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2017 NHK Trophy

Osaka. Japan

No medal for Japan at NHK Trophy for the first time in 17 years

by Tatjana Flade

(14 Nov 2017)  NHK Trophy returned to Osaka – the last time it had been held here in 2014 – and this season was the fourth stop on the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating circuit. The Men’s event lost two prominent competitors as first Patrick Chan withdrew a few days before and then Yuzuru Hanyu dropped out with injury. Nevertheless, it was an exciting competition with strong performances and the level overall was high. Unfortunately for the host country, Japan remained without a medal for the first time in 17 years.

Veteran Voronov Bags First Grand Prix Gold

Sergei Voronov has been around for a long time and won many international medals, but he never took a Grand Prix gold. Now, at age 30 he did it and apparently is the oldest man ever to have won a Grand Prix event. The Russian earned it in a convincing manner, making almost no mistakes and skating with power and expression. With the two top favorites not competing, an opportunity opened up and Voronov seized it. “We all know that Yuzuru would have been the top contender and it is a shame that he could not compete. I only can wish him a quick recovery. Without him, we all had the same chances,” Sergei said.

The two-time Russian Champion led after a clean Tango short with a quad toe-triple toe loop. In the long to “Sarabande Suite” he produced two quad toe loops (the second one was two-footed) and all the triples including two big triple Axels and the quality of his elements and overall skating was better than in the past. “I had a lot of difficulties, emotionally and others, I don’t want to talk about that now, but I just want to say that difficulties break some people and make some people stronger,” the Muscovite noted. “In this case, the difficulties I went through made pushed me in a good way, because many times I wanted and I had the opportunity to do something different or to just give up. But I didn’t do it. It means that what I experienced made me a bit better.”

Sergei enjoyed performing in Osaka and it turned out to be a lucky place for him. He had competed in Osaka at NHK Trophy three years ago and had won the silver medal behind Daisuke Murakami.

It was a little story of the event that the three oldest men ended up on the podium. Adam Rippon claimed the silver on his 28th birthday and the bronze went to Alexei Bychenko, 29.

Rippon sat in fourth following the short program as he had stumbled out of his final spin and received lower component score for his rock program (which actually was very well presented) than Jason Brown. Adam then made himself a nice birthday present with an almost flawless free program to “The Arrival of the Birds.”

His opening quad Lutz was under-rotated, but landed on one foot and he reduced a combination to triple flip-double loop, but other than that there were no glitches and he pulled up two spots. “First, this competition means a lot to me, because 10 months ago I was lying in bed, wearing a cast, with a broken foot. From that moment to this moment, it feels great to have skated so well tonight in my first Grand Prix of the season in the Olympic year,” Rippon said. “Second, I think it is really cool that the three oldest guys in the competition are on the podium. I’d also like to point out that I am the youngest one,” he added.

Bychenko delivered a clean short to “Hava Nagila” with a quad toe loop-triple toe loop and sat in second place. The Ukrainian-born Israeli had dumped his new free skating to “Bolero” and gone back to the dramatic opera “Pagliacci”, because he felt more comfortable with it. He landed two quad toe loops, but stumbled on a triple Axel and doubled the loop. Nevertheless, he managed a sesaon’s best like the other two men and remained on the podium, winning the second Grand Prix medal of his career. “It was not my best today, I made a few big mistakes, like popping a jump, and I almost fell on another jump," he said. "But I started the season late and for my second competition it was not so bad. It was a good experience and we know what we have to work on.”

Everybody knows that Jason Brown and the quads are not friends, but the quality of his other elements and his overall skating guarantee him good placements especially when the men armed with quads make mistakes. However, in order to make up for the lack of quads, the American needs to get his points from his other elements and his components.

In the short program to “The Room Where It Happens” from the musical “Hamilton”, he stepped out of the landing of the triple Axel and was ranked third. In his free to “Inner Love”, a music especially composed for him by Frenchman Maxim Rodriguez who over the years has arranged and created music for many skaters, Brown fell twice on the triple Axel, the second one was c and he didn’t even try the quad toe loop. He obviously wanted to go for a clean program, but the strategy didn’t work out as planned. “It was not my day,” he said. Jason finished fourth and most likely lost his chance to make the Grand Prix Final.

Keegan Messing replaced Patrick Chan on short notice. The American-Canadian was back home in Alaska and was a bit depressed as his free skating at Skate Canada didn’t go too well, but he did not hesitate a second to use this chance for a second Grand Prix. Keegan fell on the triple Axel in the short, but landed his quad toe loop combo. He came without any falls through his Charlie Chaplin free, but he tripled a quad toe loop and, as a result, his second triple Axel didn’t count as he had repeated one triple too many – he had already done two triple Lutzes and two triple toe loops (5th).

