The first of the three ISU Championship events gets underway this week, with the European Championships taking place in Bratislava, Slovakia, from January 25-31.
Only countries that are designated as part of Europe by the International Skating Union may participate at the European Championships, and the prize money and ranking points on offer are considerably greater than those on offer at the Grand Prix events. With Europeans being so early in the year, there can often be a number of surprises, and the event can swing from scrappy to sublime in the blink of an eye.
It is also generally an opportunity for those from smaller countries that may not be able to attend Worlds to strut their stuff on a bigger stage than normal, and for those who are more established to lay down some good benchmarks to challenge those who will later compete at Four Continents.
As this is a Championship event, there will be a cut after the short programs. Only 24 men and ladies, and 20 dance couples, will make it through to the free skate. Pairs does not require a cut for this event as there are only sixteen entries. The cut can bring challenges and heartbreaks all of its own...
Reigning World Champion Javier Fernandez has upped his technical game since his silver medal at the Grand Prix Final in December. In response to the ante being raised by China's Boyang Jin and Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu, Fernandez debuted a new two-quad short program at Spanish Nationals, where he was comfortably the champion once more, but did struggle. It will be intriguing to see how he handles this increase in content.
The battle between the three Russian men - Maxim Kovtun, Mikhail Kolyada and Alexander Petrov - will be one of epic proportions. Kovtun no longer seems as secure with the federation's favouritism as he has in the past, and barely hung onto his National title. Both Kolyada and Petrov are youngsters with stacks of talent and both impressed very well at Russian Nationals - and there are only two Worlds places on the line...
The Israeli men could also provide an interesting battle, with last year's fourth-place getter Alexei Bychenko finding some form, but up against the four-quad youngster Daniel Samohin, who made a splash this year on the Junior Grand Prix. France's Florent Amodio is here for one last crack before he retires, while Michal Brezina will be aiming to find some consistency here ahead of Worlds.
A special shout-out goes to Sweden's Alexander Majorov. Majorov's father was diagnosed with leukemia late last year. When no compatible donor could be found, Majorov stepped up to be his father's bone marrow donor, and though he still suffers pain from the aftermath of the donation, he is my hero of Europeans, and I will be cheering especially hard for him, and wishing him and his father all the best.
Predictions: Fernandez, Samohin, Kolyada
There can be no doubt that the red-hot favourite for this event is Russian champion Evgenia Medvedeva, who has been undefeated so far this season and will now hope to extend that streak to include the two biggest events of the year. Her nearest challenger is likely to be her compatriot Elena Radionova, who has made an excellent turnaround in form from the start of the season.
Italy's Roberta Rodeghiero will also be looking to make a statement here, particularly with the constant rumour that Olympic bronze medallist Carolina Kostner may be trying to make a play for a Worlds spot, returning after a ban for violating doping regulations. Rodeghiero has had a strong season so far, including a surprise third place at the Trophee Eric Bompard.
There are many in this field who will be looking to turn their seasons around. France's Mae Berenice Miete has struggled hard since her injury and needs a change in form here for her season to continue. Nicole Rajicova from Slovakia impressed at Skate America and will be fired up to skate well on home soil. And Lutricia Bock and Nathalie Weinzierl are locked in a battle for Germany's only Worlds spot.
Predictions: Medvedeva, Radionova, Rodeghiero
As with the ladies, there is certainly a red-hot favourite for this event, and they have to be reigning Olympic champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov. The Russians have firmed even more in recent days, with the withdrawal of their compatriots Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov. Third Russian team Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov will no doubt be waiting to capitalise on any mistakes made and are well in contention for a medal.
German pair Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot will be eager to make up for lost time at this event, their first Championship event after Massot's long-awaited release from France. They had a promising start to their international partnership by winning the Tallinn Trophy in November and could well factor into the final result here.
French couple Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres are slowly building momentum into the second half of the season and could be a surprise podium here. German pairs Mari Vartmann and Ruben Blommaert and Minerva Fabienne Hase and Nolan Seegert are fighting for a Worlds spot and have strengthened through the season, while Italian pair Valentina Marchei and Ondrej Hotarek are always up for a challenge.
Predictions: Volosozhar/Trankov, Tarasova/Morozov, Savchenko/Massot
Unfortunately for, well, everyone else, I'm predicting yet another Russian 1-2 in the dance, with Russian National champions Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev my pick to take out the title here at Europeans. I don't expect that their compatriots will let them have an easy time of it, and Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov have been building momentum all season.
Italian couple Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte are fresh from their bronze medal at the Grand Prix Final and will be hoping to improve on their silver medal finish at last year's Europeans. Their skating has been very strong this season and they will factor strongly in the final podium result.
French couple Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron will be making their long-awaited return here after a concussion for Papadakis forced them to miss the season so far. Israeli couple Isabella Tobias and Ilia Tkachenko will be shooting for a big result here, while British team Penny Coombes and Nicholas Buckland will be hoping not to repeat last year's competition, which ended with them withdrawing from both Europeans and Worlds due to illness.
Predictions: Bobrova/Soloviev, Sinitsina/Katsalapov, Cappellini/Lanotte
All times AEDT.
Highlights will be shown on SBS as follows:
Men and Pairs: 2pm AEDT, Saturday February 6
Ladies and Dance: 2pm AEDT, Saturday February 13
Short program: Thursday, January 28 - 3:30am - 8:35am
Long program: Friday, January 29 - 3:45am - 7:55am
Short program: Wednesday, January 27 - 8:15pm - 1:25am (Thursday)
Long program: Saturday, January 30 - 4:00am - 7:55am
Short program: Saturday, January 30 - midnight - 2:30am
Long program: Saturday, January 30 - 8:00pm - 11:00pm
Short dance: Thursday, January 28 - 10:30pm - 2:45am (Friday)
Free dance: Sunday, January 31 - 12:30am - 3:50am