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Skaters wrestle for spots atop the rankings

No new No. 1s, but plenty of changes right behind them

Stephane Lambiel returned to the conversation about the world's best male figure skaters with his gold-medal performance at the GP Final.
Stephane Lambiel returned to the conversation about the world's best male figure skaters with his gold-medal performance at the GP Final. (Getty Images)

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By Todd Hinckley
(12/17/2007) - Most of the world's best skaters took to the ice in Turin, Italy, for the ISU Grand Prix Final. While there were no new number ones for the fourth week in a row, there was some shuffling near the top of icenetwork.com's World Figure Skater Rankings.

Men

While Brian Joubert was at home during the Grand Prix Final, the rest of the world's best skaters were attempting to unseat the top-ranked man. If Daisuke Takahashi had held his lead after the short program and won the gold, he might have surpassed the Frenchman. Instead, Joubert now holds the smallest lead in the rankings he's had all year.

Stéphane Lambiel, fresh off winning his eighth straight national title at the 2008 Swiss National Championships, showed the form he had when he won the Grand Prix Final in 2006 and back-to-back world championships in 2005 and 2006. The Swiss star earned a Grand Prix Series-high 239.10 points to edge out Takahashi by 0.16 points. His effort in Turin moved him up to third in the rankings.

Takahashi didn't take the gold, but he did show the potential for overtaking Joubert for the top spot in Gothenburg in March. His 84.20-point short program in Turin was the best from the Grand Prix Series all year. He already has the highest free skate total this year, so if he could just put both together, he could win his first world title.

The Americans who competed at the GP Final, Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir, did not skate their best. Weir, in particular, struggled and did not put forth the kind of performance that helped him win gold medals at the Cup of China and the Cup of Russia in November. He stayed put at No. 5, while Lysacek was leapfrogged by the surging Lambiel and dropped to fourth.

Canada's Patrick Chan moved up three spots to No. 6 after his fifth-place performance in Turin. Belgium's Kevin van der Perren moved up one spot to ninth after finishing sixth and last at the GP Final. The Czech Republic's Tomas Verner also moved up one spot, to No. 11, after winning his sixth national title at the joint Czech and Slovak National Championships. Verner has shown brief spurts of greatness, like his silver-medal performance two weeks ago at the NHK Trophy, that make you believe he could challenge the skaters that were in Italy this weekend, but he has to improve his consistency.

Ladies

Young American Caroline Zhang made the only significant jump in the ladies rankings, moving up three spots to No. 7 after her fourth-place performance at the Grand Prix Final. She ended up just 2.45 points off the podium in her first season as a senior skater. Unfortunately, she is too young to compete at worlds, so she might not get another chance this year to compete against these world-class competitors. The 14-year-old has already proven this year, with efforts like her second-place short program at the GP Final, that she has a very bright future amongst the world's best.

No move was made, though, at the top two spots. Mao Asada of Japan rebounded from her disastrous short program to win the free skate and take the silver medal in Italy. This comeback showed a lot of heart, but it was not enough for her to re-claim the top spot of the rankings.

South Korea's Yu-Na Kim was only 0.34 points behind Asada in the free skate, which was more than enough for her to hold onto first place overall. She defended her Grand Prix Final title and seriously padded her position as the world's No. 1-ranked ladies skater in the world. Her 64.62-point short program was the best of the Grand Prix Series, more than a point ahead of her total from the Cup of Russia. No skater has combined her smooth jumps and graceful flow on the ice this year, and she will be very hard to beat throughout the rest of the season.

The rest of the ladies rankings stayed the same. Kimmie Meissner of the U.S., Miki Ando of Japan and Carolina Kostner of Italy remained at Nos. 3-5. Kostner, however, has easily skated the best of the three this year, capping off her Grand Prix Series with a bronze medal in Turin. Meissner's sixth-place finish at the GP Final was a huge disappointment, and the reigning U.S. champion will have a tough time defending her title at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships a month from now.

Pairs

Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany moved up one spot to No. 2 overall after their dominating performance at the Grand Prix Final. Their 72.14-point short program was an all-time ISU record, and their 127.09-point free skate and overall score of 199.23 points were both highs for the Grand Prix Series this year. Savchenko and Szolkowy had come in second behind China's Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang at the Cup of Russia, so this was a major statement for the Germans. Zhang and Zhang still hold a sizable lead in the standings, but Savchenko and Szolkowy now pose a major threat to that spot.

China's second team in Italy, Qing Pang and Jian Tong, performed admirably but dropped to No. 3 because of the move by the Germans.

Canada's Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison finished fourth at the GP Final and moved up two spots to No. 4. The young couple beat Pang and Tong at Skate America, but they still seem to be a level behind the top three pairs.

The fifth-place finishers from Italy, Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov, moved up four places to eighth overall. Their biggest move this year was completing the quadruple throw Salchow at the Cup of Russia, and if they can regularly land that jump, they will definitely be contender down the road.

The rest of the pairs rankings stayed the same, because Americans Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker did not add any points after withdrawing from the Final after the short program.

Ice Dancing

The battle for ice dancing gold was a four-horse race heading into Turin. Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto of the United States still hold a comfortable lead in the rankings after their silver-medal finish. In some corners, they were the underdogs at the Final, because all three of their main rivals had posted better scores during the Grand Prix Series. The Americans, however, put forth a strong performance in Italy, starting with a 63.64-point original dance that was the best of the year. Only an out-of-this-world free dance could have ripped the gold from their grasp.

Unfortunately for American fans, Russia's Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin put together one of those kinds of performances. Their 103.26-point free dance vaulted them from third place after the original dance to the top of the podium, and it moved them up to second in the rankings. They own the season highs for the compulsory and free dances, as well as the best overall score of the year, and would probably be a slight favorite if the world championships were to begin today. They did finish behind the Americans, head-to-head, at the Cup of China, but their scores since then have left them a step ahead.

France's Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder took the bronze at the GP Final, their best finish at the event, and remain No. 3 in the standings. Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir finished fourth last weekend and held their place at No. 4 in the standings. Both of these couples remain serious threats towards the top two pairs the rest of the season.

France's other entrant at the GP Final, Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat made the only significant move up the dance standings, from ninth to sixth, after their sixth-place finish. They now stand right behind Russia's Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski in the rankings, just as they did in the final standings last weekend.

The standings will stay pat for a few weeks. The next icenetwork.com World Figure Skater Rankings will be posted on Monday, January 7, with results from the Italian and Japanese National Championships and more.