May. 23, 2015
Rostelecom Cup 2016 Men's Recap: Just Have Fun Out There
It's Election Day in America, and I'm dealing with the stress the best way I know how - by watching figure skating. Yes, I'm aware that I skipped all of Skate Canada, although I didn't really: you can read my thoughts at The Judges' Table. I sparked controversy, and not just in the categories I expected! I also made a guest appearance in Maia and Alex Shibutani's Skate America vlog and would like to let the record state that I have since gotten the haircut and color that I desperately needed. (I'm just after the two-minute mark; I say words and everything.)
We're now halfway through the Grand Prix series, which seems unreal. The Russian Federation started my weekend mornings with ice dance and hit me with men's singles just when I'd started to go loopy from sleep deprivation. While the results were predictable at the top, the rest of the field was the kind of strange trip that made me wonder if I'd dozed in front of the TV and started dreaming about a home-field Russian podium shut-out and Alexei Bychenko earning a medal at another major international. I guess that in a world where the Cubs won the World Series, anything really is possible in sports.
Most of the disappointments in the lower ranks were expected. Alexander Majorov has been struggling with his jumps all season - and, really, for a few years now - and last weekend was no different. In his free skate, he suffered a bloody nose that sent rivulets of blood running down his face and arms for almost half of his program. It was disgusting and admirable at the same time. Deniss Vasiljevs, who put Latvia on the figure skating map last season, is having trouble keeping up with those high hopes now. His new coach, Stéphane Lambiel, looked like he was a second away from jumping onto the ice and finishing Vasiljevs' programs for him. While Vasiljevs has extraordinary potential, his jump consistency is still a work in progress. Two of the three Russians at the event, perennial third-stringers Gordei Gorshkov and Artur Dmitriev Jr., also settled close to the bottom. Both had a few bright moments but were mostly forgettable.
One of the pleasantest surprises of the short program was Chafik Besseghier. He opened with a high and graceful quad toe loop-triple toe loop, on his way to a clean skate. His spins were faster and more centered than in the past, and I've never seen him connect this naturally to his program music before. I'm always happy to see technically focused skaters pay attention to their program components and non-jump elements, and Besseghier is one of several skaters this season who has made a real transformation. Unfortunately, he threw it all away in the free skate, doubling several planned triple jumps and fighting a number of awkward landings.
Keiji Tanaka was the perfect opposite of Besseghier, weathering a nightmarish short program and coming back strong in the free skate. In general, Tanaka and Besseghier are mirrors of one another, as Tanaka has always been an engaging and well-rounded skater with jumps that can't quite keep up. He struggled with the quad salchow that opened his free skate, but he kept his feet on the ice, a big improvement from the zero-credit double that destroyed him in the short program. Amazingly, the messy quad was the only significant technical error in a demanding program that required him to execute a number of difficult jumps long after fatigue had set in. Tanaka was the highest-finishing competitor to earn maximum levels for all of his spins in the free skate, showing off smooth transitions from one difficult position to another. He was also just plain fun to watch, making the most of his playful choreography and generally looking like he was having a blast. He might have risen even higher than 7th overall if not for one stingy judge who gave him straight 5's for PCS, and who must have mistaken him for some other skater entirely.
Instead, Elladj Balde edged Tanaka out for 6th place, mostly on the strength of an error-free short program that was also quad-free and artistic nuance-free. He put down a few lovely jumps in his free skate, most notably a huge but controlled triple lutz-half loop-triple salchow, but he struggled with his hardest elements, a quad toe loop and a triple Axel. In a different field, his performances would have stood out more, but in this high-energy group, he faded.
The top five finishers were where things got wild. After a dismal short program, in which he fell on his quad salchow and failed to earn anything higher than a level 2 for his non-jump elements, Max Aaron came roaring back with a stellar performance of this season's most absurd senior-level competitive program. Aaron must have taken a couple of beginner Afro Jazz classes over the summer, and really felt them, because all of a sudden he's using his upper body dynamically and highlighting the rise and fall of his music. He's still uncomfortably slow in his step sequences, but the judges have taken note of his improved edge depth and control, both in his grades of execution and his components scores. He's risking some challenging transitions this season, too, like the enormous second-half triple Axel that flows into a flying sit spin with only a quick hop in between. When his jumps are on point - as they consistently were in this free skate - it's easier to see how much work he puts into the other facets of his skating.
