Sunday, March 8, 2009

2009 World Figure Skating Championships-Mens Preview Part I

It has been quite an uneasy journey for many of the men scheduled to compete at the 2009 World Figure Skating Championships, and it remains a feasible scenario that the results here may have little correlation to those of the XXI Olympiad. As the men take the ice for short program, none of the three medalists from the Turino 2006 Olympics will be in attendance. Before the start of the season, reigning world champion and Olympic bronze medalist Jeffrey Buttle of Canada decided to hang up his skates from international competition. Shortly thereafter, Stephane Lambiel, Switzerland's two-time world champion and Olympic silver medalist, opted to follow suit, citing that his body couldn't hold up to the demands of the new scoring system any longer. The gold medalist of those Games, Evgeni Plushenko, exited the world from skating upon the competition's conclusion, although recent comments on his part may mean that a comeback, exclusively for the 2010 Olympics, is imminent. The retirements of the two men that won three out of the last four world titles have subsequently caused outcries from many skating fans over the many extraneous and injury-prone elements that the new judging system has come to require. To further support this argument, based on who will be absent from roll call in L.A., Daisuke Takahashi suffered a knee injury back in October and subsequently announced his absence from competition for the entirety of the season. Further adding to list of absences at these world championships, American Johnny Weir, a skater with an enormous fan base worldwide, a world bronze medal, and three national titles was stunningly beaten to this championship by Brandon Mroz, a skater who didn't even win the junior level at nationals last year and who ranks 24th on the seasons best list.

Now enough with the negatives. Just because a few top skaters have moved on, are injured, or did not qualify, doesn't mean that the competition will suffer much in the least. Continuing a prosperous rise to the top, which just recently met with the Four Continents title, 18-year-old Patrick Chan will show off his brilliance in musicality, skating skills, and blissful jumping technique to attempt reaching the top step of the podium at his second World Championships. American Jeremy Abbott entered last year's worlds as the replacement to Evan Lysacek, with no pressure and no say as to who would medal. One year later, tremendous improvement has resulted in his first Grand Prix Final victory and U.S. National title. Could a world title be next? Abbott's fellow compatriot Evan Lysacek had a rough outing to the opening part of his season, placing 3rd at both Grand Prix events and at the U.S. Nationals. But rough no longer, he came back to take silver at Four Continents and poses as a prevalent threat for his first world championship medal since 2006. With Daisuke Takahashi out, Japan's medal hopes in this event lie in the steady hands of Takahiko Kozuka and Nobunari Oda, neither of whom has medaled at this event thus far. Last but not least, a deep and talented pool of European men is lead by current European and 2007 World Champion Brian Joubert of France, looking to take advantage of his confidence and content to stand at the top step of the podium for a second time.

Inside the Staples Center at the 2009 World Figure Skating Championships, there will be no "Battle of the Brians." There will be no dominant Russian man looking to see not if he is able to win, but by how wide of a margin. There will be no decided front-runner entering the competition. Instead, a widely talented and diverse group of men will take to the ice in what is expected to be a closely fought and unpredictable event. The easiest thing to predict is not of the championship itself, but rather what this championship will determine for the Olympic Games. Scott Hamilton continues to be the last skater who was able to take Olympic gold when coming into the Games as reigning world champion. Depending on how you look at it, the pressure with going into Vancouver for any of the men can be a detrimental, or perhaps even uplifting, task. But what is known is that coming into the Olympics as the reigning world champion has not proven to be a desirable opportunity, and given how slippery and unpredictable the ice is, it is possible that the winner of the Olympics won't even be in Los Angeles when the competition is taking place (e.g. Plushenko or Takahashi). However, for now, the 2009 World Figure Skating Championships are the daylight on every one's mind. On March 26th, 2009, one man will be crowned world champion, and will hold the title of 2009 World Figure Skating Champion forever.

Skaters Featured In Post

Jeremy Abbott (USA)
Patrick Chan (Canada)
Vaughn Chipeur (Canada)
Samuel Contesti (Italy)
Brian Joubert (France)
Takahiko Kozuka (Japan)

Evan Lysacek (USA)
Brandon Mroz (USA)
Nobunari Oda (Japan)
Yannick Ponsero (France)
Kevin Van Der Perren (Belgium)
Tomas Verner (Czech Republic)

Skaters in red are featured in part 1 of post.

