Worlds 2019: Pairs Review

The post-Olympic World Championships is often an intriguing mix of the old and the new in pairs skating. This year was no exception. Veteran pair Wenjing Sui/Cong Han won their second World title in stunning fashion, followed by Russians Evgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov, who claimed their third World medal in as many years. However, newer pairs such as Peng/Jin, Boikova/Kozlovskii, and Cain/LeDuc also made their mark, all with placements in the top 10.   

Overall, the pairs event in Saitama didn’t reach the same level as the last two World championships in Helsinki and Milan. Fewer pairs competed at this year’s Worlds (only 19, versus 28 the last 2 years). And not many teams delivered season’s-best performances in Japan. Nonetheless, the quality level at the top was still high. Before we look at the individual pairs’ results, though, I want to take a look at the state of pairs overall in 2018-19. 

This year’s Worlds was the first under the revised judging system that took effect this season. The new scoring system and long program format this year are probably the most substantive changes in pairs skating since 2005, when IJS was fully introduced. This year’s Worlds therefore provided an interesting opportunity to assess the effects of these changes.  

 

Pairs skating in 2018-19

To me, the biggest difference in pairs this year was the absence of risk. Last season, we saw many pairs attempting throw quads and quad twists. This season, there were none. Between the reduction in the value of quads, and the increased penalties for errors, the ISU has effectively removed quad elements from pairs skating. They simply aren’t worth the risk any more.

How does this change affect pairs? On one hand, it’s a relief. Despite their prevalence the last few years, quad throws and twists had remained highly error-prone. We can breathe a little easier, not worrying if a lady is going to have a big wipeout on a throw quad Salchow or if a pair is going to scarily miss on a quad twist. Without quad elements, pairs skating is probably safer, and certainly less nerve-wracking. But … it’s also less interesting. With the pairs mostly all doing the same, relatively safe, elements, it becomes primarily about execution.

I always feel a certain tension going into a pairs competition. In the past few years, what I felt was almost a positive type of tension. With many of the pairs, I wondered:  How much will they do? Will they go for a quad? Will they land it? How high or far will it go? The tension I felt was about how far a pair could push their maximum technical content or score.

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The Knierims perform a quad twist in 2015  (Jay Adeff)

Now, the tension around the programs feels a little bit more negative. We know which elements the pairs are going to do, and in most cases, we know they can successfully complete these elements. They’re not really stretching themselves, as they were before. So the tension becomes not: How much they will do? Instead, it’s more like: Will they fall? Pop? Lose points somewhere?

It’s a subtle change in focus. An important thing has been gained: More safety for the athletes. But something has also been lost: Risk. And, to some extent, the excitement that goes with risk.

The other thing I don’t like about the loss of quad, or ultra-C, elements is that it limits the ways you can win. It cuts off an avenue whereby athletes could get more points–if they dared. Pairs was exciting in the last four years because you had teams who were trying to win in different ways:  Duhamel/Radford and James/Cipres challenged with athleticism, Savchenko/Massot with creativity, Sui/Han with a different kind of performance level and audience appeal. It was exciting to have teams experimenting with different directions in the sport. Now, without quad elements, there are fewer directions you can go. It’s limiting for the athletes. I don’t like that.

However, perhaps something else has been gained. With pairs now doing most of the same elements technically, there’s perhaps a new opportunity to distinguish themselves through superior programs and artistry. Several new teams who did particularly well this season, including Boikova/Kozlovskii and Cain/LeDuc, explicitly chose to make their artistry, programs, and performance level a major area of focus. “This season, we made an emphasis on our skating skills and interpretation,” Kozlovskii said in a recent interview. These pairs put out programs that judges and audiences found enjoyable, exciting, and fun.

 

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Sui/Han:  Looking to create interesting, innovative transitions  (Xinhua/Du Xiaoyi)

Some of the more experienced teams also used creativity and thoughtfully designed programs to help distinguish themselves. Sui/Han experimented with new styles of music and spent time creating innovative shapes and movements with their choreographer, Lori Nichol. James/Cipres, having found a style that works for them, continued to extend and develop it in their acclaimed “Wicked Game” long program.

Sometimes under IJS, the judges tend to reward beautifully executed elements more than beautiful, fascinating programs. We saw that at Worlds, as Zabijako/Enbert claimed bronze in Saitama with a program that, while not exciting, was completed with a very high level of technical quality.

But I do feel that we’ve seen space for a little more creative innovation in pairs this season, and I hope this trend continues. If it does, and if beautiful, innovative programs become more common again in pairs skating, perhaps it will have been worth the trade-off in the loss of technical risk.

However, while recent changes in base value may open the door for more creativity in pairs, the format change to 4-minute free skates simultaneously makes it more challenging to create interesting programs. It’s hard to generate much of an artistic impression when your program is essentially just a series of technical elements. And that’s increasingly what pairs looks like, with this new four-minute format. The loss of thirty seconds in the long programs has definitely hurt, just as I feared. While the shorter programs may in some ways be easier for pairs skaters to perform, something is missing.

