Grand Prix 2018: Men’s Preview


WD.  Yuzuru Hanyu – JPN – 30 – 297.12/278.42
Q2. Shoma Uno – JPN – 30 – 227.25/276.45
Q3. Nathan Chen – USA – 30 – 280.57/271.58
Q4. Michal Brezina – CZE – 26 – 239.51/257.98
Q5. Sergei Voronov – RUS – 24 – 226.44/254.28
Q6. Junhwan Cha – KOR – 22 – 254.77/243.19
Q7. Keegan Messing – CAN – 20 -265.17/220.75

Let’s all take a moment to lament the withdrawal of Yuzuru Hanyu from the Grand Prix Final. The absolute class of an already ridiculously talented field, Hanyu qualified first for the Final but withdrew last week due to injury. This is the second Grand Prix Final he’s missed in a row from an ankle injury, and he will likely miss Japanese nationals as well for the third year running. Withdrawing, while disappointing, was the prudent choice. The 2019 World Championship is in Saitama in March–in 2014, Hanyu won his first World title in the same city. You can bet that however unhappy Hanyu is about missing the Grand Prix Final again, he would be sorrier to miss the chance to win another World title in Japan. #GetWellSoonYuzuru! 

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Now that we’ve all dried our tears with our Pooh tissue boxes, there’s still much to look forward to this week in Vancouver. Keegan Messing, for one, must be quietly thrilled that Hanyu’s withdrawal granted him the opportunity to compete. Messing is the unlikely heir of the men’s discipline in Canada with the retirement of Patrick Chan and the implosion of Kevin Reynolds. So far he’s wearing that mantle lightly, skipping through his Lance Vipond-choreographed programs like a latter day Kurt Browning. Messing isn’t quite as versatile as Browning, but he’s figured out a style that suits him and uses it to showcase some of the biggest jumps of any guy out there. But the real secret sauce in his programs is the spins. Keep an eye out for the camel spins in both programs and prepare to have your breath snatched away by the speed. 

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Also in the “What? HE’S HERE?” category are Sergei Voronov and Michal Brezina. Skating Twitter™  affectionately refers to them as The Uncles and, at 31 and 28, both men are fossils compared to their competitors. Voronov in particular is enjoying a pleasant case of déjà vu: he was an unlikely qualifier for the 2017 Final, and he’s managed to do it again in 2018. 

Sidebar: I called Voronov making the Final again when I wrote for the Judges’ Table for Skate America. I’ll take my cash up front. Ahem! 

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Neither Brezina nor Voronov can expect to make it to the top of the podium, but their presence at the Final hints that the rule changes brought in over the summer have altered the competitive climate for the men. Brezina and Voronov made the most of their technical content when competitors made mistakes. Neither has sophisticated presentation *cough*air guitar*cough*, but they get the job done. Both skaters have chosen to focus on the elements they do well rather than attempt quads with marginal success rates. It will be intriguing to see how that strategy pays off at the Final, but so far it’s working. 

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Meanwhile, whatever demonic pact Shoma Uno made to turn Stairway to Heaven and Moonlight Sonata into watchable programs was worth the blood. Uno pulls off both pieces of music with glorious intensity, but he has yet to skate either program clean. All four of his Grand Prix skates were marred with jump errors, including a full body slide into the boards on a failed triple axel at Skate Canada. Uno is always very, very good, but that isn’t quite enough when you’re competing in the same skating generation as Hanyu, Nathan Chen, Javier Fernandez, et al. After all, nobody threw Shoma Uno an Olympic silver medal parade. To Uno’s credit, if he is frustrated, he never shows it. Instead, he seems to keep on working, making beautiful programs with choreographed hair ruffles and killer reflexes. In Shoma We Trust:

Uno’s biggest competition this week is Nathan Chen, who is looking to defend his Grand Prix Final title and build momentum for the back half of the season. His short program is, once again, brilliant and unusual and I keep watching it over and over again. Shae-Lynn Bourne has found a way to tap into Chen’s lanky, effortless sense of cool and turn it into competitive gold. The free program, however, started off moody and is melting into a muddle. After Chen’s performance at Internationaux de France I argued that he looked like he was running at about 80% of his peak capacity, and I’m curious to see if he can turn up the heat competing against Uno. 

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Last, but certainly not least, is my pick for Podium Spoiler this week: Junhwan Cha. Cha has been dependably excellent this season and appeared utterly unruffled about sharing the spotlight with Uno and Hanyu at Skate Canada and Grand Prix Helsinki. True, he made errors in his programs, but he simply processed the error and skated clean for the rest of the program. That serenity is a valuable quality when you’re taking on the best skaters in the world. This is the face of a kid who knows the podium is exactly where he belongs:

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