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Mao begins defense of world crown in Paris


With the Grand Prix season at the halfway mark, and top rival Kim Yu Na of South Korea already having two victories in the bag, world champion Mao Asada finally takes to the ice for the first time in the new campaign when she skates at the Trophee Bompard in Paris this weekend.

Mao traveled to the French capital directly from Moscow, where she has been training under coach Tatiana Tarasova. Unlike the tough competition faced by Kim in her season-opening win at Skate America, Mao will not face a formidable field when she takes the ice at Bercy Arena.

Mao’s primary challenge in Paris will come from Canada’s Joannie Rochette, who won Skate Canada, and the American contingent of Caroline Zhang, the 2007 world junior champion, Beatrisa Liang and Emily Hughes.

Mao will unveil her new programs, “Claire de Lune” (short) and “Masquerade” (long), which were created by Tarasova and Lori Nichol during the offseason.

On the men’s side, Takahiko Kozuka, the surprise winner at Skate America, will look to clinch a spot at next month’s Grand Prix Final in South Korea with a victory over a lineup that includes France’s Brian Joubert, the 2007 world champion, and defending champion Patrick Chan of Canada, who was victorious at the GP event on home ice two weeks ago.

Strategic move: One wonders if the decision to have Kim skate in the first and third GP events of the season isn’t tied to some bigger strategy to try and keep her healthy for the entire season.

In the past two years, Kim, who was absolutely sublime in her two wins this season, has broken down with a hip injury in midseason and been unable to perform at her best when it counted.

Kim, who is coached by 1987 world champion Brian Orser, and trains in Toronto, has settled for the bronze medal at the world championships the past two years, but looks primed to give Mao a real run for her money at the worlds in Los Angeles next March.

Ominous sign: The withdrawal of Daisuke Takahashi, the world’s No. 1-ranked male skater, from last week’s Cup of China with a knee problem does not bode well for his chances this season. Takahashi was supposed to have an MRI and an evaluation of his injury last week, but so far his camp has been quiet on any results.

Takahashi’s agent, Tak Ihara, did not respond to a request for an update on Takahashi’s condition.

Takahashi’s pullout from the event in Beijing means he won’t qualify for the GP Final, even if he wins the NHK Trophy later this month in Tokyo. With Nobunari Oda limited to one GP event (NHK Trophy) this season due to his suspension last season, it means that Japan’s hopes on the men’s side for a spot in the GP Final will rest solely with Kozuka.

The real question is whether Takahashi’s entire season could be in jeopardy. It would be a real shame if it was. With the sudden retirement of defending world champion Jeffrey Buttle of Canada, the door is wide open for Takahashi to make a run at his first world crown.

If Takahashi has to skip the NHK Trophy, his participation in next month’s national championships in Nagano would certainly be in doubt.

New boots: Miki Ando sported new white skates at last weekend’s Cup of China, where she finished second behind Kim, a change from the traditional tan-colored boots she has favored over the years.

Ando’s agent, Rika Kikushima, tells Ice Time that Miki has been working with the white skates all summer and has also had 2 cm trimmed off the heel of the boots so her jumps won’t be affected.

With a second-place finish at the Cup of China and a third-place showing at Skate America, Ando is likely to earn a spot in the GP Final, which she missed out on last season after a disastrous outing at the NHK Trophy in Sendai.

Junior GPF lineup set: Rising junior stars Yukiko Fujisawa, who won the JGP in the Czech Republic and finished second in England, and Kanako Murakami, who won in England and finished third in Spain, will represent Japan in the ladies singles at next month’s Junior GP Final in South Korea.

They will be joined by the pairs team of Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran.