At Cup of China, the pairs competition is usually all about the top Chinese pairs. And it was never more so than this year, when we saw new teams Yu/Zhang and Peng/Jin compete against each other for the first time.
These 2 new pairs are the product of a partner swap that the Chinese federation made last spring, when they broke up the successful teams of Peng/Zhang and Yu/Jin and required them to switch partners. This partner swap was controversial, and I think many fans were anxious to see how the ex-partners would look at this event.
For now, the answer is that both new teams looked really strong at Cup of China. And as much as I feared there might be drama, there wasn’t any. All parties involved actually looked happy, or at least at ease, during warmups and in the kiss-n-cry. And the new teams’ results pretty much speak for themselves, and are very promising for the future. Even with #1 Chinese pair Sui/Han out due to injury, the Chinese pairs dominated this event, finishing 1-2-4.
While it’s too soon to call the partner swap a success, we at least know that both teams have gotten off to a very good start, and show promise for the future. For the skaters’ sake, I’m happy about that.
After a surprisingly strong debut at Skate Canada, Yu/Zhang came into this event favored to win, despite it being only their second international event together. Their big jump elements were just so impressive at Skate Canada that it was hard to imagine anyone in this field beating them. And no one did. Yu/Zhang comfortably won both segments for their first Grand Prix gold.
Yu/Zhang started the event with another fine performance of their “Eternal Flame” SP. They landed a great set of SBS 3Ts and then did an excellent triple twist that earned all +2s/+3s from the judges. Xiaoyu was a bit forward on the throw 3Lp landing, but that was the only flaw. Otherwise, they were very clean and earned all level 4s for their elements—very unusual for such a new team. This program is rather serious and dramatic, especially the second half, but they interpreted the music pretty well. Xiaoyu, especially, was regal and elegant; I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Yu/Zhang received a new season’s-best score of 72.49 (improving 3 points from Skate Canada). They were 1st.
Yu/Zhang’s free skate was not as clean as at Skate Canada, but still very good. They again opened with a terrific level 4 triple twist that earned 8.60 points. Next, they had problems on the SBS 3T/2T combo—Zhang fell on the 3T and Yu 2-footed. However, the rest of the elements were strong. Their first 2 lifts had great speed/flow and earned excellent GOE. Also, their throw 3S was gorgeous and earned almost straight +3s. I feel like this “Cavatina” LP was such an inspired choice for Yu/Zhang in their first season together. The music is majestic yet calm; it doesn’t require them to interact much with each other, while at the same time emphasizing their strengths.
What are their strengths, at this point, aside from their impressive technical elements? 1) They have a “big” look on the ice; a strong presence. They fill out the ice easily; their movement has amplitude. 2) I think Xiaoyu Yu has a new role to play in this team: that of “leading lady,” if you will. When Xiaoyu skated with Yang Jin, they were longtime partners and closer in height; it was their interaction that you watched and enjoyed. With Hao, the emphasis is on Xiaoyu playing a more traditional role, providing grace, beauty, and artistry for the team, while Hao provides power. Basically, I find my eye drawn very much to her in this partnership. And this program, with its mood of stately serenity, shows her off at her best. The judges liked the package too, awarding strong PCS of 66.22. With a total LP score of 131.27, Yu/Zhang won the LP/overall by a comfortable margin.
Yu/Zhang have now qualified for the Grand Prix Final in their first season together; an extremely impressive accomplishment.
I was really excited to see Cheng Peng’s debut at Cup of China with her new partner, Yang Jin. Cheng has been one of my favorite pairs ladies the last few years, and I was sorry to see her partnership with Hao Zhang end the way it did. Thankfully, Cheng Peng looked truly excited and happy to be back on competition ice in Beijing; and so did Yang Jin.
Peng/Jin put out an entertaining, comedic short program to “My Drag” by Squirrel Nut Zippers. I loved the clever choreography; it was fun, and Peng/Jin seemed to enjoy skating to it. How nice to see Cheng Peng smiling again! And there was quite a bit to smile about it with their technical elements. Cheng landed the oft-troublesome SBS 3T, and their triple twist was good too. The throw 3Lp was gorgeous, with nice height and flow, and got many +2s. Their step sequence was also very nice, with difficult steps and good edges. Altogether, it was a clean and fine performance for the new pair. Like Yu/Zhang. Peng/Jin also had all level 4 elements in the SP—again, just so unusual and impressive for a new team. Peng/Jin earned 69.93, an excellent score, for 3rd place.
