and flowing as at Skate Canada. But they still scored 71.04 for 1st.
Meagan/Eric felt a bit off in their Hometown Glory LP. They opened with a very nice triple twist that earned as high as +3, and the following SBS 3Lz was right on. However, Meagan then fell on the throw quad Salchow and two-footed the throw 3Lz. Also, she put a hand down and fell out of the SBS 3T. The rest of their elements were high-quality and earned positive GOE. But the mistakes seemed to affect the overall performance. This program, which had been soaring and gorgeous at Skate Canada, felt emotionally flat at NHK. Duhamel/Radford placed 1st LP/overall, but their score of 131.68 was 12 points off their Skate Canada LP score.
Meagan/Eric will be looking for stronger performances at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona. Last year, they also had a somewhat disappointing event at NHK but rebounded with perhaps their best performances of the season at the Grand Prix Final. Will history repeat itself?
Yu/Jin skated consistently at this event to win silver.
Yu/Jin started with a strong outing of their Yulunga Spirit Dance SP. Their opening SBS 3Ts were very close and in sync. The throw 3Lp had excellent height and distance and earned almost straight +2s. Their triple twist was also very good; they were the only pair to get a level 4 on the twist. I also enjoyed their step sequence; it had good unison and was nicely choreographed. I really enjoyed this quiet, moody program, but Yu/Jin’s PCS was almost 4 points below Duhamel/Radford’s. I think Yu/Jin need to work on getting a little deeper into the ice and using their edges more. They glide lightly over the ice rather than digging in, and I think this may be holding their PCS back. They were 3rd.
I thought Xiaoyu/Yang’s Creation LP was very well skated. This is one of my favorite pairs LPs of the last few seasons, and for me, they really captured the mysterious, ominous feeling of the music. Echoing the inherent tension of the music was the question of whether they’d go for the throw quad Salchow. They had a hard fall on this element at Cup of China, so I was nervous about it. They tried it again and got full rotation, but Xiaoyu could not control the landing and fell. Fortunately it wasn’t a bad fall. The other elements in the program were mostly very good. The opening SBS 3Ts and triple twist were again great; the only mistake came when Xiaoyu singled the first 2A in the SBS 2A/2A sequence. It was a strong skate from Yu/Jin and they pulled up to 2nd LP/overall.
With their silver here, Yu/Jin clinched a berth in the Grand Prix Final for the second year in a row.
Alexa/Chris earned their second career Grand Prix medal here with two solid performances.
Scimeca/Knierim’s Metallica SP is proving to be a very successful program for them. After winning the short program at Skate America, they placed a strong 2nd here to Duhamel/Radford. Their triple twist was excellent, with great height, and earned some +3s. Their hand-to-hand lift was lovely as well, with great speed and ice coverage. I love Alexa’s swan lift position; she has a nice arch and her shoulders are very firm and high; she looks regal up there. Chris put a hand down on the SBS 3S, but that was the only element with negative GOE. I thought their step sequence was their best of the season so far; they still need just a tad more energy at the end, but overall this program is fun to watch and a great package for them.
Alexa/Chris followed with a solid rendition of their Elizabeth: The Golden Age LP. They opened with a mistake on the quad twist; Alexa stumbled coming out. It was hard to tell what the problem was exactly—it looked like her blade just landed at an awkward angle. They received -2s/-3s for the element (but inexplicably, one +3 as well) for a total of 6.00 on the element. (Which was actually 1.60 points less than they received for their triple twist in the SP.) However, Alexa/Chris recovered with good SBS 3S and a very big throw 3S that got mostly +2s. Chris put a hand down on the SBS 3T and had a balance check going into the SBS spins. But their other elements were pretty good. I really like this Elizabeth program for Alexa/Chris. It hasn’t been universally well received, but I enjoy it. The music is big and driving and powerful, and I think it suits S/K’s athleticism and Alexa’s fierce personality as a competitor. The pace is very fast, but I think it works; it pushes them and emphasizes their power. Alexa/Chris were 3rd in the LP but had higher PCS marks than Yu/Jin.
It’s been such a successful Grand Prix season for Scimeca/Knierim. They entered the season as long shots to make the Grand Prix Final, but medaled in both their GPs and have now booked their ticket to Barcelona. It’s the first time in 9 years that an American pair has made the Grand Prix Final; a major achievement for Scimeca/Knierim. They still need to work hard to improve their consistency and presentation, especially in the long program, but they’re on the right track.
After a weak showing at Skate Canada, I think Vera/Andrei surprised many with their 4th-place finish here. They set new personal-best scores in both segments of the competition.
