Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who won the NHK Trophy on Saturday night in Sapporo, is in top form heading into next week’s Grand Prix Final in Marseille, France. | REUTERS
BY JACK GALLAGHER
SAPPORO – Yuzuru Hanyu will head to the Grand Prix Final next week in Marseille, France, at the top of his game. His performance at the NHK Trophy here over the weekend reaffirmed his place at the pinnacle of his sport.
Hanyu’s training partner Javier Fernandez has won the world title the past two seasons and is certainly deserving of the crown he holds based on the hard work and progress he has made in the past three years.
But after witnessing Hanyu’s greatness firsthand once again, Ice Time feels that Fernandez is just keeping the seat warm as world champion until Hanyu takes it back.
Not only did the Olympic champion display his full arsenal of athleticism and presentation skills at Makomanai Arena, he also made it clear that he wants the audience to enjoy his performances.
“I want it to be like a rock concert. Like a show for everybody to watch,” Hanyu stated in reference to his short program to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy.” “I want people to enjoy it. That is the goal.”
Hanyu’s score of 103.89 in the short program was the highest on the Grand Prix circuit this season, as was his total tally of 301.47. The latter score was just the fourth ever to surpass the 300-point mark and Hanyu owns three of those (Fernandez has the other).
The Sendai native holds the world standards for short program (110.95), free skate (219.48) and total score (330.43). The numbers are no doubt impressive, but Hanyu is an artist on the ice. He understands that skating is both competition and show business.
Hanyu will be seeking his fourth straight title at the GP Final. In the 21-year history of the event only Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko (a four-time champion) has won more times at the prestigious competition.
Once again Hanyu’s show in Sapporo blew away veteran skating analysts.
“What a performer!” said Eurosport’s Simon Reed after Hanyu’s short program. “He’s not just won the short with this, he’s won the free as well, and he’s got his place in Marseille. Just fantastic.”
NBC Universal analyst John Coughlin was impressed by Hanyu’s athletic ability and how he gets the most value out of his programs.
“He is such a great athlete . . . He is so great at maximizing his point total,” commented Coughlin after the short program. “No one else in the world hits these difficult elements with this kind of ease. He creates this illusion that the sport is much easier than it really is.”
Four-time world champion Kurt Browning, who commentates for CBC, called Hanyu “a wizard” and noted his tranquility on the ice during his free skate to “Hope and Legacy.”
“How could anybody with four planned quads in their program look so relaxed in their face and upper body?”
Browning then succinctly summarized what many at the highest level of the sport feel.
“He is so far ahead of the skating world in so many areas,” Browning said. “Everyone else is chasing him.”
Browning then broke down his analysis of Hanyu into specifics.
“Upper back, beautiful run of the edge, creating speed out of nowhere, musicality, awareness of the audience,” Browning stated. “But still I love how content and calm his face is.”
What must be pointed out is that generally when a skater elevates too high on a given jump, the landing can send them too deep into the ice, thereby complicating the next element. But Hanyu has always had such a feathery touch that even when he soars high into the air he is usually able to carry on without incident.
“He is so strong . . . it’s just such a winning combination, to have the subtlety, and the grace and elegance through the choreography, but the strength — the core strength — is very difficult,” Reed’s fellow Eurosport announcer pointed out.
NBC analyst Johnny Weir paid Hanyu one of the highest compliments, saying his fortitude in challenging new boundaries is what sets him apart.
“Yuzuru Hanyu has never been afraid of the bright lights or to make mistakes and that’s what has made his so great,” Weir commented. “He just goes on like a warrior every competition.”
Liftoff woes: Satoko Miyahara secured her ticket to the GP Final via her second-place finish at the NHK Trophy. After a mediocre short program, Miyahara redeemed herself with an elegant free skate.
Miyahara’s jump issues remain a concern, however.
“She is not getting enough lift on the takeoff of her jumps,” said Nagano Olympic champion Tara Lipinski, also a commentator for NBC. “That is why she keeps having under-rotations.”
Despite the jump concerns, Lipinski still admitted that Miyahara’s skating truly moves her.
“Overall she is my favorite to watch,” Lipinski stated. “She has these classic, beautiful lines and she really sells her skating.”
Wakaba Higuchi came up just short in her bid to make the GP Final in her first season on the senior circuit after coming in fourth in Sapporo. She placed 10th in the GP standings.
Weir gave his take on the 15-year-old Tokyo native after her free skate.
“Definitely there is a lot of work to be done on her facial expression and on lengthening her arms and legs and pushing all the way through each stroke,” Weir said. “But her jumping technique is very sound.”
Long shot: Ice Time took an informal poll of several writers at the NHK Trophy on Mao Asada’s chances of making the Japan team for the world championships in Helsinki this season.
The consensus was that the odds are pretty long for Mao based on her showing during the GP season (sixth at Skate America, ninth at Trophee de France). It will all come down to how the three-time world champion fares at the Japan nationals next month in Osaka.
With Miyahara, Higuchi, Mai Mihara and Rika Hongo all in the mix, it won’t be easy for Mao. The results at worlds will be especially important this year as they will determine how many spots Japan gets for the Pyeongchang Olympics.
Japan’s top two skaters much finish a combined 13th or better to clinch three spots in South Korea. With Hanyu and Shoma Uno, it should not be an issue for the men.
The women’s situation is a bit more dicey. Miyahara and Mao placed a combined 12th at worlds last season, thereby giving Japan three spots for this season’s competition.
“I think if she skates like she has been during the Grand Prix season, she won’t make it,” one writer said about Mao. “But if she can place in the top five at nationals, then I think she will be on the team.”
One wild card to consider with that scenario is that Japan’s deep corps of talented junior skaters will also be competing at the senior nationals. Japan junior champion Kaori Sakamoto, Yuna Shiraiwa, world junior champion Marin Honda and Rika Kihira will all be entered in the loaded event.
That means Mao will likely have to finish ahead of some of the juniors as well to make the worlds team. Keep in mind that Higuchi was second as a junior last season at senior nationals and Shiraiwa was fifth.
Ice Time just hopes that politics doesn’t enter into the decision. Mao’s legend in the sport is undeniable, but she just hasn’t had it so far this season. There has been talk of her knee injury, which Mao has played down as a factor for her results.
The bottom line is that if Mao is hurt she should get the problem repaired now before it is too late. In my many years of covering sports, I have seen athletes try to finesse their way through injuries with rest and it almost never works. It just delays the inevitable.