Ice Network

Best of the best highlight Grand Prix Final field

Quads galore expected for men's field; Russian ladies loom large
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All eyes will be on Russia's Elena Radionova in a talented ladies field at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona. -Getty Images

Legendary coach Carlo Fassi used to say that the geography of skating provides a good measure of a country's geopolitical weight in the world at a given time. When you look at the list of skaters and teams who qualified for the Grand Prix Final and Junior Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, it's easy to realize how right Fassi was. Merely more than a handful of countries had skaters qualify for this year's Finals: Russia, Japan, Canada, the United States, China and up-and-coming South Korea in the junior Final; Russia, Japan, the United States, Canada, China, Spain and France in the senior Final.

The number of qualified skaters does not follow the same rule, however, at least in geopolitical and economical terms -- but they certainly are telling in terms of the skating powers: Russia qualified 21 skaters and teams in all four categories of both finals (12 entries in juniors, nine in seniors), Japan qualified nine skaters in only singles skating (five entries in juniors, four in seniors), Canada qualified seven (four entries in juniors, three in seniors), the United States qualified four (one in juniors, three in seniors), just like China (one men's skater in juniors and three pairs in seniors). Spain, France and South Korea each qualified one skater or team.

Men's: A quad festival?

Russia's Maxim Kovtun is the only skater in the field to have won both of his Grand Prix Series competitions, at Cup of China and the Trophée Eric Bompard, thanks to an incredible turnaround during the free skate in the latter.

Javier Fernández admitted that qualifying for the Final in his home country did add some pressure to his performances at Skate Canada as well as his first-place finish at the Rostelecom Cup. It's fair to say that his status as a two-time European gold and world bronze medalist was instrumental in Barcelona gaining the Grand Prix Final host duties for the first time in the city's history. Spain is known as one of the leading world countries for soccer (Spain won the Soccer World Cup in 2010), and Fernández' victories seem to have opened a new era for sports in Spain. So many times Fernández used to joke that "there [was] not a single Spanish journalist," at his post-event press conferences. There should be more in Barcelona!

Japan qualified three skaters for the Final. Tatsuki Machida won at Skate America and Takahito Mura won at Skate Canada. Yuzuru Hanyu, the 2014 Olympic and world gold medalist, had more difficulty qualifying, with a silver medal at Cup of China and a fourth-place finish at the NHK Trophy in Japan. On paper, Machida owns the field's highest-scoring performance this season (269.09 points), almost four points ahead of Fernández' best score.

Russia's Sergei Voronov seems to be aging like good wine throughout the years: The older he gets, the better he skates. He won silver medals at the Rostelecom Cup and NHK Trophy this year, and has proven his steadiness and reliability in competition, especially since he grabbed silver at the 2014 European Championships.

The six champions are planning between three and four quads in their programs. There should be even more performed during their practice sessions. The Earth should be turning faster in Barcelona this week!

Ice dance: A brand-new field

Ice dance has been particularly good at splitting its star teams between the six Grand Prix Series events. Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, Team USA's Meryl Davis and Charlie White, and France's Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat usually managed to advance to the Final with two Grand Prix gold medals under their belts.

This year will be no different. Team USA's Madison Chock and Evan Bates, Canada's Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, and France's Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron each won their two Grand Prix assignments. As is often the case, ice dancing will be the only category this year to be led by three Grand Prix double-gold medalists.

That being said, this year's Grand Prix Final will have a special flavor, as the dance field has completely turned over following the Olympic season. The eventual gold medalists will be first-time winners. Chock and Bates have a slight point advantage over Weaver and Poje. The Americans arrive in Barcelona with a 174.28-point season's best, compared to the Canadians' 171.10. The Canadians did, however, win the 2014 world silver medal, only 0.02 points short of the gold medal.

This does not mean that the podium is already set. First, because the Final is a competition, anything can happen. The fall that 2014 world gold medalists Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte endured at Cup of China proved it: No status should be taken for granted. Second, everyone will be hoping to make a statement and take the lead in the world rankings for the new quadrennial. Canada's Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, and Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani of the United States, will also look to prove that they can fight for a seat on a world-class podium.

Finally, two newer teams are competing and will hope to make an impression as well: Papadakis and Cizeron will want to prove that their two Grand Prix gold medals were no fluke and that they belong in the group of finalists. Russia's Elena Ilinykh and Ruslan Zhiganshin, who teamed up at the end of last season, will want to show that they should be respected. Their progress as a team has been steady and fast, which should not be a surprise.