When the ISU removed the side-by-side spins from the long program to compensate for the lost 30 seconds, it seemed like a reasonable trade-off. Pairs would still have a similar amount of time for choreography in the program (as my research had indicated that side-by-side spins typically averaged about 21 seconds in length). However, what I didn’t fully realize was that the side-by-side spins, even if they were a technical element, still helped set and build the mood of each program. This is partly because spins are often an aesthetically pleasing element, with interesting positions, and also because spins are often set at climactic points in the music, thereby increasing their aesthetic impact. Basically, with the spins gone, we’re missing a moment that the skaters were using to build impact and emotion into the program. This season more than ever, pairs long programs seemed like mostly a bunch of tricks. The programs just felt packed–to the extent that even general viewers sensed the issue.

Something should change, in my opinion. Either the ISU should add back 30 seconds (or more!) to the free skates. Or they may need to delete another technical element, as coach Richard Gauthier suggested in an interview at Four Continents. Really, though, I’d just like the lost time back. With many pairs now actively aspiring to create more beautiful programs, and to bring more of an ice dance sensibility to pairs, they need more time in the programs to realize that vision. And that time would arguably make the performances more enjoyable for audiences as well.

So that’s my longish take on the state of pairs skating in 2018-19, as seen at Worlds. Now, let’s look at individual performances. I won’t discuss every element in this review, but will instead look more at some of the key elements or scoring areas for each couple.

Worlds-2019-results

 

Sui/Han

Just as in 2016-17, Sui/Han missed most of this season due to injury but came back to claim the World title. This year, their victory was even more impressive and came by a wider margin.

Sui/Han opened with a smoldering short program to “No One Like You.” Their throw 3F was amazing as always, high and with a beautiful sailing edge out, earning several +5s. Their SBS 3Ts were good, and their level 4 triple twist was solid (if not super-high). Their hand-to-hand lift was also excellent and smoothly performed. The step sequence was perhaps the highlight of the program, delivered with terrific expression and passion. Sui/Han experimented with a new genre of music here; I don’t recall them ever competing to a big power ballad like this in the past (performed by operatic tenor Joseph Calleja). But they looked totally comfortable and at one with the music, as always. Skating toward the end of the third group in the short program, the difference in the intensity of their expression and musicality, versus the pairs who came before them, was instantly noticeable. I’m always amazed at how Sui/Han never hold back in their performance. They just go for it unreservedly. It’s a rare quality and what makes them so special. Most of their PCS marks were in the mid-9s (although puzzlingly, the German and Swiss judges issued straight 8s). They scored 79.24 for 2nd (and might well have scored higher if they had had a later starting spot).

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Sui/Han doing one of their spectacular throws  (VCG Photo)

Sui/Han then sealed their victory with a truly memorable, bravura performance in the long program. Skating to the solemn, but dramatic, “Rain, in Your Black Eyes” by Ezio Bosso, their long program was stunning from start to finish. Their technical elements were almost all outstanding. They opened with an excellent level 4 Rippon triple twist, then completed their SBS 3T/2T/2T cleanly. Their throw 3S was simply amazing, with incredible speed and security on the landing edge, and they hit their SBS 3S as well! The throw 3F was good, and their Axel lasso lift was superb and the highest-scoring element in the entire pairs LP (10.10 points). Wenjing/Cong received many deserved +5s for these stellar elements, gaining +22.86 points in positive GOE. You could sense their own excitement growing as they landed element after element, and their skating seemed to get faster and more powerful every second that the program went on. They flung themselves into the choreography with abandon, taking us with them on an emotional journey. The judges were as impressed as the audience, awarding almost all high-9s and a total of eight 10.00s in PCS. Sui/Han scored 155.60 for 1st LP/overall.

After so many problems with injuries, it was wonderful to see Sui/Han back and skating so very well. They were really on a different level in this competition; no other team came anywhere close to matching them in performance and artistry (however good other teams might be technically). Wonderful.

 

Tarasova/Morozov

For the second year in a row, Tarasova/Morozov claimed the silver medal at Worlds. However, I suspect they’re far more pleased with their actual performances this year than they were in Milan. Following a rather difficult season, this competition marked a bit of a return to form for the Russians.

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Tarasova/Morozov:  Beauty and power  (Xinhua/Wang Lili)

After unsuccessfully experimenting with two rock music short programs this season (Lenny Kravitz, James Brown), Tarasova/Morozov returned to last season’s tried-and-true Rachmaninov No. 2 program for Europeans and Worlds. The decision paid off big-time in Saitama, as Tarasova/Morozov delivered an excellent short program to take the lead in this segment. Their opening level 4 triple twist was outstanding as usual. Vladimir landed a tiny bit forward on the SBS 3T, but this slight error didn’t cost anything. Their throw 3Lp was huge, and they had wonderful unison and speed on the SBS spins. This short program suits Tarasova/Morozov better than any other program they’ve ever had. What makes it work so well is that it showcases all their best qualities–speed, power, and huge elements–while minimizing their (relative) weaknesses. The SP format also conveniently highlights their strongest elements–twist, throw, SBS 3T–while not requiring them to perform some of their weaker elements–the SBS 3S and 2 additional lifts. Tarasova/Morozov don’t even have to show much emotion in this program; their technical brilliance speaks for itself and creates its own impression. In two years of watching this routine, it still gives me a thrill whenever they skate it the way they did in Saitama. The judges agreed, with marks in the mid-9s. Tarasova/Morozov scored a season’s-best 81.21 for 1st in this segment.

