Thousands of Japanese skating fans bought tickets to the 2009 ISU Grand Prix Final with the expectations that they would be witnessing their hometown heroine, Mao Asada, take on her premier rival, Yu-Na Kim, in a pre-Olympic showdown. While Kim easily qualified to this event, Asada's career hit rock bottom at Cup of Russia, where three failed attempts at the storied triple axel lead her to finish off the podium for only the second time in her career as a senior level skater. Asada's absence from the Yoyogi National Stadium in Tokyo next week is of a particularly sad irony, as the 2008 world champion won this event in that very arena back in 2005 when she was not age-eligible to compete at the 2006 Olympic Games. With Asada out, the Japanese will now look to 2007 world champion Miki Ando, the winner of two Grand Prix events this season, to try and match Kim. Another athlete from the host nation, Akiko Suzuki, will be looking to secure an Olympic berth at the Grand Prix Final, which would be quite an inspirational culmination to a career that was stagnated by Anorexia five years ago. Alena Leonova will be making her first trip to the Final and could be looking at a podium finish if her consistency remains intact. The only United States representative for the ladies in Tokyo, Ashley Wagner, is seeming to provide some light at the end of the tunnel for the shallow state of U.S. ladies figure skating. However, Kim's top rival won't be Suzuki, it won't be Leonova, it won't be Wagner, and it may not even be Ando. The international judges have not always sided with the five-time Canadian champion Joannie Rochette, but they are appearing to favor her immensely now, late in her career, to become the first Canadian ladies medalist at an Olympic Games since Elizabeth Manley in 1988.
While the Grand Prix Final is not life or death, there is still much to be gained and much to be lost at this event. For Kim, another less than desirable performance could cause some of her immense favor from the judges to diminish. Despite winning Skate Canada, Rochette has not skated with enough quality this season to realistically challenge the likes of Kim. Ando and Suzuki are both battling one another to become the highest placing Japanese skater, and thus, a winner of an Olympic berth. Leonova is set to be on her nation's Olympic team, but needs a strong competition here to even be considered as a remotely realistic prospect for a medal in Vancouver. It is certainly advantageous for Wagner to be the only American here, but having just barely placed ahead of the top two finishers from last year's U.S. nationals, Alissa Czisny and Rachael Flatt, Wagner's opportunity for receiving one of the two Olympic berths allotted for the American ladies in Vancouver is by no means assured. When also factoring in the potential return of 2006 Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen, Wagner needs nothing less than a strong showing here to further prove her worth of an Olympic berth. The Grand Prix series up to this point has been unpredictable enough, and with six of the top female figure skaters in the world skating in one event, that unpredictability shouldn't die off. With much to gain and much to lose, the skaters will be demanded to produce their competitive mettle to wish for a medal at this competition. This event could ultimately foreshadow what is to occur at the biggest outing of these athletes' lives, the XXI Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, Canada.
Miki Ando (Japan)
Yu-Na Kim (South Korea)
Alena Leonova (Russia)
Joannie Rochette (Canada)
Akiko Suzuki (Japan)
Ashley Wagner (USA)
Miki Ando (Japan)
Top Achievements: 2007 World Champion, 2009 world bronze medalist, Four-time Grand Prix finalist, 2009 NHK Trophy Champion, 2009 Rostelecom Cup Champion, 2006 Skate America Champion, 2006 Olympian, 2004/2005 Japanese champion
Pros: With Asada's demise, Ando has become the current top female skater in Japan, having won both of her Grand Prix events this season. Lauded for her high, secure jumps, the 2007 world champion is the only female skater to have ever landed a quadruple jump in competition. Ando is capable of landing triple lutz-triple loop combos, a jumping pass more difficult than the triple lutz-triple toe Yu-Na Kim is currently attempting, and Ando has also avoided receiving an edge call on either her lutz or her flip this season. Ando has shown improved artistry in her programs for this year, with a short program to Mozart's "Requiem" and a Cleopatra-themed long program to the soundtracks from both the television series "Rome" and "Marco Polo." The judges have been marking Ando's PCS marks favorably this year, and her artistic score has been consistently higher this season than it was during her Grand Prix events last year.
