Nationals 2015-16 Roundup: Pairs Review

With the holiday whirlwind in December, I always find it really difficult to keep up with watching the first round of national championships in figure skating. But since New Year’s, I’ve enjoyed catching up. I thought I’d do a review of the Nationals pairs events so far. I’ll also include links to all available programs, as some of them are not readily searchable online. (Hope I get them all correct.)

I originally meant for this to be a brief overview, but somehow, it’s expanded. 🙂

Russian Nationals

Capture

This year’s pairs event at Russian Nationals was as competitive as ever. There’s really something for everyone in Russian pairs skating; the depth and variety of the field is so impressive.

Unfortunately, Stolbova/Klimov had to withdraw from Russians due to back problems with Fedor. He apparently had a back injury after GPF, which was aggravated by a reaction to a vigorous massage. Whatever happened, it didn’t look fun! Many had been anticipating an exciting battle between Stolbova/Klimov and Volosozhar/Trankov. But the good news is, we’ll see that at Europeans, and meanwhile, there was much to enjoy in Yekaterinburg.

Volosozhar/Trankov

Tatiana/Max handily won both segments. However, they definitely shone brightest in the short program.

Volosozhar-Trankov-SP

A very fun short program (Getty Images)

 

I am becoming a huge fan of Tatiana/Max’s Bollywood SP. I really like everything about this program—the music, the costumes, the choreography. (I don’t even mind Max’s man-bun!) My favorite part of the program is Tatiana. She is charming, flirtatious, and fun in this routine, in a way she’s never been before. For once in this partnership, she is front and center. With Max being so unusually expressive for a male pairs skater, Tatiana always seems to play the cool, serene, elegant foil to his dramatic presence. But here she steps out of that role, and I like seeing this different side of her. Not only was their Bollywood program very enjoyable to watch, it was also very strong technically. The level 4 triple twist received a perfect score (8.70, straight +3s). The SBS 3S, starting from a spread eagle, was excellent, and the throw 3F had great height. Their level 4 step sequence was also a highlight, receiving almost straight +3s. It was the best performance so far of V/T’s comeback.

Tatiana/Max were not as sharp in their Dracula LP. Not surprising, as it was only their second time this season competing the LP. Tatiana fell on the throw 3F and two-footed the throw 3Lp; also, Max singled the second jump in the opening SBS combo. The program felt tentative. Tatiana/Max have, perhaps surprisingly, been struggling a bit with lifts this season; I thought their lifts here looked much improved. But there’s still a way to go before the lifts are back to Sochi level. Tanya/Max’s scores were almost comically high for what they delivered in this program. (But hey, it’s nationals. :-)). They will now move on to Europeans. I, for one, can’t wait to see them again—especially in the short program.

Kavaguti/Smirnov

Yuko/Sasha also had a strong performance in the SP and held on to win silver overall—and a place on the Europeans team.

Kavaguti-Smirnov

Fighting to make the team

Yuko/Sasha’s “I Finally Found Someone” SP included a very good set of SBS 3Ts and a lovely hand-to-hand lift with nice speed and ice coverage. This program continues to be a hit with the judges, earning second-place PCS scores behind V/T. Kavaguti/Smirnov were in 2nd overall going into the long program, but had only a tiny lead over Tarasova/Morozov.

With the Euro team spot on the line, Yuko/Sasha seemed a little tight in their Manfred Symphony LP. Yuko had a tough fall on the second jump of the SBS 2A/2A sequence and stepped out of the throw 4S. It was a somewhat sloppy performance, but they managed to hold on to 2nd (and a spot on the team).

Tarasova/Morozov

Evgenia/Vladimir skated their best competition of the season and won bronze in Yekaterinburg … but came up just short of making the team for Euros.

Tarasova-Morozov

Falling just short

Their Warriors SP started with an outstanding level 4 triple twist, which earned a perfect score of 8.70 (like Volosozhar/Trankov’s). The throw 3Lp appeared to be two-footed; however, the judges deducted little, with quite a few giving +2s. Although this was probably T/M’s best performance of this program, artistically it couldn’t compare to either V/T or K/S. The program was well-delivered but workmanlike. T/M’s technical score was almost 1.25 points ahead of Kavaguti/Smirnov … but their components score lagged behind by about the same margin. The two teams were just .05 apart going into the LP.

