The conclusion of the Cup of China marked the halfway point of the Grand Prix series. With three events down, and three to go, the picture is now starting to get clearer as to who will qualify for the Final, and the first skaters stamped their tickets to Barcelona.
Held in Beijing from November 6-8, this year’s Cup of China thankfully avoided the “Cup of Disaster” moniker that last year’s event had been gifted by the fans. Though some skaters will no doubt privately think of the event in this way, there were no major disasters, and indeed, a little history was made instead.
(Unfortunately for the skaters, the beautiful, shiny car that was sitting proudly displayed on one side of the rink turned out to only be for show from the competition's sponsors, and not actually a prize. The medallists received small replicas instead.)
It was almost easy to forget that the reigning World Champion, Spain’s Javier Fernandez, started his season here with a gold medal. Fernandez was not especially convincing with his victory – he struggled with his jumps, many of which were not clean, and failed in his attempt at a three quad program by falling on his second quad Salchow – but it was enough to hold off everyone else in a generally messy field.
All of the attention, however, was on the eighteen year old Chinese phenom, Boyang Jin. A series of videos of Jin attempting ever-more insane jump combinations during the off-season sparked serious excitement, which was almost at fever pitch by the time he came out to skate. Jin made no secret of the fact that he was hoping to write figure skating history at the Cup of China, and he partially succeeded. In the short program, he landed the first ever quadruple Lutz-triple toe combination, claiming the record for the highest score for a single element in the process (19.19). He aimed to become the first skater to land four quadruple jumps in the long program, but sadly fell on his solo quadruple Salchow. His quadruple toes were both scrappy, but he got credit for them, equalling the record of five quadruple jumps in a single competition. With such excitement around his jumps, it would have been easy to ignore the other facets of his skating, but he showed excellent improvement in the performance aspect of his programs and deservedly walked away with a silver medal.
His compatriot Han Yan will likely be quite satisfied with taking home the bronze medal. Han showed that sadly, the inconsistency he had displayed at Skate America was not a fluke with a messy short program, including a fall on the quad and a failure to rotate his signature triple Axel, that dropped him down to sixth. His free skate, however, was a much improved performance, with only minor errors, and pulled him back up to third, to the delight of the local crowd. Unfortunately, with his fourth place at Skate America, the bronze medal here will not be enough to send Han to the Grand Prix Final.
It was a triumphant return to the competitive scene for Japanese superstar Mao Asada, taking home the gold in her first competition back after a year off. Asada showed no hesitation in the short program, landing a clean triple Axel, though her combination was hit with an under-rotation and her Lutz was ruled not to take off on the correct edge. She needed every point of her short program lead, struggling in the long program with under-rotations and another unclear edge on her Lutz, which was doubled, but she held on to take the victory.
It proved to be a Team Japan one-two, with Rika Hongo taking out the silver medal. Hongo turned in an elegant short program, marred only by an unclear edge on her triple Lutz, and was even more striking in the long program, set to the iconic music from Riverdance. Hongo was clearly in superb form as she landed seven triples – including an unusual and excellent double Axel-triple toe-double toe combination – and probably would have won any other competition. Her only concern will be her Lutz, which was called unclear on two attempts and a wrong edge on a third.
Russia’s Elena Radionova, the reigning World bronze medallist and Russian National Champion, had a difficult opening to her season. She struggled with her short program, making errors on all three jumping passes, including popping the required double Axel to a single, making it invalid, and ended up dropping to sixth. Her long program was much better, including a superb triple Lutz-triple toe combination, but a fall on the second triple Lutz and an under-rotation on her half-loop combination (yes, it is possible to under-rotate a half loop) prevented her challenging Hongo, and she pulled up to third overall to keep her Grand Prix Final hopes in distant reach.
This was anticipated to be a battle royale between powerhouse Chinese pair Wenjing Sui and Cong Han and Russian champions Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov, and they certainly delivered on that promise – less than half a point separated the pairs at the end of the competition.
After missing all last season due to an injury, Kavaguti and Smirnov will be thrilled to open their account this season with the gold medal here. They started off strongly, hitting their levels in their short program and putting up a strong score, before turning in an excellent long program that included two quadruple throw jumps – a quadruple Salchow and a quadruple loop. In combination with superb quality on all their other elements, Kavaguti and Smirnov have clearly made themselves a force to be reckoned with.
Sui and Han sealed their spots in the Grand Prix final but winning the silver medal here, but they will be ruing a freakish fall from Sui in the free skate that cost them a mandatory deduction of a point. Their short program was wonderful, including an excellent throw triple flip, and saw them take the lead by two points after that segment of the competition. A series of small mistakes in the long program, including problems on both sets of side-by-side jumps, whittled away at their lead, however, and when Sui fell while doing backwards crossovers, it dropped them below the Russians.
Canadians Lubov Iliushechkina and Dylan Moscovitch had been fancied for a medal here, but proceeded to ruin everyone’s fantasy predictions (including mine) by having a minor disaster of a competition. Instead, we were treated to two classy performances from Chinese pair Xiaoyu Yu and Yang Jin, who made the most of their opportunity to take out the bronze. Their short program was extremely well-done, missing the level four only on the death spiral, and their long program was even better, including a very ambitious attempt at a throw quadruple Salchow. Sadly, they did not succeed – Yu fell off the landing and they were just short of rotation – but their strong performances here will be a wake-up call to other nations that the Chinese pairs program is coming alive.
Italian couple Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte surprised by taking out the victory here ahead of their much more fancied rivals. Their elegant short dance included hitting four of six keypoints in the Ravensberger Waltz pattern, level four twizzles and a level four rotational lift, while their free dance earned level fours on all but two elements (the circular steps and the diagonal steps were both level three), and was of such exceptional quality that they only had one 0 grade of execution – the neutral grade – on their protocol, which was littered with twos and threes.
American couple Madison Chock and Evan Bates secured their places in the Grand Prix Final by taking out the silver medal, which, combined with their gold at Skate America, assures them of a spot. Their short dance contained some errors here, with their twizzles only earning a level one and hitting only three keypoints on their pattern. Their free dance was much stronger, with five elements earning level fours and all elements with positive grade of execution, sealing their place on the podium.
Russian couple Elena Ilinykh and Ruslan Zhiganshin had a mixed result here, finishing third. Their short dance was quite strong, with four keypoints hit on the pattern level fours for both the twizzles and their rotational lift, but their free dance had several errors including a lift that was too long (resulting in a deduction) and another deduction for costume failure when a decorative flower fell off Ilinykh’s dress during the program. Their bronze medal here will keep them in with a sniff of a Grand Prix Final spot, but they will require other results to go their way and will also need a strong result at the Rostelecom Cup in two weeks to qualify.
Three events down, and three to go, means that from here on until December, the stakes are only getting higher. And higher...next up is the Trophee Eric Bompard in France, where the biggest battle royale of the season so far is scheduled to take place.