Cons: Ando's improvement artistically still does not make her a true "artist" on the ice, as she lags behind several of the top female skaters in musicality, posture, and extension. Ando's primary resource for boosting her score is jumps, but those haven't been especially brilliant since last season's worlds. Her lone attempt at a triple-triple so far this season ended with both a faulty landing and a downgrade on the second jump. Ando has also had issues with her double axel-triple toe loop combination, both falling and under rotating the pass at the Rostelecom Cup and nixing the combo entirely when she struggled with it during the women's free warm-up at NHK. Particularly with the intense media scrutiny in Japan, Ando will have much more pressure placed on her at this event being the top female Japanese skater, a position she has little experience filling. Ando has historically not done well at the Grand Prix Final: While she has qualified four times, she has never brought home a medal.
Outlook: Ando is one to perform at her peak whilst the underdog, and with Asada out of the Grand Prix Final, entering the competition as Japan's premier female skater will bring about all sorts of new challenges for the two-time world medalist. Perhaps these challenges are what Ando is most looking forward to overcome, however, as she has commented that she absolutely wants to erase the disaster that was her 15th place finish in Torino. Although Ando did win both of her Grand Prix events, that accomplishment is not especially great when considering that her scores at Rostelecom and NHK were the two lowest winning scores throughout the six events, and her score of 162.55 at the latter event would not have even medaled at either Trophee Eric Bompard or Cup of China. However, perhaps, that is good news for her. Ando has not often shown to be capable of staying at her peak for an extended period of time, and poor showings at this event in 2006 and 2008 did not negatively impact her showing at the World Championships for those seasons in the least. Claiming an Olympic berth here would be ideal, and if Suzuki doesn't regain her Cup of China form, Ando should have no issue doing so. Considering Suzuki's poor showing at Skate Canada, and Ando's victories over Leonova and Wagner at Rostelecom and NHK, Ando appears destined for her first Grand Prix medal, but Ando winning this competition is about as likely as Sarah Palin disappearing from the public eye.
Yu-Na Kim (South Korea)
Top Achievements: 2009 World Champion, 2007 and 2008 world bronze medalist, 2006 and 2007 Grand Prix Final Champion, 2008 and 2009 Skate America Champion, 2006 and 2009 Trophee Eric Bompard Champion, 2009 Four Continents Champion, 2008 Grand Prix Final silver medalist, 2007 and 2008 Cup of China Champion, 2007 Cup of Russia Champion
Pros: The Roger Federer of ladies figure skating, South Korean superstar Yu-Na Kim owns both the current World title and the world record scores in the short program, free skate, and overall segment score. She achieved her world record free skate score of 133.95 at the recent Trophee Eric Bompard, where she completely jettisoned her triple flip and had four of her five non-jump elements only graded at a level three. Kim has been undefeated since this event last year, and the last time any of the 2009 Grand Prix Final qualifiers beat Kim was when Miki Ando won her world title in March 2007. Kim has breathtaking jumps, including her signature triple-triple combinations, and is the only woman to have ever received at or above +2 GOE on a jumping pass under the code of points in international competition. Kim also demonstrates commendable speed and interpretation in her two current programs: a flirtatious, scintillating short to the medley from the "James Bond" movies, and a polished, elegant long to Gershwin's "Piano Concerto in F."
Cons: Kim had one of her worst long programs in memory at her most recent competition, Skate America, losing that phase of the event to Rachael Flatt, a skater whose score at the 2009 World Championships was a staggering 17.94 points off of securing a medal. Kim had far less pressure and outside competition than she will in Tokyo or in Vancouver at Skate America, and her overall score at that event would not have medaled at last year's worlds. Kim has a colossal amount of pressure from the people of her homeland and she was seen in tears after performing her short program at last year's Grand Prix Final (held in South Korea), where she popped open her triple lutz. The current world champion has also struggled with maintaining her health for key competitions. Kim was ill for this event last year, and entered both the 2007 and 2008 World Championships battling a back injury. At all three competitions, Kim missed the gold medal at stake. Kim has not landed seven clean triples in a single program since 2007 Cup of Russia, and has not even done six cleanly since 2008 Skate America. Kim has substandard positions on her layback, Bielmann, and spiral positions, and she appears to be no longer keeping the triple loop jump in her repertoire.
