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Mao starts bid for third world title at NHK Trophy


NAGOYA — Mao Asada begins her quest for a third world title when she takes the ice at the Grand Prix season-opening NHK Trophy on Friday night in her native Nagoya.

Though the pain of missing out on the Olympic gold medal to South Korea’s Kim Yu Na has dulled, there can be no doubt that it has not been forgotten.

A lot has changed since the incredible drama we witnessed last season. Kim has decided not to compete this GP season, but says she may compete at the world championships in Tokyo next March.

Kim also had an acrimonious split with Canadian coach Brian Orser, who led her to both Olympic and world titles, and is now working with American coach Peter Oppegard in Los Angeles.

With Kim deciding to take a break from competition, Mao has to be a prohibitive favorite for both the Grand Prix Final and world titles this season.

Mao, who turned 20 on Sept. 25, has made a few changes of her own, replacing Tatiana Tarasova as her coach with Hall of Famer Nobuo Sato.

After all of the distractions that went along with the Tarasova drama and Mao’s struggles throughout most of last season, it was a wise move by Mao to hire the battle-tested Sato, who is known for his stoicism and poise.

The 10-time Japan champion should provide a calming influence and eliminate the stress that came with a coach who lived outside Japan.

This season, Mao will skate to “Tango” in a short program choreographed by Tarasova, and “Liebestraume” in the free skate arranged by Lori Nichol.

Mao will take on world junior champion Kanako Murakami, who will be making her senior international debut, in Nagoya, as well as an American contingent that includes U.S. champion Rachel Flatt, Ashley Wagner and Caroline Zhang.

Italy’s Carolina Kostner and Finland’s Kiira Korpi are also entered in the competition.

World champion Daisuke Takahashi will begin his title defense here on Saturday against a lineup that features world junior champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who will also skate as a senior for the first time, compatriot Takahito Mura, and two-time U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott.

Takahashi’s gritty showing in Vancouver, where he earned the bronze medal just a year after undergoing major reconstructive knee surgery, no doubt increased his legion of fans. He will be out to prove that his world title was no fluke this season.

With Olympic gold medalist Evan Lysacek sitting out this GP season, and Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko suspended for competing in unsanctioned exhibitions, the door is wide open for Takahashi to add another feather in his cap with a second world crown.

Takahashi’s music for this season will be “Historia de un Amor” (short program) and “Invierno Porteno” (free skate).

Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran will represent Japan in the pairs against the likes of China’s world champions, Qing Pang and Jian Tong, who took silver in the Vancouver Games.

The ice dance event will showcase Olympic silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S.

The Japanese-American duo of Maia and Alex Shibutani, who took the bronze medal at the Junior Grand Prix Final in Tokyo last December, will make their senior debut.

Nordic victory: Akiko Suzuki got a head start on the GP season by coming from behind to win the warmup Finlandia Trophy earlier this month in Vantaa, Finland. Suzuki, who placed eighth in Vancouver, narrowly defeated Korpi for the title.

Suzuki scored 166.57 points to Korpi’s 164.02. Russia’s Alena Leonova was a distant third.

Suzuki, who will compete in the Cup of China and the Cup of Russia, won the free skate after coming in second in the short program.

Silver showing: Risa Shoji, Japan’s most promising female junior skater, finished second at last weekend’s Junior Grand Prix in Ostrava, Czech Republic. With this result she qualified for the Junior Grand Prix Final in Beijing in December.

The 14-year-old Tokyo native, who won her international debut last month at the JGP in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, totaled 155.23 points to finish just behind American Vanessa Lam (156.41). Shoji was fourth after the short program, but rallied to win the free skate and nearly take the title.