Tarasova/Morozov then put out their strongest LP of the season. They opened with their first attempt at the quad twist–and hit it. GOE ranged from -1 to +3 on the element. They earned 8.89 … good, but only .19 more than their perfect triple twist in the SP. Evgenia then doubled the SBS 3S—a loss of 3 points in base value. They fought back to land the rest of the elements pretty cleanly. Evgenia/Vladimir’s lifts, shaky at times this season, looked improved. It was definitely a strong performance. But, as with the SP … it just lacked a little in emotional impact. Kavaguti/Smirnov beat T/M in PCS by half a point, even with their messy program, and T/M fell slightly behind in TES, too. T/M finished a very close 3rd, just .12 behind Kavaguti/Smirnov.

The result could be debated. But I think the bottom line is Tarasova/Morozov needed to be perfect in Yekaterinburg to make the team over Kavaguti/Smirnov … and they weren’t, quite. The few mistakes they made were just enough to keep them off the team. Lackluster programs didn’t help.

We may yet see Tarasova/Morozov at Euros/Worlds if one of the top three Russian teams withdraws due to injury (which, considering what’s happened with V/T and S/K this season, is entirely possible). However, unless that occurs, this is the end of Tarasova/Morozov’s season. It’s a bit sad, after their strong 6th-place showing at Worlds last year.

Truthfully, it’s been a disappointing season for Tarasova/Morozov. Looking at it objectively, the only forward progress they made was landing the quad twist at Russian Nationals. Otherwise, they were not able to improve on (or even match) their level of skating or their results from last season.

I feel, as do most observers, that getting better programs next year is critical. They aren’t the most naturally expressive, charismatic pair, so T/M really need programs that will help them shine. I think this year’s routines were likely chosen to highlight their strengths—i.e., Warriors was intended to show off their speed/power, while Chopin was supposed to highlight their classic, elegant line. It seems like the intention behind the programs was good, yet somehow it didn’t work. Maybe Evgenia/Vladimir need to challenge themselves with programs that aren’t in their wheelhouse and will force them to stretch and open up more artistically.

There are also murmurs that this team could benefit from a coaching change. Tarasova/Morozov have trained in the shadow of Volosozhar/Trankov and Stolbova/Klimov for a while. Not only that, they now have Zabijako/Enbert coming up behind them in Mozer’s group, as well as other pairs. I think many would like to see how Tarasova/Morozov might look as the star (or co-star) of their own group, rather than third fiddle behind much bigger names. The downside of a switch would be losing Mozer’s political pull, as well as the structure and high training level her group provides. But if a move accelerated T/M’s creative development, I think it might be worth it. (Many have lobbied for a switch to Moskvina; I’d be just as happy with a move to Vasiliev.)

Whatever happens, I hope Tarasova/Morozov will come back stronger next season.

Astakhova/Rogonov

Kristina/Alexei put out two good programs to take 4th place.

Astakhova-Rogonov-2

Their short program to The Artist was really well delivered. The elements were clean, and the death spiral was a particular highlight, with a beautiful position from Kristina. They nicely captured the jazzy, showy feel of the music. I just love the closing level 4 step sequence in this program; it’s so fun and well-choreographed.

Kristina/Alexei’s puppet master LP was equally impressive. There were a few minor mistakes (spinout on SBS 3S from Alexei, two-footed landing on throw 3Lp from Kristina). But the performance level was so high, and the program so interesting, that I found the mistakes didn’t detract much and the overall impression was very strong.

Unfortunately, this was probably the end of Kristina/Alexei’s season as well (unless they compete in the Russian Cup final). I’m sure they’re disappointed, after getting the opportunity to go to Worlds last year.

It was a somewhat up-and-down season for Astakhova/Rogonov. They did not perform as well as expected in their Grand Prix events. However, they ended the season well with very good performances at their last two competitions (Golden Spin of Zagreb, Russian Nationals). Technically, their twist and lifts were improved this season. And they developed artistically as well, with two excellent programs. Now, they need to work on consistency, add a bit more speed, and just continue to develop as partners. I think they’re definitely on the right track.

Zabijako/Enbert

This new team also put out two good programs to place 5th.

Zabijako-Enbert-2

Zabijako/Enbert’s short program to “I’ll Never Forget You” was clean, if not particularly exciting. Their Thunder in Heaven LP was much the same. Aside from a hand down on the throw 3Lp, there were no actual errors. I felt their GOE marks were a tad generous—their first two lifts had some awkward moments but still received +2s/+1s; the death spiral was a bit slow but got +2s. Zabijako/Enbert’s total TES score of 66.77 was third-highest in the LP; just behind Kavaguti/Smirnov and ahead of Tarasova/Morozov—serving notice, I think, that this team is coming on strong.