Outlook: Kim picked the perfect competition to have a poor long program at Skate America. She seemed relieved, albeit disappointed, in the kiss and cry following the skate, which perhaps means that she just needed an event to get a bad skate out of her system, much like last year when she had a shaky outing at GPF only to win Four Continents and Worlds thereafter. If Kim goes clean, or close to it, she will simply be untouchable for the other women. Kim has broken 76 in the short program three times, whereas the highest score ever posted by any of her competitors at this event was a 70 by Rochette. Adding 5.5 points for the lost triple flip to her Trophee Eric Bompard long program score, Kim would be looking at a mark near 140. Add in some positive grades of execution for that element (during her short program at Skate America she received +1.8 GOE), a few more level fours for her spins, and a slight increase to her PCS score, Kim could be looking at a LP score near 145 if she goes absolutely clean. Taking Asada's score from WTT where she had an excellent free and adding back the points she lost for two downgraded jumps (plus some additional positive GOE) her score "only" hovers around 137. Kim has this gold medal and, most importantly, the Olympic gold medal, in the bag if she skates near her full potential. Winning this event will be a help to Kim's confidence and will win her a medal and some prize money, but in the end will count for hardly anything. If Yu-Na Kim is able to enter the Olympic Games in February in prime physical condition and a confident mindset, her name will be plastered adjacent to 1 on the scoreboard. There will simply be no way for anyone to catch her, not even a hometown boost for Rochette, not even three triple axels for Asada.
Alena Leonova (Russia)
Top Achievements: 2009 NHK Trophy silver medalist, 2009 Cup of Russia bronze medalist, 2009 Finlandia Trophy Champion, 2009 World Championships-7th place, 2009 World Junior Champion, 2009 European Championships-4th
Pros: The vivacious Russian is continuing to build off of her breakthrough last season with a win at the Finlandia Trophy and two medals on the Grand Prix circuit, which enabled her to qualify to this competition for the first time. Leonova finished a strong 7th at her first World Championships last year, and is noted to be one of the more consistent jumpers in the world today. Leonova has a full arsenal of triples (besides the axel) and has upgraded her jumping content from last season with a new triple toe-triple toe combination. Leonova is a fan favorite for her spunky personality on the ice and shows that off to its best with a short program to the Russian folk song "Barynya" and a long program to the soundtrack from "Chicago." Leonova could gain political favor at this event, as she is the only European lady to have qualified.
Cons: Leonova has the lowest average short program score from the Grand Prix series among the six qualifiers, and has the second lowest average PCS score from the long program. Also, Leonova's seasons best scores in the long program and overall segment total are the lowest among the six qualifiers. Leonova has unsatisfactory extension and her spins are far from brilliant. Leonova received edge calls for each of her four lutzes that she did throughout her two Grand Prixs, and she has failed to complete her new triple-triple combination after four attempts in competition thus far. Although Leonova always sells her programs, there is little else in her skating that supports her program components score. Her transitions are relatively choppy and her choreography is not the most difficult; therefore, the judges have yet to give her superior marks in that area.
Outlook: Leonova may be lacking in polish and refinement, but one thing she has that cannot be said for any of the other top European ladies is consistency. Gedevanishvilli, Korpi, Kostner, Lepisto, and Poykio struggle with varying degrees to consistently land their jumps and to avoid meltdowns at major events. Kostner is absolutely the top European lady at her prime, but that she has been not since her meltdown in Los Angeles and 6th place finishes at Trophee Eric Bompard and Cup of China. If Kostner doesn't get her act together, Kiira Korpi may end up being Leonova's top rival for a European title if Korpi's over scoring from Cup of China continues. This is where the importance of this event comes to Leonova. A strong placement here, and especially a podium finish, should not only help Leonova's confidence, but it also should give her a boost from the judges come Europeans to vie for the gold medal. Leonova is doubtful to reach the medals stand in Vancouver, but strong showings here and at Europeans should help the 19-year-old Leonova to stay competitive and to fend off a potential influx of upcoming Russian ladies skaters in the next quadrennium.