Peng/Jin’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg LP was one of the highlights of the whole event for me. This program is intense and romantic, and I was pretty swept away by it! There are some beautiful moments in the choreography, especially the choreo sequence in the middle, and I thought Peng/Jin performed it with great expression. To see such a new team be able to pull off an emotional program like this is unusual. I couldn’t help but notice, again, what a sensitive, good partner Yang Jin is. Sometimes, I think male pairs skaters get so absorbed in the demands of their technical elements that their partner becomes secondary. This has never been the case with Yang Jin; either when he skated with Xiaoyu, or now with Cheng. He seems always aware of, and attentive to, his partner. He makes eye contact with Cheng—relates to her—touches with gentleness, instead of grabbing. I admire his skating and partnering; and am happy that Cheng can skate with him. Peng/Jin’s technical elements in this program were mostly very good. The only real mistake came on the SBS 3T/2T; Cheng opened up on the 3T landing and omitted the 2T. However, they landed their solo 2As, and both throw jumps were very good and got mostly +2s. The lifts were also strong, with all positive GOE. Peng/Jin posted a good score of 128.03 to claim 2nd LP/overall.
This event was a great start to Peng/Jin’s partnership. I’m so glad to see them looking comfortable and happy together. They now move on to NHK Trophy next week. With another strong performance there, they have a great chance to medal again and even make the Grand Prix Final—which would be such a happy outcome for both of them, after what happened last spring.
After their bronze medal at Skate Canada, Liubov/Dylan were looking to win a second GP medal here and secure a spot in the Grand Prix Final.
I really enjoyed Liubov/Dylan’s “Tango Jalousie” SP. I think this program shows off Liuba/Dylan’s strengths well. Liuba’s posture is simply exceptional: Her straight, firm back and sharp, expressive arms are perfect for a ballroom tango. She brings so much detail to her skating and gives you something interesting to watch in every moment. Dylan is great as well, providing a strong foundation to their twist, lift, and throw elements. And Liuba/Dylan’s triple twist continues to improve; they got level 3 and all positive GOE for it. With this program, Liuba/Dylan scored a season’s-best 71.28 for 2nd place. As Dylan noted in the kiss-n-cry, it was the first time they broke 70 points in the short program—a key milestone.
Going into the LP, Liuba/Dylan were poised to win the silver medal and likely qualify for the GP Final. I don’t know if perhaps the pressure got to them, but unfortunately, their long program was disappointing. They had problems with every jump element, starting with the triple twist, where Liuba put her free foot down on the landing. Both throw jumps were 2-footed, and they earned less than 2 points total for their SBS jumps. It was a shame, because many of their other elements were outstanding. Their lifts were all very good, with strong GOE. Their reverse lasso lift was actually the highest-scoring element in the whole competition, at 8.90 points. Their death spiral, which has a lovely entrance into it, also scored well.
I felt like Liuba/Dylan skated very well through all the lifts/transitional moves. But there was a palpable lack of confidence going into the jump elements, which marred what could, otherwise, be a very lovely picture with this program. Although this Josh Groban LP is not, perhaps, everyone’s cup of tea, I think it suits Liuba/Dylan, and artistically it’s improving with each performance. At Skate Canada, I felt Dylan needed to get more into the program, and he did in Beijing. I felt like he was giving a lot more in terms of his performance level—and Liuba’s is seldom in question. Liuba/Dylan received quite good PCS (63.94) considering how messy the program was. This number, plus their strong non-jump element GOE, indicates to me that the judges appreciate the quality of their skating and the program. With a cleaner performance, they should score very well. As it was, they totaled 120.26 for the LP and held on to the bronze medal.
With 2 bronze medals on the Grand Prix, Liuba/Dylan have, in my opinion, successfully maintained positive momentum from their 7th-place finish at Worlds last year. They haven’t established themselves as a top team yet, but they’re making progress, and they’ve strengthened their lead over some of the mid-ranked teams. What they need to work on most is putting out cleaner LPs and limiting the number of jump mistakes. If they don’t make the GP Final, the silver lining is they can focus on preparing for Canadian Nationals.
Cup of China was also the season debut for Xuehan Wang/Lei Wang. It was really nice to see this charming team back on the ice again.