Zabijako/Enbert’s PCS scores were also very good; they received mid- to high 8s and even a few 9s. This pair is tall and well-matched with classic, elegant lines, and I think the judges really respond to this; they also have speed. However, I find them very wooden–especially Enbert, who is really lacking in expression compared to, say, Rogonov or even Deputat. Zabijako is elegant, but not much more engaging. I think this pair may start to rise up the ranks quickly, so let’s hope they can develop some more personality and get better programs next season.

Bazarova/Deputat

Vera/Andrei skated well in Ekaterinburg but could only manage 6th place.

Bazarova-Deputat

I thought their Chopin SP was really a delight to watch. This program highlights Vera’s beautiful line and elegance, and Andrei complements her well. Bazarova/Deputat also felt engaged and present in this routine (in contrast to the blankness of Zabijako/Enbert). Technically it was quite good; the highlight was the throw 3Lp, with Vera’s gorgeous long exit edge, and also the pairs combo spin. The audience couldn’t help but applaud the sheer beauty of Vera’s sit spin position. Artistically I found the program much superior to Zabijako/Enbert’s … yet Z/E received almost a 3-point PCS lead over B/D.

Vera/Andrei then put out a fine performance of their Abbey Road Beatles LP. Vera landed all her jump elements (always a relief!). Neither of the SBS jumps were in sync, but there were no errors, either. Vera/Andrei’s lifts have improved a lot this year, and it was nice to see them rewarded with some +2s. Altogether it was a very good, solid performance, and they seemed very happy with it. However, they finished almost 8 points behind Zabijako/Enbert overall and had to settle for 6th.

I was disappointed with Bazarova/Deputat’s scoring at this event and found it harsh, especially in comparison to Zabijako/Enbert. Vera/Andrei have more interesting, original programs and are better performers than Zabijako/Enbert, yet this was not reflected at all in the PCS. I think one area that really hurt Vera/Andrei is speed—Z/E definitely looked faster. Going forward, B/D need to work on their speed and also polish up their unison a bit.

Vera/Andrei’s second season together wasn’t stellar, but they had good performances at NHK Trophy and Russian Nationals. Technically, their lifts are stronger and their throws are more consistent. They still need to work hard on improving their twist and SBS jump unison, as well as the things mentioned above, but I’m a fan of this team.

French Nationals

James/Cipres

Vanessa/Morgan are having a pretty good season so far–and caught people’s attention again by attempting a quad throw at French Nationals.

James-Cipres

Joining the quad club?

James/Cipres started French Nationals with an excellent outing of their “I Put a Spell on You” SP. Every element was smoothly performed. I think this is possibly the best program Vanessa/Morgan have ever had. The sultry music, deliberate pacing, and modern, sexy costumes all work, and they seem really comfortable performing this routine. It looks good on them.

Vanessa/Morgan went for the throw quad Salchow in their Romeo & Juliet LP. They didn’t land it cleanly, but it was one of the better quad throw attempts we’ve seen this season. Not bad for the first try in competition. Vanessa/Morgan also tried their new 3T/3T combo, but Morgan fell on the second jump. The rest of the elements were pretty good. I don’t really love this program for James/Cipres, but they skated it well enough.

It will be interesting to see if James/Cipres try the throw quad Salchow again at Europeans—that could shake things up!

Italian Nationals

This was the most closely contested nationals event outside of Russia.

Della Monica/Guarise

Della Monica/Guarise finally won the Italian title, after being 2nd for three years in a row. It was a narrow victory over teammates Marchei/Hotarek, but it must have felt sweet to finally stand on top of the podium!

Della Monica-Guarise

Finally on top at Italian Nationals  (Flavio Valle)

Nicole/Matteo effectively won the event in the short program, where they earned a 2.46-point lead over Marchei/Hotarek. Their Magnificat SP was really quite good. They landed all their jump elements, and their hand-to-hand lift had good speed and was nicely set to the music. Their step sequence was also notable, with much of it performed in hold, and they earned level 4 and all positive GOE. It was nice to see them skate so well.

Nicole/Matteo opened their Romeo & Juliet LP tentatively. Matteo fell on the SBS 3S, then Nicole fell on the SBS 3T/2T. However, they gathered themselves and finished the program strongly. Both throws were good; the lifts were solid; the closing SBS spins were very good, with excellent synchronization. I really like this program for Nicole/Matteo. It’s simple, but strong and effective. The elements are well placed to accent the music, and there are interesting choreographic touches throughout. I like Nicole/Matteo’s interpretation; you can tell they’re really listening to the music and responding to it. They finished just .80 behind Marchei/Hotarek in the LP, but got the win due to their SP lead.