The Russians then delivered a solid performance in the free skate to secure silver. Their long program to “The Winter” by Balmorhea has earned positive reviews this season, and rightfully so. Once again, this is a musical selection that plays to their strengths. The spare and restrained, but evocative, piece doesn’t require them to show too much emotion, but does highlight their strong, classic line and powerful elements. And Evgenia in particular shines, showing great charisma and a lovely presence on the ice. The Russians opened with their astounding triple twist–so much better than anyone else’s–and earned almost straight +5s for it. Vladimir had small errors on both of their SBS jump passes, which held back their GOE, but they still wound up with 11.16 points total on their SBS jumps. Evgenia hit both throw jumps; and although the landings weren’t perfect, they were clean. (Happily, Evgenia seems to have straightened out whatever problem was causing her to two-foot most of her throw jumps last season. This season has been much, much better!) Impressively, Tarasova/Morozov had all level 4 elements in this program, which is something I think very few pairs have achieved this season, with the increased stringency of features and technical calling. This speaks to their skill level and training. It wasn’t a perfect program for Tarasova/Morozov, but it was quite good, and they seemed happy with it. They scored in the low-9s in PCS and earned 147.26 overall for 2nd LP/overall.

Ever since coming 4th in Pyeongchang, Tarasova/Morozov had appeared to be struggling, perhaps simply to deal with that disappointment. They seemed to turn the corner at Worlds and looked much more like their old selves, which was great to see. They declined the chance to compete in the season-ending World Team Trophy event, perhaps desiring a break after two long and stressful seasons.

 

Zabijako/Enbert

It’s been a steady rise to the top for Zabijako/Enbert, the #2 Russian pair. After teaming up in 2015, they found success quickly and were 4th at Worlds last year. This year, they moved a step up to the bronze medal.

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Zabijako/Enbert:  Always elegant  (Xinhua/Du Xiaoyi)

Zabijako/Enbert opened with a fine performance in the short program. They hit a very nice level 3 triple twist and a high throw 3Lp. Their SBS 3Ts were slightly off sync, but landed. The SBS spin got a bit messy at the end. Technically it was a solid performance, but I felt their GOE was a bit generous for some elements. Artistically, I enjoyed their Alexander Nevsky SP. This routine tells the story of a famous battle in Russian medieval history, with Zabijako/Enbert playing two warriors. It’s such a cool and different concept for a pairs short program that I can’t help but dig it. And the choreography, I think, actually portrays the story quite well. The interesting thing is that this program calls for a certain bombastic intensity and level of drama that I don’t think is Zabijako/Enbert’s natural style on the ice. But I do admire them for trying something different, and I think they pull it off fairly well. And for some reason, I like this team when they’re skating to something very Russian in theme, like this program. (One of my favorite previous programs of theirs is their Snowstorm SP, based on an Alexander Pushkin story/movie.) Zabijako/Enbert earned a mix of low-8s to low-9s in PCS for this program. They scored 73.95 for 4th.

In the long program, Zabijako/Enbert put out a performance that was technically very clean. All of their elements were level 4 except for the twist, and they had very few mistakes. Almost the only error came on the SBS 3S, which was landed, but slightly out of sync. As a result, their GOE marks were almost entirely positive. Some of the GOE marks again seemed a bit high. (For example, they received two +5s for their throw 3Lp, which was very good, to be sure … but not that good.) But, it was undeniably a strong performance technically, and they had second-best TES overall (74.87), behind only Sui/Han.

Artistically, I have to say their “Toi et Moi” program fell flat for me. Usually I can find something to like in almost any pairs program … not so much this one. The lugubrious, overwrought ballad droned on unpleasantly, the choreography was not notable in any way, and as usual, the emotional connection between these two skaters was lacking. No matter what they’re skating to, Zabijako/Enbert always look classically beautiful, with great lines and strong skating skills, so I can’t begrudge the judges for giving them high-8s in PCS. They deserve it, in terms of their basic skating. Nonetheless, though, the program itself was a complete miss for me and not really what I want to see on the podium at Worlds. This was an instance of technically sound, high-quality skating being almost completely responsible for the result obtained. Zabijako/Enbert scored a season’s-best 144.02 for 4th LP/3rd overall.

As Zabijako/Enbert continue to climb the ranks, it’s interesting to look at how they did vis-a-vis Russian teammates Tarasova/Morozov. As mentioned above, Natalia/Alexander actually outscored Evgenia/Vladimir technically in the long program, by 1.03 points. Tarasova/Morozov beat them overall, but this was based entirely on their short-program lead and on PCS in the long program (where T/M had a 4.27-point advantage). Going forward, I think Tarasova/Morozov have some cause to be looking over their shoulders. If Zabijako/Enbert can maintain this type of consistency in their long programs, and get better programs next year, we could start to see a more serious rivalry between these two teams.