Wang/Wang skated a jazzy short program to “Steppin’ Out With My Baby.” They presented some great technical elements in this routine. Their level 3 triple twist was light and clean; the throw 3Lp was beautiful, smooth, and big. Both elements got very good GOE. Xuehan did underrotate/2-foot the SBS 3T, which cost them almost 4 points, however, that was really the only mistake. I enjoyed their performance; it was charming, light, and fun. The joy that Xuehan exudes when she skates is a beautiful thing to see! I feel like she and Lei are showing a little more maturity this year, too; they seemed to fill out the ice more. They earned 66.45 for 4th place.
Wang/Wang’s long program wasn’t quite as strong, but still a fine performance. Their level 4 triple twist was very nice and clean and earned 7.70 points. I really enjoy Wang/Wang’s lifts. Xuehan has beautifully extended positions—so nice to see—and I wish the judges could reflect this a little more in their GOE marks. Unfortunately, Wang/Wang did have their usual jump problems in this program; Xuehan popped the SBS 3T/2T to 2T/2T and fell on the SBS 3S. Also, the throw jumps were not as strong as they sometimes are, with a 2-foot on the throw 3S and a toe-y landing on the throw 3Lp. Their long program, set to the score of the 1955 film Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, has a rather old-fashioned, romantic feel that works well for them, and they performed it nicely. But it wasn’t their best, and had to settle for 4th LP/overall, with a score of 115.57 for the LP.
Wang/Wang will compete again next week at NHK Trophy.
This was Della Monica’s second Grand Prix event this season; they placed 6th at Skate Canada a few weeks ago.
At Skate Canada, Della Monica/Guarise had a subpar short program that left them trailing significantly. I knew the Italians were capable of more, and they showed that in Beijing, putting out a new personal-best short program to “Carmina Burana.” They started with a good set of SBS 3S (often a problem area) and also hit a strong throw 3Lp, with a nice solid landing edge. Their SBS spins were a highlight as well. I really like this “Carmina Burana” program for Nicole/Matteo. The powerful music really suits their athletic, strong style, and the striking, bold unitards are the perfect costume choice. They scored 66.39, just behind Wang/Wang, for 5th place. I liked this program so much that I could almost have seen Nicole/Matteo challenging for a top 3 placement in the SP. What held their scores back was their triple twist (a bit low; level 2), death spiral (short of rotations; level 2), and step sequence (needs more speed at the start; level 3). That gives an idea of the areas they still need to work on, compared to higher-ranked teams. Altogether, though, it was a great SP for them.
Unfortunately, Della Monica/Guarise slipped backward again in their “Love Story” LP. The program started off with a good set of SBS 3S and a solid triple twist. However, problems struck on the throw 3Lp; Nicole had a big fall on it, right in front of the judges. They struggled from that point on. Nicole 2-footed the throw 3S, and worse yet, the Axel lasso lift came down after only 1 rotation, costing them 5 points off what they earned on that element at Skate Canada! It was all distressing to see, especially because I really, really like this Love Story LP for Nicole/Matteo. I honestly feel like it’s one of the best-choreographed programs this season—there are many gorgeous transitions in it, many beautiful shapes. Della Monica/Guarise scored 109.99, quite low for them at this point, and dropped to 7th LP. However, they were 5th overall, thanks to their solid SP.
Hopefully this was just a blip on the road for Della Monica/Guarise, and they will continue their forward progress.
Like Della Monica/Guarise, Kavaguti/Smirnov were seeking to rebound here from a disappointing performance at Skate Canada, where they were 5th (their lowest-ever finish at a Grand Prix event).
Yuko/Sasha weren’t able to make much headway in their “All Alone” short program. Yuko landed the SBS 3T on the wrong foot and fell. The other technical elements were pretty weak. The triple twist was crashy, the lift was somewhat labored in the turns, the SBS spins were off and slow. They had only one level 4 element, and their GOE marks were mostly 0s/+1s. The performance was just not up to their usual standard—again, raising the question of whether they’ve rushed their comeback too much. They scored 62.90 for 6th place.