Della Monica/Guarise finished 6th at Europeans last year. Can they match or improve on that result in Bratislava? The competition is heating up in Europe, but DM/G are improving along with it. Minimizing jump mistakes will be key.

Marchei/Hotarek

It was a bit of a surprise to see Valentina/Ondrej in second place here.

Marchei-Hotarek

Marchei/Hotarek’s “Mourir d’Amour” SP wasn’t bad. But, they had a problem on the landing of the triple twist–an element they’re still struggling with. The twist got only basic level and negative GOE, costing them roughly 2 points. They also lost a level (compared to DM/G) on the pairs combo spin and death spiral. Valentina/Ondrej do skate faster than DM/G, and their PCS was correspondingly slightly higher, but the technical errors left them in 2nd.

Marchei/Hotarek then attempted to rebound with their disco 70s LP. They landed a good jump combo and two good throws. However, they again lost points on the throw triple twist, and Valentina doubled and two-footed the opening SBS 3Lz, which cost another 4 points or so. They narrowly won the long program over DM/G, but it wasn’t enough to make up the SP deficit.

This season has been challenging for Marchei/Hotarek; we’ll have to see if they can get back on track at Europeans.

Chinese Nationals

The top 3 Chinese pairs (Sui/Han, Peng/Zhang, Yu/Jin) did not compete at Chinese Nationals, opting instead to prepare for the National Winter Games of China. Wang/Wang therefore won Chinese Nationals.

Wang/Wang

Wang/Wang started with a good performance of their Romance SP. This program is so gentle and lovely to watch. Wang/Wang landed all their elements well and presented the program beautifully.

Wang-Wang

They struggled with SBS jumps in their My Fair Lady LP. Xuehan doubled the first jump in the SBS 3T/2T combo; then they both doubled the SBS 3S. However, the rest of the program was really quite lovely. They landed both throw jumps, which was great to see, as they struggled with throws in their Grand Prix events. And their lifts were effortless and light, with great ice coverage.

I am of two minds about Wang/Wang. As much as they need to improve their edges and power, a part of me loves them just the way they are. Yes, their skating skills aren’t the strongest; but the way they skim and float over the ice gives them such a light, ethereal quality. If they skated any differently, I fear they would lose what makes them distinctive as a team. I always really enjoy watching them.

Wang/Wang will compete at this week’s National Winter Games, along with the other top Chinese pairs. I hope they have a strong showing; their Grand Prix season was disappointing, so it would be good to finish their season with 2 strong events.

German Nationals

Last but definitely not least, we saw Aliona Savchenko win her 9th German national title—but her 1st with new partner Bruno Massot. Aliona/Bruno dominated German Nationals with two strong programs.

Savchenko/Massot

Aliona/Bruno’s charming Cirque du Soleil SP was nearly flawless, with all elements landed cleanly. They received straight +3s for their incredible triple twist, and almost as high for their throw 3F.

Savchenko-Massot-2

Their first German National title together (DPA)

The long program was not as clean. Bruno doubled the first jump in the SBS 3T/3T sequence, and Aliona fell on the throw 3F and two-footed the throw 3S. The rest of the elements were pristine, however, and they still earned 10+ points in GOE. I know some people aren’t crazy about this techno Peer Gynt, and I agree the music is odd and repetitive. But I really like what Gary Beacom has done with it choreographically. One of my favorite parts is the mirror spiral sequence in the middle; it’s so seldom that we see pairs do interesting spiral elements these days. There’s just a lot of small moves that catch my eye & pique my interest. Much of the choreo in this program is laid out in straight lines, with side-by-side unison. The effect is interesting, and rather different, because I feel like a lot of pairs these days have moved toward transitions done in opposition, and frequently on curves. Also, this style of choreo highlights what exceptionally good unison Aliona/Bruno already have for a new pair. Anyhow, I find the program quite voidy and interesting.

Two things Aliona/Bruno still need to work on are throw landings and speed. Their speed looked improved in the first half of the LP, but lagged a bit in the second half. I’m hoping it will be better at Europeans. I really can’t wait to see how Aliona/Bruno will match up vs. the top 3 Russian pairs; it should be a great event.

Vartmann/Blommaert

Unfortunately, I was not able to find video of Mari/Ruben’s performances at German Nationals. Judging by the protocols, it appears they had a good short program but a disappointing performance in the LP, with multiple jump mistakes. They will also compete at Europeans.

Wrap-up

So, that’s what happened in the first round of Nationals championships. Now we just have a week to go before the U.S. and Canadian national championships begin! In both events, the race for the 4CCs/Worlds teams is expected to be closely contested among the top teams. It should be fun to watch for North American pairs fans!

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