 

Peng/Jin

This event felt like a breakthrough for Peng/Jin. They placed a strong 3rd in the short program in Saitama, winning a small medal. And even though they couldn’t quite hold on to win bronze in the long program, they came pretty close–and continued to make a case that they really are among the best teams in the world.

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Peng/Jin in their charming “Ophelia” SP  (Xinhua/Wang Lili)

Peng/Jin’s “Ophelia” short program was one of the highlights of the pairs competition for me. All season long, this program has been such a breath of fresh air: Fun, sweet, and so well-suited to the quirky chemistry of this team. Peng/Jin did a great job with it in Saitama. They opened with an excellent set of SBS 3Ts. As a longtime Cheng Peng fan, I still mentally pinch myself every time she successfully lands a jump. But I really shouldn’t any more. Because this season, not only are Peng/Jin’s SBS 3Ts consistent, they’re actually quite good. They got +3s and even some +4s for this jump! Even better things were to come, as Peng/Jin hit a successful triple twist and a huge throw 3Lp. That loop was one of the best throws of the whole competition, in my opinion. According to the jump tracker on the feed, Cheng was going 20 km/hr as she exited. That’s wow factor! Overall, what I loved about this program from Peng/Jin was their attack. From the second they started skating, you could tell they were into it. They were pressing those edges into the ice, going for it. Sometimes Peng/Jin have what I think of as a “glidey” quality on the ice–at times, it feels like they’re skimming the ice smoothly, rather than digging in. When they back off a little, I start to feel this quality from them. I wasn’t feeling it in Saitama. They were definitely being aggressive. Anyhow, it was a great and fun performance from them, and they judges rewarded them nicely with mid- to high-8s (and some 9s). They scored 75.51, just a tenth or so off their season’s-best, for 3rd.

In the long program, Peng/Jin again skated with good attack and energy. Cheng Peng underrotated their SBS 3S at the start of the program, but stayed on her feet, and I was excited to see them go for the triple. Peng/Jin then landed a fine SBS 3T/2T combo and good level 3 triple twist. As in the short program, their throw 3Lp was huge and earned some +5s. The throw 3S also scored very well. In terms of performance, Peng/Jin skated as well as they could, but ultimately, I feel like they were held back by their “La Vie en Rose” program. It’s an interesting program with some inventive moments choreographically … but the song itself just isn’t the kind of music that either casts a spell or is stirring and exciting. It’s not something that’s ever going to produce a standing ovation, no matter how well they skate it. Also, the music just felt too ominous and dark for Peng/Jin’s light touch on the ice. “Ophelia” is exactly the kind of thing this team should be skating to; Patricia Kaas isn’t.  Peng/Jin still received pretty good PCS marks, mostly in the high-8s. They scored 140.33 for 5th LP/4th overall.

What kept Peng/Jin from winning bronze? It came down to base value. Peng/Jin actually slightly outscored Zabijako/Enbert in the free skate in both PCS and GOE. But it wasn’t enough to offset the Russians’ advantage in base value, which was 4.87 points. Zabijako/Enbert had slightly more difficult elements–a 3/2/2 combo instead of 3/2, a throw 3F instead of a throw 3S, and a slightly higher-value death spiral. That accounted for about 3 points’ difference. The remainder came from levels: Zabijako/Enbert had only one element below level 4, while Peng/Jin had 4 elements below level 4. So although I personally preferred Peng/Jin, the Russians’ win was understandable from a points perspective.

Despite missing the bronze in Saitama, Peng/Jin still had a great season overall, with three Grand Prix medals and a Four Continents medal. Looking toward next year, I really want to see two new programs that are as fresh and innovative as “Ophelia.” I’d also love to see Peng/Jin work on developing some really memorable new lifts. They’ve been doing the same lifts for a couple years now, and they’re fine and score quite well, but I don’t think they’re the type of lifts that are going to score +5s. Peng/Jin are strong lifters generally, so I think this is an area where they can look to set themselves apart a little more. Also, just keep training those levels!!

 

James/Cipres

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: This was a very disappointing competition for James/Cipres. Coming in as Grand Prix Final and European champions, they were favored by many to win the title—especially with Sui/Han having been out most of the season. Instead, they failed to make the podium.

James-Cipres-reaction
James/Cipres share a moment after their free skate  (Xinhua/Wang Lili)

The competition got off to a bad start when Vanessa accidentally collided with Matteo Guarise during the warmup for the pairs short program. She appeared shaken by this unfortunate incident, but James/Cipres took the ice as planned for their “Uninvited” short program. There were many strong elements in the program … but also two big mistakes, as Morgan doubled the SBS 3S and Vanessa had a sprawling fall on the throw 3F. To their credit, they still maintained a very good performance level; however, the damage was done. The two mistakes together cost at least 5 ½ points, and they could only score 68.67 and ended in 7th.

