SOCHI, RUSSIA – Former world champions Mao Asada and Daisuke Takahashi put Japan on course for a gold medal double as both took the lead after the women’s and men’s short programs at the Grand Prix Final in Russia on Friday.
Mao, who has won two Grand Prix events this season — the Cup of China and the NHK Trophy — but has had her preparations hampered by back problems, scored 66.96 points to lead American Ashley Wagner, who scored 66.44.
“For the time being I am relieved,” said Mao, whose routine to “I Got Rhythm” by George Gershwin was highlighted by a triple flip-double loop combination, a triple loop and three level-four spins.
“The short program has gone well in the two Grand Prix events (this season) so I was careful to make sure I was not just going around in circles.”
“I’m very glad that I performed all my jumps well. While preparing for the competition I tried to get rid of negative thoughts and skate the way I always do. The main goal for me is to focus on the upcoming free program and to tackle pre-skate jitters,” said the 22-year-old.
The program was designed to “invigorate everybody who sees it, including me,” Mao said. “I’m always skating it with a smile on my face.”
Wagner opened with a big triple flip, followed in combination with a double toe loop. Like Mao, she didn’t try a triple-triple combination, saying her execution of it has been sporadic.
“I prefer to go out on the ice and perform a program I’m 100 percent confident with,” Wagner said. “It’s almost better to skate a clean, lower-risk short program.”
Mao was only 0.07 points ahead of Wagner on technical elements and 0.45 on program components.
Akiko Suzuki, the world bronze medalist, was third with 65.00.
“I landed all my jumps so I am pleased about that,” said Suzuki. “I have made a lot of mistakes in the short program this season so I really tried to skate without fear.”
Kiira Korpi of Finland under-rotated the second half of her combination and ended in fourth. Elizaveta Tuktamysheva of Russia doubled her second triple, placing fifth, and Christina Gao of the United States fell on the opening jump of hers.
In the men’s competition, Takahashi, performing to “Rock n’ Roll Medley,” reeled off a quadruple toe loop, a triple lutz-triple toe loop combination, a triple axel and three level-four spins.
He achieved a season’s best with 92.29 points and leads world champion Patrick Chan of Canada and compatriot Yuzuru Hanyu in a six-man field that features four Japanese skaters.
“It was the first time this season that I was able to do my quad in the short program, but after another jump I kind of stumbled. Nevertheless I finally landed the quad and am very happy about that,” said Takahashi.
“For the past few days I haven’t had the best conditions but I think the outcome is the product of my overall practice and I feel I’ve grown to do this,” the 26-year-old said. “I don’t want to lose to the younger guys, but I’m going to focus on my own performance. I don’t want to make any mistakes tomorrow. I want to attract the audience’s attention to my program and just do my best.”
Chan notched 89.27 and NHK Trophy winner Hanyu scored 87.17. Takahiko Kozuka was fourth with 86.39, Spain’s Javier Fernandez had 80.19 for fifth and Tatsuki Machida was sixth with 70.58.
Russia’s Tatiana Voloszhar and Maxim Trankov lead after the short program in pairs, followed by compatriots Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov and Pang Qing and Jian Tong of China.
Russia’s Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smironov are in sixth.
In ice dancing, Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the United States led after the short dance, nearly two points ahead of world champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada.
The prestigious Grand Prix Final is doubling as a test event for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.