Latvia’s Deniss Vasiljevs didn’t go for a quad, and struggled with his triple Axel to finish sixth. Kazuki Tomono of Japan replaced his teammate Daisuke Murakami, who according to media reports fell sick with acute pneumonia (7th). Dmitri Aliev from Russia fell on his under-rotated quad Lutz in the short program and made some other errors to come 8th. Michal Brezina was not able to skate as well as in Canada (9th).

Yuzuru Hanyu’s withdrawal was a major bummer for the fans and the Japanese Skating Federation, because it also means that he will not be in the Grand Prix Final. Unfortunately, the injury was a result of Hanyu’s exaggerated ambition and could have been most likely avoided. According to reports, the Olympic Champion had a fever and did not practice on Wednesday, the day before the official practice. On Thursday, he skipped the first practice, but came for the second. Although he was not in top shape and apparently against the advice of his coaches, he went for a quad Lutz and took a bad fall, twisting his right leg and ankle.

Yuzuru went off the ice, came back later when his music played, but did not do much anymore. He iced his ankle and received treatment, but much to his chagrin, the physicians decided that he should not skate. Which was for sure the right decision. There is no point in risking further injury. In any case, Hanyu did not need that quad Lutz, for sure not at NHK Trophy. He also does not need it at the Olympic Games, if he does his other quads (toe loop, Salchow, loop) and all the other stuff, because he will be on top because of the quality of his elements and his skating. Obviously, he is a very competitive person, but he already proved at Rostelecom Cup that he, too, can do a quad Lutz in competition – and he should have left it at that, especially since the Lutz never was his best jump.

Evgenia Medvedeva on Top Again

Evgenia Medvedeva won her second Grand Prix gold medal this season with 12 points to spare. The short program was flawless once more and strong with difficult transitions in and out of the elements and rightfully the two-time World Champion got mostly +2 and +3 GOEs for her elements, just the double Axel looked somewhat labored. However, Evgenia fell on the opening triple flip in her “Anna Karenina” long program and stepped out of the triple Lutz. She then rallied back, hit all her other jumps and did the triple flip-triple toe loop combo that was planned as the first element later in the program.

Her victory was not a question and well deserved, but the ambitious skater was not too happy about her mistakes. “When you fall on the first jump, it is like a sense of self-preservation kicking in. You know that you have one more chance to do the combination and you just go and do it,” she said. “Doing the flip-toe loop in the second half of the program was my highlight today.” Many might have noticed that the 17-year-old taped her legs. “I have a minor problem with my right ankle and we’re taking care of it now. I am looking forward to some rest and getting new energy,” she explained. Evgenia, too, needs to take care of herself and should not push herself too hard.

Carolina Kostner turned in a solid short program to “Ne me quitte pas”, and the performance was especially emotional for her as she dedicated it to two young Italian skaters that had tragically died in a recent car crash on the way home from the Cup of Alps competition. “I felt I wanted them to have one more skate together with me and I wanted to send a prayer to the families,” the five-time European Champion said.

 Her free program “L’après-midi d’un faun” is a true masterpiece, but unfortunately was marred by two errors – Carolina doubled a toe loop and fell on a triple Salchow. She did complete four clean triples and it was nice to see that she earned the highest component score. Six judges gave her a 9.75 for the music interpretation and for sure some of those and some of her other components would have been a 10.00 without the fall. It is a treat to watch Carolina skating and the younger skaters look up to her and respect her highly.

“It is a shame about the mistakes, because I have been skating clean in practice in the past two weeks”, Kostner said. After Rostelecom Cup she had visited her family and then trained in Oberstdorf again with long-time coach Michael Huth, who also accompanied her to Japan. Right after NHK Trophy she planned to go to Toronto to work with her choreographer Lori Nichol and then is looking forward to the Grand Prix Final that she most likely has reached. “Who would have thought that I’ll go one more time to the Grand Prix Final,” Carolina said with a laugh.

Polina Tsurskaya is another talented young skater from Russia but has had many injuries – the knee and the back have been bothering her and she missed quite a few competitions in the past two years. Now she is recovering, but still needs to be careful about her back.

The 16-year-old debuted strongly on the senior Grand Prix with two clean and expressive performances. She picked up the highest technical score in the free skating and claimed the bronze medal. “I’ll go home and will continue to work hard to fix the issues that I had and I’m looking forward to skating better and getting more points at Skate America,” Polina noted. She is a kind of a dark horse in the Russian ladies’ race for the three Olympic spots. If healthy and skating clean she is a threat to all the other ladies except probably Medvedeva as she not only has great jumps, but also beautiful lines and good skating skills.

