Cup of China 2015: Pairs Review

For me, last year’s Cup of China was one of the most interesting pairs events of the season. Peng/Zhang’s victory and the emergence of Yu/Jin and Wang/Wang as Grand Prix medalists signaled a coming-of-age for a new and exciting generation of Chinese pairs.

This year’s Cup of China was again successful for the Chinese pairs, as they placed 2-3-4. However, I don’t think many people expected to see Kavaguti/Smirnov on top of the podium! Their victory over World silver medalists Sui/Han was quite a surprise.

COC-results

Kavaguti/Smirnov

Kavaguti/Smirnov turned in two good performances in Beijing to get their Grand Prix season off to an excellent start.

A nice victory for the veteran team (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images AsiaPac)

A nice victory for the veteran team (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Yuko/Sasha opened their short program with a nice level 4 death spiral that earned high marks. This elegant move set the tone for the program, and Yuko/Sasha followed with good SBS 3Ts. There was a slight problem on the exit of the triple twist, and the first part of the spin was awkward. However, their hand-to-hand lift was very effective with the music. Technically it was a good performance, and in my view, they shone artistically as well.

I really like Yuko/Sasha’s new short program to “I Finally Found Someone,” a 1996 Bryan Adams/Barbra Streisand duet. Many feel the music is hoky and dated–yeah, it’s not exactly current. But, that aside, I think the program has a wonderful, romantic feel that shows off some of the best sides of Yuko/Sasha’s skating—specifically, their musicality and the strong, interesting contrast between them. Yuko has such a delicate, feminine quality, while Sasha has strength and dynamism. Because of this yin/yang, for me there’s always an inherent romanticism to their skating (even though they’re not an off-ice couple).

This program takes that quality and amplifies it. The choreography by Peter Tchernyshev is expansive and sweeps you into the mood. I love the placement of the elements, and also that Yuko/Sasha incorporate holds into their level 4 step sequence. The other pairs mostly perform their step sequences in unison, but without touching. The dance holds in Yuko/Sasha’s step sequence makes it feel more like an organic part of the program, less like a technical element. I love the whole package of this program, and the judges did too, with PCS marks up to 9.00 from some judges. Yuko’s red costume was fab, and I loved her teased, bouffant hair–the retro vibe kind of matched the music. Kavaguti/Smirnov finished the short program in 2nd.

Yuko/Sasha followed with a very good performance of their Manfred Symphony LP. The program was a pleasure to watch. Yuko/Sasha’s SBS jumps were better than usual; both sets were well landed and the opening SBS 3Ts even received +2s. They also landed their throw quad Salchow; it was a little low and tight, but held. Next, they went for the throw quad loop! It was fully rotated, but two-footed and thus received all -2s. They earned 6.70 points for the throw quad loop—only .6 more than they received for their successful throw triple loop in the SP. Still, it was exciting to see them go for 2 quads.

This is K/S’s second year using the Manfred Symphony LP, but the program is such a masterpiece that it didn’t feel tired at all (this time, anyway). Yuko/Sasha earned a new personal-best score of 143.55.

One criticism: I wish Yuko/Sasha could improve the speed of their elements. Their lifts and spins start fast, but tend to slow noticeably as the rotations go on. If they could just correct this problem and maintain more consistent speed throughout their elements, their GOE would be higher, and really the whole impression of their skating would be improved. I assume this is something they work on in training. But I’d love to see them emphasize it more, as opposed to, say, the quad throw loop.

Yuko/Sasha now have an excellent chance of making the Grand Prix Final. I hope they can build on this momentum!

Next: Rostelecom Cup

Sui/Han

It was a bit shocking to see Sui/Han place 2nd at their home GP event. True, it was a close competition, and they finished less than 1 point from the gold. Still, it was a surprising result, as Sui/Han had been expected to dominate. After the event, we learned that Wenjing has an Achilles tendon injury, which no doubt negatively affected their skating.

