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Asada and Oda grab the lead at NHK Trophy

Favorites prevail on first day in Tokyo

Nobunari Oda had a strong return to the Grand Prix, winning the men's short.
Nobunari Oda had a strong return to the Grand Prix, winning the men's short. (Getty Images)

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By Tatiana Flade, special to icenetwork.com
(11/28/2008) - Favorites prevailed on the first day of the NHK Trophy on Friday, but quite a few skaters stumbled.

Japan's single skaters finished on top Friday. World champion Mao Asada captured the ladies short, while Nobunari Oda dominated the men. Americans Johnny Weir and Ashley Wagner finished second and have good chances to medal after the free skate. The NHK Trophy is the last of six events in the Grand Prix Series, and several skaters hope to secure their spot in the Grand Prix Final.

Men
Oda sat out the entire 2007-08 season, but Friday he looked like he'd never left. The 21-year-old gave a very smooth performance in the short program and hit the triple Axel, triple Lutz-triple toe and triple flip. He scored 81.63 points.

Weir trails the leader by 3.48 points with a 78.15-point performance. The reigning world bronze medalist has been battling a bad cold since he arrived in Japan, but he managed to get through his routine without any major errors. The triple Axel was strong, he got all Level 4's for the spins and Level 3's for the steps, but he two-footed the toe loop in his triple Lutz-triple toe combo.

"I've got through the program well. I've been very sick since I'm in Japan," Weir said. "Getting through the program without fainting was a progressive step."

Meanwhile, Oda was thrilled: "I am happy to be in first place, but we still have to do the free skating. For me, the challenge is to do a clean quadruple jump [toe loop]. If I can do it, it will be a good stepping stone for me."

Weir said that he is not going to do the quad in Sunday's free skate because of his health and some problems with his skates that he recently experienced.

Yannick Ponsero from France was one of two skaters to risk the quad in the short, but he put down his hand on the quad toe and added a double toe for his combination. He finished third. Canadian Kevin Reynolds hit a quadruple Salchow-triple toe loop combination, but his triple Axel was cheated. He is standing in sixth place. American Stephen Carriere came in fifth. The technical panel downgraded the triple toe in the combination with a triple flip. The 2007 world junior champion needs to pull up if he wants to make the Grand Prix Final.

Ladies
Asada obviously has recovered from her disappointing performances in Paris at the Trophée Eric Bompard Cachemire. She looked much more solid today. The world champion went for her trademark triple flip-triple loop combination, and although the second jump was cheated and downgraded, the Japanese star was just happy to have gone for it.

"I was able to focus on practicing my jumps, and I felt I would be able to do them the way I did before," Asada commented. "I found out that my combination jump was downgraded after I skated, but I'm still happy that I did it. Tomorrow, in the free skating, I will give it more energy."

Wagner made a few changes since the Cup of China, where she finished fourth, and they paid off. She replaced her Lutz combination with a flip combination and now does the Lutz as a solo jump. The combination went well, and the Lutz didn't get an edge call but an edge warning instead, which means less deduction on the Grade of Execution.

"I've been working on the edge of my triple Lutz, but it's not quite there yet. We decided it would be smart to do the combination with the triple flip, because the combo would be worth more points," Wagner explained. "The changes made me confident."

The American is ranked second, mainly thanks to her high-level spins, spirals and footwork, which beat even Asada on the technical score.

Laura Lepistö of Finland placed third. She did just a triple-double toe combination instead of her planned triple-triple. Japan's Yukari Nakano, another top contender in this field, gave a sub-par performance and lost a lot of points when she doubled her flip and landed forward on the Lutz. Katrina Hacker of the U.S., on the other hand, did what she could do and finished sixth with a clean program, although she only risked a triple-double toe loop combination. U.S. champion Mirai Nagasu disappointed. She singled the Lutz in her combination, and her triple flip was downgraded. She placed eighth.

Pairs
The pairs competition was rather weak. All three top couples had trouble with their solo jumps. Qing Pang, who skates with Jian Tong, doubled her toe loop and fell but skated well enough the rest of the way to earn first place.

"We had some problems with the toe loop, and I fell, although we felt confident after our practice," Pang said.

"We didn't really perform at our best level," Tong admitted. "Compared to the Cup of China, we did some things better here but we still had mistakes. We hope to skate much better tomorrow in the free skating."

Rena Inoue and John Baldwin of the U.S. came in second with a solid performance. He doubled the side-by-side toe loop, but all the other elements were well done.

"We've been practicing this program a lot since Skate America. Today was all about putting out the best performance we can do," Inoue comented.

The couple was well received as the fans remembered the Japanese-born Inoue. "I couldn't be happier with the way it went," Baldwin said. "We had that little mistake in the jump there and left a few points on the ice. I did a double."

Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison of Canada are in third place. She fell on the side-by-side triple Salchow and two-footed the throw triple loop, plus their side-by-side spin was a little out of sync.

Ice Dancing
It was a long day for the ice dancers who started with a 7:00 a.m. practice, competed the Paso Doble compulsory dance in the afternoon and finally the original dance in the evening.

It's the gold or nothing for both the Italians and the French who want to go to the Grand Prix Final. Both will need a victory in Tokyo. Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali of Italy, who were second at Troph&eactue;e Bompard, could advance with a second-place finish in Japan only if they beat Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto of the U.S. in the tiebreaker, which would be the higher total combined score. However, Belbin and Agosto so far have the highest combined score of all ice dance couples, even though they didn't win a Grand Prix event this season.

Faiella and Scali started with a strong compulsory dance, but then she fell on a transition move and their diagonal step sequence was just a Level 2. It was still enough to hold off Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat, thanks to a 2.41-point lead in the compulsory dance.

"We performed pretty well today. The compulsory was very good, we felt comfortable and were really in character," Scali said. "We did a good job in the OD too, there was just this mistake, the toe-pick of her. It's part of our job to keep going if a mistake never happened. You have to keep your energy and give even more energy for the rest of the program," he continued when asked about recovering from the fall.

Pechalat and Bourzat improved a lot over their performance from Skate Canada, where she fell during their side-by-side footwork. This time, the French made no error.

"It was a bit tiring to skate both compulsory and original dances on one day, but it went well for us. We don't like the compulsory dance so much, but we are happy with the way we skated, although for sure we can improve on this performance," Pechalat said. "As for the original dance, we skated very well, and I am especially proud and happy with it because this dance didn't go well at Skate Canada. I'm feeling much better now."

Kristina Gorshkova and Vitali Butikov of Russia overtook reigning world junior champions Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates in the OD after Samuelson stumbled on a twizzle, which got only a Level 1. Also, their circular steps were graded just a Level 2, but Samuelson and Bates are just 0.24 points behind and have a good chance to catch up in the free dance on Saturday.