Skaters in blue are featured in part 2 of post.

Jeremy Abbott (USA)

Expectations Going In: Having a breakthrough season, Abbott has scored victories at Cup of China, the Grand Prix Final, and the U.S. National Championships this season, thus establishing himself as one of the world's top male figure skaters. Despite his notable emergence from the shadows of others, Abbott has still proven to be vulnerable this year, finishing off the podium at Cup of Russia and at his most recent competition, the Four Continents Championships.

Pros: Strong in every department of his skating, the current U.S. National Champion has made resounding improvement in his jumps, notably his triple axel. Out of 15 triple axel attempts this season, 14 have been credited with a +GOE, and at last year's worlds Abbott landed the quadruple toe loop in both programs. Lauded for his innovative and musical choreography, Abbott kills two birds with one stone by incorporating unique and difficult linking steps in and out of his jumps, thereby enhancing the potential GOE mark for the jump and augmenting his PCS marks; specifically transitions and choreography. Abbott has not suffered a fall on any of his elements in competition this season, excluding the Four Continents Championships where he was ill. The current Grand Prix Final Champion is also strategic with taking advantage of his stamina to do difficult triple-triple combinations (triple axel+triple toe or triple lutz+triple toe+double toe) after the half-way point, which get hefty bonus marks.

Cons: Although Abbott has made excellent improvements in his skating and his overall competitive nature, he still cannot be considered a rock. At the 2008 Cup of Russia, Abbott finished off the podium, singling his lutz and falling on a combination spin in the short en route to finishing behind Alban Preaubert of France, who didn't even qualify to worlds. Although ill and tired at the Four Continents Championships, his most recent competition, it is interesting that the triple lutz, not the comparatively more difficult triple axel or triple-triple combination, gave him the most trouble with two falls. During the long program at this year's U.S. Nationals, Jeremy was placed with the unenviable task of leading after the short and skating last. There, a somewhat cautious free with no quad, a single loop, and a hand down on his double axel+triple toe combination was enough for the title, but such errors are unlikely to suffice for a world title or even a medal. Abbott has not landed, or even attempted, (unless if you count his try at 4CCs which turned to a double toe) the quad since last year's worlds.

Outlook: The good news is that Abbott has had not one, but two, (COC and GPF) competitions under his belt where he essentially skated flawlessly in both programs. The bad news is that Abbott has had not one, but two, (COR and 4CCs) competitions where he has skated far below his potential and has wound up off the podium with many of the top male figure skaters absent from both of those events. Tom Zakrajsek, Jeremy's main coach, seems to be skillful when it comes to peaking skaters when they are in most need of it. For example, Jeremy Abbott, Rachael Flatt, and Brandon Mroz, all Zakrajsek pupils, performed brilliantly at this year's U.S. Nationals. However, none of the three could reiterate that statement about their Four Continents showing, but remember no one wants to be arriving at 4CCs in their best shape ever. Abbott had an eye-opening introduction to the World Figure Skating Championships last year, finishing 11th. With the second highest season's best score of 2008/2009, Abbott has proven to be worthy of a world championship medal with all of the skills deserving of it. However, there are several pros and cons to competing his inconsistent quad at this competition, ranging from being able to win the world title to finishing too low to secure three American mens berths for the Olympics. The best course of action could be to decide after his short whether to go for it. If he does a clean short, secures a spot in the final group and preferably is in the top three heading into the free skate, he should go for broke in the long. However, if a flawed short is to stroll down his path he should leave the quad at bay, opting to skate cleanly and finish respectably, thus not putting any threats on the American men securing three Olympic spots (although the scenario of losing three Olympic spots is very unlikely).

Patrick Chan (Canada)

Expectations Going In: Although there is no clear favorite for the title, four gold medals this season, including convincing victories at the Canadian Nationals and the Four Continents Championships, do make Chan the closest there is to a favorite. Chan's artistry and great quality to his skating are unreservedly rewarded by the international judges, however his 9th place finish last year raises concerns over his ability to deliver the goods when they are most desired.