Joannie Rochette (Canada)
Top Achievements: 2006, 2008, and 2009 Skate Canada Champion, 2009 World silver medalist, 2008 and 2009 Four Continents silver medalist, 2005-2009 Canadian Champion, 2004 and 2008 Trophee Eric Bompard Champion, 2006 Olympic Games-5th, 2004 Grand Prix Final bronze medalist
Pros: Rochette is one of the best examples of skaters who combine the technical and artistic aspects of skating seamlessly, as her skating possesses strong, high jumps, and creditable musicality and choreography. On the technical side, Rochette not only avoids the wrong edge deductions on the lutz and flip, but also rotates her jumps consistently, and she is rewarded for being one of the few female skaters to consistently demonstrate those merits of fine jumping technique. On the artistic side, Rochette has strong skating skills and agility of the blade, and has augmented her expression and artistry over the past several seasons. Rochette has taken much effort into improving her ability to peak under pressure, whether it be touring with Stars On Ice or announcing publicly her intentions of winning a world championship medal last season. Having been successful in her endeavor to win a world championship medal last year, and having just recently won Skate Canada by over 20 points without skating at her optimum, Rochette has proven that she is entirely in the running to win Canada's first Olympic medal for ladies figure skating in over two decades.
Cons: Rochette had a meltdown during her short program at Cup of China, doubling the front end of her combination and leaving out the second jump entirely. She later went on to single her axel, finishing 7th in that phase and 3rd overall. The short program was what cost Rochette a medal at this event last year, and she also finished behind Cynthia Phaneuf (who had a fall) during the SP phase of the 2009 Canadian Nationals. Rochette has hopes of doing a triple-triple combination in her short, but has not once completed the element successfully. Rochette delivered a superb free skate at the Japan Open, a competition of little significance, but her condition went down at Cup of China and Skate Canada, where she executed weaker free skates that scored around 15 points lower than what she received at an inconsequential competition early on in the year. Rochette's potential scoring ability when going clean is considerably less than that of Kim or even Asada. Rochette's score for a clean, seven-triple long program at last year's Canadian Nationals was a 131.77, over two points lower than what Yu-Na Kim received in France for a five-triple program. Even when adding a hypothetical triple lutz-triple toe combination, Rochette's SP score at Skate Canada would still only be 72.7 (give or take depending on GOE and PCS), which is over three points lower than the personal bests of Asada and Kim. These scores, of course, are given in the event where Rochette is to do a clean long program, something she has never done internationally, and when she is to do a triple lutz-triple toe combination in the short, something she has never done.
Outlook: Rochette is faced with a dilemma off the bat. On one hand, she needs a triple-triple in the short to stay within striking distance of Kim for the gold medal, but she has every potential to still be in the running for an Olympic podium spot, but not necessarily gold, with a triple-double combination. This is where the Grand Prix Final comes in handy. It will be the ideal event for Rochette to test out the triple-triple combination, and to see how her rivals, specifically Kim, are looking. Rochette would obviously enjoy a podium finish here, and two strong showings should easily do the trick, but the five-time Canadian champion has not been especially impressive thus far this season. Her Cup of China performances were uneven, and she had a shaky long at Skate Canada. Thus, it is possible that Rochette may perform below her optimum at this event as well, but even a poor outing shouldn't diminish Rochette's reputation entering the Games, as she has plenty of that already in the bank from her world silver last year. Both the Grand Prix Final and Canadian Nationals will be events where Rochette won't have much to lose, but she will still have much to gain. An international event against world class skaters and a national event at home should be the ideal combination of competitions to get Rochette fit for Vancouver.
