by Jacquelyn Thayer | Photo by Robin Ritoss

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The Iceberg Skating Palace, future home to all figure skating events at the upcoming 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, will make its grand entry into international competition with this year’s Grand Prix Final, playing host to six teams likely to return to the venue in February 2014. The roster at this event well encapsulates the skirmishes that have marked the Grand Prix series: each entrant captured two golds or two silvers on the circuit, meaning a first-time match-up here for most teams and a fight between several very well-matched foes. 

Americans Meryl Davis & Charlie White (pictured, right) have captured the last three Grand Prix Final titles and currently hold the overall season’s best score of 178.48 from their recent victory at NHK Trophy. Though they enter with momentum, they will also be competing for the first time this season against Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir, and will need to bring their best here. The team received very strong program component marks at both NHK Trophy and Skate America, their first event, but their technical marks have demonstrated a few weaker spots. As it has been for many teams, their Yankee Polka is a bit problematic; while at Skate America, the team’s second sequence received a level 4, the first earned only a level 2, and at NHK Trophy, the sequences took only levels 2 and 3. The concluding rotational lift in their short dance has also twice incurred an extended lift deduction, so watch for potential tweaks to that element here. While their NHK Trophy free dance fared very well, achieving an overall season’s best score of 108.62 with level 4s on most elements, the diagonal and circular step sequences earned levels 3 and 2, respectively, indicating another area for improvement. Davis & White’s central test here, of course, will be that of facing off against their primary competition, and despite past Grand Prix Final victories, victory for either team is never assured in a head-to-head match-up. 

The Grand Prix Final remains the only major title not yet won by Canada’s Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir, though the team will also be making only their fourth appearance in the Final due to abbreviated seasons in 2008 and 2010. While last year’s trip resulted in their second Final silver after a spill in the short dance, cleaner outings for both teams here should ensure that the battle will be as intense as usual. The couple has had four weeks off from competition since winning Rostelecom Cup with a total of 173.99, time which has been put to considerable use. The team has reported making changes to the footwork in both programs, prompted by prior results: at both Skate Canada and Rostelecom Cup, the free dance’s diagonal step sequence received only a level 2, while the midline no-touch step sequence in the short dance earned a level 2 at Skate Canada. Though the free dance’s circular has in both outings received the level 3 typical of this early point in the season, it will be interesting to see what technical impact the revisions may have. Also at issue have been the team’s Yankee Polka patterns, an element which received levels 2 and 3 at both outings and which has been a major focus of their training since Rostelecom Cup. While Virtue & Moir’s ultimate focus remains on the World Championships, with their career winding down, they will be fighting hard to capture the elusive title here.

France’s Nathalie Péchalat & Fabian Bourzat will become five-time Grand Prix Final contestants here. More significantly, they have medaled in their last three trips, including bronze in 2011. Given their pace so far, including total scores of 169.73 (Cup of China) and 168.90 (Trophée Bompard) that rank behind only those of Davis & White and Virtue & Moir, they are in good position to repeat that outcome. At both Cup of China and Trophée Bompard, the team picked up an extended lift deduction in the free dance, though their technical marks at the latter event were otherwise outstanding, with the free dance receiving level 4s on most elements and level 3s on both step sequences. The short dance was somewhat weaker; while their second polka pattern received one of the season’s rare level 4s—their performance at Cup of China being another to see such a mark—it was the only level 4 element besides the straight-line lift. However, while Péchalat & Bourzat will look to build on those early outings, their placements against two opponents here—a 10-point victory over Ekaterina Bobrova & Dmitri Soloviev in Shanghai and a 15-point win against Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte in Paris—suggest that two strong skates will still provide them with a good chance to once again reach the podium.

This will mark the third consecutive trip to the Grand Prix Final for Russians Ekaterina Bobrova & Dmitri Soloviev. Last year, the team finished in sixth place after earning a gold and bronze at their first two events; this time they enter as two-time silver medalists, at Skate America and Cup of China. They also bring the highest average totals among the trio of recent silver medalists in this competition, earning 159.95 at Skate America and only 0.49 less than that at Cup of China. The team has also had a longer competitive downtime than any other couple here, with those five weeks since Cup of China offering them some additional time to work on particular technical issues. At Cup of China, Bobrova & Soloviev received only level 2s on both free dance step sequences, a decline from the level 3s earned at their first event. The short dance, too, is still in progress; while they attained one level 4 polka sequence at Skate America, at Cup of China they received only level 2 and 3. One of the larger storylines for the team here is not simply their progress against top international couples, however, but how they fare against Elena Ilinykh & Nikita Katsalapov in particular. The Grand Prix Final offers the first showdown between the two teams favored to battle for the Russian title later this month, and will be a key contest to watch. 

Elena Ilinykh & Nikita Katsalapov (RUS) are the only first-time qualifiers to the Grand Prix Final in this year’s event. The team earned silver at Rostelecom Cup and NHK Trophy, though their totals of 158.46 and 156.62, respectively, were among the lowest earned by entrants here. While their PCS has been solid, they’ve seen their own share of technical woes. Each Grand Prix free dance performance has been accompanied by a deduction, with a fall from Ilinykh at Rostelecom Cup and an extended lift at NHK Trophy. The team also had a difficult short dance at NHK Trophy, receiving a level 1 on one polka pattern and level 4 on only their rotational lift. The major Final challenge for Ilinykh & Katsalapov, though, may come from the level of competition: though their silver medal finishes came with decent scores behind Virtue & Moir and Davis & White, the fields at both events were generally among the [weaker] in the Grand Prix series. The other up-and-coming teams here will provide the first major season test for Ilinykh & Katsalapov.

Italy’s Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte are making only their second career appearance in the Grand Prix Final, having previously finished fifth in 2009. The team also matched their Grand Prix results from that year, earning silver at both Skate Canada and Trophée Bompard, and while they’re ranked last in qualification based on the tiebreaker of combined total scores, they actually earned the highest single competition score among the silver medalists, with 160.06 at Skate Canada. But Trophée Bompard, where the team earned a GPF qualifier low of 153.26, saw Lanotte falling in the opening moments of their free dance and the team incurring deductions for both the fall and an extended lift, dropping them to a fourth-place finish in that segment and an uncharacteristically low TES of 38.85. Their short dance there fared well, however, with the team achieving level 4s on all elements but the second polka pattern and the no-touch step sequence, which each received a level 3. Though Cappellini & Lanotte are a bit less seasoned at this event than most of their competitors, their long career and recent strong results should provide them with a sufficient base of experience here.

Three very strong teams comprise the Grand Prix Final alternates list. Fourth-place finishers at last year’s Grand Prix Final, Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje narrowly missed the Final after winning a bronze medal in two close decisions against Bobrova & Soloviev. Russia’s Ekaterina Riazanova & Ilia Tkachenko are second alternates while Americans Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani round out the alternates list.

The senior dance event begins with the short dance on Friday, December 7, with the free dance scheduled for Saturday.