USA’s Mirai Nagasu landed a wobbly but fully rotated triple Axel in the short program, but under-rotated the triple toe loop in her combination and the triple Lutz. In the free “Miss Saigon” did exactly the opposite – the Axel was under-rotated, but the other six triples were clean and she moved up to fourth.

Japan’s Satoko Miyhara returned to competition for the first time since the stress fracture in her hip ended her season early last February. She looked a bit cautious and had a few issues with under-rotations and her speed (5th). Alena Leonova had a good competition with two clean performances that included a big triple toe loop-triple toe loop combination each. Especially her Bollywood free program was very enjoyable (6th). Rika Hongo and Yuna Shiraiwa, of Japan, lost some points on under-rotations and Rika also fell on a downgraded triple flip in the free skating (7th and 8th). Mariah Bell (USA) made too many mistakes to be competitive in this field. She doubled the flip in the short and fell on two jumps in the free (9th).

Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir Reign in Japan

Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir once more reigned supreme and took the NHK Trophy gold easily. However, the Canadians lost the “distant duel” with their toughest rivals Gabriella Papadakis &  Guillaume Cizeron. Obviously you cannot really compare scores from one competition to the next and the difference in points is small, but the Canadians probably had hoped to follow suit and also break the 200 points mark, which they missed by just 1.36 points.

Their Short Dance to Rolling Stones is very original and cool. Virtue was a bit shaky at the end of the twizzle sequence that was rated a level three, all the other elements were a level four and the judges awarded five 10.00 in the components. The Moulin Rouge free dance is truly spectacular, highlighted by breathtaking lifts and fast, effortless looking yet difficult footwork. It is the attack and the passion the Canadians show that makes this program so special. The levels were almost perfect – level 4 for everything except the diagonal footwork that was a level 3.

The three-time Olympic medalists (gold in Vancouver, silver in Sochi in the individual and in the team event) collected six perfect 10.00 in the components – three of them for music interpretation and timing, two for performance and one for composition. Virtue & Moir slightly surpassed their personal best (by 0.52 points) in the free dance with 117.72 points and totaled 198.64 points. “We’ve made some improvements this week that we’re quite proud of, from Skate Canada. We only had one week. We’re looking to make the same sort of transition into the Final. It’s a great stepping stone here for us,” Moir said. The dancers are well aware of the fact that Papadakis & Cizeron had a slightly higher score in China.

“Fortunately for us, it is not foreign territory after having a rivalry with Meryl (Davis) and Charlie (White) for so many years. That experience has prepared us well. We are very aware of the points, we are competitors and we have been quite open and honest about our goal in this comeback that culminates in the Olympic Games. I think it is our job to be aware of that but also recognize our power and our position how we reach the top,” Tessa commented.

Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue turned in two strong performances to take the silver medal and keep their hopes alive to make the Grand Prix Final. Their free dance is set to two Blues pieces

‘Across the Sky’ and ‘Caught Out in the Rain’ and highlights their strength to portray the relationship between man and woman. “We felt like we did a really artistic performance of our program. We left some points on the table, but we’ll be going home, working”, Hubbell shared. “I think we’re growing a lot as a team, learning how to compete consistently. We’re hoping that this result is enough to make it to the Final. We’re going home practicing with this intention.”

Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte always have fared well with their talent for acting and storytelling on the ice. This year is no exception. The Italians started the season later as they wanted as Anna had been sidelined with a cut in her hand that required 15 stitches. So their programs are still lacking a bit mileage, but they were technically solid and clean.

The free dance is set to “La Vita e Bella”, the soundtrack of an Italian movie about the Holocaust. “For the Olympic year, we wanted to bring in something very Italian, but not an Italian opera, because we have done that before,” Anna explained. They finished third a little less than two points behind Hubbell & Donohue and have a chance to fight for the Grand Prix Final at Skate America.

“We’re very happy with the way we skated here. We’re just not as ready as we wanted to be. We’re still learning to express our material to its full potential. We’re looking forward to just skate and not think too much about what we’re doing. We’ll go home and train night and day and hopefully we’ll be able to deliver a more powerful performance in a couple of weeks at Skate America,” Cappellini said.

Russia’s Victoria Sinitsina & Nikita Katsalapov finished fourth. They were probably just happy to survive the short dance that was a disaster at their previous competition in Minsk when the fell on the rotational lift. There were a few level threes that they need to improve, though. The Rachmaninov free dance had good flow and the levels were good. In the closing pose, Nikita hold his partner up – and then collapsed. Luckily that happened after the music stopped and it didn’t count as a fall.

