Pairs battle highlights Skate America slate | Figure Skating | CBC Sports

Figure SkatingPairs battle highlights Skate America slate

Posted: Thursday, October 20, 2011 | 01:02 PM

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Three-time world pairs champions Aliona Savchenko, left, and Robin Szolkowy should be worth the price of admission at Skate America. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images) Three-time world pairs champions Aliona Savchenko, left, and Robin Szolkowy should be worth the price of admission at Skate America. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

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For me, the start of the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating series every fall brings the sport into sharp focus. The speculation about what people are skating to or including in their programs stops, and the results from each event begin to reveal parts of what I call the season's "who are the real contenders?" puzzle.

The first stop in the six-event series is this weekend's Hilton HHonors Skate America in Ontario, Calif., where the competition I would pay money to see is the head-to-head battle in pairs between world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy and four-time world medallists Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang.
For me, the start of the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating series every fall brings the sport into sharp focus. The speculation about what people are skating to or including in their programs stops, and the results from each event begin to reveal parts of what I call the season's "who are the real contenders?" puzzle.

The first stop in the six-event series is this weekend's Hilton HHonors Skate America in Ontario, Calif., where skaters will earn points based on their placement. The top six in each discipline at the end of the season will earn the right to compete at the ISU Grand Prix Final in Quebec City in December.

The competition I would pay money to see at Skate America is the head-to-head battle in pairs between three-time and reigning world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany and four-time world medalists and 2006 Olympic silver medallists Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang of China. The latter pair went out for the count last season with a serious injury to Hao Zhang's hand.

Savchenko and Szolkowy are consummate technicians who are masters at working the system and earning top points for their programs. The only way to beat them is to fight fire with fire, and Zhang and Zhang should be able to match them step for step technically, with the added bonus of two Lori Nichol programs that deliver the goods on a creative level. Watching them in practice in a Toronto-are rink this summer, Zhang and Zhang told me that they were excited to show their "new [creative] face" this season.

There are other pairs to watch out for in California, like Canadian champions Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch, who want to make it to the Grand Prix Final for a second year in a row. The brand new team of Caydee Denney and John Coughlin were both American champions with other partners and are making their Grand Prix debut together this weekend. Denney and Coughlin looked very promising to me when I saw them compete at the Liberty event in July, and I will be interested to see the evolution of this team.

'Good' day for Kostner, Czisny?

The ladies' field is a bit of a mixed bag, with the exception of a couple of names that jump off  the page: three-time European champion, three-time world medallist and reigning bronze medallist Carolina Kostner of Italy, and American champion and last season's Grand Prix Final champion Alissa Czisny. Both these women can be dazzling on a good day, but whether or not their good day falls on a competition day is always the question. Look for American Caroline Zhang, Russian Ksenia Makarova and Georgian Elene Gedevanishvili, who finished with a silver medal at the recent Nebelhorn Trophy, as the other skaters to challenge for the podium.

No Lysacek

The men's event was supposed to mark the return to competition of the 2010 Olympic champion from the United States, Evan Lysacek, but he announced last week that he would not be competing at Skate America. As is the case with many of the figure skating federations around the world, the skaters are required to sign an athlete contract outlining things like financial support, obligations and responsibilities on both sides. In the case of the United States Figure Skating Association and Lysacek, they were not able to come to a mutual agreement, and as a result Lysacek will not compete in California or at the Trophee Eric Bompard Grand Prix in France.

Regardless, Skate America still boasts a strong men's field that includes world silver medallist Takahiko Kozuka of Japan, and European champion Florent Amodio of France. The other men to watch for are Michal Brezina of the Czech Republic, who finished fourth in the world in 2011, as well as American Richard Dornbush, last season's Junior Grand Prix Final champion who exploded on to the scene with a performance strong enough to earn him a silver at nationals and a spot on last year's world team where he finished ninth.

Davis, White heavy favourites

It should be a walk in the park for 2011 world ice dance champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S. to take the first Grand Prix title of the season. Their closest rivals should be French champions Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat, who finished fourth at worlds in 2011. The other teams in contention for a medal could be two-time German national champions Nelli Zhinganshina and Alexander Gaszi, as well as two Canadian teams: Kharis Ralph and Asher Hill, who earned the bronze at the recent Nebelhorn Trophy, and national silver medalists Alexandra Paul and Mitchell Islam.

Pj's gold-medal picks

Pairs: Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang CHN
Ladies': Carolina Kostner  ITA
Men's: Takahiko Kozuka JPN
Dance: Meryl Davis and Charlie White USA

Live Skate America chat: Figure skating analyst Pj Kwong will provide commentary and answer fans' questions in our live chat during CBC's broadcasts of the season-opening Skate America competition on Saturday and Sunday starting at 3 p.m. ET.

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