BEIJING – World champion Daisuke Takahashi and Miki Ando headline the field as Japanese skaters go into the prestigious Grand Prix Final looking to dominate the medals podium in Beijing.
Japan has a record six skaters in the Friday through Sunday event, which features the top six skaters or pairs from each discipline in the Grand Prix series.
“All of the skaters have worked hard together,” said Hidehito Ito, the Japan Skating Federation’s director of figure skating.
“They haven’t dropped off after the Olympics and are making an effort ahead of the world championships (in Tokyo in March).”
With two wins each on the Grand Prix circuit this season, Ando and Takahashi look to be the favorites in the absence of the majority of medalists from the Vancouver Olympics.
Vancouver bronze medalist Takahashi, skating to a Latin-flavored program, won the season-opening NHK Trophy in front of home fans in Nagoya before prevailing at Skate America and compatriot Takahiko Kozuka looks to be his main threat.
Kozuka, who lagged behind the more experienced Takahashi and Nobunari Oda last season, qualified for the Grand Prix Final in first place and heads to the Chinese capital with his confidence sky high.
With a two-footed quad and eight triples, Kozuka won the Trophee Bompard, the sixth and final event of the GP series, with a personal best score of 248.07 points.
“If I can keep skating like I did (in Paris) I feel I can further improve my score,” said Kozuka, who also won the Cup of China.
Oda has yet to win this season. He led after the short program at both Skate Canada and Skate America only to finish runnerup to Canada’s Patrick Chan and Takahashi, respectively.
Tomas Verner of the Czech Republic is the only other non-Japanese Grand Prix winner, the former European champion taking the Cup of Russia, where teenager Yuzuru Hanyu could only manage seventh. Frenchman Florent Amodio completes the men’s field.
With a lineup of 2007 world champion Ando, Akiko Suzuki and teenage starlet Kanako Murakami, Japan also has a legitimate shot at sweeping the medals in the women’s event.
Ando, second behind Olympic champion Kim Yu Na of South Korea at last year’s GP Final, shrugged off a back injury to win the Cup of Russia ahead of Akiko Suzuki, who also placed second to Ando at the Cup of China.
Despite heightened political tensions between Japan and China arising from the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, Ando was given generous support last month by local fans en route to victory at the Cup of China.
And Ando is hoping for more of the same as she spearheads a Japanese trio gunning for a clean sweep of the medals in the women’s competition.
“I have just got to try and focus on myself, see how far my performance gets me and skate as well as I know I am capable of skating,” the 22-year-old said after practice Thursday at Capital Gymnasium.
“It’s the second time that I will be skating on this rink this season. The Chinese fans really got behind me last time, as well as the fans who came here from Japan. They told me I have improved and hopefully I can skate as well this time.”
Murakami has been a welcome addition to the series and the energetic 16-year-old showed she means business by winning her first senior title at Skate America, equaling world champion Mao Asada’s feat of triumphing in her second GP event.
NHK Trophy winner and three-time European champion Carolina Kostner and Americans Rachel Flatt and Alissa Czisny are the other entries in the women’s competition.
Kim is skipping the Grand Prix series this season to focus on the world championships in Tokyo in March. Canada’s Joannie Rochette and Vancouver men’s gold medalist Evan Lysacek of the United States are also sitting it out.
Mao misses out on the Grand Prix Final for the second year running after her season plunged to new depths at the Trophee Bompard. She finished a career-worst eighth at the NHK Trophy before a fifth-place result in Paris ended her slim hopes of qualifying.