Goyang City, South Korea
For the first time, the Senior Grand Prix Final and the Junior Grand Prix Final will be held simultaneously. Goyang City, South Korea, which hosted last season’s Four Continents Championships, will host the 2008/2009 Grand Prix Final. For the second year in a row, a country that does not host a Grand Prix event will host the Final.
The entries on the senior level are (in order of qualification): Isabelle Delobel & Olivier Schoenfelder, Oksana Domnina & Maxim Shabalin, Federica Faiella & Massimo Scali, Jana Khokhlova & Sergei Novitski, Meryl Davis & Charlie White, and Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosto.
The competition consists of only two phases: original dance and free dance. No compulsory is skated. This could be a major disadvantage to Delobel & Schoenfelder, Faiella & Scali, and Domnina & Shabalin, all of whom won their competitions based upon the lead they built in the CD. In fact, the only gold medalists who swept the three phases of competition were Davis & White at Skate Canada. Two weeks ago at NHK Trophy, Faiella & Scali lost both the OD and FD to France’s Nathalie Pechalat & Fabian Bourzat, yet still managed to make it to the top of the podium and snag a spot in the final. Domnina & Shabalin are lost without their CDs. That was the only phase of the competition they won at Cup of Russia (where they took home silver). Although they did win both the CD and FD at Cup of China, it must be noted that the margin of victory in the free dance was only .01 over Belbin & Agosto.
Delobel & Schoenfelder, the reigning world champions from France, were the only team to win both of their Grand Prix assignments. After toppling Belbin & Agosto, the home team favorites, at Skate America in a close race, they comfortably won Trophée Eric Bompard. The score they posted at Skate America, 187.64, is the highest score seen in this year’s Grand Prix Series, although only by a tiny margin. The world champions have to be considered one of the favorites to win. For the sixth year in a row, they have qualified for the Final, although their first medal was not until last year’s bronze.
Russia’s Domnina & Shabalin are on the comeback trail after missing last year’s World Championships due to Shabalin’s knee injury. They defeated Belbin & Agosto at Cup of China, but at Cup of Russia lost the title to their countrymen, world bronze medalists Khokhlova & Novitski. Domnina & Shabalin will be making their fourth consecutive Grand Prix Final appearance and they have two medals to their credit–a bronze from 2007 and a gold from 2008.
Federica Faiella & Massimo Scali of Italy qualified third for the Final, but their scores on the Grand Prix circuit are markedly lower than some of the other teams. They have not yet topped 180 points this season. After being alternates for two years, Faiella & Scali are competing in their first Final.
Last year, Jana Khokhlova & Sergei Novitski qualified for their first Grand Prix Final and placed fifth. A few months later, they stood on the world podium, and this year, they made a huge statement at Cup of Russia. There they beat their longtime domestic rivals, Domnina & Shabalin, and did so with a score of 187.62, just .02 less than what Delobel & Schoenfelder scored at Skate America. After several years of skating in Domnina & Shabalin’s shadow, Khokhlova & Novitski are finally having a chance to shine.
The fifth qualifiers, Meryl Davis & Charlie White, secured their first Grand Prix victory at Skate Canada this season. However, like Faiella & Scali, they have not scored above 180 points. After a solid win in Canada, Davis & White struggled in the original dance in Russia, which could have cost them a medal if it had not been for their strong free dance. Goyang City will be the chance to show the world that Moscow’s OD was a once-in-a-lifetime meltdown.
Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosto are the only team in the Final that did not win one of their Grand Prix events, but this does not mean that they should be counted out. Both of their silver medals were close decisions, and they scored 186 points at both Skate America and Cup of China. This will be their fourth Grand Prix Final appearance. With a bronze and two silvers from past Grand Prix Finals, Belbin & Agosto will be fighting to keep a perfect record of landing on the podium at the Final. It’s no secret that compulsories are not the Americans’ favorite phase of competition, so this format of OD/FD only should help them.
On the junior level, eight teams will vie for top honors at the Final: Madison Hubbell & Keiffer Hubbell, Madison Chock & Greg Zuerlein, Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani, Ekaterina Riazanova & Jonathan Guerreiro, Alisa Agafonova & Dmitri Dun, Kharis Ralph & Asher Hill, Ekaterina Pushkash & Dmitri Kiselev, and Marina Antipova & Artem Kudashev.
The American sibling team of the Hubbells scored 167.57 in Mexico, one of the highest point totals on the Junior Grand Prix series this year. With one Final appearance (in 2007) to their credit, where they won gold, they are certainly considered one of the favorites to win. After missing the first half of last season due to an injury, the Hubbells broke into the top five in the world at the junior level in 2008 and are aiming to increase their standing this year. Since they were juvenile skaters, the Hubbells have always excelled in the non-compulsory portions of the event, so the lack of a CD in Korea plays to their strengths.
Also making their second appearance at the JGPF are Americans Madison Chock & Greg Zuerlein. Last year they placed fifth, but in the deep field in American junior dance, they were not selected to attend the World Junior Championships. This year, they appear even stronger. Their score of 168.08 from the John Curry Memorial is slightly higher than the Hubbells’ top score, and they are the only other team that qualified with two gold medals. With a passionate free dance to Phantom of the Opera, Chock & Zuerlein are certainly contenders.
Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani round out the strong American team. With a gold and silver on the series, they qualified third and have also broken the 160-point barrier. This is only the first year that the siblings have been age-eligible to compete internationally as juniors, but they have made the most of this opportunity. With more than two months since their last event (Madrid Cup in Spain), the Shibutanis have had a lot of time to work on their programs. They made a 10-point gain between their first (Courchevel) and second, and they should benefit from the lack of a compulsory dance.
After Ekaterina Riazanova & Jonathan Guerreiro of Russia placed a distant second at their first event behind Chock & Zuerlein, they came back strong in their second. At the Madrid Cup, Riazanova & Guerreiro defeated the Shibutanis with a score of 167.80, the highest seen on the JGP circuit this year. Although they have only been skating together for two and a half years, Riazanova & Guerreiro have shown that they are ready for success. They gained more than 18 points between their two qualifying events this autumn and certainly look to improve upon their eighth place finish at last year’s JGP Final.
After two years of finishing the series as first alternates, Ukraine’s Alisa Agafonova & Dmitri Dun have qualified for the 2009 Final outright. They did get called up to attend last year’s Final as alternates, where they placed sixth. It is possible for them to place higher this year, but challenging for the medals may be difficult. Although they won the event in Belarus, they have not yet come close to scoring over 160.
With two silver medals in France and Mexico, Kharis Ralph & Asher Hill finished the JGP series earlier than any other Finalist and have had plenty of time to train for the Korea. Like the Ukrainian entry, the Canadian junior champions have scored lower than many of the top teams, but since they finished their JGP season nearly three month ago, it will be interesting to see if they have had time to improve their elements since the event in Mexico.
Ekaterina Pushkash & Dmitri Kiselev grabbed the final berth to the Final after placing second and fourth in their JGP events. Despite faltering in the original dance at the John Curry Memorial, they were able to score the points that they needed to qualify on a tiebreaker. With scores above 150 at both of their events, Pushkash & Kiselev are not quite at the same level as the top entries. Their compulsories were their strength in the qualifying events, so this will be an extra challenge for them in Goyang City.
Marina Antipova & Artem Kudashev of Russia originally lost a tiebreaker that meant they were the first alternates to the Final, but they were asked to compete when Americans Piper Gilles & Zach Donohue withdrew due to injury. Like their Russian teammates, Antipova & Kudashev also finished second and fourth on the circuit, but they have not yet scored higher than 150 points this season.