Pros: A world junior silver medalist in 2007, Chan's transformation into one of the world's finest male figure skaters is largely evidenced by the quality and precision of his elements. Among the three men that have competed in five major competitions this year (the others being Abbott and Kozuka), Chan has the highest total average score of 232.54, to Abbott's 229.494 and Kozuka's 225.858. At the 2009 Four Continents Championships, Chan did not receive a single -GOE for any of his elements, and racked up a total of 23.4 points (9.9 in the short and 13.5 in the long) for grade of execution at that competition. Armed with regal step sequences, fine musicality, and improved consistency on his triple axel jump, Chan's superb GOEs are aided by his difficult transitions prior to the entrances of his jumps. Chan's musicality, edge quality and old-school skating style are touted by fans and judges alike.

Cons: Chan has never attempted a quadruple jump of any kind in competition, much less landed it. Weak competitions at this season's Skate Canada, Grand Prix Final, and last year's World Figure Skating Championships have caused many to question whether the 18-year-old Ottawa native is ready to withstand the pressure of attempting to become a world champion, and one year from now an Olympic champion. Chan has not done an entirely clean long program in competition since January 2008 at the Canadian Nationals, and has only landed two triple axels in his long program once in his career thus far. It is of nearly unanimous agreement amongst skating fans that Patrick's marks at Four Continents, where he set the highest total recorded internationally this season, were noticeably inflated. Chan has made some very unenviable mistakes in the past, with one obvious example occuring this season. At the Canadian Nationals, Chan intended to do a triple flip+triple toe, but ended up falling out of a double flip and jettisoned the triple toe entirely.

Outlook: If we were to take res
ults from the Four Continents and European Championships this season to predict who will win at worlds, Patrick Chan would be the certain front-runner. Although not a particularly expressive skater, Chan's opulent skating skills, transitions, and step sequences earn him enviable PCS marks, particularly in the long program. Chan broke 80 with his PCS score during the long at the recent Four Continents Championships, a feat unmatched by any other male skater this season (in international competition). Never mind the fact that Chan has no quad; he can make that up with scoring through the roof for all of his other elements in terms of GOE, as well as scoring highly for PCS. It is unfortunately no accident that not one of the four Canadian men who had the honor of winning the world figure skating title: Brian Orser, Kurt Browning, Elvis Stojko, and Jeffrey Buttle, was able to experience the even greater honor of winning Olympic gold. Chan is entirely capable of taking his first world title in Los Angeles, but it is by no means a requirement for him to do so. As history has proven, winning could actually be a detriment, especially considering that the Olympics will be in his home country.

Vaughn Chipeur (Canada)

Expectations Going In: Making his first trip to the World Figure Skating Championships, Chipeur had an abominable start to his season, where he finished 12th out of 12 skaters at Cup of Russia, barely breaking 100 points in the free skate. A reinvented Chipeur arrived at the Canadian Nationals and finished 2nd, and skated arguably his best ever at the recent Four Continents Championships, finishing 6th against a competitive field. His primary task of duty for the world championships will be to help Patrick Chan secure three Canadian men's berths for the XXI Olympiad, and if Chan medals Chipeur will need a top 10 finish to do so.

Pros: The 24-year-old Lloydminster native has extraordinary amplitude and distance on all of his jumps, thus causing him to avoid under rotating. Landing eight triples in the free skate at the recent Four Continents Championships and beating Jeremy Abbott in that phase of the competition, Chipeur was also the owner of the second highest TES score (80.71) recorded that day. Immune from wrong-edge deductions, Vaughn takes advantage of his strength technically to receive level 3s and 4s for his spins and footwork, and is capable of getting GOEs at or above +1 for all of his jumping passes. Outside of the technical elements, Chipeur is credited for his good speed and overall athleticism on the ice.

Cons: Despite having a clean long program at the Four Continents Championships, Chipeur was the recipient of a PCS mark of 64.10, a score nine points lower than what Jeremy Abbott received for a flawed performance. Chipeur's PCS mark was also just over two points lower than fellow compatriot Jeremy Ten, who has just started to compete internationally on the senior level this season. With a somewhat rough, unpolished style, Chipeur is particularly hit on the PCS marks of transitions and choreography. With rough outings at this season's Cup of China and especially Cup of Russia, Chipeur was unable to break 135 for a relatively shaky long at the Canadian Nationals that was judged under a very lenient panel. Having never competed at a world championship, Chipeur's experience is limited to Grand Prix events, Canadian Nationals, and two Four Continents Championships.

