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Mao faces big challenge from Kim at star-studded Grand Prix Final


Mao Asada silenced her critics — at least temporarily — with her decisive victory in the NHK Trophy on Nov. 29.

Following an uneven performance at the Trophee Bompard in Paris, where she finished second, earlier last month, the Nagoya native showed some real moxie with a big win before a huge media turnout in Tokyo, once again displaying great fortitude under intense pressure.

It was vintage Mao, you could say.

But with the Grand Prix Final, and a showdown with archrival Kim Yu Na looming this weekend in South Korea, there is little time for resting on laurels.

Mao, who has been training hard under Russian coach Tatiana Tarasova, showed vast improvement in both her short and long programs before capacity crowds at Yoyogi Gymnasium while leading a Japanese sweep with Akiko Suzuki and Yukari Nakano on the women’s side.

The question now is will it be enough to beat Kim and win the GP Final?

Mao won the GP Final three years ago in Tokyo, when she was just 15, but has finished second to Kim the past two years. Last season, it was the only event Mao entered that she did not win on her way to her first world title.

Kim has posted two comprehensive Grand Prix wins (Skate America, Cup of China) this season and looked absolutely magnificent in doing it. Plagued for the past couple of years by a nagging hip injury, Kim seems poised to hit the ice in search of her third straight GP Final title in great health.

Mao, who tried to land two triple axels in her free skate at the NHK Trophy, and narrowly missed doing it (just failing to fully rotate the second one), knows she will be up against it with Kim skating at home.

It is quite clear that Mao’s triple axel will likely decide who wins the event. What remains to be seen is whether she will need to hit one or two of them in her free skate to stand atop the podium.

Fans in Japan have become almost spoiled in expecting Mao to hit the triple axel, but it is worth noting that to this day only six women have ever landed it in competition (Midori Ito, Tonya Harding, Ludmila Nelidina, Mao, Kimmie Meissner and Nakano).

One cannot overstate the amount of energy needed to pull off one triple axel, much less two.

When Mao became the first female to ever hit two triple axels in the same program at the 2005 Japan nationals, she landed them on her first two jumps. However, she still had to skate for nearly four more minutes to finish her program.

You don’t often hear figure skating compared to prize fighting, but there is a similarity in that you must have enough energy to make it through the later rounds. It is great to land some big punches early, but if you can’t go the distance it won’t matter in the end.

This will be the big dilemma for Mao and Tarasova.

Do they risk the two triple axels and fatigue in the free skate at the GP Final?

Or just go for one and hope it will be enough against Kim?

The competition between Mao and Kim will certainly headline the event, but don’t underestimate Canada’s Joannie Rochette (who also won two GP events this season — Skate Canada and the Trophee Bompard), 2007 world champion Miki Ando, Nakano and Italy’s Carolina Kostner.

The star-studded lineup should make for some truly compelling television viewing this Friday and Saturday.

Big chance: Takahiko Kozuka is Japan’s lone hope for the men in the GP Final. He will face a field that includes 2007 world champion Brian Joubert of France, Canada’s Patrick Chan (winner of both Skate Canada and the Trophee Bompard this season), the Czech Republic’s Tomas Verner and Americans Johnny Weir and Jeremy Abbott.

With veteran compatriots Daisuke Takahashi (knee injury) and Nobunari Oda (not enough points to qualify) sitting this one out, Kozuka, who won Skate America this season, has a real opportunity to make a name for himself in a major competition.

Tough time: It was difficult watching U.S. senior champion Mirai Nagasu struggle to an eighth-place finish at the recent NHK Trophy. After growing nearly 7 cm since last season, and struggling with an ankle injury, the 2007 world junior champion has lost her jumps and confidence.

Let’s hope the cheerful and intelligent Nagasu regains her form and poise in short order. She has a bright future in the sport and many fans on both sides of the Pacific pulling for her.

Sasha’s story: There have been considerable rumblings in the past several weeks that 2006 Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen may be seriously considering a comeback next season in hopes of taking part in the 2010 Vancouver Games.

Cohen, who will skate in the Stars on Ice Japan tour next month, is only 24 and remains in excellent physical condition. She hinted back in October that she may return to competition, but there is still nothing official at this point.