Moscow, Russia

No longer just a generic “cup” of Russia, the 2009 version welcomes a title sponsor, Rostelecom, giving us the second of six ISU Grand Prix events: Rostelecom Cup of Russia. Held at Moscow’s spiffy Ice Palace “Megasport,” only one thing is certain: Evgeny Plushenko will not be winning the ice dance event.

Russians Oksana Domnina & Maxim Shabalin, the reigning world champions, were set to headline the dance event, but withdrew from the Grand Prix series last week — an announcement that shocked pretty much no one. Domnina & Shabalin are in the mix for the gold at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games and taking a break from the Grand Prix series will rest Shabalin’s delicate knees. But will missing the opportunity to compete against other medal contenders be detrimental to the team? Natalia Linichuk & Gennadi Karponosov have frequently pulled their teams from competition leading up to the Olympics, so this is familiar territory for the veteran coaches.

With Domnina & Shabalin out, Ekaterina Rubleva & Ivan Shefer, the 2009 national silver medalists, will lead Russia’s dance contingent. Though they have been on the Grand Prix circuit since 2005, they have yet to stand on the podium. Rubleva & Shefer are the only dance team competing in Moscow this week who competed in Paris last week; and even though the time zone change is only +2 hours, the stress and emotions have to play a role. This may work in the Russians’ favor, however, as they improved with each phase of competition at Trophee Eric Bompard, going from eighth in the compulsory to fifth in the OD to fourth in the free, finishing two and a half points out of fourth place overall. This week, the CD is the Tango Romantica, so it will be interesting to see how this event plays out for this couple whose partnership has been going strong for 15 years.

Bringing their 12-year-old partnership and a personal best 20 points higher than their closest competitor here, Meryl Davis & Charlie White of the U.S. go into this event as the gold medal favorites. Even if the gravity-challenged PodCharlie (last seen during the 2008 original dance at this competition) were to reappear, 20 points is a generous cushion, approximately equal to both footwork sections. While their music selection for this Olympic year raised a few eyebrows, they presented a version of Phantom of the Opera at the Nebelhorn Trophy in September that featured their own style. Their final score in Oberstdorf, 200.46, surpassed not only their own total at the World Championships in Los Angeles, but also would have given them the win over Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir last week at Trophee Eric Bompard by almost three points.

Katherine Copely & Deividas Stagniunas train in Canton, Michigan with Davis & White but represent Lithuania, the country of Stagniunas’ birth. Their 14th-place finish at the 2009 World Championship earned Lithuania an Olympic dance spot in Vancouver this coming February. Together since 2006, they’ve won three international medals, most recently a bronze at the Nebelhorn Trophy. In 2008, the team finished sixth here and a medal would be their first on the Grand Prix.

Making their third appearance at the Russian GP event are Italians Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte. After the World Championships, where they finished 10th for the second year in a row, the duo made the move across the border to France and are now coached by Muriel Zazoui and Romain Haguenauer. The personable duo placed fourth in both of their Grand Prix events last season. This year, their Requiem for a Dream free dance seeks a more mature look than they have shown in the past.

Representing Canada are Vanessa Crone & Paul Poirier. They, like the Italians, are ranked second in their home country. Crone & Poirier finished 12th at last year’s World Championships, less than three points behind the Italians. Last season marked their debut in the senior Grand Prix series, where they finished second (Skate Canada) and fourth (Trophee Eric Bompard). They have been skating together since 2001 and both are successful singles skaters as well. Unlike past seasons, Crone & Poirier skipped the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships, but they did compete their original dance at Thornhill in mid-August, where they won with a score of 56.04. Rostelecom Cup will mark the competitive debut of their free dance.

In addition to Rubleva & Shefer, Team Russia includes two relatively new partnerships. Anastasia Platonova & Alexander Grachev, who have been skating together since the spring of 2007, will compete for the second time at the Russian Grand Prix event after finishing seventh last year. More recently, the team took home the silver medal at Finlandia Trophy.

Only six months into their partnership, Ekaterina Riazanova & Ilia Tkachenko, who had been very successful on the junior level with their former partners, have already made a name for themselves with a fourth place finish at Nebelhorn.

Skating together since 1997, siblings Carolina Hermann & Daniel Hermann are the German national champions. Their only previous Grand Prix experience was at 2007 Skate Canada, where they finished in eighth place. They also recently competed at the Nebelhorn Trophy, but a disappointing free dance left them in 11th place.

Lucie Mysliveckova & Matej Novak of the Czech Republic are making their senior Grand Prix debut after two years of finishing among the alternates for the Junior Grand Prix Final. They recently finished in sixth place at the Nebelhorn Trophy, ensuring one Olympic dance spot for their country.

The last-minute withdrawal of Ukraine’s Alla Beknazarova & Vladimir Zuev dropped the number of teams competing from ten to nine.

Rostelecom Cup kicks off Friday morning with the Tango Romantica compulsory dance. The dancers will do double duty the 23rd, closing the day with the original dance that evening. A champion will be crowned at the conclusion of the free dance on Saturday, October 24th. And it will not be Evgeny Plushenko.