Thursday, April 14, 2011

2011 World Figure Skating Championships: Pairs Preview

The 2011 World Figure Skating Championships kick off in Moscow, Russia in just over a week. The pairs take the ice on Wednesday April 27th at 11:30am for their short program with the free skate on Thursday April 28th starting at 10:00 am. All of these times are US Eastern Standard Time. The complete event schedule can be found here.
The pairs competition seems to be the easiest to predict based on the results of the season thus far. The top teams have been very consistent and in pairs more than in any other discipline, there is a very distinct break between the top four or five teams in the world and the next flight of six or seven teams that could contend for a top five finish if other teams make mistakes.
The Top Contenders
Aliona Savchenko & Robin Szolkowy of Germany already have a world gold under their belts from 2009 and they have not been beaten overall in competition all season. The world title is clearly theirs to lose. They won by large margins in both of their Grand Prix events and even in the Grand Prix Final over Pang & Tong. The only team that came close to beating them was Kavaguti & Smirnov at the European Championships. In my opinion, nobody in the world can beat a clean Savchenko & Szolkowy so if you ask me, they truly hold their fate in their hands. At 27 and 31 they seem to be at the height of their physical abilities so I can see them staying in for the next 3 seasons. If they do happen to miss gold, it would take a complete and utter meltdown for them to miss the podium in Moscow.
Those who know me and follow my blog/twitter know I have not been the biggest fan of Yuko Kavaguti & Alexander Smirnov but I do truly love their Claire de Lune free skate this season. It is fluid, elegant, and oh so "Russian." They only competed in one Grand Prix event this season and won easily at Cup of Russia. They came so close to Savchenko & Szolkowy at Europeans, beating them in the free skate, but had to settle for silver. I would actually like to see them take the world title, but I think they'll yet again play second fiddle to the Germans and face stiff competition from their fellow Russian pairs, though the home crowd will be on their side.
Tatiana Volosozhar & Maxim Trankov of Russia are the new kids in town on the pairs circuit, but while their partnership is young, they each have a wealth of experience from previous pairings and seem to have meshed very well. I have yet to see them skate together but I've heard great things, and both were the stronger half of their previous partnerships so they seem to make sense as a couple. Many think they can win a world title but I think it takes more than a few months to truly mesh as a pair and I think 3rd or 4th place is a more realistic expectation in their first Worlds together.
Qing Pang & Jian Tong have been a favorite pair team of mine for years but they have made so many uncharacteristic mistakes this season and they look so exhausted. They finished second to the Germans at the Grand Prix Final by a large margin so it will be a very tall order for them to defend their world title. The Russian teams will also present a huge challenge and I expect them to finish around 3rd or 4th. They plan to take the Shen/Zhao route and take a full year off, though they haven't announced which year, before coming back for the Sochi games and I think that year of rest will do wonders for them.
Vera Bazarova & Yuri Larionov of Russia are without a doubt my favorite pair team in the world because of their soft elegance and their delicate lines. They have that undeniable "Russian" quality and remind me of the great Gordeeva & Grinkov. I am happy to see Russian pairs return to glory and it is very likely that all three teams can place in the top 5 at this year's Worlds. This team is very young and they will have a long future ahead of them even after the current top Russian pairs retire. They had a strong season with two Grand Prix silver medals, a 4th place finish at the Grand Prix Final, a bronze at Europeans, and a bronze at Russian nationals. A top five finish at Worlds would be the perfect way to cap off an outstanding season and set them up for a great 2011-2012 season.
Teams In The Hunt
Caitlin Yankowskas & John Coughlin are the reigning US champions and they will need to finish 6th or better if they hope to help the US qualify a third pair to World next season. This is entirely doable if they skate to the best of their abilities technically and emotionally as they did at US Nationals. They had a great Grand Prix season but a weak showing at Four Continents left them in 4th. That was not entirely bad though because it showed that they could still accomplish a respectable finish with mistakes, meaning they could have top five potential with two perfect skates. Aside from the top 5 contenders, their main competition will come from the two Canadian teams, Takahahi/Tran and Evora/Ladwig. According to John's twitter, their training is going great and they'll be in great shape in Moscow.
