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Rankings tighten up for ladies and men

Surprises in Europe and the U.S. cause changes

Tomas Verner's win over world champions Stephane Lambiel (left) and Brian Joubert (right) put him squarely in the race for gold at worlds.
Tomas Verner's win over world champions Stephane Lambiel (left) and Brian Joubert (right) put him squarely in the race for gold at worlds. (Getty Images)

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By Todd Hinckley
(01/30/2008) - Last weekend was not short on surprises on the ice around the world. The action from the 2008 European Championships in Zagreb, Croatia, and the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Saint Paul, Minn., did not leave viewers wanting anything in terms of drama. All of the exciting skating made for a busy week in icenetwork.com's World Figure Skater Rankings.

Men

The men's event in Zagreb did, in now way, go as planned. Reigning world champion Brian Joubert showed clear signs that he has not recovered from his mysterious virus that he contracted in November. He performed well in December while winning his sixth straight French national title but was clearly rusty in Croatia this week. His bronze medal kept him at No. 1 in the rankings, but he lost his chance to distance himself from the rest of the men in the world.

Stephane Lambiel, the two-time world champion and gold medalist at the Grand Prix Final in December, won silver in Zagreb and moved to second overall. His move dropped Daisuke Takahashi to third, but the Japanese star might be the favorite at the world championships in March, since his season has been the most consistent of the top contenders.

Takahashi will first have to contend with Americans Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir at the Four Continents Championships. Lysacek and Weir held firm in the rankings this week, staying at fourth and fifth, respectively, after battling each other at the U.S. Championships. Lysacek technically retained his gold medal, but the two skaters tied with identical overall scores off 244.77. The deadlock had never been seen before under the new judging system. Win or lose, both Lysacek and Weir proved that they will definitely be in the running in Gothenburg.

The big mover of the weekend was the new European men's champion, Tomas Verner. The Czech star moved up four places to No. 6, and he proved that his silver-medal performance at the NHK Trophy was not a fluke. Verner won silver at Europeans a year ago and finished just off the podium at the 2007 worlds, but this victory over the world's best proves that he really belongs in their company. The men's race in Sweden will undoubtedly be the deepest of the competitions there.

The inclusion of junior skaters in the rankings is always a tricky issue to dissect. Brandon Mroz of the United States has been in the top 20 all year long, thanks largely to two gold-medal finishes on the Junior Grand Prix Series this fall. But it is very difficult to compare these results to those of men at the senior level. Whether or not Mroz is the 12th best skater in the world has yet to be seen right now, but his resume simply shows the possibility for success down the road. Mroz is not the only junior man making a statement though. Fellow American Adam Rippon, who defeated his teammate while winning gold at the JGP Final, beat Mroz again last week in becoming the new U.S. junior champion.

Rippon moved up two places, to No. 16, in the rankings this week after his victory; Mroz held firm at 12th after his second straight U.S. junior silver medal. These two young Americans are certainly making the case that their upcoming transition to the senior level will be smooth, hoping for the kind of immediate impact that the 2007 world junior medalists -- Stephen Carriere (gold, 11th in the rankings), Patrick Chan (silver, seventh) and Sergei Voronov (bronze, 13th) -- have made this year.

Ladies

The very top of the ladies rankings did not change this week. Yu-Na Kim and Mao Asada held firm at first and second place, respectively, and they also maintained their cushion over the third-place skater.

But there was a new resident of the third spot on the rankings. Thanks to her second consecutive European title, Italy's Carolina Kostner moved up to No. 3, her highest ranking all season. The move is certainly well deserved. Kostner has probably had the best season of anyone not named Kim or Asada. She won her first Grand Prix gold medal at the NHK Trophy and followed that with a bronze medal at the GP Final in December. Like Verner, she had some inconsistent performances early last fall, but the Italian has bounced back from them. She now looks like a favorite to make the podium at worlds and at least duplicate the bronze medal she won in 2005.

After Kostner, there is a drop-off in the rankings. Kimberly Meissner of the United States and Miki Ando of Japan dropped down to fourth and fifth, respectively. The last two world champions (Meissner in 2006, Ando in 2007) have both struggled mightily this season. Meissner began with gold at Skate America but has fallen off since then, following her disappointing last-place finish at the Grand Prix Final with an even more humbling seventh-place effort last weekend as the defending champion at the U.S. championships.

Ando won silver behind Meissner at Skate America in October then broke down on the ice at the NHK Trophy, causing her to not qualify for the Final. She then redeemed herself at Japanese nationals, winning the free skate and finishing second overall, just 1.15 points behind Asada. Ando will get one more shot to prove herself -- at the Four Continents Championships in February -- before the defense of her world title in March. She has to prove that her meltdowns from last fall are behind her if she wants to be considered among the favorites.

In the second half of the top 10, Switzerland's Sarah Meier advanced three places to No. 6 after her silver-medal performance in Zagreb. Although Meier won the free skate, she has still not distinguished herself from the large group of women that are trying to catch Kim and Asada.

Instead, the gap is much narrower between Meier and the skaters that followed her at Europeans than the space between her and the world's top two or three skaters. European bronze medalist Laura Lepistö, who won her first Finnish national title in December, entered the rankings at No. 15. She passed her countrywomen, Kiira Korpi and Susanna Pöykiö, in the process. Korpi stayed at No. 16 after finishing fifth last week, and Pöykiö dropped to 17th since she did not compete at Euros, having not made the Finnish team.

With Meissner struggling terribly at the U.S. Championships and Emily Hughes' withdrawal from the event, there seemed to be a changing of the guard among the American ladies in Saint Paul. 14-year-old Caroline Zhang entered the event as one of the favorites and held her eighth spot in the rankings with a fourth-place finish. The real noise was made by fellow 14-year-old Mirai Nagasu.

Like Mroz on the men's side, Nagasu has been in the rankings all season thanks to her strong junior season, which included gold medals at her two JGP starts and the Junior Grand Prix Final in Gdansk, Poland. She remained 13th this week, but her standing until now had yet to be proven among the world's top senior ladies. Consider her resume fulfilled.

The tiny California native won the U.S. national title, her first event competing against seniors. Her next event with the seniors will have to wait, though, since she is too young to compete at senior worlds. Along with teammates Zhang and U.S. silver medalist Rachael Flatt, the Americans will bring a very strong team to the world junior championships. These young ladies' assault on the top of the rankings will have to wait.

Instead, Ashley Wagner, who won bronze in Saint Paul and remained 14th in the rankings, will carry the American flag to Sweden. Of the members of the U.S. world team, she is clearly the person skating her best right now, and that includes Meissner. Wagner won her first Senior Grand Prix medal this season (bronze at the Trophee Eric Bompard) and will now get a shot to rise further up the rankings at Four Continents and worlds. If her performance at the U.S. championships is any proof, the 16-year-old should fare well against the rest of the world.