Grand Prix Final 2018: Pairs Preview

Squint and you might mistake the pairs event at the Grand Prix Final for a miniature version of Russian nationals. Russian teams qualified for half the berths in the final, showing the grand Russo-Soviet tradition of pairs excellence is alive and well. Pairs gold, however, is far from a sure bet for Team Russia. 


Q1 Vanessa James/Morgan Cipres -FRA – 30 – 222.81/205.77 
Q2 Evgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov – RUS – 30 – 204.85/220.25
Q3 Natalia Zabiiako/Alexander Enbert – RUS – 30- 198.51/214.14
Q4 Cheng Peng/Yang Jin – 26 – CHN – 201.08/207.24
Q5 Nicole Della Monica/Matteo Guarise – ITA – 26 – 185.77/203.83
Q6 Daria Pavliuchenko/Denis Khodykin –  RUS – 22 – 185.61/190.01

Odds are excellent that the top three placements at the Final will be the top three qualifiers heading into the event. James & Cipres, Tarasova & Morozov, and Zabiiako & Enbert are each looking to prove that they are the new leaders of the discipline in the absence or retirement of several top teams. Savchenko and Massot are taking at least a year off; Duhamel and Radford have retired; Sui and Han are skipping the Grand Prix to tend to a constellation of injuries. But who will rise to the top?

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Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov are, by reputation and record, the team to beat at the Final. Reigning World silver medalists, European champions, and Russian national champions, at their best they are a sterling example of why Russia dominates pairs. Their twists are superb and Morozov practically floats Tarasova over the boards in their throws. They have, however, struggled with nerves: it cost them a medal at the 2018 Olympics and last year’s Grand Prix Final. 

Tarasova and Morozov’s nerviness is exacerbated by programs that don’t quite fit their natural presence on the ice. Their bearing is imperious–and I mean that as a compliment– and yet their coaching/management team insists on roping them into programs that work against their magisterial qualities. Perhaps you remember last year’s much-derided Christina Aguilera “Candyman” program? It’s burned into my retinas. What we should remember instead is their glorious short program to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. It’s warhorse music that Tarasova and Morozov tamed.

This year’s program’s don’t quite match the commanding quality of that Rachmaninoff short program, but they are moving closer to that ideal. If they can channel the energy of that short program in both of their skates at the Final, they will be difficult to beat. 

Meanwhile: have you seen Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres?

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Stunning, original, and unexpected: James and Cipres are the must-see TV of the pairs event. They enter the Final with the first Grand Prix event titles of their career, now in their eighth season as a team. They also arrive in Vancouver with the highest scores of any pair in the Grand Prix Series. It all adds up to pressure to deliver on the promise of greatness we’ve glimpsed over the years. They skated a solid event at Skate Canda and a slightly imperfect pair of programs at Internationaux de France, hinting that the ghost of past inconsistency hasn’t entirely vanished. Unlike Tarasova and Morozov, however, James and Cipres’ programs are perfectly calibrated to enhance their particular brand of cool. I can’t think of any other pairs team that could sell me on an Alanis Morrisette program and make it sexy:

If neither Tarasova & Morozov nor James & Cipres has a great day at the rink, Natalia Zabiiako and Alexander Enbert are capable of stealing first place. The point difference between the high scores of the top three qualifying teams is slim: a missed throw could be the difference between gold and fourth place. But Zabiiako and Enbert have the misfortune to merely be very good competing against the excellence of the top two teams. While they have all the classic Russian pair tricks–the air on their triple twist makes my stomach drop every time I see it–the programs are stilted. Sword fight choreography just doesn’t work for me.

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Where does that leave the bottom three teams? I’m betting Cheng Peng and Yang Jin will be the podium spoilers next week. In the absence of the redoubtable Wenjing Sui and Cong Han, Peng & Jin are the highest flying Chinese pairs team in the game right now. They can out-throw Nicole Della Monica and Matteo Guarise, who are trying to channel the James & Cipres catsuit vibe, but look like they took a detour through a rhythmic gymnastics competition instead. Daria Pavliuchenko and Denis Khodykin are fresh off the Junior circuit and are likely just thrilled the Wikipedia entry for this year’s Grand Prix Final will list them as qualifiers. All three will be fun to watch, but aren’t likely to contend for a medal beyond bronze.

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Coming soon: Ice Dance! Ladies! Men! And MOAR SEQUINS!

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