Though Yankowskas/Coughlin are the current US champions, Amanda Evora & Mark Ladwig are on virtually the same level internationally. If they are perfect, they actually have the potential to beat some of the best in the world based on the levels and grades of execution they get on some of their lifts and other pair elements, but they are prone to mistakes. Amanda was distracted due to a death in the family and  Mark fought a broken skate lace so their showing at Four Continents was disappointing, but if they can bounce back, they have the potential to place in the top six or seven. If their placement added to that of Yankowskas & Coughlin adds up to thirteen or less, they will qualify a 3rd US pair team to the 2012 World Championships.
Kirsten Moore-Towers & Dylan Moscovitch of Canada made me love them at the beginning of the seasons as they seemingly burst out of nowhere to claim two Grand Prix silver medals, yet never without mistakes. They struggled at the Grand Prix Final yet won Canadian Nationals in impressive fashion. They followed up with yet another disappointing showing at Four Continents. They remind me so much of American pairs in that they give us glimpses of greatness yet can't seem to show two perfect programs in the same competition. They can place anywhere from 5th to 10th depending on what shape they are in next week in Moscow.
I didn't really follow Canadian Nationals so I was floored to see Meagan Duhamel & Eric Radford win the silver at Four Continents after an underwhelming international debut at Skate Canada. There was a lot of controversy in the blogosphere over whether they should have gotten full credit for their side by side triple flips, which are more difficult jumps than most pairs attempt. Either way, that was a mistake-filled competition, and skating clean was enough to make the podium. That will not be enough at Worlds and I'm not convinced that this team is the real deal yet, so their performances next week should tell us whether they are a one hit wonder or if they truly have staying power.
They young Japanese pair of Narumi Takahashi & Mervin Tran has been over-hyped in my opinion, but then again they are very solid for their age. They won two senior Grand Prix medals this season and won the junior Grand Prix Final, as well as bronze at junior worlds. Because they have competed on both the junior and senior circuits this season, I think they are exhausted and that showed through in their 7th place finish at this year's Four Continents. Though many already consider them a top pair in the world, I still think they'll finish behind the Americans & Canadians and round out the top ten. Nevertheless, it will be a great experience for them to compete at senior Worlds and then get some much needed rest in the off season.
Stefania Berton & Ondrej Hotarek of Italy were not really on my radar until they finished 5th at this year's European Championships, which is especially impressive as Europe is once again becoming the hotbed of pairs skating that it once was. Looking back, they did place a respectable 11th at last year's senior worlds and 6th at this season's Cup of Russia. They'll look to improve on that 11th place finish, but it will be very difficult to break into the top 10.
Maylin Hausch & Daniel Wende of Germany are another team looking to break into a very tight top ten. They finished 14th at last year's worlds and have been steadily climbing this season from 7th at NHK Trophy to 3rd at Grand Prix Paris and 6th at Europeans. The success of their countrymen has to have been a great motivation for them and assuming they win gold or silver, Hausch and Wende need only place 11th or 12th to qualify a third German team for next year's worlds.
The Rest of the Field
Stina Martini & Severin Kiefer (AUT): 8th at 2010 Ice Challange, 8th at 2010 NRW Trophy Singles Pairs, 15th at 2011 Europeans, 5th at 2011 Mont Blanc Trophy, 16th at 2011 World Juniors (Personal Best Total Score: 100.87)
Lubov Bakirova & Mikalai Kamianchuk (BLR): 8th at 2010 Nebelhorn Trophy, 7th at 2010 NRW Trophy Singles Pairs, 10th at 2011 Europeans (Personal Best Total Score: 120.72)
Alexandra Malakhova & Leri Kenchadze (BUL): 8th at 2010 Golden Spin, 4th at 2011 Mont Blanc Trophy
Huibo Dong & Yiming Wu (CHN): 7th at 2010 Skate Canada, 7th at 2010 Cup of China, 2nd at 2011 Winter Universiade, 10th at 2011 Four Continents (Personal Best Total Score: 146.49)
Yue Zhang & Lei Wang (CHN): 8th at 2010 NHK Trophy, 3rd at 2011 Winter Universiade, 9th at 2011 Four Continents (Personal Best Total Score: 147.89)
Klara Kadlekova & Petr Bidar (CZE): 7th at 2010 JGP Austria, 7th at JGP 2010 Great Britain, 4th at 2010 Coupe de Nice, 6th at 2010 Ice Challenge, 6th at 2010 Grand Prix Paris, 7th at 2011 Europeans, 8th at 2011 World Juniors (Personal Best Total Score: 139.94)
Natalja Zabijako & Sergei Kulbach (EST): 5th at 2010 NRW Trophy Singles Pairs, 13th at 2011 Europeans (Personal Best Total Score: 106.47)
Adeline Canac & Yannick Bonheur (FRA): 5th at 2010 Ice Challenge, 3rd at NRW Trophy Singles Pairs, 9th at 2011 Europeans (Personal Best Total Score: 125.34)
Stacey Kemp & David King (GBR): 5th at 2010 Coupe de Nice, 8th at 2010 Skate Canada, 8th at 2010 Skate America, 8th at 2011 Europeans (Personal Best Total Score: 139.94)
Danielle Montalbano & Evgeni Krasnopolski (ISR): 9th at 2010 Nebelhorn Trophy, 7th 15 2010 Ice Challenge, 6th at 2010 Golden Spin

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