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A league of his own: Hanyu takes commanding lead

Fernández 12 points back; Chan third; Rippon delivers personal-best short
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Although he didn't match his record-setting score from the Grand Prix Final, Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu came close, continuing his string of other-worldly performances with a 110.56-point short program. The Olympic champion's Chopin routine was flawless, vaulting the three-time world medalist to a 12-point lead over Spain's Javier Fernández. -Getty Images

At the end of his short program, even Yuzuru Hanyu was left with his mouth agape, shocked not by what he could do on the ice but how he could let his emotions go and just skate like the best in the world -- or at least be halfway to proving it once again.

Wednesday night inside Boston's TD Garden at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships, Hanyu skated to a comfortable lead over rivals Javier Fernández of Spain and Patrick Chan of Canada, registering 110.56 points behind a clean performance in which he said he felt nerves like he never had before.

"I was pretty nervous today, a different nervousness than usual," said Hanyu, the 2014 Olympic and world champion. "I felt a little unsettling in my mind, (but) I was able to pull out a great performance at the most important event of the season. The reason I was so emotional at the end is because I felt different. I was still able to pull out my performance."

Defending world champion Fernández sits 12 points back with 98.52 points, while Chan, making his return to this event since going three-for-three from 2011 to 2013, registered a score of 94.84. Each skater suffered falls.

While the evening was no doubt (once again) Hanyu's, in a lot of ways, it also belonged to U.S. champion Adam Rippon, who skated his routine completely clean.

Rippon broke into a massive smile as his name was announced to the crowd, then delivered in the most pressure-packed performance of his life.

In a sparkled black top, the Pennsylvania native roared through his short, hitting his planned triple flip-triple toe combination to start, then taking TD Garden through a seamless step sequence before buttoning up a fairy tale short with a patented Rippon lutz.

On one knee with his program complete at center ice, Rippon pumped his fist and then turned and bowed toward all four corners of the arena, thrusting his arms at the crowd again and again. A standing ovation ensued for minutes.

The Hanyu-Fernández-Chan "trivalry" has chasers in 2015 world junior champion Shoma Uno, China's Boyang Jin and 21-year-old Russian Mikhail Kolyada, who finished four-five-six, respectively.

Max Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champion, sits behind Rippon in eighth.

Chan tore through the opening sequence of his "Mack the Knife" short, hitting his quad toe-triple toe combo before cascading into what had been a consistent triple axel this season. He didn't come close to landing it, however, falling badly and interrupting what could have been a Hanyu-threatening performance.

The 2014 Olympic silver medalist, however, saw the silver lining: He's back, and he's happy about it.

"For me, it was a great achievement tonight," the 25-year-old said. "Third is a great spot to be in. To be in the last group, the top three, I'm happy with the results. This is a comeback year for me."

It was a night that was full of bright spots throughout, from Kolyada's surprising skate (he was the second skater of the evening), to the energetic buoyance of 16-year-old Latvian Deniss Vasiļjevs, who sits in 10th place, to Ivan Righini's near-fluke as he took the ice (falling on an item thrown on by a fan) that led to his personal-best, 81.17-point short and a ninth-place standing.

American Grant Hochstein, falling on his opening quad, recovered nicely. He sits in 16th.

"It's an emotional thing being here," said Hochstein, who took Nathan Chen's spot after the teen injured himself during the exhibition at the 2016 U.S. Championships. "It's something that I've worked for my whole life and for a really long time, I didn't think I was going to achieve. Fall or not, I'm OK. No one can take this away from me."

Hanyu will look to take back the title as world champion Friday night. Coach Brian Orser, clearly aware of his charge's talent, was most impressed by his focus and execution on this night.

"He's so intense, that's what I love about him," Orser said. "He's incredible now. He knows exactly how to get his head in the right place. It's pretty amazing."

Skating last in the segment, Russia's Maxim Kovtun fell on his triple axel and was awarded no points for his triple toe. Olympic bronze medalist Denis Ten also turned in a disappointing performance, finishing 12th.

In a bit of a surprise, Nam Nguyen (fifth at this event last year) and Han Yan (seventh in 2014) each failed to qualify for the free skate.

The U.S. men have ground to make up in order to keep the coveted three spots at the world championships, currently totaling 15. They need to bring that number down to 13, and if Rippon delivers in the artistry department while hitting his quad lutz, that could happen. Aaron has two quads planned for his free skate, should he deliver.

"Hopefully, our best will get those three spots," Aaron said. "I think we can do it. It's about making sure that we're on point. We're looking forward to the challenge."

Fernández, tasked with chasing down his training partner and friend Hanyu, knows that 12 points is a tall mountain to climb, although he didn't seem undone by it.

"Yuzuru is 10 points away, so I'm going to try to do the best that I can," he said. "I have to concentrate in the free. It's good to look up and see who is there, remind myself, 'I need to try and beat this person.'"

Once again that person is Hanyu, who has become the standard-bearer in this sport. Here he is again at an international event, a loose-fitted top and Winnie the Pooh tissue box at the boards, throwing down, Hanyu style.

"I was thinking about Javi and Patrick … I respect [both] of them," Hanyu said. "Tonight, I was released from the feeling of wanting to be number one again. That was my right answer, what I did tonight."

And now the question heading into the free skate: Does anyone have an answer for Hanyu's answer?


-- Boos rang out inside the arena after Julian Zhi Jie Yee's short program score was announced after the TD Garden crowd got heavily behind the dynamic Malaysian skater. Yee scored a 67.60, qualifying for the free skate.

-- Vasiļjevs' adorable smile in the kiss and cry lit up the building when he scored a career-best 81.07 after his "Puttin' on the Ritz" short program. His coach, 1994 Olympic champion Alexei Urmanov, had this to say: "He is an energizer. He has a few batteries inside of him."

Vasiļjevs, just 16, counts Daisuke Takahashi, Fernández and Chan among his heroes.

"I'm skating at home in Latvia alone. My mom, she is not a coach but a huge fan of figure skating. She is always correcting me. … If she likes it, I hope everyone likes it. Because she is a very good critique."

Urmanov has been instrumental in the Latvian's development, however.

"If I [am] the book, Alexei is the author of the jumps."

-- What was Kolyada excited about after the skate of his life? Well, Hanyu, of course:

"This was my best performance in an international competition so far. I was nervous, but I tried not to think about it. I felt such a drive when I stepped on the ice, and this is how I skated. Now, I'll watch the others. I've never seen Yuzuru Hanyu live before."

-- In the mixed zone, Rippon gave me sass for suggesting he may have thought of adding a quad to his short program. But then -- I knew it! -- he revealed he had thought just that:

"Nick, no. … I was actually thinking about it. I had a moment of panic where, for one second, I thought, 'Maybe I'll switch it to a quad.' That wasn't my goal, to be a hero in the short program. I wanted to be solid and skate like a national champion. I'm ready to put on a great show in the free skate."