2009 GP Cup of China Preview

Beijing, China

Despite the scrambling of the ISU Grand Prix Series schedule this season, the third event remains the same: Cup of China. Since its introduction in 2003, the Samsung Anycall Cup of China has been held in three different cities, and once again welcomes skaters to the Capital Gymnasium in Beijing.

With the late withdrawal of China’s Jiameimei Guo & Fei Meng, the roster for the ice dance competition stands at only nine teams. Seven of those nine competed at this same event — in this same arena — last year. One of the missing teams is Russians Oksana Domnina & Maxim Shabalin, who took the gold in 2008 by only .36. They had not been assigned to this event for 2009.

Making their fifth trip to Cup of China and entering the event as the favorites are Americans Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosto. They took the silver behind Domnina & Shabalin last year. Prior to that, they played step-aerobics on the podium: gold in 2007, silver in 2006, and gold in 2004. The charismatic Americans were hampered by a recurring back injury to Agosto that flared and knocked them out of the Grand Prix Final after the original dance and completely out of the U.S. Championships. They rallied in time for the World Championships in Los Angeles, where they won their fourth world medal, a silver.

If anyone will stand in the way of Belbin & Agosto’s alternating gold-silver pattern, it will probably be Russia’s Jana Khokhlova & Sergei Novitski. Historically, Belbin & Agosto have a stronger competitive record than Khokhlova & Novitski, but Khokhlova & Novitski did keep Belbin & Agosto off the podium at the 2008 World Championships. After Domnina & Shabalin’s withdrawal from the Grand Prix Series, Khokhlova & Novitski became the highest-ranked Russian team, which could give the 2008 world bronze medalists a push in terms of sport politics. Cup of China will mark the international debut for both teams in this important Olympic season.

Italy’s Federica Faiella & Massimo Scali are Grand Prix veterans, not missing a season since their Grand Prix debut in 2001. They are one of the two teams who did not compete in this event last season, although this is their third appearance at Cup of China. Faiella & Scali had a strong season last year, qualifying for their first Grand Prix Final and winning their first medal at the European Championships, a silver. At those championships, they were defeated by Khokhlova & Novitski by a margin of ten points, so it may be quite a challenge to pass up the frontrunners. However, if the Grand Prix teaches us anything, it is that anything is possible. Although if history tells us anything, it is that only Russians (Tatiana Navka & Roman Kostomarov in ’03 & ’05, Domnina & Shabalin in ’06 & ’08) or Belbin & Agosto (’04 & ’07) have won the gold at Cup of China. And that none of these teams won gold more than twice.

Siblings Alexandra and Roman Zaretski of Israel are making their fifth consecutive appearance at Cup of China. Although they finished seventh last year, 2007 Cup of China’s fourth-place showing was their best finish yet on the Grand Prix. Their 13th-place finish last year at the World Championships was disappointing, but they have refocused and have already built some momentum this season with a silver medal at Nebelhorn Trophy.

Celebrating her recent Canadian citizenship, Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje are moving forward with an Olympic team assignment on their minds. With only two Olympic dance spots available, they’ll need to keep pace with fellow Canadians Vanessa Crone & Paul Poirier, who finished fourth last week at Rostelecom Cup. Weaver & Poje had a rough Grand Prix season last year, struggling with technical content and difficulty levels, but ended their season well with a confident and polished free dance at the Four Continents Championships. The duo began splitting their training over the summer between Shae-Lynn Bourne in Toronto and Pasquale Camerlengo at the Detroit Skating Club.

The other team who did not compete here in 2008 is Americans Madison Chock & Greg Zuerlein, who were tearing things up on the junior circuit. They are the new kids on the senior block but could certainly pose a threat to some of the more established teams in the field. Last season, they won gold in every single event that they entered, including the World Junior Championships. A strong debut on the Grand Prix Series would certainly make the deep dance field in the U.S. even more interesting as the Americans jockey for position leading into Spokane in January.

Ukrainian champions Anna Zadorozhniuk & Sergei Verbillo are making their third consecutive appearance at Cup of China. After placing sixth in 2007, they were fifth last year, just ahead of Weaver & Poje. Zadorozhniuk & Verbillo’s personal best of 165.11, however, is almost ten points less than the Canadians’ best score.

The Chinese dance teams will battle for national honors in this all-important year. Xiaoyang Yu & Chen Wang are the more experienced team, having been on the Grand Prix since 2003. Xintong Huang & Xun Zheng did not move up to the senior level until 2006, but since then, the two teams have often battled for the top spot in China. Yu & Wang were sent to the World Championships in 2006 and 2008; Huang & Zheng went in 2007 and 2009. Despite finishing second to Yu & Wang at the recent Chinese Championships, Huang & Zheng were chosen to represent China at Nebelhorn Trophy, where they placed fifth and were the first team among those attempting to qualify for the Olympic Games. Now, with one Olympic spot available, the two teams have an exciting battle ahead of them over the next few months. It is possible that China will not make its final decision until after the Four Continents Championships, but it is conceivable that the results of this event will come into play.

The dancers open competition Friday, October 30 with the Golden Waltz compulsory dance and are back on the ice less than seven hours later for the original dance. The free dance follows on Saturday.