Akiko Suzuki (Japan)
Top Achievements: 2009 Cup of China Champion, 2009 Four Continents Championships-8th, 2008/2009 Japanese Nationals-4th, 2008 NHK Trophy silver medalist, 2008 Finlandia Trophy Champion
Pros: Suzuki has made a resilient comeback from Anorexia to become one of the top female figure skaters in Japan. 2009 Skate Canada notwithstanding, Suzuki has been a fairly consistent competitor throughout the last two seasons and has shown to be especially consistent when skating in Asia. At Cup of China, Suzuki scored the second highest free skate score of this year's Grand Prix series en route to her first career Grand Prix victory. Suzuki finished 4th at last year's Japanese Nationals, a placement deemed too low by several fans who thought that she was robbed of a podium finish because of an unfairly downgraded triple salchow in her long program. Suzuki has a full arsenal of triple jumps (besides the axel) and skates with fervent passion and speed. Suzuki generally skates her best when she is competing in or near her home country, as last year's NHK Trophy, Japanese Nationals, and this year's Cup of China have shown. Suzuki is the only skater competing at this event who actually trains in Japan, let alone Asia.
Cons: Suzuki has never been a judge's favorite, in part due to her weaker transitions and extension. Suzuki's average PCS score during the Grand Prix for her long program is the lowest among the six qualifiers, and she is prone to receiving deductions for turning onto an inside edge for her lutz. Suzuki is not an especially strong spinner, and her spirals leave much to be desired as well. Suzuki is lucky just to have qualified to the Final after a poor outing at Skate Canada, where she only landed three clean triples (one marked down by an edge call), but she survived to stay in the top five after epic meltdowns from Cynthia Phaneuf and Caroline Zhang surfaced. Even with two of her best performances, Suzuki was only able to place 4th at Cup of China during the short program phase, and her winning long program had a substandard PCS score of only 52.56. Suzuki was the lowest rank qualifier to this event, so she will fulfill the unenviable task of skating first in the short program, a start position often destined for lower marks.
Outlook: Suzuki would want nothing more than to snatch her Olympic berth in Tokyo for the Grand Prix Final. Miki Ando should be favored enough at Japanese Nationals to get a medal through PCS even if she doesn't skate well, such as what happened last year at Suzuki's expense. The same cannot necessarily be said for Suzuki, however, particularly after her poor showing at Skate Canada. Fumie Suguri may not be performing well so far this year but one absolutely shouldn't count her out: in 2005, she placed 8th at Skate Canada and went onto win Japanese Nationals under an even deeper field than what will be in store at this year's competition. Yukari Nakano at her 2008 worlds form should also have no issue finishing ahead of Suzuki and claiming an Olympic berth. Suzuki always seems to perform well at home, however, and if she can regain her magic from Cup of China she could be looking at a podium finish and an Olympic berth coming from this event. Although, without the judges on her side, Suzuki will need to take the hard way to the medals stand.
Ashley Wagner (USA)
Top Achivements: 2009 NHK Trophy bronze medalist, 2009 Rostelecom Cup silver medalist, 2007 and 2009 World Junior Bronze medalist, 2009 U.S. Figure Skating Championships-4th, 2008 World Championships qualifier, 2008 U.S. bronze medalist, 2007 Trophee Eric Bompard bronze medalist
Pros: Wagner has always been a creditable jumper; however, since changing coaches to Priscilla Hill, the 2008 U.S. bronze medalist has matured her presentation immensely and shows off that improvement this season with a dramatic short to the soundtrack from "Once Upon a Time in America" and an elegant long to "Polovtsian Dances." Wagner won the long program at last year's U.S. Nationals with a program that only contained five triples, and she could have won the overall title were it not for a faulty short program. Wagner scored personal bests for the long program and overall segment total at the recent Rostelecom Cup. The 2008 U.S. bronze medalist takes full advantage of the rule allowing 10% bonus to be awarded for jumping pass after the midway point of a long program, as she does a triple loop-double axel sequence, a triple flip-double axel sequence, and a triple lutz deep into the program. A well-rounded skater, Wagner demonstrates both excellent speed and refined positions throughout her skating.
