Figure Skating

Olympic champ Zagitova faces Kihira test at ISU Grand Prix Final

Shoma Uno and Nathan Chen set to battle for men's title in Vancouver after Yuzuru Hanyu's withdrawal through injury.

Vancouver, host city of the 2010 Olympics, stages the 2018-19 ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final this week.

The best skaters in the world are in Canada, with the notable exception of double Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu who misses out with an ankle injury.

Hanyu's absence means Olympic silver medallist Shoma Uno and world champion Nathan Chen are expected to fight it out for men's gold.

PyeongChang 2018 gold medallist Alina Zagitova is favourite for the ladies' competition, but faces strong Japanese opposition led by fellow 16-year-old Rika Kihira.

Olympic champion Alina Zagitova prepares for the Grand Prix Final in Vancouver

Japan and Russia battle for ladies' glory

Three Japanese and three Russians make up the field for the ladies' competition in Vancouver.

Leading the way is reigning Olympic champion Alina Zagitova, who won both of her Grand Prix assignments, in Helsinki and on home ice in Moscow.

Under the tutelage of Eteri Tutberidze, who also coaches 14-year-old junior sensation Alexandra Trusova, Zagitova is seeking to retain her Grand Prix Final title.

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Zagitova, still only 16 years old, holds the world record scores in all three categories under the new ISU scoring system this season, most recently posting 80.78 in the short program on her way to victory at the Rostelecom Cup.

Her world record free skate, and total score, came at the Nebelhorn Trophy early in the season.

But she faces a strong challenge for top spot from Rika Kihira, also 16, who is enjoying a superb first senior campaign.

Kihira has risen to the occasion each time out this season and is seemingly unfazed by the impressive field in Vancouver.

"I already knew about the other competitors. It was how I expected," she said plainly. "I didn't really feel nervous or become too confident, so at the practise, I could perform as I had expected."

Rika Kihira during practice at the Grand Prix Final in Vancouver

Armed with multiple triple Axels, a notoriously difficult jump she first landed in competition as a junior at just 14, Kihira also won both of her Grand Prix assignments.

The Japanese also posted the highest free skate score in this year's Grand Prix, 154.72 at the NHK Trophy.

She's aiming to repeat that flawless performance this weekend.

"Just like my perfect performance in the free skate during the NHK Trophy, I hope to perform well with good jumps in the short program as well," she said.

Kihira’s training partner, Skate America winner Satoko Miyahara, and Kaori Sakamoto complete the Japanese contingent.

Completing the line-up are two rink mates from St. Petersburg: 2015 world champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva and 16-year-old Sofia Samodurova.

At 21, Tuktamysheva is the veteran of the field and won the Grand Prix Final back in the 2014-15 season.

With Evgenia Medvedeva struggling for form after linking up with Brian Orser in Canada, Tuktamysheva has established herself as Zagitova's biggest Russian rival this season with victory at Skate Canada and third place at the NHK Trophy.

But she has played down her chances of repeating that triumph in Vancouver.

Uno and defending champion Chen head men's field

Olympic silver medallist Shoma Uno and reigning world champion Nathan Chen are the favourites for men’s gold in Vancouver.

After winning both their respective Grand Prix assignments, the pair meet for the first time in a full competition this season.

They did take part in October's free skate only Japan Open in Saitama where Uno took victory while Chen finished in fourth place.

Either side of PyeongChang 2018, where Chen was fifth largely due to a disappointing short program, the American consigned Uno to second place in last year's Grand Prix Final and March's World Championships.

The big-name absentee is double Olympic champion and top qualifier Yuzuru Hanyu, who withdrew with an ankle injury suffered in practice at the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow.

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Japan's Uno has a great chance to claim his first major title after impressing this season.

"In the middle (of the practice), I felt I wasn't in a good shape," Uno said today after his official practice session. "But come to think of it, it was only the flip. It didn't work out because I focused too much on the combination. It was similar to what happens at a competition. Later in the practice, my jumps were not necessarily bad.

"So I feel I'm in a good condition," he added.

His best short program score, 104.15 at the Lombardia Trophy before the Grand Prix campaign, has been beaten only by fellow countryman Hanyu’s massive 110.53 in Moscow.

Japan's Shoma Uno during practice at the Grand Prix Final in Vancouver

Meanwhile, juggling time on the rink with his first year studying at Yale does not seem to have hindered Chen at all.

The 19-year-old's first GP assignment, at Skate America, was his best with only Hanyu bettering his free skate (189.99) and combined total (280.57) this season.

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Heading the chasing pack are two skaters enjoying late-career revivals: Michal Brezina and Sergei Voronov.

Brezina, whose only major medal to date was bronze at the 2013 European Championships, has not contested a Grand Prix Final for seven years.

But at 28, the Czech has found his best form to finish second in both Skate America and GP Helsinki.

Voronov, three years older at 31, won his first ever Grand Prix event at last year's NHK Trophy before taking fourth at the Grand Prix Final.

He has maintained that level this term with third at Skate America and second behind 20-year-old Uno at the NHK Trophy seeing him return to the final.

At the other end of the experience scale is the youngest qualifier, 17-year-old Jun Hwan Cha.

The Korean, who trains alongside Hanyu in Toronto under Brian Orser, has shown huge improvement in his second senior season.

Cha actually beat Hanyu in the free skate at the Autumn Classic before third-place finishes and Skate Canada and GP Helsinki.

オータムクラシックの表彰台に立つチャ選手(左)と羽生選手(中央) Skate Canada / Danielle Earl Photography

Rounding out the men’s field is home favourite Keegan Messing, the only Canadian senior competitor in Vancouver, filling the spot vacated by Hanyu.

Messing, 26, shone on home ice at Skate Canada, finished first in the short program and second in the free.

After missing the podium in Moscow, he has a chance to recapture that early season form and challenge for a medal.

ISU Grand Prix Final Schedule (all times Vancouver local time, GMT-8):

Thursday 6th December

1945 Senior men short program

2100 Senior ladies short program

Friday 7th December

1905 Senior ice dance rhythm dance

2020 Senior pairs short program

2135 Senior men free skate

Saturday 8th December

1355 Senior ladies free skate

1900 Senior ice dance free dance

2020 Senior pairs free skate

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