Bazarova/Deputat opened with a lovely performance of their Chopin Nocturne No. 2 SP. This program is very pure and classic in style and really shows off Vera at her elegant best. Vera/Andrei also delivered some solid technical elements. The throw 3Lp had nice distance and a beautiful, long edge on the landing. The step sequence was smoothly integrated into the choreography and earned level 4 and positive GOE. On the SBS 3T, Vera’s landing was low and tight, but that was the only error. Otherwise it was a lovely package, and they earned 64.06 for 4th.
Their triple twist looked much improved from Skate Canada. Vera/Andrei are using a slightly different technique on the twist. Andrei throws Vera up and out, away from his body, whereas most pairs keep the twist action right above the man’s head. It’s working for them, though; they got level 3 and all positive GOE on both twists here.
Bazarova/Deputat’s Beatles LP was not as strong as their SP, but not bad either. They landed a nice throw 3F, and the first two lifts were very good and scored well. Vera/Andrei’s lifts are noticeably improved this season. Andrei’s footwork is better, and the transitions in the air are smoother. The lifts are also spaced out a little better within the long program. The death spiral and combo spin both got level 4 with positive GOE. As usual, Vera struggled a bit with the SBS jumps, but there were no major errors. I have to agree with the British Eurosport commentators’ assessment of this program artistically: I like the concept and music selection a lot (if not Vera’s short-shorts), but choreographically it’s missing a little something. I hope that Vera/Andrei will work their choreographer to continue to improve it. They were 5th LP/4th overall.
Bazarova/Deputat will now prepare for Russian Nationals. With Tarasova/Morozov and Astakhova/Rogonov both skating inconsistently this season, it’s conceivable that Vera/Andrei could pull an upset at Russian Nationals and place above one or both teams.
Luba/Dylan took 5th in this event. They skated much better here than at Cup of China.
Their “Since I’ve Been Loving You” SP was pretty solid. They both put a hand down on the SBS 3Ts, but all the other elements were clean, with no negative GOE. The back outside death spiral was very nice and earned one +3 mark; the step sequence was a highlight and got level 4 and +1s/+2s. I’m not a huge fan of this Led Zeppelin program, though. They interpret it well, but stylistically it doesn’t take advantage of Luba’s exceptional carriage and elegance. I just feel like another musical style would have been a better choice for them as a team. But it was a good performance, and they were 5th.
The long program was somewhat mixed for Luba/Dylan. The first two lifts were lovely, with good speed, and the triple twist was completed without error. However, there were problems on the jumps. Luba had a hand down on both throws, singled the SBS 3T, and underrotated the SBS 3S. Despite the technical mistakes, they still maintained great speed and flow throughout the program. Luba/Dylan move over the ice with a lot of ease, compared to some of the other teams (for example, James/Cipres), and I’d like to see this quality rewarded a bit more in their PCS marks. Their long program is set to Rachmaninov’s No. 2 Symphony in E Minor, and I thought they captured the majestic, joyful feel of this music nicely. I wasn’t too sure about this program earlier in the season, but it’s growing on me, and I think their interpretation is developing.
They were 6th LP/ 5th overall, an improvement from their 7th place overall at CoC. Their total score at NHK (180.63) was almost 14 points higher than CoC, so that’s good. They’ll need to keep working hard, though, to prepare for Canadian Nationals, where 4 strong pairs will be battling for 3 available slots to Four Continents/Worlds.
Vanessa/Morgan came into NHK with a shot at making the Grand Prix Final. However, they had a somewhat disappointing event and placed 6th.
Vanessa/Morgan put out some great elements in their SP. Their SBS 3Ts were close and in sync; the throw 3F was good; and they had almost straight +2s on their hand-to-hand lift. However … they also made a big technical error when Vanessa’s foot left the ice during the combo spin. The element was disallowed, costing them at least 4 points. It was really too bad, as the rest of the program was quite strong. Like Stolbova/Klimov, James/Cipres’s SP is set to “I Put a Spell on You.” This sultry, bluesy music works well for them; it emphasizes their strengths (charisma, athleticism, sexiness) and minimizes their weaknesses (skating skills, lack of refinement/polish). They had 3rd-best PCS marks but could only place 6th due to the spin snafu.
Vanessa/Morgan did their best to recover in the long program, but could not make up enough ground to medal. They went for a SBS 3T/3T combination (exciting to see), but the second jump was downgraded. Both throw jumps had impressive height, but Vanessa 2-footed the first and put a hand down on the second. Their Romeo & Juliet LP is nice and they performed it fairly well, but it’s not as distinctive or well-suited to them as their short program. They pulled up to 4th in the LP, but remained 6th overall.
