Japanese aces start title defense as Sochi looms

Japanese aces start title defense as Sochi looms

PARIS/LOS ANGELES - Agence France-Presse
Japanese aces start title defense as Sochi looms

Japan’s figure skating star Mao Asada acknowledges to cheering fans after her performance in the women’s free skating at the Japan Open competition at Saitama Super Arena. Asada, along with fellow Japanese Daisuke Takahashi will defend their Grand Prix titles at the series in Detroit. AFP photo

Reigning ISU Grand Prix champions Daisuke Takahashi and Mao Asada of Japan open the defense of their men’s and women’s crowns respectively starting at Skate America, the first in the elite six-leg figure skating series which gets underway in Detroit starting today.

As Olympic champions Evan Lysacek and Kim Yu-Na miss the Grand Prix season, the Japanese are looking to hit hard in a series where the top six skaters in each category - men, women, pairs and ice dancing - advance to the final in Fukuoka, Japan from December 6-8.

Takahashi, winner of Japan’s first men’s Olympic figure skating medal and world title, claimed their first men’s Grand Prix Final crown at Sochi’s Iceberg Arena last December ahead of compatriot Yuzuru Hanyu and reigning world champion Patrick Chan. Chan however won a third world title at home in Canada in March and is favorite for Olympic gold as he opens his campaign in Skate Canada from October 25-27 before a Paris date from November 15-17. Lysacek has not competed since taking gold in Vancouver three years ago.

Initally slated for Skate America, he withdrew last month because of an abdominal tear, and the chances of him defending his title are slim. The 28-year-old Lysacek needs not only a strong performance at the US Championships in January but also to meet the Olympic qualifying score at an international event. Olympic hosts Russia are desperate to find themselves back on the top spot on the podium after a title wipeout for the first time in 50 years in Vancouver.

Plushenko hits rink 

Veteran star Yevgeny Plushenko, the 2006 Olympic champion and two-time silver medalist, will test his form in the Cup of Russia from November 22-24, as the 31-year-old bids to compete in a fourth Olympics at home.

Kazakh Denis Ten, the world silver medalist, and also an Olympic hopeful saw his Sochi warm-up hit as he was forced to withdraw from Skate America on Wednesday citing illness with his second assignment the Cup of China.

In the women’s event, Asada will have to wait to renew her rivalry with Kim, sidelined for two months with a right foot injury picked up in late September.

The South Korean made her competitive return last December after a break of more than 18 months and had looked to be gaining momentum by winning a second world title. Two-time world champion Asada, the Olympic silver medalist, will test her form in Skate America, the only Grand Prix that she has never won and where she last competed in 2006, before taking part in the NHK Trophy from November 8-10.Asada got off to strong season debut at the Japan Open earlier this month and left early for Detroit to train at the rink used by coach Nabuo Sato’s daughter, former world champion Yuka Sato, to prepare for Skate America.

“Every event is a step toward Sochi. I’ve worked hard and will be dedicating everything to skating until then,” said Asada, who will be up against defending Skate America champion Ashley Wagner, who has beaten her twice last year.

Olympic contender 

Italy’s 2012 world champion Carolina Kostner, another Olympic contender, will compete in the Cup of China from November 1-3 and the Cup of Russia. Russia’s hopes in the women’s event lie with former world junior champions Elizaveta Tuktamysheva and Adelina Sotnikova.

In pairs, Russia’s reigning world champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov open their campaign in Skate America, with four-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany kicking off their season in the Cup of China.

In ice dancing, two-time world ice dance champions and Olympic silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White start at Skate America with Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir raising the curtain at their home event in Canada. Davis and White, whose second world title in March established them as favorites to become the first US ice dance duo to win Olympic gold, get their Olympic season underway in Detroit. 

Davis and White won silver at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, and hope to go one better in Sochi, Russia, next year.

But Davis says the duo will focus, as always, on improving over the course of the season, rather than on a possible historic Games gold.

“I think we just know that allowing ourselves to just linger on the idea of a potential medal, focusing on a gold medal, it’s not healthy for us at this point,” Davis told the Los Angeles Times earlier this month. “We’re focused on what it is we can do to improve our training, improve what it is we’re putting onto the ice, that I feel we kind of have that comfort zone of focusing on the training without getting too far ahead of ourselves.” Davis and White head the ice dance field for Skate America, the first in the elite six-leg International Skating Union Grand Prix series.

For the first time the Winter Olympics will also see a Team Trophy event in which ten countries compete with each presenting skaters in each category - men, women, pairs and ice dance. The United States won the world Team Trophy title in 2013.