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Savchenko, Szolkowy top deep pairs rankings

Many teams poised to improve on last season

World champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy are the best of the best in pair skating, earning the gold medal in seven of their last eight competitions.
World champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy are the best of the best in pair skating, earning the gold medal in seven of their last eight competitions. (Getty Images)

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By Mickey Brown, special to icenetwork.com
(10/14/2008) - Of the four skating disciplines, pairs is easily the most top heavy in terms of the number of elite teams.

There are some fine pairings in the world for sure, but once you get outside the top eight or so teams in icenetwork.com's World Figure Skater Rankings, the level of talent drops dramatically, and it's hard to imagine anyone outside that range -- save perhaps for a fast-rising Russian junior team and a pair of Canadian duos -- being able to break into the upper echelon.

The discussion of "Best Pairs Team in the World" begins and ends with Germans Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy. Since the start of the 2006-07 season, they have medaled at all 14 events they have entered, including first-place finishes at seven of their last eight competitions (their only slip-up was a silver at 2007 Cup of Russia). Their 2008-09 debut at the Nebelhorn Trophy was an encouraging one; they scored eight points higher there in cruising to the gold than they did at the same competition last season.

The only team to defeat the mighty Germans last season? That would be China's Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang, the No. 2-ranked pair. While there is little doubting the Zhangs' talent, it is fair to bring their mettle into question. They tend to shine in low-pressure situations, but when the stakes are raised, they frequently come up short. In their career, they have 11 second- or third-place finishes combined at the Grand Prix Final, Four Continents Championships, world championships and Olympic Winter Games and just one gold medal at those competitions (2005 Four Continents).

In search of a bit of redemption are Qing Pang and Jian Tong of China, third in the rankings. A triumphant season (two firsts, two seconds and a third) turned into a disappointing one at the 2008 World Championships, where Pang and Tong finished off the podium for the first time since 2005. Still, you can't argue with their consistency -- seven straight seasons with a top-five finish at worlds, including the 2006 title, is nothing to sneeze at.

Next on the list is the surprise team from last season, Canadians Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison. After failing to even win their country's national championship, Dubé and Davison jetted off to Sweden and captured the world bronze medal. With the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver looming on the horizon, there will be added pressure on this team to stay sharp this season and next.

Two Russian pairs occupy the Nos. 5 and 6 spots in the rankings, and their point totals suggest they are as close as can be. Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov (136.38 points) and Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov (133.34) faced each other four times last season, with the former finishing higher than the latter three times. That included the world championships, where Kawaguchi and Smirnov bettered Mukhortova and Trankov by 25 points. Other than that, however, their scores were close and should remain so this season.

Despite skating just three senior-level events, the top American team of Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker come in at No. 7. After going five-for-five in their debut season as juniors, the Colorado Springs-based pair won silver at both of their Grand Prix assignments and gold at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. With McLaughlin having reached the ISU's age minimum to compete at the world championships, this team has its sights set high, and a top-five finish is certainly within its grasp.

After winning the JGP Final and world junior titles last season, Russians Ksenia Krasilnikova and Konstantin Bezmaternikh. (No. 8) looked like they were ready to become major players on the senior international scene, but their results this season suggest otherwise. They won by less than a point at their first JGP event, in Mexico, and then finished a shocking fourth at JGP BelarusJGP Belarus. More alarmingly, their scores at both events were far lower than the ones they posted a year ago. They have a while to try to shake off the early-season rust, as their first and only Grand Prix assignment is Cup of China, where they will square off against both top Chinese teams.

The aging duo of Rena Inoue and John Baldwin are clinging to the No. 9 spot in the rankings. For the second year in a row, their finishes at the Four Continents and world championships were lower than the season before. Competing in the Grand Prix Series this fall -- something they did not do last year -- should better prepare them for what lies ahead, but it would be unrealistic to expect much upward movement from this team at this point in its career.

