The lead-up to this year’s Grand Prix Final was dominated by news of Russia and the Olympics. Two days before the Grand Prix Final began in Nagoya, Japan, the IOC announced that Russia was banned as a nation from the 2018 Winter Olympics. However, the IOC also decided that clean Russian athletes will be able to participate in Pyeongchang as “Olympic Athletes from Russia” (OAR).
Russia’s Olympic ban was big news within the figure skating world. As one of the traditional major powers of the sport, Russia’s influence and importance in figure skating is hard to overstate. Because of this, the ban has been a divisive issue within the community. The evidence that Russia, as a state, sponsored systemic doping prior to the Sochi Olympics seems quite credible and convincing. Yet, there is no evidence that any Russian figure skaters were involved in such doping. And confirmed doping violations are very rare in figure skating, which must surely be among the cleanest Olympic sports. So, to many in the community, any ban affecting the Russian figure skaters was unacceptable. Even the eventual decision to allow clean Russian skaters to compete under OAR status was not well-received by many. Meanwhile, others disagreed and felt that the “partial” ban was not a sufficient penalty.
With the Winter Olympics now just 2 months away, many details are still unclear. The general assumption is that the standard qualification process will likely be used for OAR skaters (i.e., the OAR team will be named by the Russian federation after Russian Nationals); that those OAR skaters will be officially invited to the Games, upon doping clearance; and that the OAR skaters will likely compete in the Olympic figure skating team event as an OAR team, as well as competing in individual events. However, none of this is officially confirmed, to my knowledge. So, we must wait to hear the details. The extra strain that all this uncertainty places on the Russian skaters right now can only be guessed at, and certainly cannot make their preparations for the Games any easier.
So, the events and debate around the Russian ban cast somewhat of a cloud over this year’s Grand Prix Final. Nonetheless, the pairs competition itself was still an exciting event. Savchenko/Massot put out a new world-record long program to claim victory and win their first Grand Prix Final title. Meanwhile, reigning World champions Sui/Han also performed extremely well to win the silver medal. It was another close battle between these two teams (as at Worlds last spring).
It’s been just over 2 years now since Savchenko/Massot debuted their new partnership at the 2015 Tallinn Trophy. The huge potential of this team was apparent from that very first competition. Last week in Japan, that potential burst into full bloom, as Savchenko/Massot won the competition with a thrilling, best-ever performance in the free skate.
Prior to the event, Savchenko/Massot decided to return to their “That Man” SP from last season (citing Bruno’s greater comfort level with “That Man” versus their new flamenco SP). I had mixed feelings about this decision. I’ve enjoyed their flamenco SP and found it interesting and ambitious. Yet, the flamenco program failed in one crucial way: It didn’t channel the charming, lighthearted quality that Aliona/Bruno have together. It didn’t show off their unique chemistry. “That Man” does. So, given that, I think the decision to return to “That Man” makes sense.
It certainly worked out well for Savchenko/Massot at the Grand Prix Final. They put out a great short program in Japan, skating with verve and charm. Aliona/Bruno were so engaged with the choreography and the audience in this skate. They made you feel like they were enjoying it. It was all the more remarkable because apparently Bruno’s skate lace broke and Aliona had costume problems during the performance! But you would barely have guessed, as they kept the performance level very high. The only element that looked slightly off was their group 3 star lift; it didn’t have quite as much speed as usual. But their level 3 Tano triple twist had amazing height, and their SBS 3S also had nice height and unison. The throw 3Lz was cleanly landed on 1 foot. Their remaining elements were all level 4 and well done. In terms of PCS, the judges rewarded the program with marks mostly in the mid-9s. Savchenko/Massot scored a season’s-best 79.43 for 1st.
Savchenko/Massot’s free skate was the best of their career so far. Stunning and mesmerizing, it was a complete performance, showing both technical and artistic mastery at the very highest level. Aliona/Bruno had such beautiful, uninterrupted flow across the ice; every element and movement blended smoothly into the next. The mood was intense. This program casts a powerful spell when it’s skated as well as it was here.
