Tokyo, Japan

With four spots to the Grand Prix Final likely decided, NHK Trophy is the setting for the battle for the final two spots. Isabelle Delobel & Olivier Schoenfelder, Oksana Domnina & Maxim Shabalin, Jana Khokhlova & Sergei Novitski, and Meryl Davis & Charlie White should be battling for top honors in Korea next month. Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosto will probably be there too, but there’s a minute chance that this weekend’s competition could jeopardize their standing. 

Two teams that finished in the top ten at the 2008 World Championships will likely fight for gold in Tokyo. Both teams have free dances that have generated quite a bit of discussion, and both teams are capable of executing very difficult elements. 

Italy’s Federica Faiella & Massimo Scali have the advantage of momentum. After winning a silver medal at Trophée Eric Bompard, where they beat world champions Delobel & Schoenfelder in the original dance, they know that a victory will secure their place in the Final. Their free dance this year is the story of Pierrot, set to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” and reactions have been across the board. The choreography is intricate, but the storyline may be too complex to understand without a written explanation of the intended plot. Some critics do not believe that the story reaches the audience because of this. It will be interesting to see how the audience in Tokyo reacts, and of course, how the judges are affected. And if enough people have “clown issues,” it may not bode well for the Italians. 

The challengers, Nathalie Pechalat & Fabian Bourzat of France, are in need of a comeback. Their disappointing and error-filled effort at Skate Canada earned them a bronze medal, so they still have a chance to make the Final, but it would take a win. With a free dance where they play clowns and skate to a familiar carnival theme, they could take the audience—but will they also win over the judges? And if enough people have “clown issues,” it may not bode well for the French, either. 

If Pechalat & Bourzat win and Faiella & Scali are second, Pechalat & Bourzat will make the Final, and the sixth spot will come down to a tiebreak between Faiella & Scali and Belbin & Agosto. Since both teams would have two silver medals, the tie would be broken on total points, and in order to top the Americans, Faiella & Scali would have to score more than ten points higher than they did in Paris, which would be quite difficult. 

Of course, if Faiella & Scali win NHK, there will be no need for a tiebreaker — the Italians will be off to their first Grand Prix Final, and Belbin & Agosto will take the final berth. 

An underestimated challenger to both teams could come from Emily Samuelson & Evan Bates, the young American team that placed fourth in a deep field at Skate America in week one of the Grand Prix Series. They have had five weeks to fine-tune their programs, fight off any nerves, and prepare for NHK. Their score at Skate America of 175.66 was only about four points off of Faiella & Scali’s mark from Paris, so they will also be in the fight for the medals, if not the top step of the podium. 

NHK will be a rematch for the teams that finished fourth, fifth, and sixth at Skate Canada. Kim Navarro & Brent Bommentre of the United States were fifth at Skate Canada after making several mistakes. Over the last month, they have had time to address the issues in their free dance and will hopefully arrive in Tokyo with a program that is just as entertaining, but packed with more difficulty. The match up between Samuelson & Bates and Navarro & Bommentre will also be a great opportunity for the teams to go head-to-head before the U.S. Championships. 

Another domestic clash will be between the Russian entries, Kristina Gorshkova & Vitali Butikov (fourth at Skate Canada) and Ekaterina Bobrova & Dmitri Soloviev (sixth at Skate Canada). Gorshkova & Butikov were the newcomers to the Senior Grand Prix this year, but they had a solid competition at Skate Canada, even placing second in the original dance. Bobrova & Soloviev have some ground to make up, but their energetic programs could help them do just that. 

Canada’s Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje were sixth in their first Grand Prix event, Cup of China, but their new free dance got rave reviews. Their interpretation of Doctor Zhivago, choreographed by David Wilson and Shae-Lynn Bourne, could certainly help them move up the standings if they skate well. 

Japan’s home entry, siblings Cathy & Chris Reed, missed their first Grand Prix assignment because Chris was still recovering from an injury. With a strong season debut, they could improve upon last year’s eighth-place finish at this event. 

A young Italian team and a veteran Chinese team round out the event. Isabella Pajardi & Stefano Caruso will make their senior international debut here, while Xiaoyang Yu & Chen Wang are in their sixth Grand Prix season. Yu & Wang were eighth at Cup of China. 

Competition begins with the Paso Doble on Friday, November 28, 2008.