Cons: Wagner has an egregious flutz, and she has yet to not receive an edge call on that particular element this season. Wagner's triple-triple combinations seem to have disappeared, and she doesn't look capable of adding a triple toe loop as a combination jump, as she has a tendency to toe-axel her double toes (something she had a downgrade on at the 2009 U.S. Nationals). While Wagner is able to execute difficult jumps after the halfway point of a program, her stamina goes out the door when straight line footwork is concerned. Her straight line step sequence at the conclusion of her long program is fairly lethargic and makes for a poor concluding impression of her performance. Wagner has proven very susceptible to nerves: At last year's U.S. Nationals, she was completely in the running for a U.S. title, but an error littered short program prevented any hope of that happening. Wagner was only 16th at her first World Championships in 2008, and a shaky free at the NHK Trophy prevented her from winning a championship that was entirely within her grasp.
Outlook: The first order of business for Wagner is to replace her triple lutz in the short with a triple loop. The loop has been a solid jump for her this year and would actually get her more credit than a lutz with an "e" edge call, or even an "!" call. Wagner rearranged her jump layout several times last season, and appears to be doing the same this year as well. Hopefully, she won't be changing her jump layout too much more, but there are still some potentially easy switches of jumps in her long program that could be beneficial to her. Wagner has a fairly competitive jump layout for the long already, but her flutz at the end with an "e" call is going to get her about the same credit as a clean triple toe loop, so she would be wise to make that change as well. For a podium finish here, Wagner is going to rely on other skater's mistakes because she does not possess consistent triple-triple combinations or the high program component scores given to Kim, Rochette, and Ando. However, even just skating well and improving upon her personal bests will be a tremendous confidence boost for Ashley and will give her a leg up in the tight race for the two Olympic berths when U.S. Nationals arrive. Wagner has been scored well domestically for the last two years, and a strong finish here will help her create her own destiny toward making that Olympic team.
Gold: Yu-Na Kim (South Korea): Yes, she had one of her worst long programs ever at Skate America, but it has to be noted that every other top ladies skater has had, at the very least, a mini-meltdown in some shape or form this year. Kim has the top two overall segment totals this season and has proven to have a fairly comfortable margin for error even over her toughest adversaries.
Silver: Joannie Rochette (Canada): Rochette has the judges on her side and just needs those jumps to be the same. A couple of less than desirable skates throughout the Grand Prix should invigorate Rochette to skate with solidity here. A peaked Rochette should have no issue beating Leonova, Suzuki, or Wagner, even if they skate at their absolute best, and the Grand Prix Final has not historically been a great competition to Miki Ando, who has not looked so superior to Rochette thus far.
Bronze: Miki Ando (Japan): She never peaks for this event, but because of the huge advantage she will have on PCS over Leonova, Suzuki, and Wagner, Ando should be on the podium if she just skates decently. Competing at home and as the top ranked Japanese female could give Ando a slight boost to her marks as well, but on the flip side, Ando will be bound to feel more pressure at this competition, which could negatively impact her skating.
4th: Akiko Suzuki (Japan): She generally does well at home and can probably bounce back at least somewhat from her poor Skate Canada outing, but she simply doesn't have the polish nor the reputation behind her to give her a medal against far more seasoned skaters, unless of course she skates lights out.
5th: Alena Leonova (Russia): Her overall score from Rostelecom and NHK was higher than that of Wagner's, and Leonova did much better at her first worlds (7th) than Ashley did at hers (16th). Both will be making their debut here, but Leonova has slightly more momentum to ride off of from her silver medal at NHK.
6th: Ashley Wagner (USA): She should have an advantage on Leonova and Suzuki with PCS, but being that this is a major international event, it is possible that Wagner may succumb to pressure and not perform at her best. It is imperative for Wagner to deliver two quality skates, as she can often deliver one great program in a major competition, but not both.
That is all.