Technically, it was the best that Aliona/Bruno have yet done. Their level 3 triple twist was gorgeously high and clean, receiving perfect marks (straight +3s from the judges) for 8.30 points. The throw 3Lz was extremely high, yet had the most delicate landing possible from Aliona. And although Aliona/Bruno have struggled with consistency on their SBS jumps this season, they were perfect here, landing their SBS 3S/2T/2T with great synchronization and good runout. Their SBS 3T was clean as well. They scored 13.9 points total on their SBS jumps (excellent). Aliona was not completely secure on the landing of the throw 3S; but she kept it on one foot, and there was no negative GOE. All of Savchenko/Massot’s lift and spin elements were level 4 and simply outstanding. The SBS spins were excellent, with very good speed and synchronization; the lifts were beautiful, with great coverage, smoothness, and air positions. Savchenko/Massot earned a stunning 18.73 points in positive GOE in this program. That’s how good their elements were. Artistically, they had 5 marks of 10.00, with all other marks in the 9s. Savchenko/Massot set a new world-record score in the long program (157. 25), beating Sui/Han’s previous world record LP by over 2 points. They were 1st LP/overall.
Savchenko/Massot’s long program here almost transcended competition; it was that special and magical. But this is sport; and, as such, this was a very important victory for Savchenko/Massot. After their win at Worlds and incredible season on the Grand Prix, Sui/Han were starting to look unbeatable. No more. From a competitive standpoint, Savchenko/Massot did exactly what they needed to do at this event and re-established themselves as, perhaps, co-favorites for gold in Pyeongchang. Now, let’s just hope they can stay healthy and maintain this standard at Europeans and the Olympics.
Although they had to settle for silver in Japan, Sui/Han also performed very well at this event. They continued to impress with the quality and consistency of their skating.
Sui/Han started their short program with a very uncharacteristic fall from Cong Han on the SBS 3T. Cong is usually rock-solid on his 3T, so it was really a shock to see him tumble to the ice! However, Sui/Han quickly shook off this error and got right back into the program, landing an excellent throw 3F that earned mostly +3s for 7.50 points. Their level 4 Tano triple twist was also very good, although not as high as Savchenko/Massot’s or Tarasova/Morozov’s. Wenjing/Cong had nice flow through their step sequence and a gorgeous star lift, with great speed and coverage. Their “Hallelujah” program was lovely and seemed to go by so quickly. It was a great performance, except for the fall, and Sui/Han earned 75.82 for 3rd.
Sui/Han’s Turandot LP was wonderful to watch; they brought such great emotion and expression to this performance. I wasn’t too sure about this Turandot program when Sui/Han first introduced it, but it’s grown so much. Their interpretation is improving with each competition, particularly in the first half of the program, and it’s really becoming a signature piece. Technically, it was a great outing as well for Sui/Han. Their level 2 quad twist was good, getting almost all positive GOE, and they landed their SBS 3T/2T/2T combo with authority. Their SBS 3S was a bit problematic—Wenjing 2-footed and Cong had a swingy landing—but they stayed upright and only lost about .70 points on the jump. Both of their throw jumps (3F, 3S) were excellent, earning mostly +3s. Lifts were good as well, although they were a bit slow getting into the final star lift. It was a fine performance, and Sui/Han earned 155.07 for 2nd LP/overall.
I’m sure that Sui/Han aren’t too happy with the fall in their short program and the loss to Savchenko/Massot. However, they still skated very well at this event, and did nothing to hurt their status as Olympic favorites.
Duhamel/Radford didn’t skate their best at the Grand Prix Final, but still managed to win their second consecutive bronze medal at this event.
Duhamel/Radford looked a bit tentative in their short program, with a few errors on their elements. The landing of their level 2 triple twist wasn’t completely smooth (although they avoided negative GOE). Eric then 2-footed the SBS 3Lz, and Meagan put a hand down on the throw 3Lz. Also, the mount into the star lift was a bit deliberate. Their death spiral was lovely, though, and they had nice, smooth skating through the step sequence. I really enjoy Meagan/Eric’s “With or Without You” SP; the soft, plaintive mood of the program is very effective. This performance wasn’t their best, but it was still well-delivered, and they earned 72.18 for 5th.
The Canadians then put out a fairly good free skate. I was a bit doubtful when Duhamel/Radford brought back their 2014-15 Muse program, but I must say I’m enjoying it quite a bit this year. The program perhaps isn’t quite as complex or intricate as some of the other teams’ programs, but it really suits Meagan/Eric. The lack of fussy transitions actually helps emphasize their edges and power. I’ve always felt like Meagan/Eric have stronger skating skills than many give them credit for, and this program shows off those skills to good effect. Technically, Duhamel/Radford opened the program with a nice level 2 triple twist (smoother than the twist in the SP). Their SBS 3Lz was landed without error and earned 6.30 points. Unfortunately, Meagan fell hard on the throw 4S. She also singled the last jump in the SBS 3S/2T/2T combo, and the jump was downgraded, costing almost 3 points off their base value/GOE. Their throw 3Lz was strong; but then Eric had some issues getting the final lift up, and it was only level 2. Overall, it was a mixed performance for Duhamel/Radford. They scored 138.65 for 3rd LP/overall.