Outlook: Right off the bat, Chipeur is at a disadvantage, which he essentially created for himself. His poor results at the beginning of the season and at other past competitions mean that, barring several injuries, he will not be in the final two groups for the short program. While this may not seem like such a large complication, it is such because Chipeur is not prone to receiving high PCS marks to begin with, and an earlier group will further intensify the problem. However, Chipeur has the capability to place in the top 10 if he skates like he did at the Four Continents Championships, which, as aforementioned, should do the trick to get three Olympic berths for Canada next year. In a sense, Chipeur's performance here could dictate whether he gets an Olympic berth or not, as that third place could very well be his to take or leave one year from now.

Samuel Contesti (Italy)

Expectations Going In: Although a relative unknown, the Le Havre, France native has had a very interesting, if not disappointing, career thus far. Formerly competing for France, he made the 2005 world championship team, missing the cut to make the free skate and finishing in 26th place. Failing to make the Olympic team, in spite of finishing 2nd at French Nationals, he switched to competing for Italy shortly thereafter. At 26-years-old, Contesti has been coming into his own as of late, having won the last two Italian national titles and the European silver medal this year. Contesti is at best considered a dark horse medal threat for these World Championships.

Pros: A quirky, expressive sk
ater, Contesti is coached by Peter Grutter, Stephane Lambiel's former coach. Taking the silver medal at the 2009 European Championships, he placed third in the short program there despite skating much earlier than most of his top counterparts. Masterful with his jumping technique, Contesti received no downgrades or wrong-edge deductions for any of his jumping passes at Europeans. At that same competition, the reigning Italian champion received only one -GOE, and six out of his 10 non-jump elements were graded a level four by the technical panel. With many not regarding him as a top threat in L.A., and with the bulk of Italian figure skating expectations on Carolina Kostner, Contesti will be pleased to have little expectation on him when he enters the Staples Center.

Cons: Contesti's lack of speed and fairly simplistic choreography impede his PCS marks, scoring only 32.05 in the short and 68.20 in the long at Europeans this year. Contesti's only world or Olympic appearence as a skater terminated him in 26th place, and he has only competed in two Grand Prix events during his entire career. Absent from the Grand Prix series this season, his ability to be scored favorably by the judges, particularly in terms of PCS, will likely be hampered. This is because of Contesti's low world ranking, which will require him skate earlier in the line up and not in the coveted final two groups during the short program. Contesti has no quad in his arsenal, and repeats the comparatively easier double axel twice in his long program. In addition, Samuel was unable to break 145 in the free skate at the 2009 Europeans, despite his only error being a double lutz instead of a triple and being judged under a fairly obliging panel.

Outlook: Contesti's meteoric improvement has been tremendously visible in his recent success,
and he will enter these World Championships with no pressure of getting Italy a certain number of mens spots during the Olympics, and no pressure of medaling. To truly make an impact in terms of how a top five placement is concerned, Contesti would be grateful to make the final group. Such a task will be difficult, however, because skaters like Abbott, Chan, Joubert, Kozuka, Lysacek, Oda, and Verner are all capable of coming close to or breaking 80 points in the short, whereas Ponsero's personal best internationally is just over 75 for a clean program. If the tall, 5'11" skater is able to keep up his recent solidity at competitions like the Italian Nationals and Europeans this year, he should be well within the mix to finish top 10 in Los Angeles.

Brian Joubert (France)

Expectations Going In: The only former world champion taking part at this championship, Joubert has had a stellar record at worlds with one gold (2007) and three silver (2004, 2006, 2008). Despite this, Joubert has not had a stellar season by his standards, finishing off the podium at Trophee Eric Bompard and withdrawing from the free skate of the Grand Prix Final. Although he took back his European title, his status for the World Championships remains in question because he has reportedly been suffering from a knee injury.

Pros: Capable of landing three quads in one program, Joubert is arguably the
finest jumper in the world. The three-time European champion has made considerable improvement in his spins, footwork, and artistry over the past several seasons and has arrived at the World Figure Skating Championships near his peak for the last three years. Joubert recently broke his personal best for the short (now an 86.90) at Europeans, and is one of the only top men who does consistently attempt a quadruple jump in the short program. Known for his self-confidence and panache, Joubert will be entering his 8th world championship this year with plenty of experience to draw upon.