Sui/Han: Dealing with an Achilles injury

Sui/Han: Dealing with an Achilles injury

Sui/Han won the short program with a strong performance of their Spanish Romance SP. Wenjing put a hand down on their opening SBS 3T, but that was the only mistake. They landed a great throw 3F and ‘Tano triple twist. The highlight was their closing level 4 step sequence, which was sharply executed and earned many +3s. Spanish Romance is a very effective program for Sui/Han and received 1st-place PCS marks.

In the long program, Sui/Han were again very good but not great. Their opening quad twist was strong and earned 10.46 points (highest-scoring element in the competition). However, the SBS 3T/2T/2T combo could have been better. Wenjing was off balance on the first 2T, and the second 2T was underrotated. This combo is a somewhat weak element for Sui/Han; even when they land it, they typically get no runout. Their SBS 3S was also underrotated, receiving negative GOE. However, the throw jumps were excellent as usual. Sui/Han again went with throw triple Salchow instead of throw quad Salchow, due to Sui’s injury, but the throw 3S was great. And Sui/Han received a perfect score for their throw triple flip: Straight +3s for a total of 7.60. That throw 3F is golden for Sui/Han: Huge and perfectly landed almost every time. It’s really amazing. Sui/Han’s lifts were terrific as well. In the LP, they received all +2s/+3s for their lifts–more than 4 points’ GOE on lifts alone.

Yet, despite the technical content, Sui/Han’s Samson & Delilah felt just a tad bit flat. This pair has improved so much artistically the last 2 years, especially Wenjing. She’s really showing off every single transition movement with so much flair and emphasis, a la Ksenia Stolbova. But still, in this program, I felt Sui/Han needed just a bit more energy and speed. The Samson & Delilah music is crowd-pleasing, but challenging. The tempo builds strongly in the last minute, and Sui/Han couldn’t quite keep pace here, finishing behind the music and getting a time violation.

Sui/Han qualified for the Grand Prix Final with their silver medal. They’re skating very well this season, but haven’t been quite as dominant as I was expecting. They now have a month’s break before the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona. I hope that will be enough time for Wenjing’s injury to heal.

Next: Grand Prix Final

Yu/Jin

I was happy to see Yu/Jin again in Beijing. They were such a wonderful surprise last year in their first senior Grand Prix season, and I’ve missed them. It’s been 8 months since we last saw them at Junior Worlds. Yu/Jin won bronze here and set new personal-best scores in both programs. Yet at the same time, I think many expected they would win silver.

Yu/Jin return to competition (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Yu/Jin return to competition (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Yu/Jin opened their Yulunga Spirit Dance SP with very good SBS 3Ts that were close and well-synchronized. Their level 4 triple twist was excellent, with great height and a smooth catch. I felt like they were concentrating on the elements a lot; to me, the performance didn’t really sing/project to the audience as much as it could have. The judges seemed to agree, with PCS marks that were 3-4 points behind S/H and K/S. But Yu/Jin earned over 70 points in the short program and were in 3rd.

Yu/Jin started their “Humility and Love” LP with 2 strong sets of SBS jumps. Then they went for the throw quad Salchow, but it was underrotated, and Xiaoyu fell. The following throw 3Lp looked clearly 2-footed on replay, but the judges appeared not to notice and gave mostly +1s/+2s. The other elements were pretty good (although they were a bit slow hitting their positions in the final reverse lift). It was a fine program for Yu/Jin, and they earned a new personal-best LP score of 127.69. However, it was not their best performance artistically. This program is so lovely, but it felt just a bit perfunctory here. I’ve seen them skate it better, particularly at Junior Worlds last season.

Which brings up the question: Why, exactly, are Yu/Jin skating to last year’s programs again? Looking back, this is actually the first time in their 7-year international career that they have not had new programs to start the season. Yu/Jin had new programs even back when they were second-year international juniors with no achievements. And now that they’re 2-time Junior World champions and 2-time Grand Prix medalists, they don’t have new programs? (Adding insult to injury, they weren’t even given new costumes this season!)

I don’t understand. And to be quite honest, I have to wonder how Yu/Jin feel about it. When you see your teammates getting new costumes and spending a month on new choreography, while you’re sitting at home practicing a program you’ve done about 1,000 times and wearing the same old thing as last year, well, I can’t imagine it’s very motivating.