The good news for Vanessa/Morgan is that their lifts and twist are much improved from last year. They’re getting better height now on the twist and are avoiding negative GOE. Also, their lifts look noticeably smoother and faster this year. Vanessa/Morgan’s main weakness continues to be skating skills. Whenever they get into a footwork sequence, they just look heavy and slow, and the program loses momentum. They’ll need to work on this and also their jump consistency before Europeans.
This was Jessica/Zach’s first major competition back since Zach’s surgery last spring.
Their short program is set to “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World,” a bit of an odd choice. This song can have a self-mocking humorous slant when a guy performs it (a la Sergei Voronov last year), but the humor gets lost with a pair. Regardless, Jessica/Zach were nicely secure and confident with this program. Zach fell on the opening SBS 3S, but the other elements were well done. The highlight was the throw 3Lz right at the end of the program. This is a consistently strong element for Jessica/Zach, so I think it’s a great choice to finish the program with it. They earned 55.19 for 7th.
Calalang/Sidhu’s Romeo & Juliet long program was a bit rocky. They underrotated the opening SBS 2A, and Zach popped the SBS 3S to a single (which earned only 0.14). The lifts were a bit rough at points, and Jessica fell on the throw 3F. They kept up the performance level fairly well, but clearly are not back at full strength yet and placed 7th LP/overall. Hopefully they can become more consistent by U.S. Nationals.
Amani/Christopher were a surprise last-minute pick for this event after Volosozhar/Trankov withdrew.
Unfortunately, Fancy/Boyadji couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity and skated poorly in both segments, earning negative GOE on the majority of their elements. Their total score of 125.80 was the lowest of any pair on the Grand Prix this season.
Warsaw Cup: Pairs
This Challenger Series event also took place over the weekend, with notable appearances from Savchenko/Massot and Della Monica/Guarise.
Aliona/Bruno had a good outing here and won the event easily, just a week after their spectacular debut at Tallinn Trophy.
Their Cirque du Soleil short program was very good. Aliona stepped out of the SBS 3T, but all the other elements were extremely well done and earned +2s/+3s almost across the board. I find this program charming and entertaining to watch, and the judges did as well. Aliona/Bruno earned 76.30—the highest SP score of the year so far for pairs.
Unfortunately, Aliona/Bruno’s LP was not as brilliant as their effort in Tallinn. The triple twist and lifts were again outstanding, but Aliona had minor 2-foot/stepout errors on all 4 jump elements. They still need more speed and sharpness in their Peer Gynt program, but it’s amazing how polished they already look for such a new pair. Their PCS score of 70.16 is on par with what the top teams have been getting on the Grand Prix.
Savchenko/Massot were scheduled to compete at Golden Spin next weekend but have withdrawn. Most likely, they’re worn out after 2 weeks of competition/travel and the mental/emotional high of their debut in Tallinn. They’ll want to work on their jump consistency heading into German Nationals—and, hopefully, Europeans/Worlds later in the season!
Nicole/Matteo haven’t competed much this season. Their only Grand Prix was the canceled TEB, and their only Challenger Series event prior to this was Ice Challenge in Austria, where they had a subpar performance. This competition was much better; they set new personal-best scores in both programs.
Their Romeo & Juliet LP was a breakthrough of sorts for Nicole/Matteo. They had a few minor errors—Nicole stepped out of the SBS 3T and 2-footed the throw 3S—but they stayed on their feet throughout, which is key. They’ve struggled so much the last year or so with big, disruptive falls in their programs, so it was great to see them perform more consistently here. The rest of the elements were strong, and they presented the program nicely. Nicole/Matteo are not known for innovative choreography, but I find their programs solidly entertaining and enjoyable to watch. They also have a good rapport between them, which helps.
Della Monica/Guarise will compete again next week at Golden Spin.
With the Grand Prix series finished, the next big event is the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona in 2 weeks. The pairs finalists include 5 teams from last year’s GP Final (Duhamel/Radford, Kavaguti/Smirnov, Sui/Han, Stolbova/Klimov, and Yu/Jin) plus 2 new teams (Scimeca/Knierim, Seguin/Bilodeau). It should be an interesting event, and I’m looking forward to it.
First, though, we have Golden Spin of Zagreb, the final event in the Challenger Series, coming up next weekend. This will be quite an interesting event for pairs fans, as it features not only Della Monica/Guarise but also three strong Russian pairs: Tarasova/Morozov, Astakhova/Rogonov, and Zabijako/Enbert. It’s also a must-see for American pairs fans: There will be a matchup between Kayne/O’Shea and Castelli/Tran, as well as the senior international debut of last year’s U.S. junior champions, Fields/Stevens. Hoping to see some good performances from all these teams!