It was more of the same in Kavaguti/Smirnov’s “Clair de Lune” LP. They were able to limit mistakes on the SBS jumps, and the throw jumps were both clean. However, it must be said that, when you take the quad rotation out of Kavaguti/Smirnov’s throws, what you’re left with is not that impressive. Their triple throws are pretty small compared to many other teams, leading to only 0s/+1s in GOE. Yuko/Sasha also struggled with the lifts in this program. The Axel lasso lift failed on takeoff and received no points. The other 2 lifts were completed, but again the quality was just not there, and the GOE was low. Yuko/Sasha could only manage 112.63 and remained 6th LP/overall.
Now, it’s back to Russia for Kavaguti/Smirnov. They have 1 month to prepare for Russian Nationals. Will they make the Russian team for Euros/Worlds?? It’s really hard to say at this point.
The German team, now in their second year competing together, made their season Grand Prix debut at Cup of China.
Vartmann/Blommaert had some jump issues in their short program. Mari had a big fall on the throw 3F, and they got only basic level on the triple twist. At least the SBS 3Ts were well-landed. After skating to soft, romantic music for both programs last season, Mari/Ruben have gone in a totally different direction this year, skating to Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us” in the SP. While I appreciate them trying something different, I’m not sure this particular program was the best choice. Among Mari/Ruben’s biggest strengths are their elegant line and smoothness on the ice, and this music doesn’t show off either quality. Still, their step sequence was interesting and well-skated, with some of it in hold. We’ll have to see how this program develops over the season. Here, they scored 60.88 for 7th place.
Vartmann/Blommaert skated their LP to a political song by Muse: “The Second Law: Unsustainable.” It’s another unusual choice. I think this program works better for them—there’s a strong melody (underneath the voiceover dialogue), to which they can set longer gliding moves. But it’s still a challenging piece, and I’m not sure Vartmann/Blommaert are there yet with their interpretation. They put out some good elements in this program—strong SBS 3S, excellent throw 3S at the end—but I just didn’t feel much from them. They didn’t seem very connected with the music or with each other. Their GOE/PCS marks were rather low; they scored 113.00 overall for 5th LP/7th overall.
Vartmann/Blommaert will skate at NHK Trophy next weekend.
Since last season, Jessica/Josh have been struggling with an ongoing injury to Jessica’s foot, which required surgery last spring and a follow-up procedure this fall. Unfortunately, the lost practice time was pretty evident in their performances in China.
Pfund/Santillan’s “Purple Rain” SP was okay. They could only do a double twist, and Josh spun out of the SBS 3S. Jessica fell on the throw 3Lp. They have quite a difficult entrance into the throw loop, and I wonder if it’s just a bit too ambitious right now. They completed the program without any other errors, but it was a bit flat and slow. I think in their current condition, they’re just not able to deliver “Purple Rain” with the sharpness and intensity this music demands. They scored 50.32 for 8th.
Pfund/Santillan again had technical problems in their free skate. Jessica fell on three jumps: SBS 3T, SBS 3S, and throw 3Lp. The twist was only a double, and they also had problems with the death spiral—it earned no points. Yet, despite the technical issues, I enjoyed their Evita free skate. There are some really nice moments in the program, and Jessica/Josh have chemistry together. If they could skate this program cleaner, I think there’s potential there. The last third of the program actually went rather well. They got some applause for their choreo sequence, and their final hand-to-hip carry lift is really cool—Josh covers almost the whole length of the ice twice, first in a carry, then in rotation. It’s quite a finish to the program, and I also liked the final ending pose. They scored 92.09 for 8th LP/overall.
This has been a tough season for Jessica/Josh, dealing with the injury, but I really think they just need to keep believing in themselves and keep faith that they will come out on the other side of this, eventually.
I really enjoyed the pairs event at Cup of China. The performances weren’t the cleanest in all cases, but there were a lot of interesting programs. And the Chinese pairs really elevated the event. In all fairness, kudos must be given to the Chinese coaching staff for bringing the two new teams of Yu/Zhang and Peng/Jin all the way to the Grand Prix medal stand after skating together only 7 months. It’s extremely rare to see new pairs teams come together so well, in such a short time. Truth be told, it’s quite amazing. Let’s hope the future remains bright for both new teams. 🙂
Next week, the Grand Prix series concludes with NHK Trophy in Japan. This competition will determine the remaining available slots for the Grand Prix Final. Duhamel/Radford will be skating in their second Grand Prix event, and we’ll also see U.S. champions Kayne/O’Shea. Until next week!
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