Ice Network

Marseille set to host star-studded Grand Prix Final

Hanyu seeks fourth straight title; Russia's Medvedeva eyes second crown
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The showdown between three-time defending champion Yuzuru Hanyu and Spain's Javier Fernández should not disappoint. -Getty Images

In one year, the Grand Prix Final has moved east along the shores of the Mediterranean, departing Barcelona, Spain, and arriving in Marseille, France, for the 2016 edition.

The Grand Prix Series mirrors a milk centrifugation process in a way: At the end of the journey, you have five leading nations sharing the cream of the crop, each one with its own specialty.

Russia comes to Marseille with four ladies and two pairs teams, while Japan and the United States bring two male competitors apiece. Canada and China arrive with two pairs teams of their own, and the U.S. leads the ice dance field with three teams. France and Spain are the only two nations to be represented by a single skater or pairs team.

The selection process was even stronger in the Junior Grand Prix Series, as Russia, Japan and the United States hold most of the spots. Russia and Japan own the ladies category, while Team USA leads ice dance, with three teams in that category. Russia fared quite well in pairs and men's, with five entrants in the former discipline and four in the latter. Qualifiers from South Korea, Czech Republic and France make up the rest of the field.

Battle of quads expected in men's category

Spain's two-time reigning world champion Javier Fernández and Canada's three-time world gold medalist Patrick Chan are the only two men to have won both of their assignments in 2016. They face three-time defending Grand Prix champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who, despite his recent success, is still improving his overall performance.

"There are six quads in Yuzuru's programs this season, two of which are quad loops," Hanyu's coach, Brian Orser, said during Trophée de France. "Yuzuru wants to use this season to get mileage on these new elements."

Hanyu took gold at the 2016 NHK Trophy, and Marseille may mark an additional milestone in his continued quest for another Olympic gold medal. That goal, however, will be seriously challenged by the talented Spaniard, who has his eyes on milestone achievements of his own.

"I'm still missing two medals," Javier Fernández stated recently. "A gold from the Grand Prix Final and an Olympic medal."

Much like Hanyu, Chan has also decided to raise the bar, adding a quad salchow to his repertoire. He still needs to land it cleanly, but, as he mentioned repeatedly in his previous outings, "There is so much more to skating than just quads."

Japan's Shoma Uno managed to qualify for the Grand Prix Final for the second consecutive season -- his second on the senior level -- after claiming gold at Skate America and earning a silver medal at Rostelecom Cup.

Team USA's Nathan Chen is also looking to break a barrier. Chen was the first skater ever to land both a quad lutz and a quad flip in the same program (during his short program in Paris), and he still needs to go beyond those two major elements in his free program.

Chen's former training mate Adam Rippon, will also try to repeat the perfect landing of a quad jump in competition, much like he did this season in Paris.

The men's competition could mark the first time that five different quads are landed cleanly in one competition, with Chen attempting the lutz and flip, Uno adding his own flip, Hanyu incorporating a loop, and Fernández, Hanyu, Chan, Chen and Uno adding a toe loop and salchow.

Canada, China, Russia comprise pairs field

Canada's Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford won both of their Grand Prix assignments this season, and they've created new motivation as they set their sights on a gold medal in Marseille.

At the end of the 2015-16 season -- when the Chinese federation announced that Hao Zhang and Yang Jin would switch partners -- many wondered whether or not one team would be negatively impacted more than the other. In a matter of months, however, Xiaoyu Yu and Hao Zhang, and Cheng Peng and Yang Jin proved that the switch could in fact benefit both pairs, as each duo qualified for the Grand Prix Final.

Yu and Zhang took silver at Skate Canada and won the Cup of China, while Peng and Jin earned a silver medal at both the Cup of China and the NHK Trophy.

Russians Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov increased their technical level this season -- adding a quad twist to their program -- and take a sizeable step forward entering the Grand Prix Final.

Only one team besides Duhamel and Radford won both its assignments this year. Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot earned gold at the Rostelecom Cup and Trophée de France but were forced to withdraw from the Grand Prix Final due to Savchenko suffering an ankle injury during competition.

Canada's Julianne Séguin and Charlie Bilodeau, who won the gold medal at Skate America, qualified for their second Final in as many years in the senior ranks.

The Russian duo of Natalia Zabijako and Alexander Enbert, who took silver at Rostelecom and landed fourth in Paris, were the first alternate, and qualified for the event following the withdrawal of Savchenko and Massot. 

Russians put stamp on ladies field

Russia will be well-represented in Marseille this week, with four ladies heading to the Final, a feat that was also accomplished by the decorated nation in 2014. Evgenia Medvedeva, winner of the 2015 Grand Prix Final, is joined by countrywomen Anna Pogorilaya, Elena Radionova and newcomer Maria Sotskova.

Medvedeva and Pogorilaya won both of their Grand Prix assignments, with Medvedeva claiming gold at Skate Canada and Trophée de France, and Pogorilaya finishing tops at Rostelecom and NHK.

Kaetlyn Osmond -- who won silver at Skate Canada and Cup of China -- is the first Canadian woman to qualify for this event since Joannie Rochette did it in 2009. Satoko Miyahara will be the only representative of Japan, after medaling at both Skate Canada (bronze) and NHK (silver).

The ladies field will not include anyone from the United States for the first time since 2008.

Ashley Wagner, who has competed at this event each of the last four years, is first alternate, and Gracie Gold, a two-time Grand Prix Final qualifier, will take part in the Golden Spin of Zagreb in Croatia this week.

Team USA well-represented in dance department

In previous years, the major contenders in ice dance avoided competing against one another throughout the Grand Prix Series. This year proved quite different, however, as Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the 2010 Olympic gold medalists from Canada, returned to competition.

Virtue and Moir, as well as Team USA's Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, won both of their Grand Prix assignments this season. The Canadians slipped past the American team of Madison Chock and Evan Bates at Skate Canada and upended world gold medalists Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron at NHK Trophy. The Shibutanis also took home hardware of their own, defeating teammates Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue at Skate America.

All five teams qualified for the Final, as did Russia's Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev, who took the bronze at Skate America and gold at Rostelecom Cup.

The top three duos -- Virtue and Moir, the Shibutanis, and Papadakis and Cizeron -- share at least two characteristics: Each team has skated together since childhood, and all three units are known as rare ice gliders.