Laurence Fournier-Beaudry & Nikolaj Sorensen of Denmark skated well on both days and pulled up from sixth to fifth with their characteristic Flamenco free dance.

Alexandra Nazarova & Maxim Nikitin always set themselves apart with original lifts and transitions. Their free dance is set to “Pirates of the Caribbean”, which seems a bit juniorish, though. The Ukrainains came sixth, overtaking the accomplished British team Penny Coomes & Nicholas Buckland.  Coomes & Buckland were a last minute replacement for Isabella Tobias & Ilia Tkachenko who withdrew on short notice.

According to coach Oleg Epstein, Tobias aggravated problems with her hip. “We were on the ice, practicing when we got the phone call. We left right away, packed and two hours later we were on our way to the airport,” Penny said. In the free dance they lost quite a few points as only the curve lift was a level four and they dropped from fifth to seventh place.

Wenjing Sui & Cong Han Cruise to Pairs Gold

Wenjing Sui & Cong Han had no trouble securing their second Grand Prix gold medal this season and their spot in the Grand Prix Final. The World Champion gave two confident performances that were highlighted by excellent elements. The throws especially are amazing, high, covering distance and usually landed perfectly. The only flaw was a level two in the pair combination spin in the short program. The “Turandot” free skate featured a quad twist. With 155.10 points, the reigning Four Continents Champions set a new record score in the Free Skating, surpassing the previous highest score of 154.66 points of Tatiana Volosozhar &  Maxim Trankov four years ago at Skate America.

In total the Chinese couple earned 234.53 points, not far off the current record score still held by Volosozhar & Trankov. As good as they were, Sui and Han still feel they can do better. “Today we skated in a relaxed way and we performed as we can do in training and showed what we have worked hard for,” Sui said. "However, there is still room for improvement and we are looking forward to doing better next time." Han added: "I didn’t even realize that we have a new record score. Maybe it will sink in later that we have achieved something big like that.”

Ksenia Stolbova & Fedor Klimov, of Russia, did not have a good start into the season with rough performances at Finlandia Trophy and Rostelecom Cup. This time, things went much better and the 2014 Olympic silver medalists were solid technically as well as strong artistically. Their short to “Tango de Besame”, a sensual Tango version of “Besame Mucho”, was clean with a superb throw triple flip. Their sharp “Carmen” free also went very well and Stolbova & Klimov even completed a triple toe loop-triple toe loop combination but stepped out of the landing of the second jump.

The twist remains a problematic element of the Russian Champions, though. It was a level one in both programs and usually doesn’t garner more than 0 or +1 GOEs, and that might be the decisive disadvantage compared to other top teams. For example, in the short program, Sui & Han earned 8.20 points for their level-four triple twist with a GOE of 1.6. Stolbova & Klimov’s twist was a level 1 and had a GOE of 0.30 which gave them 5.70 points overall.

“We skated a lot better than in our previous competitions in both short and free skating, so we are very pleased with that. This will give us confidence," Klimov said. "We are also happy that we go to the Grand Prix Final. We missed the Grand Prix last season, so it is important for us to return to the final.”

Kristina Astakhova & Alexei Rogonov are a bit different from the typical Russian teams, less classical, more willing to go for unusual programs. They have become more consistent competitors and it paid off, with two new personal best scores they claimed their second Grand Prix bronze medal this season. The couple from Moscow made no mistake in the short program and in the entertaining free to “La La Land” the only error came when she doubled the side by side Salchow. Astakhova had caught a cold, but she didn’t feel that it affected her much. “Everything today was at a high level and we are pleased with our performance,” Rogonov said. "Obviously, there are some problems with the jetlag and Kristina is a bit sick, but we are glad that almost everything worked out and we did our job today."

Julianne Séguin & Charlie Bilodeau came fourth. He missed the practice on Thursday as his suitcase with his skates was lost on the way to Japan. The airline informed the team on Thursday that the skates have arrived in Tokyo and will be delivered on Saturday. Obviously, then the skaters could not compete. The travel agency of the Japanese Skating Federation took care of the issue and the skates arrived in time for practice and competition on Friday. The Canadians made only one major mistake when she landed forward on the popped Salchow in the short program.

Alexa Scimeca Knierim & Chris Knierim (USA) finished fifth. He has problems with the solo jumps. The Austrians Miriam Ziegler & Severin Kiefer had a solid short program, but she fell on the triple toe loop and the throw triple Salchow in the long program. Additionally, she stumbled on the triple Salchow and the twist was not good. They ranked sixth.