Happily, James/Cipres came back strong in their “Wicked Game” free skate. They again had an error at the start of the program, with Vanessa doubling the first jump in the SBS 3T/2T/2T combo. However, they didn’t let this distract them. They next hit a nice set of SBS 3S. (I love their entrance into this jump, with Morgan in a spread eagle and Vanessa on a long gliding inside edge.) Both throw jumps were well done and effectively set to the music. But what impressed me most in the program was James/Cipres’s lifts. All three lifts were simply stunning and at a high technical level, with great ice coverage, smooth turns and transitions from Morgan, and very good air positions from Vanessa. James/Cipres have obviously crafted these lifts carefully with their coaches to be highpoints in this program, and they were well-rewarded by the judges, earning +7.38 points in GOE on the lifts alone. I love this “Wicked Game” LP from Vanessa/Morgan; it’s just so well-designed and effective. When they’re skating well, the program just builds in intensity from element to element. I felt like this particular performance at Worlds lacked some of the flow and ease that they had at Skate Canada, for example. But no doubt that was simply due to the pressure of skating at Worlds after such a disappointing short program. Even if not their absolute best, it was still a terrific program. James/Cipres earned almost straight low- to mid-9s in PCS (with only one mark below 9.0). They totaled 146.52 for 3rd LP/5th overall.

Afterward, James/Cipres said they will keep competing next year and will continue to chase the World title that eluded them in Saitama. I wish them luck!! Meanwhile, they will conclude this season by competing at World Team Trophy next week.

 

Boikova/Kozlovskii

Boikova/Kozlovskii were definitely the new “it” team in pairs this year. It seemed like everyone who saw the young Russians fell in love with them! I noted this team’s potential at Russian Nationals a year ago, and Boikova/Kozlovskii definitely fulfilled that promise and more this season, with a surprise bronze medal at Europeans and a strong 6th-place finish here in Saitama. At just 17 and 19, Boikova/Kozlovskii are a decade younger than many of their competitors. Their success is all the more interesting because the transition between the junior and senior level in pairs can be challenging. Oftentimes, pairs who were dominant at the junior level lack the necessary presentation skills or ice presence to be competitive in seniors. Boikova/Kozlovskii succeeded where other junior pairs have faltered because they happen to be particularly strong in both these areas. They had a terrific competition in Saitama.

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Boikova/Kozlovskii:  Star power  (Xinhua/Wang Lili)

Boikova/Kozlovskii’s “Dark Eyes” was a favorite of mine this year and a program that I’d consider 100% successful in concept and implementation. The program takes the classic warhorse “Dark Eyes”–made famous by countless skaters, from Sasha Cohen to Berezhnaya/Sikharulidze–and cleverly updates it by using a jazz/cabaret version of the song, instead of the usual orchestral rendition. The packaging of the program is very on point, with Boikova/Kozlovskii’s costumes evoking a ‘20s/’30s nightclub look, and great choreography from Igor Bobrin and Natalia Bestemianova, particularly in the step sequence, which captures a “dancey” feel that is perfect for the nightclub theme. And Boikova/Kozlovskii themselves have the charm and charisma to really sell the concept of the program, performing it with a lot of style and flair. In Saitama, Alexandra/Dmitrii opened the SP with a great set of SBS 3S, a strong level 3 triple twist, and very good throw 3S. The program was going great, until it suddenly lost a bit of steam in the final minute. Alexandra/Dmitrii both had problems on the death spiral–her head was not low enough, and Dmitrii came up a bit out of his pivot position, which resulted in a basic level on the element. Dmitrii then seemed to get slightly out of control on the twizzles in the step sequence, which received only a level 2. These level losses cost 2.9 points in all (a significant amount). Boikova/Kozlovskii scored 69.99 points for 6th.

In the long program, Boikova/Kozlovskii wowed both the audience and judges with their crowd-pleasing Nutcracker free skate. While Boikova/Kozlovskii’s “Dark Eyes” SP offers a twist on a classic, if you will, their Nutcracker is just straight-up iconic Russian pairs skating. Peter Tchernyshev’s choreography is appealing, with some lovely spiral-based transitional moves and well-placed elements. The most important thing when skating to Nutcracker is to skate up to the size and sweep of the music, and Boikova/Kozlovskii pull this off very well. At 5’5”/6’0” respectively, Boikova/Kozlovskii are quite a tall team for pairs. That alone gives them a big presence on the ice; and when you match this quality with their natural dynamic expressiveness, it’s a cinch for them to pull off music that tends to dwarf and overwhelm less confident skaters. The judges appreciated their presentation, awarding PCS scores in the mid- to high-8s. Technically, the program was also very good. Boikova/Kozlovskii completed every element successfully, with not a single negative GOE mark and no major level losses. Their SBS jumps were solid and their throws excellent, earning some +5 marks. Boikova/Kozlovskii scored a season’s-best 140.31 for 6th LP/overall.

Looking forward, many see this team as the future of Russian pairs skating (and maybe the future of pairs skating, period). And they are indeed rare talents. That said, there are still areas for improvement. Perhaps the biggest is conditioning and run-throughs. When Boikova/Kozlovskii do have problems, it’s often in the second half of their programs, as in the short program here. I’d also to see them work on improving their speed and just smoothing out their skating a bit–adding more toe point, more ease in transitioning from one element to another. But although there are things to work on, overall I love what this young team is bringing to skating, especially their emphasis on program quality and presentation, and I just hope they continue in that direction!

