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Mao striving to secure GP Final spot at NHK Trophy


Two-time world champion Mao Asada will be looking to clinch her place in the Grand Prix Final at this week’s NHK Trophy in Sendai.

Mao won the Cup of China two weeks ago in Shanghai and will bring momentum from that victory into the last of the six regular Grand Prix events.

Mao and Akiko Suzuki should both lock up spots for next month’s GP Final in Sochi, Russia, — site of the 2014 Olympics — with podium finishes. Mao’s win in China was notable because she chose not to attempt her trademark triple axel, which she has had difficulty landing the past two seasons.

When asked about Mao’s decision to pass on the triple axel, her agent, Mariko Wada, said the trademark move has not been shelved permanently.

“She is waiting until she becomes confident about her techniques,” Wada told Ice Time recently when asked about the issue. So the feeling here is that Mao will likely bypass trying the triple axel in Sendai, as she won’t want to jeopardize her shot at the GP Final.

It would make more sense for her to attempt it in Sochi, where the field will be tougher and not landing it would have fewer consequences. If Mao skates in the GP Final, it will be the first time she has done so since 2008, when she famously came from behind in the free skate to beat Kim Yu Na by hitting two titanic triple axels in South Korea.

Mao withdrew from last season’s GP Final in Quebec City after learning that her mother, Kyoko, had fallen ill. Kyoko Asada passed away before Mao was able to make it home to Nagoya. Mao did not qualify for the GP Final in 2009 or 2010.

Mao will be favored at the NHK Trophy, with her primary challengers likely to be Suzuki and Americans Agnes Zawadzki and Mirai Nagasu. Suzuki finished second at Skate Canada last month, while Zawadzki was third at the Cup of Russia.

Nagasu came in fourth at the Cup of China in what was to be her lone GP assignment of the season, but was a late addition to the NHK Trophy field after Russia’s Polina Shelepen withdrew with an ankle injury last week.

Nagasu has been inconsistent since her surprise fourth-place showing at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. She has failed to qualify for the world championships the last two seasons.

Haruka Imai is slated to be the third competitor from the host nation in women’s singles.

Olympic bronze medalist Daisuke Takahashi and 2010 world junior champion Yuzuru Hanyu will look to join Takahiko Kozuka at the GP Final with medal finishes at the NHK Trophy. Takahashi took second at the Cup of China, while Hanyu did the same at Skate America.

Kozuka is already set for the GP Final by virtue of his victory at Skate America and taking second place at the Cup of Russia.

The main competition for Takahashi and Hanyu will come in the form of Spain’s Javier Fernandez, who has been steadily improving and notched the first GP win of his career at Skate Canada. Fernandez is based in Toronto and coached by Brian Orser.

Daisuke Murakami is scheduled to join Takahashi and Hanyu in the field for men’s singles.

Russia’s Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov will be favored in pairs after taking second at home in Moscow at the Cup of Russia. The lineup for the pairs is not formidable and will also be missing world bronze medalists Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran, who were unable to compete in the GP season after Takahashi needed surgery for a shoulder injury.

Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the 2011 world champions, top the entrants for ice dance. They won at Skate America and will go up against Russia’s Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov, who took second at the Cup of Russia.

Cathy and Chris Reed will represent Japan, with Americans Maia and Alex Shibutani also confirmed to participate.

Stellar results: Takahito Mura’s triumph at the Trophee Bompard in Paris last week was just the latest chapter of an excellent season by the Japanese men. The achievement marked the first time in Mura’s senior career that he has earned a medal at a GP.

Mura, who was eighth at Skate Canada, joined Kozuka and Tatsuki Machida with GP victories this season. Mura, 21, is a native of Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, and is coached by Hiroshi Nagakubo.

Japan’s men have had multiple skaters on the podium at two events, including a sweep by Kozuka, Hanyu and Machida at Skate America, and at least one medalist at all five GP competitions.

Coming on strong: American Ashley Wagner continues to emerge as a potential medal contender at the 2014 Sochi Games. Wagner booked her place in the GP Final with a win at the Trophee Bompard last week.

The 21-year-old college student was also victorious at Skate America. The U.S. champion last season, Wagner is based in Aliso Viejo, California, and tutored by Hall of Famer John Nicks.

Nicks has also mentored Olympic gold medalists Peggy Fleming (1968) and Kristi Yamaguchi (1992) during his long career.