Mikhail Kolyada's short program is so much fun that he brought it back for a second season. The mugging is what draws the crowd in, but his sharp and well-timed dance moves are the real backbone of his signature off-the-rails tango. His quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination, for which he has some of the most secure technique in the sport, earned the highest number of points for a single element in the entire event. If not for a stumble on his triple Axel - he gave it a little too much power and couldn't check out - he might have gone into the free skate ahead of the World Champion. Even so, he would have blown it in the free skate. He started off strong, with a lovely quad toe loop, but fatigue and emotion seemed to take over in the second half. He popped jumps, blew levels on his spins, and shrugged right off the podium. Kolyada is my favorite Russian men's skater since Yagudin, but he'll need more than an infectious smile to maintain his ascending reputation.
I've seen some fans bellyaching that this was a bad event because Alexei Bychenko came in third. Those fans have no appreciation of serendipity. This also seems like a good time to remind everyone that Bychenko is the reigning European silver medalist, and that's not just because 2016 Euros looked like a bunch of guys competing for best impersonation of a Zamboni. Bychenko is an inconsistent jumper and an embarrassing spinner, but he has somehow managed to peak in his late 20's and pose a more serious threat than anyone expects him to. At Rostelecom, he went 3 for 3 on his quad toe loop, not only landing his hardest jumps but earning high positive grades of execution for them. In fact, aside from a minor step out on a triple Axel in his free skate, Bychenko didn't put a foot wrong all weekend. He also breezed through his programs with wicked speed and - surprise! - earned some well-deserved love from the judges for his interpretation. Both programs play up his inherent dorkiness rather than trying to turn him into a romantic hero. It's not the most polished path to a medal, but it certainly worked for him this time.
For the first time this season, Shoma Uno landed all the jumps in his short program. His performance was far from trouble-free - he stumbled out of both quadruple jumps - but he did more than enough to secure the highest short program score of the Grand Prix so far. As his comfort with his choreography increases, he's getting more of a handle on its balance of delicacy and intensity. With his small stature and his baby face, Uno has to work harder than most to convey artistic maturity, and this program has been a learning curve for him. By the end of the season, I think he'll really have it. What he does have now, in addition to some of the most difficult jump content in the sport, is a rare ability to connect difficult moves smoothly and naturally. He doesn't just enter his triple Axel from a spread eagle, but exits it directly into a cantilever, then launches into his step sequence with no chance to pick up speed. He got big GOEs on both elements, but not perfect ones, and I'm left wondering what else the judges could have expected from him.
I'd hoped Uno would keep up the momentum in his free skate, but he lacked the fire that won him Skate America. He started strong, with perhaps his best quad flip yet, but he lost momentum and focus in the middle of the program. For the first time this season, Uno looked young and nervous, missing jump combinations and dropping levels. Even before he fell on his second quad toe loop attempt, it looked like he'd sink behind Fernandez overall. He got his groove back with a spectacular triple Axel-half loop-triple flip at the end, but Uno's free skate was a reminder that he still has a lot of room to grow.
Javier Fernandez, on the other hand, skated like a two-time World Champion who knew he had this in the bag. In the short program, that attitude didn't work so well: he tap danced out of his quad toe loop-triple toe loop, did a triple salchow instead of his planned quad, and earned across-the-board level 3's for spins that he looked like he hadn't practiced since April. Deservedly high components scores kept him in second place for the segment, although both Kolyada and Bychenko bested him technically, and he couldn't come close to Uno.
In the free skate, however, he easily made up the difference, capitalizing on Uno's fall and general unsteadiness. He wasn't perfect - he dropped levels on spins and steps again, and he probably wanted a triple toe loop instead of a double on at least one of his combinations - but he showed that he's already in top form, free of the autumn glitches that usually show up for him during the Grand Prix. It was great to see him follow a phenomenal quad salchow with a smooth triple Axel in the second half of the program, and the judges rewarded him handsomely, not only for the jumps themselves but for performing them with complicated steps and ample theatricality in between. Artistically, he was Javi as usual, recycling his short program from last season and barely even changing his shirt in the transition from Guys and Dolls to Elvis in the free skate. I can't blame him for sticking with what works, but he missed some opportunities for musical expression by breezing through "Fever" and "Jailhouse Rock" with his usual Iberian smirk. He's lucky that, even if it's a little tired, that smirk is irresistible.