Yu/Jin now have 3 weeks to prepare for NHK Trophy. They will likely be fighting for bronze there vs. Scimeca/Knierim. Their scores at Cup of China indicate a clear advantage, so the outlook is favorable to medal in Japan. Making the GP Final again will be a longshot, though.

Next: NHK Trophy

Wang/Wang

It was a somewhat disappointing competition for Wang/Wang. After winning bronze at Cup of China last year, they had a subpar performance in the LP and finished off the podium.

Wang/Wang: Lovely in the short program (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Wang/Wang: Lovely in the short program (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Wang/Wang started the competition with a lovely skate to their Romance SP. This light, lyrical program is a joy to watch. Their SBS 3Ts were good, and they hit a beautiful, flowing throw 3Lp. Their step sequence could have had deeper edges, but was well choreographed and performed. They received no negative GOE scores in the SP and earned a new personal-best 69.36 to place 4th.

Unfortunately, Wang/Wang’s LP was disappointing, as at Skate America. Xuehan doubled both SBS jumps and again fell on the throw 3F. The throw 3Lp was landed, but not with the same quality as in the SP. Lifts and spins were all good, and strong scores on these elements helped Wang/Wang hold on to 4th place overall. Their SBS spins were a particular highlight—perfectly synchronized, with lovely positions–and earned all +2s/+3s. I continue to find their My Fair Lady program charming, but the effect was muted by the mistakes.

Like Yu/Jin, Wang/Wang are also repeating last year’s programs (although they, at least, were given new costumes!). To be fair, we only saw Wang/Wang at two competitions last season, so their programs still feel fresh.

With both their GP events finished, Wang/Wang’s international season is now likely over. Will it be another year before we see this talented pair again?

Next:  Chinese Nationals

Astakhova/Rogonov

Kristina/Alexei improved with a 5th-place showing in China, after their unexpected 7th at Skate America.

Astakhova/Rogonov: Trending upward? (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Astakhova/Rogonov: Trending upward? (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Their short program to The Artist was pretty rough. Kristina had trouble on the landings of the SBS 3S and throw 3Lz. Alexei also fell on steps. Their triple twist wasn’t bad, and Kristina had a nice, low position in the death spiral. But the mistakes detracted and took some of the life out of the program. They just seemed off and not fully in sync. The scores were, if anything, a bit generous. They placed 6th.

Fortunately, Kristina/Alexei were able to put out a stronger performance in their “puppet master” LP. Kristina fell on the opening SBS 3T, but their triple twist is much higher this year and got all positive GOE. Their first lift featured very nice positions from Kristina, as did the death spiral. Both throw jumps were landed. Their closing lifts seemed a bit slow. Overall, the technical elements were a mixed bag, but Kristina/Alexei were able to keep up the performance level decently and earned 114.19, almost 15 points higher than at Skate America. They placed 5th LP/5th overall.

I’m sure Kristina/Andrei are disappointed with their season so far, but hopefully this long program was at least a step in the right direction. I do love both of their programs this season and hope to see them skate much better at Russian Nationals.

Next: Russian Nationals

Vartmann/Blommaert

This was Mari/Ruben’s first Grand Prix event as a pair. Only together about 6 months, they appear to be making great progress and acquitted themselves quite well here.

A strong debut for Vartmann/Blommaert (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images AsiaPac)

A strong debut for Vartmann/Blommaert (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images AsiaPac)

They started with a clean short program to “Strangers in Paradise.” They landed all their elements and received no negative GOE at all—rare for a new team. I’m not a big fan of the trilling soprano vocals in their SP music, but it’s a pretty program. They earned a score of 63.45 (high for a new pair) to place a surprising 5th.

Mari/Ruben’s LP wasn’t as good as their SP, but it wasn’t terrible. There was an awkward exit from the triple twist, a scratchy landing from Ruben on the SBS 3T, and a fall from Mari on the throw 3Lp. But there were many nice moments in the program. Mari/Ruben are well matched physically and have a nice, elegant line. I think their “Somewhere” LP is a good choice for them. Using only 1 song from West Side Story instead of the usual 3 or 4 makes it easier for them, as a new pair, to set a mood and interpret the music effectively. And the straightforward romantic style suits their look. They placed 7th LP/6th overall.