Rounding out the top 10 are Ukrainians Tatiana Volosozhar and Stanislav Morozov. They took a step back last season, finishing ninth in the world after a fourth-place finish in 2007, so they decided to move their training site to Germany to work with Savchenko and Szolkowy's coach, Ingo Steuer. In their 2008-09 season debut, they finished third at Nebelhorn behind their training mates and Mukhortova and Trankov. Their goal is to earn their first medal at the European Championships, but with the aforementioned German and Russian teams routinely finishing ahead of them, they have their work cut out for them.

Anabelle Langlois and Cody Hay of Canada check in at No. 11. This team certainly has the potential to move up over the course of the season, but there is the issue of the spiral fractures Langlois suffered to her lower fibula while training this summer, an injury that has thrown their Grand Prix season in doubt (they are still scheduled to compete at Skate Canada and the NHK Trophy as planned). Langlois and Hay showed last season they have what it takes to compete with the world's best, defeating Dubé and Davison at the Canadian championships.

Russians Lubov Iliushechkina and Nodari Maisuradze are perhaps the most mysterious team in the latter half of the rankings, and also the pair with perhaps the most potential. They came out of nowhere last season -- just their second one together and their first of international competition -- to finish fourth at the Russian championships and second at the world junior championships. They picked up this season right where they left off, winning both of their JGP events. Their ascent in the rankings will be limited somewhat by their junior standing, but a dominant showing -- much like McLaughlin and Brubaker's in 2006-07 -- will easily push them into the top 10.

Brits Stacey Kemp and David King made a successful coaching switch last season. Now taking direction from Polish champions Dorota and Mariusz Siudek, Kemp and King improved their world finish, from 17th to 15th, and, most notably, their European finish, from 11th to sixth. Having only one Grand Prix assignment (NHK) will hinder their chances of moving much higher than their No. 13 ranking.

The momentum Americans Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski built up in the 2006-07 season was lost last year, as they were forced to sit out the Grand Prix Series because of injuries. That they were able to regroup and win the bronze medal at both the 2008 U.S. Championships and the 2008 Four Continents Championships is a credit to their dedication. Now, with a clean slate of health and a wealth of international experience under their belts, we should see what this team is really made of.

Tiffany Vise and Derek Trent moved up a spot at the U.S. Championships for the second year in a row (from sixth in 2006 to fifth in 2007 to fourth last season), and they finished just out of the medals at both of their the Trophée Eric Bompard, fifth at Skate Canada). With the addition of 1988 Olympic pairs bronze medalist Jill Watson to their coaching team and another year of practice with their throw quad Salchow, Vise and Trent could be poised for a breakthrough season.

The jury is still out on two Chinese teams near the bottom of the rankings -- Jiaqi Li & Jiankun Xu (No. 16) and Yue Zhang & Lei Wang (No. 19). Both will only have one opportunity to showcase their abilities in the Grand Prix series, Li and Xu in China and Zhang and Weng at Skate America. In their two JGP assignments this fall, the best result Zhang and Wang could muster was a bronze in Belarus.

Italy's Laura Magitteri and Ondrej Hotarek (No. 18) placed a distant ninth at last month's Nebelhorn Trophy, while Estonians Maria Sergejeva and Ilja Glebov (No. 20) came in an even more disconcerting 10th at JGP Belarus.

The one team in this area of the rankings that much is expected of is Ekaterina Sheremetieva and Mikhail Kuznetsov of Russia. The fourth-place finishers at the 2008 world junior championships, Sheremetieva and Kuznetsov finished less than a point behind eighth-ranked Krasilnikova and Bezmaternikh at JGP Mexico and came in a respectable fifth at Nebelhorn. They should come away with the gold this weekend at the JGP Great Britain and will make their Grand Prix Series debut in late November at the NHK Trophy.

The one team located outside the rankings that could find itself being talked about as a medal contender at the 2009 World Championships is Canada's Meagan Duhamel and Craig Buntin. Together since the spring of 2007, Duhamel and Buntin, the reigning Canadian bronze medalists, finished just one spot lower at the 2008 World Championships (sixth) than Buntin and his previous partner of five years, Valerie Marcoux, managed in their best showing (fifth in 2006) at worlds.