Although Duhamel/Radford didn’t have their best performances in Japan, their bronze medal gives them a bit of momentum heading toward the Olympics.
It was an odd competition for Russian team Tarasova/Morozov. They had an excellent short program, as usual; but their long program was their worst in quite some time. They failed to make the podium in Japan, finishing 5th.
Tarasova/Morozov’s Rachmaninov SP was very, very good. Their opening level 4 triple twist had great height and a clean catch, scoring 8.50 points. Evgenia had to eke out the landing on her SBS 3T, but she stayed vertical. Their throw 3Lp was amazing, with great height and speed coming out. They had almost straight +3s on this element. The group 3 star lift had good speed and nice coverage, and their death spiral and pairs spin were great. The closing step sequence was well done, with nice speed, but Evgenia/Vladimir did get a bit far apart at times. I also feel like this sequence doesn’t really go anywhere artistically. (But then, that can be said of many pairs step sequences.) Technically, this was a strong performance for Tarasova/Morozov. Artistically, I feel like the intent of the program is simply to showcase Tarasova/Morozov’s fantastic speed and classic lines. In this, it succeeds perfectly. Tarasova/Morozov were so strong and fast in this program that I expected them to take the lead from Savchenko/Massot. But they didn’t. By a slight margin, the judges went for the greater sophistication and character of the Germans’ short program. Tarasova/Morozov scored 78.83 for 2nd.
In the long program, Tarasova/Morozov had to skate after Sui/Han’s stunning LP. I don’t know if Evgenia/Vladimir were unnerved when they heard Sui/Han’s huge score, or what. But things just fell apart in their long program. They started off well with a level 3 quad twist (9.17 points). But Evgenia came out early from the SBS 3S, and the jump was downgraded. The following throw 3S was flawless. But then Vladimir had problems on the SBS 3T/2T/2T combo; he turned out of the 3T, skipped the second jump, and singled the third. At this point, Tarasova/Morozov looked obviously rattled, and Evgenia 2-footed the throw 3Lp, costing them 1.30 points in negative GOE. They also received no credit for the closing pairs spin. The other elements didn’t really shine, either. It was an uncharacteristically shaky, tentative performance from Tarasova/Morozov.
Artistically, their “Candyman” program fell utterly flat. When skating to such strong, uptempo music, you have to be clean and fast, or the program just sort of dies, and that’s what happened here to Tarasova/Morozov. Every time I see this program, it’s more obvious what a lemon it is. Even leaving aside the issue of the crass lyrics, the program just doesn’t work artistically. The choreography mostly amounts to throwaway hand movements and crossovers. Compared to Savchenko/Massot’s or Sui/Han’s masterful long programs, it looks half-baked and juvenile. The judges still awarded unaccountably high PCS marks (71.83). Some judges went as high as 9.50 (even in the Transitions and Choreography categories!). But, there were also scores in the low 9s/high 8s (more like it). Tarasova/Morozov totaled 129.90 and fell to 6th LP/5th overall.
At this point, it’s hard to imagine that Tarasova/Morozov can be unaware of the many criticisms leveled at this long program. Simply put, the program is a liability and an embarrassment. If I were a member of their coaching team, I’d recommend a switch back to last year’s “Music” LP. Despite that program’s lack of popularity with fans, in my opinion it’s still far less of a risk than “Candyman.”
Earlier in the season, Tarasova/Morozov had seemed to be establishing themselves as the top challengers to Sui/Han. Will this event hurt their momentum? Probably not. As bad as their showing was here, Tarasova/Morozov remain favorites with the judges (as evidenced by those high PCS scores). A solid performance at Europeans in January should be all that’s needed to get them right back in the medal mix for Korea.
This was also a disappointing event for Stolbova/Klimov, the other Russian team in this event. Stolbova/Klimov came in off a strong performance at NHK Trophy. However, they were unable to build on that momentum, making some critical mistakes in Nagoya. They could only place 4th.