Cons: Despite the fact that Joubert could do a quadruple jump in his sleep, he cannot take off from an inside edge on his triple flip to save his life, often receiving an "e" wrong-edge penalty for that particular jump. Four out of 10 of Brian's non-jump elements at Europeans were graded at a level two, and he recorded a seasons best total of 232.01 at that competition, which would've only sufficed for a bronze medal at the Four Continents Championships. Brian's highest score in the long program this season is a 147.38, a far cry from the seasons bests in the long for Chan (160.29) and Abbott (159.46). However, the biggest concern for Joubert heading into these World Championships is that he recently aquired a knee injury while practicing a spin. Since this is his landing knee that was injured, his jumping advantage may be downsized when he comes to compete in Los Angeles.

Outlook: Joubert, currently 24, should by now be fully aware of what it takes to win at such a prestigious competition given all of his experience, triumphs, and disappointments. Joubert stated that he has been training religiously to improve to the form necessary of winning a world title, but his knee injury has placed itself as a roadblock for the journey to winning a second world title. Brian appears to be sticking with the plan of attempting just one quad in the long program, but he may need to pull out all of his technical jewels to remain competitive. His personal best in the long program at 2006 Cup of Russia, which contained three quads, is actually lower than Patrick Chan's personal best with no quad and only one triple axel. With that said, Joubert does still have all the ingredients for a massive score. His PCS marks, not always considered his strength, were actually higher than Jeffrey Buttle's in the long at last year's worlds, and won the silver medal there after having not had an especially great season beforehand. Joubert's competitiveness hasn't failed him at the World Championships since 2005, and that competitiveness is perhaps his greatest virtue as a skater.

Takahiko Kozuka (Japan)

Expectations Going In: Despite Daisuke Takahashi's absence, the strength of the Japanese men remains intact with the breakthrough talent of Takahiko Kozuka, winner of the silver medal at the Grand Prix Final and the gold medal at Skate America this season. Despite having medaled at every competition he has been in this season, he is not seen by many to be the top Japanese man entering these World Championships. Many feel that Nobunari Oda, who beat Kozuka at Japanese Nationals, has a more definite chance of a medal.

Pros: Kozuka is exalted for his fine skating skills, cat-like jump landings, and good musicality. Having medaled at five out of five competitions this year, Kozuka has already beaten skaters such as Abbott, Chan, Joubert, Lysacek, and Oda in competition. Kozuka scored nearly 84 points in his short program at the Grand Prix Final and also marked a very creditable 153.78 for his free skate at the Trophee Eric Bompard, a score he received despite falling and under rotating his quadruple toe loop. Kozuka was a participant at this competition last year, where he finished a respectable 8th. A polished, old-school skater, Kozuka takes advantage of the quality of his elements to get high GOEs, thus racking up a very competitive TES score.

Cons: Kozuka has not landed the quadruple toe loop jump once in competition, and actually the first time he was even credited with rotating the jump was at the recent Four Continents Championships. Despite skating solid programs technically, in regards to PCS Kozuka only marked a 33.80 in the short and a 70.60 in the long at 4CCs, with those PCS marks being his lowest of the season for both programs. The current Japanese silver medalist has also struggled with his 2nd triple axel late in his long program throughout this season, and has also been criticized for his lack of artistry and expression in his programs. Kozuka's seasons best is only the 6th highest amongst the men competing in Los Angeles, and his 3rd place score at the Four Continents Championships was 27.43 points lower than winner Chan and 15.39 points lower than silver medalist Lysacek.

Outlook: It remains a mystery as to why Kozuka's PCS marks from the Grand Prix Final dropped 5.75 points (3.05 for the short, 2.7 in the long) by the time Four Continents Championships rolled around, when he skated about the same overall in both competitions. This does not bode well for his medal prospects at his second World Championships, however his last trip to America certainly agreed with him when he shockingly beat both Johnny Weir and Evan Lysacek at Skate America after having finished 8th at that event the previous year. Japan's hopes for three Olympic spots still seem to be pretty secure, so Kozuka should still attempt his nemesis, the quad, until he can finally master it. With solid all-around skating, Kozuka would probably be best classified as an outside, albeit legitimate, medal contender in Los Angeles.

Part 2 to come shortly.

That is all.

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