 

Moore-Towers/Marinaro

Alas, it was a disappointing Worlds for Moore-Towers/Marinaro. Coming off a solid performance at Canadian Nationals and the best international finish of their career at Four Continents, I saw this team as a possible outside medal threat in Saitama. Unfortunately, it didn’t come to pass, as Moore-Towers/Marinaro had mistakes in both programs and finished a distant 7th. Both Kirsten and Michael said afterward that they had a great mindset coming into the the event, so I’m not sure what happened. Sometimes, bad competitions just happen, even to good athletes.

MTM
Not the best event for Moore-Towers/Marinaro  (Xinhua/Wang Lili)

Moore-Towers/Marinaro started the event with a somewhat mixed performance in the short program. Their opening triple twist was low and got only a level 2. Then Mike missed his toe pick on the entrance to the SBS 3T. He managed to save the jump, but had to put a hand down. Kirsten/Mike got off a bit lightly for this jump mistake–it’s supposed to be a -1 to -2 deduction in GOE, and although several judges took the deduction, several did not and instead gave positive GOE. However, even if they’d gotten a few more negative GOE marks, it would only have been an additional .75 to 1.0 points off and wouldn’t have affected the overall SP standings. The rest of the program was actually pretty good. Kirsten/Mike got a nice boost from their death spiral, which was one of the best in the short program event and earned +1.54 in GOE. Their throw 3Lp was solid and their step sequence well done. I really loved the speed, softness, and flow they had through the program–very nice skating skills and partnering. The judges awarded mid- to high-8s in PCS. Moore-Towers/Marinaro earned 73.08 points for 7th.

Unfortunately, the Canadians struggled in their Pink Floyd free skate. Their triple twist, never a strong suit, was low and crashy and earned only level 1. Mike again had problems on both side-by-side jump passes, and Kirsten 2-footed and turned out of the throw 3S. The throw 3Lp, thankfully, was very good, as was the death spiral and pairs spin. Moore-Towers/Marinaro’s lifts all received level 4 and positive GOE. Mike’s carrying posture in lifts is a bit odd–he tends to bend forward, instead of holding his back straight, and this habit seemed worse than usual at Worlds. But there is no deduction listed in the rules for poor posture for the man in lifts. (There is a deduction for “poor positions in the air.”) And Mike is getting the job done in terms of transitions, speed, and ice coverage. So, although their lifts may not be the most aesthetically appealing, Moore-Towers/Marinaro still score well with them, because they check off all the necessary features and quality boxes. However, with so many mistakes in this particular program, it wasn’t the best performance of their Pink Floyd free skate. They earned low- to mid-8s in PCS. Overall, Moore-Towers/Marinaro scored 126.94 for 8th LP/7th overall.

It’s been an up-and-down kind of season for the Canadians. One step forward, one step back. They reached a career high point at Four Continents … but couldn’t follow it up at Worlds. Hopefully next season will be smoother and more consistent for them. In the meantime, they will compete one more time this season, at World Team Trophy.

 

Della Monica/Guarise

It was also a rather disappointing event for Italian champions Della Monica/Guarise. After a career-best 5th place at last year’s Worlds, they slipped to 8th in Saitama.

As with James/Cipres, the unfortunate crash between Guarise and James in the short program warm-up seemed to negatively affect Della Monica/Guarise. Matteo opened the program by doubling the SBS 3S. They recovered with a fairly good level 3 triple twist and good throw 3Lp. Their hand-to-hand lift was a highlight–very fast and smooth, with great air positions from Nicole. But the lift was the only element in the routine to earn a level 4 (somewhat uncharacteristic for them). Artistically, their performance to Joe Cocker’s “Never Tear Us Apart” was polished and sophisticated. The only thing lacking was heat and sexiness … which, unfortunately, is just what this song calls for. For me, the program was enjoyable to watch yet ultimately missed the mark. Nicole/Matteo have never been a team with a strong romantic/sexy vibe, so I’m not sure this was the best music choice for them. The judges’ PCS were in the low- to mid-8s. Della Monica/Guarise totaled 67.29 for 8th.

The Italians’ long program to Tristan and Iseult was unfortunately marred by fairly serious errors on both SBS jump passes. They earned only 3.39 points total for their SBS jumps. Which was too bad, because the rest of their elements were very strong. Nicole landed both throw jumps, and their death spiral was a highlight. All three lifts were also very well done, with great speed and beautifully defined air positions. It wasn’t the best free skate Nicole & Matteo have ever performed, but it was still a quality package. I don’t find Tristan and Iseult as interesting as some of DM/G’s other programs, such as Tree of Life and Carmina Burana, but they presented it well in Saitama. Their PCS scores were in the mid-8s, with only one mark below 8.0. They earned 128.45 for 7th LP/8th overall.

During the last few seasons, I felt like Della Monica/Guarise were gradually but steadily improving in their skating, culminating with the top 5 finish in Milan last year. This season, they seemed to be in a holding pattern. Their skating was still good, but it didn’t really progress in any way. The question now: How do they start moving forward again?