Stolbova/Klimov started their “Besame Mucho” SP with a level 2 triple twist. Then Ksenia fell hard on crossovers, sliding into the wall. She hopped right up and somehow landed the throw 3Lz just seconds later. Ksenia/Fedor then hit a beautiful set of SBS 3Ts, with great runout. Their other elements were all good, but not quite great. Their pairs spin and death spiral could have been a bit faster; their lift dismount smoother. Their step sequence is difficult, with lots of turns and ice coverage, yet somehow doesn’t feel fully connected to the music. It seems nit-picky to note such minor errors; overall, Stolbova/Klimov fought to give the program as much polish and attitude as possible, and mostly succeeded. However, their GOE/PCS scores were mixed, and not as high as usual, in this program. In PCS, their scores ranged from low-7s to high-9s—indicating a lack of consensus among the judges. They scored 73.15 for 4th.
Stolbova/Klimov’s Carmen LP was, again, a bit flawed. Their opening level 2 triple twist did not have a clean catch. Then, Ksenia struggled with the jumps. She was a bit off balance on the landing of the throw 3Lz and fell on the SBS 3S. In the SBS 3T/2T/2T combo, she 2-footed the first jump and singled the second. At least the throw 3S was good, with great speed out. Their other elements were again fine, but just not quite as strong as some of the other teams. With such a high level of quality in the pairs field right now, it comes down to the little details—the rotational speed on every spin, the dismount on every lift. Right now, Ksenia/Fedor’s elements just aren’t quite as fine-tuned as necessary to win.
Artistically, I’m still uncertain about this program. I think of it as “the minimalist Carmen.” Stolbova/Klimov’s aesthetic as a team has always been minimalist and stripped-down; that feeling carries over to this program. The choreography feels spare, rather than intricate or dramatic. The interaction between Ksenia/Fedor feels sharp and tight, but not passionate. And Ksenia’s costume is definitely minimalist, compared to some of the Carmen extravaganzas we’ve seen. The thing is … I’m not sure minimalist works with this piece. Carmen is all about drama—passion—darkness. Restraint and Carmen don’t mix. Was this music the right choice for Stolbova/Klimov this year? I’m really not sure. Such doubts aside, Stolbova/Klimov’s PCS marks were somewhat higher here than in the SP. Stolbova/Klimov scored 136.11 for 5th LP/4th overall.
This competition was a bit of a setback for Stolbova/Klimov. But they still have 2 more events before the Olympics where they can hope to make a strong impression: Russian Nationals and Europeans. In 2014, it wasn’t until those 2 events that Stolbova/Klimov really started to pick up steam in their march to the silver medal in Sochi. Could history repeat itself?
Yu/Zhang skated pretty well in Japan, putting out two good-quality programs. But in such a strong field, they could only place 6th.
Yu/Zhang’s Swan Lake SP opened with Xiaoyu falling out of her SBS 3T. However, that was the only mistake in the program. They had all level 4 elements and got almost straight +2s on their triple twist (8.00 points). Their throw triple loop was excellent, and the group 3 star lift strong; both elements scored very well. The only small issue came on the pairs spin, which was a bit slow, finishing after the music. Yu/Zhang skated with a lot of authority, and their Swan Lake program was very attractive to watch, with a stately quality. I did feel that Yu/Zhang lacked a bit of liveliness and spontaneity, but still, everything was very well done. The earned 70.15 points for 6th.
Yu/Zhang then put out a strong, effective free skate. Their level 4 triple twist was again excellent. Xiaoyu struggled with the landing of her SBS 3T in the combo, but stayed on one foot and pulled out a 1T to complete the combo. They landed the SBS 3S as well. As usual with this team, both throw jumps (3S, 3Lp) were amazing, with great height and flow out. Hao Zhang didn’t have quite as much speed on the final 2 lifts as he usually does, but they were still well-completed. Artistically, their Star Wars LP was fairly effective, but I sensed a drop-off in their performance level compared to Skate America. They just didn’t seem to have quite the same fire and energy as at Skate America, and their PCS marks were correspondingly lower (mid-8s here, vs. low 9s at Skate America). Yu/Zhang finished with 136.99 for 4th LP/6th overall. Although very good, their LP score was 8.5 points lower than at Skate America.
Yu/Zhang still need to keep developing their presentation and programs. But their technical elements are looking very strong right now, which should give them confidence heading into Olympics and Worlds.
The Grand Prix Final was a great conclusion to this year’s Grand Prix series, with some incredible performances from the top 2 teams and a generally high level of competition. It’s been a privilege to watch all these incredible pairs compete this fall season. And there’s still so much more to come. Next up are the various Nationals events, with especially strong fields expected at Russian Nationals and Canadian Nationals. Good luck to all the teams at their Nationals!!
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