Ladies: Ashley Wagner, Rika Hongo and Russia

This could, and should, have been an all USA-Russia fight. Gracie Gold's stress fracture decided otherwise. It allowed Japan to qualify a skater to the ladies Final for the 14th consecutive time. Hongo, who won at the Rostelecom Cup, will join Wagner and the Russian squad (who, just like the French 'Three Musketeers', happen to be four): Elena Radionova, the only skater to have won both of her Grand Prix assignments (Skate America and Trophée Eric Bompard); Elizaveta Tuktamisheva, who won at Cup of China; Anna Pogorilaya, who won at Skate Canada; and European gold medalist Julia Lipnitskaia, who grabbed silver at both Cup of China and Trophée Bompard.

Radionova is the only skater to have hit the 200-point bar this season (203.92 points). If she manages to land her jumps the way she usually does, she will be the one to beat. But Tuktamisheva and Lipnitskaia are coming back in shape and have improved week after week.

Again, one of the main parameters of the competition remains the evaluation of components, especially in the ladies event. What was once called "Chan-flation" took ladies skating by storm during the Olympic season, and it has become increasingly difficult to differentiate the main competitors from their components marks, regardless of what the observer's non-judging eye suggested.

Pairs: Russia, China and Canada

Since its country's skaters came back to the world and Olympic scene in 1956, Russia has proven to be the world's main provider of great pairs teams. China has managed to establish itself at the top of the world as well in more recent years, thanks to a more athletic approach to the sport that mixes in a romantic interpretation.

Two pairs won both of their Grand Prix assignments this fall: 2014 Olympic and world silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov of Russia won both at Rostelecom Cup and Trophée Bompard. Canada's Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford won at Skate Canada and the NHK Trophy. Both pairs have comparable season's best scores: 211.97 points for Stolbova and Klimov, 210.74 for Duhamel and Radford.

Russian veterans Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov won at Skate America after a season off. Their own season's best is not that far behind, with 209.16 points.

Three Chinese teams will complete the field: Veterans Cheng Peng and Hao Zhang, who won at Cup of China, three-time world junior gold medalists Wenjing Sui and Cong Han, and 2014 world junior gold medalists Xiaoyu Yu and Yang Yin.

Hunting for quads has been a real feature of the pairs' just like it was in the men's category. It has been much more sporadic, however. This season may prove that the pairs are now moving toward even higher horizons. Duhamel and Radford, and Kavaguti and Smirnov, should try their quad Salchows in Barcelona. Sui and Han, just like Peng and Zhang, should go for their quad twists.

Junior Grand Prix Final

In the men's competition, China's Boyang Jin was the only skater to win both of his Grand Prix assignments. He has made a name for himself by landing multiple quads. Shoma Uno and Sota Yamamoto, each from Japan, will challenge him, as well as Alexander Petrov, from Russia, June Hyoung Lee, from South Korea, and Roman Sadovsky from Canada.

The ladies junior Final is even more straightforward, with three skaters from Japan and three skaters from Russia. The fight for the top spot should be fierce between the three ladies who made last year's junior Final podium: Russia's Serafima Sakhanovich, Evgenia Medvedeva and Maria Sotskova. The depth of Russian ladies skating seems to be endless! Japan's Wakaba Higuchi, Yuka Nagai and Miyu Nakashio will each be competing in their first Final, with fresh ambitions.

Chelsea Liu and Brian Johnson will be the only Team USA members in the junior Final. Their main competitors in pairs will be Julianne Seguin and Charlie Bilodeau of Canada, and Russia's Maria Vigalova and Egor Zakroev, who each won their two Grand Prix assignments this season. The rest of the field hails from Russia, with 2013 Junior Grand Prix Final bronze medalists Lina Fedorova and Maxim Miroshkin, Kamilla Gainetdinova and Sergei Alexeev, and Daria Beklemisheva and Maxim Bobrov.

Four Russian teams also qualified in ice dance. Anna Yanovskaia and Sergei Mozgov won both of their Grand Prix assignments this season, the only ice dance team to do so. They will face two Canadian teams, Mackenzie Bent and Garrett Mackeen, and Madeline Edwards and Zhao Kai Pang. Betina Popova and Yuri Vlasenko, Alla Loboda and Pavel Drozd, and Daria Morozova and Mikhail Zhirnev, complete the field.

Barcelona is generous to all its visitors. Rising about 200 feet above ground, on the Mediterranean shore at the bottom of the city, the statue of Christopher Columbus decisively point his hand toward the sea. Following the great admiral, many skaters will strive at conquering new grounds, some 521 years after Columbus came to the city to report on his discovery of the Americas.