 

Cain/LeDuc

Cain/LeDuc came to Worlds with a job to do: Place in the top 10 and secure 2 spots for the American pairs next season. It was a pretty big assignment, especially considering it was their first Worlds. But Ashley and Tim got the job done, and skated pretty well in Saitama, too.

Cain-LeDuc
Cain/LeDuc:  A job to do, and they did it

Cain/LeDuc put out a good performance overall of their “Bella Belle” short program. Ashley fell on the SBS 3Lp, but that was the only real mistake. Otherwise, their elements were fairly good. Their throw 3Lz was a bit forward, but held, and they earned a level 3 on the triple twist. The best element in the program was their level 4 step sequence, which was packed with difficult but interesting steps that portrayed the character of the music extremely well, and which earned some +3s from the judges. I’ve really enjoyed this short program from Cain/LeDuc all season. Although some see it as a bit derivative of Savchenko/Massot’s “This Man,” I feel like Ashley and Tim bring their own version of sass and spunk to this number and make it their own. We don’t get to  see many fun and upbeat programs in pairs skating, so I really appreciate that Cain/LeDuc brought something so different and entertaining with this routine. I think the judges appreciated it, too. They issued very good PCS marks, mostly in the low- to mid-8s. Cain/LeDuc scored 66.93 for 9th.

Cain/LeDuc’s long program was good. I felt a little tension from them in this program–maybe just the pressure of knowing they had to skate well to get back that second spot–but they handled it well. Technically, they had some issues but also some good elements sprinkled in. The throw 3Lz had nice height and speed coming out; but Ashley had a big fall out of the throw 3S. They got through both SBS jump passes, but with some minor errors and negative GOE. Their lifts were completed, although not with great speed (two lifts were level 3). Their triple twist was called a level 4 and earned positive GOE. Overall, it wasn’t a great performance technically, but they did enough to maintain their placement from the short program.

As with Peng/Jin, what I really liked about Cain/LeDuc’s long program was their attack. They kept up the speed and presentation level really well throughout. What sets Ashley and Tim apart from the other U.S. pairs right now is that there’s no hesitation, no tentativeness, in their skating. They go for it when they get on the ice. They skate like they believe in themselves, like they know that they’re good. The level of confidence and attack they’re showing is something I associate with Russian pairs most of all, and I wonder if Nina Mozer has helped them develop this. When you really believe in yourselves, it’s easier for the judges to believe in you, too. Cain/LeDuc received a majority of low-8s in PCS for their LP in Saitama; very good marks, especially considering the program wasn’t clean. They scored 126.88 for 9th LP/overall.

It’s been a great season for Cain/LeDuc. As Ashley said afterward, they met all their goals for the year. What impresses me is that Ashley/Tim really had a strong vision for this season and for their programs. And they made it happen, despite a pretty big setback along the way (their lift accident at Golden Spin). Kudos to them for coming so far in their skating over the last 3 years. We will see them again at World Team Trophy next week; a nice way to end their season.

 

Ziegler/Kiefer

It was the first top 10 finish for Ziegler/Kiefer at Worlds, a nice move up from 14th place last year. This season has been difficult for Ziegler/Kiefer, with the unexpected death of their coach Jean-Francois Ballester in December. The couple had been very close to Ballester, and had to withdraw from Europeans in January due to grief. I was glad they were able to skate at Worlds, with the assistance of Bruno Massot, also part of their coaching team. Their good placement at Worlds was a tribute to Ballester’s work with them; before his passing, he guided them through several seasons of significant growth in their skating.

Ziegler/Kiefer’s short program to Haevn’s “Fortitude” was actually one of my favorite programs of the event. I really like this piece on Miriam/Severin. The program just flows so smoothly, with beautiful edges and choreography, and great expression from the Austrians. I even forgot I was watching an element as they did their step sequence; it just fit so well with the mood and character of the program. I felt a lot of connection and trust between Ziegler/Kiefer in this piece; they felt very “together.” The judges awarded PCS marks mostly in the mid- to high-7s; personally, I would have gone a bit higher. However, the judges’ scores might have been influenced by some technical issues. Ziegler/Kiefer’s SBS 3Ts and throw 3F were both very good, earning +2s and +3s. However, they had level problems elsewhere. Only one element (SBS spins) earned a level 4, and they had 2 basic-level elements (triple twist and death spiral), which reduced their base value a bit. They totaled 63.65, several points off their season’s-best, and placed 11th.

The Austrians struggled a bit in their Adele long program. Usually the jumps are strong elements for Ziegler/Kiefer, but it just wasn’t their day in Saitama. Miriam had errors on both SBS jump passes, which incurred some negative GOE. They still managed 6.65 points overall for the jumps. Miriam also put both hands down on throw 3F. At least the throw 3S was good (albeit with a scrapy landing). They again got only basic level on the triple twist, but the other elements were pretty well done. This Adele program is not among my favorite free skates from Miriam/Severin–I find the powerful vocals a bit distracting, and I also don’t think the combination of songs works very well. However, the Austrians showed a really nice performance level. Even though the jumps weren’t working for them, the rest of their skating has improved so much in the last few years that they were still enjoyable to watch. Their PCS marks were very consistent, in the mid- to high-7s. They scored 115.01 in the long program, which was 8 points off their season’s-best, but enough for 11th LP/10th overall.