Next: German Nationals

Iliuschechkina/Moscovitch

There’s no way around it: This was quite a disappointing event for Luba/Dylan. Coming in, many had hoped they would challenge for a medal. But they had some worrisome problems in Beijing and could only place 7th.

Troubles for Luba/Dylan (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Troubles for Luba/Dylan (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Their Led Zeppelin SP began with a decent triple twist. Luba/Dylan have struggled with this element and could only manage a level 1 twist in both programs, but nonetheless it was pretty clean and received all positive GOE, an improvement over their early-season event (Ondrej Nepela). However, Luba fell on the SBS 3S. Then, their hand-to-hand lift was ruled an invalid element. Dylan appeared to brace his hands on Luba’s thighs for the takeoff, which is not permissible in a hand-to-hand lift. (Thanks to FSU poster @luneatic for identifying this problem.) Luba/Dylan lost at least 4.50 points on this lift and ended in 7th.

I/M fought back in the LP with two good throw jumps and some other nice elements. However, there were problems on both SBS jumps. And again, they received no credit for a lift! Their axel lasso lift failed on the entry, costing them a minimum of 6.50 points. Luba/Dylan finished 7th LP/7th overall..

It was just a tough competition for Luba/Dylan, and their lift problems are worrisome. They’ve actually been struggling a bit with lifts all season—there was a problem in the SP at Skate Detroit, they got only basic level for one of their lifts at Nepela, and now this. Side-by-side jumps come and go for a lot of pairs, but lifts are your bread-and-butter; what you count on for points. So, to entirely miss 2 lifts at one competition is concerning.

Luba/Dylan just aren’t skating very well at this point. Something seems off. I hope they can straighten things out a bit before their next Grand Prix event, but their main focus needs to be Canadian Nationals. They must improve by then to make the Canadian team for 4CCs/Worlds.

Next: NHK Trophy

Grenier/Deschamps

Vanessa/Maxime came to this competition straight from Skate Canada, where they had a poor showing. Considering the jet lag and letdown from that event, they actually did pretty well here.

Grenier/Deschamps: A better event here (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Grenier/Deschamps: A better event here (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Grenier/Deschamps struggled with the jumps in their short program, but their other elements were clean. I like their Por Una Cabeza SP, but it needs a bit more liveliness and brightness. I think they’re not secure enough with the technical elements to really let loose and perform. They placed 8th.

Vanessa/Maxime landed 3 out of 4 jump elements in their LP. They also had nice SBS spins. Overall, though, their skating needs more speed and attack. They were cautious and quite slow going into their elements. But it was a decent skate, and they were pleased with their score of 106.93 in the LP.

Next:  Canadian Nationals

Wrap-up

It was an interesting event at Cup of China. My takeaways:

–The second-year pairs, as a group, are struggling. In the 3 Grand Prix events so far, we’ve seen subpar performances from almost all of the second-year pairs: Astakhova/Rogonov, Iliushechkina/Moscovitch, Castelli/Tran, Marchei/Hotarek, and Bazarova/Deputat. Artur Dmitriev said in an interview that the second year is “a period of awareness” and challenges for new pairs–I suppose because the excitement and novelty of the new partnership has worn off, but much hard work remains. I’m rooting for all these pairs to stay with it and have faith that things will get better!!

–The Chinese pairs, after an incredible season last year, are not looking quite as strong as I was expecting. Next week, we’ll see Peng/Zhang’s season debut at Trophee Eric Bompard. Hoping for strong performances from them.

Chinese team leader Hongbo Zhao at Cup of China (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Chinese team leader Hongbo Zhao at Cup of China (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images AsiaPac)

–Russian pairs just got even more interesting, with Kavaguti/Smirnov’s surprise win here. The pressure is now on for Stolbova/Klimov at Rostelecom. They need to do well there to keep themselves in the mix to make the Russian Euros/Worlds team.

–Next week is also the highly anticipated Grand Prix debut of Tatiana Volosozhar/Maxim Trankov. I can’t wait to see how the Olympic champions look in their return to the Grand Prix! 🙂

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