SAPPORO – In many ways, the triple axel has come to define Mao Asada. On Saturday night, it meant the difference between first place and second.
The two-time world champion doubled her planned opening triple axel in the free skate, losing precious points, and ended up placing second by less than two points to compatriot Akiko Suzuki at the NHK Trophy.
Suzuki was solid but not spectacular in a free skate that saw her botch a pair of combination jumps, but her eight-point advantage over Mao in Friday’s short program helped her hold on for the victory at Makomanai Arena.
The 2010 Olympian tallied a total score of 185.98 to Mao’s 184.19 for her second career Grand Prix title on the senior circuit.
Russia’s Alena Leonova was third with 170.68.
Suzuki performed to “Die Fledermaus Overture” and began strongly. She opened with a triple lutz, then followed with a double axel/triple toe loop combination jump and a triple loop before running into trouble later following her spiral sequence.
“I’m very happy to have won my first NHK Trophy, however, I am not at all satisfied with my free skate,” said Suzuki. “I will reflect on my mistakes and improve on them.”
She added: “The first half I had three jumps which I think I did well.
“The second half I missed my first jump in a place where that usually doesn’t happen.”
The win qualified Suzuki for next month’s Grand Prix Final in Quebec City.
By virtue of her second-place finish, Mao is still in the running for the GP Final, which she has missed the past two years.
“I cleared my own goals,” said Mao. “Except for the triple axel, I skated the other elements well.”
Despite winning the free skate, Mao, who skated to “Liebestraum” acknowledged that she still has room for significant improvement.
“I am not yet at the level I want to be,” she said. “I can level up. It’s not my best, but the best at my current level. I’m still very, very far away from achieving a much higher level.”
Daisuke Takahashi scored a personal best (90.43) with a sensational showing to lead the men’s short program. The 2010 world champion performed to “In the Garden of Souls” and was absolutely sublime. His total was more than five points better than his previous career high and staked him to more than 10-point lead heading into Sunday’s free skate.
Takahashi opened with a triple flip/triple toe loop combo, then hit a triple axel and triple lutz in an enraptured performance that brought the crowd to its feet at its conclusion. He wore a wicked black outfit that fit his routine perfectly.
“It was not a perfect skate, so I was surprised at my score,” Takahashi said. “Whether I was able to perform everything 100 percent, there was chemistry in my performance.”
Takahashi, who spent time this summer in Lyon, France, working with French choreographer Muriel Boucher-Zazoui, credited that trip with improving his overall performance.
“That trip has improved not only my skating, but my spins and jumps as well,” Takahashi noted.
Takahiko Kozuka, the 2011 world silver medalist, is second with 79.77. He opened with a triple flip instead of a planned quadruple toe loop, but executed the rest of his program successfully and appears to be a lock for a medal.
Kozuka skated to “Inner Urge” and was impressive with his effort. On another day, he may have well been in the lead.
“My performance was so-so,” he said. “My score was good, but the contents weren’t perfect.”
“When I started the (first) jump I knew I couldn’t do it. I jumped too quickly,” Kozuka added. “Looking at the score, my skating skill has improved. On the spins I could feel some unsteady points.”
American Brandon Mroz made history by hitting his opening quadruple lutz and is third at 74.83. The 20-year-old Mroz is the first man to land the jump in an international competition.
Russia’s Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov vaulted from fifth place to score a comfortable victory in the pairs. They took the free skate in decisive fashion to finish with a total score of 177.51, more than five points ahead of second-place finishers Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran of Japan (172.09).
Three-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany, who led after the short program, fell to third place with 171.68.
The American duo of Maia and Alex Shibutani notched their first senior Grand Prix victory in the ice dance. The brother-sister team was third after the short dance, but performed strongly enough to edge Canada’s Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje by less than .10 of a point (151.85 to 151.76).
Russia’s Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov came in third on 149.48.