I am so sorry that Miriam/Severin suffered the loss of their coach this season. But Jean-Francois Ballester left them a wonderful legacy with everything he taught them. His influence will continue to be felt in their career over the next few years.

 

Below the Top 10

Ryom/Kim had a shaky start at Worlds, as they had to skate first in the short program and had a big fall on their throw 3Lp. Fortunately, they put out a much stronger free skate to pull up to 11th overall. This team has such potential, but if the North Korean federation wants them to succeed, it’s time to invest in some new programs and also get serious about competing more. Missing Four Continents this spring was not a good move …. Young Canadian team Walsh/Michaud had a great competition, finishing a solid 12th in their Worlds debut, not bad at all! I saw a lot of growth in their presentation here. They’ve been working hard …. It was the same story for Germans Hase/Seegert as it had been all season: Strong short program, weak long program. Obvious challenge for next year is to find two programs that work for them, and also to continue improving the quality of their elements …. Hocke/Blommaert finished only one spot (14th) below last year’s result (13th), but their performances in Saitama had a totally different feel from last year’s. I really, really like this team’s basics, so I hope they can reverse the sophomore slump they’ve been stuck in this year …. Spain’s Barquero/Maestu jumped from 20th at last year’s Worlds to 15th here. A nice move up, and they’re such a nice-looking team, yet I feel that they didn’t progress as much this year as I would have liked. They can do all the elements, but the quality level needs improvement if they hope to ever contend for top 10. Can their current coaching team take them any further? I’m not sure …. Croatian team Petranovic/Souza-Kordyeru also moved up 5 spots, from 21st to 16th. But errghh!! This team both delights and frustrates me! Their triple twist is so amazing! But the rest of the elements are so messy! They took a big step forward here with a season’s-best SP–but then fell apart again in the free skate. Disappointing, because I also quite like them as performers. Well, I will continue to hope for the future …. Jones/Boyadji were a highlight of the competition for me. Zoe amazes me so much, with what she’s accomplished at age 39 and after being out of competition so many years. I admire her tremendously. And they had two season’s-best performances in Saitama and went over 100 points in the free skate. Great to see …. Not much to say about Czechs Abrazhevich/Bidar. I respect skaters’ decisions, but, well, all I could think of was Anna Duskova …. Was sorry to see Italians Ghilardi/Ambrosini struggle so much with their elements. They seem to be a well-matched team, and I enjoy their inventive Bonnie & Clyde LP. Better luck next year??

 

Wrap-up

Although I didn’t write about pairs this season until now, I’ve been watching all along and enjoying this post-Olympic year. As I said above, I continue to have some questions about how the recent scoring and format changes are affecting the discipline. But I’ve enjoyed this season anyhow. And although the pairs field overall was quite depleted by retirements and injuries, there still have been many great moments.

Next season will be different. We can expect quite a few changes in the pairs field. With the Russian pairs, Tarasova/Morozov will need a new head coach, now that Maxim Trankov is stepping down. Also, Junior World champions Mishina/Galliamov will move up to seniors and have the potential to do well …. With the Chinese teams, all fingers crossed that Sui/Han can maintain their health and perhaps compete a full season. They are clearly the class of the field, a level above everyone else. Peng/Jin will look to build on this season’s success, and we’ll likely see Yu/Zhang back as well …. For the Canadian pairs, my hope is that, without a major injury to contend with in the off-season like they had this past year, Moore-Towers/Marinaro will have a smoother road next season. But look for new team Ilyushechkina/Bilodeau to potentially make a big impact next fall …. It’s a huge relief for U.S. pairs to have those 2 Worlds slots back. The demoralization that the single spot caused is hard to explain but was felt intensely by all the top U.S. pairs. Now, to take advantage of the improved situation. With their season this year, Cain/LeDuc have established themselves as U.S. #1. They fulfilled the faith that the U.S. federation had in their partnership from the beginning. For the other U.S. teams, it’s time to step it up another level next season to challenge … For James/Cipres, the biggest challenge will probably be coming up with programs that match or top this year’s memorable LP.

This season was a transitional year in pairs. Next season, the race for Beijing ‘22 will truly begin. Remember the podium from 2016 Worlds? It was Duhamel/Radford, Sui/Han, Savchenko/Massot. Those same three teams graced the podium in Pyeongchang.

Note: If you’re enjoying the articles on The Divine Sport, please take a moment to “like” our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/adivinesport/. You can also follow me on Twitter to get updates of new posts: @ClaireCloutier.

 

 

 

 

 

One thought on “Worlds 2019: Pairs Review

  1. Christine Grit

    Thank you for this extensive look back on Worlds 2019! Really enjoyable, and it made me visualise the programmes too. Now, rewatching them will be even more fun.

    Liked by 1 person

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