2019-20 Grand Prix of Figure Skating Preview: Pairs

It’s that wonderful time of year again when you get to watch figure skating for six weekends in a row. Yep, the 2019-20 Grand Prix kicks off on Friday. In all the (well-deserved) hype about the inhuman Russian ladies, the battle of Hanyu and Chen, and the politics of ice dance, I feel like pair skating often gets lost in the shuffle. As a pairs fan for 5 years now, I’d like to introduce more people to this underrated discipline, so here is a quick overview of the pairs on the Grand Prix this year, including my bold predictions for the podiums.

SKATE AMERICA:

I was going to write a nice long article about how this event was going to be a tight race between Zabiiako/Enbert vs Peng/Jin. However, Zabiiako/Enbert withdrew from both their Grand Prix events due to Alexander Enbert’s health problems. First of all, I’m very concerned about him because this isn’t the first time he’s withdrawn due to unspecified health problems – they missed Europeans last year because of it. Their coaching team – Nina Mozer and company – has been very secretive about this, but it seems to be pretty serious, because the statement said he was going to “suspend his career”. Based on the sketchy Google translations, I’m getting the vibe that Enbert has had some chronic issues for a while and wanted to quit after the Olympics, but Mozer convinced him to stick around because Zabiiako wanted to continue. The Skating Lesson blog said it was a heart condition; however, TSL isn’t always right and I haven’t seen any official source confirming it, so I’ll take this with a grain of salt. I’ve heard that it might be some back pain, but since I really don’t know, I’m not going to speculate too much. I know as a skating critic, I’ve been pretty hard on Zabiiako/Enbert in the past, but I do wish him the best regarding his health.

Based on last year’s standings, Peng/Jin should be the clear favorites for the gold medal here. However, at the U.S. Classic event last month, they lost to Cain/LeDuc, who are also going to be here. I’m not going to put much weight into the results of U.S. Classic, simply because the high altitude seemed to be heavily affecting the overall level of skating there. So I’ll put it like this: If Peng/Jin and Cain/LeDuc both go clean, Peng/Jin should win. But the judges seem willing to push Cain/LeDuc as the new U.S. top pair, and they’ve been making a lot of progress over the past few years, including that ninth-place finish at Worlds last year. So if Peng/Jin struggle and Cain/LeDuc skate fairly well, we might just end up with an American team on top of the podium.

I’m leaning towards Pavliuchenko/Khodykin for the bronze medal. They still look junior-ish to me, but they have good technical elements and I think they have the best chance of delivering high scores – let’s not forget that last year, they made it to both the Grand Prix Final and Europeans. I’m personally rooting for Denney/Frazier to sneak onto the podium because I like their programs better, but they still had some jump problems at Nebelhorn Trophy a few weeks ago.

I’m also excited to see Jessica Calalang/Brian Johnson; I think they could be a bit of a dark horse in this field. I can always count on Camille Ruest/Andrew Wolfe for great programs and nice costumes, but they’ve struggled with the technical side of things. Ekaterina Alexandrovskaya/Harley Windsor are back – they looked a bit rusty at Nebelhorn Trophy, but they have the technical firepower if they can pull their jumps together. Also, Zoe Jones/Christopher Boyadji have been added as the replacement for Zabiiako/Enbert. I just have so much admiration for them – can we just talk about how Zoe is 39 years old with three kids and still slaying?

My predictions:

Gold: Cheng Peng/Yang Jin

Silver: Ashley Cain-Gribble/Timothy LeDuc

Bronze: Daria Pavliuchenko/Denis Khodykin

 

SKATE CANADA INTERNATIONAL:

Evgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov have been the dominant Russian pair for the past few years, and if they skate well, they should have no problem winning here. I really like what Marina Zoueva is doing with them this year. The short program suits their style perfectly, and although I don’t like the free skate music, the program has some excellent, innovative choreography. But Aleksandra Boikova/Dmitri Kozlovskii are fairly solid, have great elements, and are coached by the one and only pairs queen, Tamara Moskvina. They’re still very young, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them giving T/M a tough fight as the season goes on, especially with Zabiiako/Enbert out of the picture.

I’m also eager to see The Ex-Partners of Dylan Moscovitch, aka Kirsten Moore-Towers and Lubov Ilyushechkina, face off. I think it’ll give us a sneak peek at what might happen at Canadian Nationals. I would give the edge to Moore-Towers/Marinaro simply because they have been skating together for several years, whereas Ilyushechkina/Bilodeau are a new team. I was very impressed with both teams at their Challenger events, so I think this will be a great competition. It’s too early to call, but I would not be surprised to see these two pairs on the World team this year if all goes well.

Then there’s Alexa and Chris Knierim, who looked fairly solid at Nebelhorn Trophy. The side-by-side jumps are still a problem for them, but the quality of their other elements are good enough to keep them in the mix. I’m so happy to see Feiyao Tang/Yongchao Yang here because I adored them at Nebelhorn. Last year, I was really impressed with Evelyn Walsh/Trennt Michaud. They struggled at Finlandia Trophy last week, but they’ve shown they can bounce back from a rough season opener, so I wouldn’t count them out, either. I’m curious how Calalang/Johnson will handle the back-to-back events – sometimes it can keep the momentum going and sometimes it can knock you dead with exhaustion.

My predictions:

Gold: Evgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov

Silver: Aleksandra Boikova/Dmitri Kozlovskii

Bronze: Kirsten Moore-Towers/Michael Marinaro

 

INTERNATIONAUX DE FRANCE:

With James/Cipres and Zabiiako/Enbert out, this little Grand Prix is looking like a free-for-all, but if Finlandia Trophy was any indication of the future, my money is on Anastasia Mishina/Aleksandr Galliamov. While their PCS aren’t as high as the other Russian pairs yet (this season is their senior debut), their sheer technical strength won them huge marks last week, and in this field, there really aren’t any other pairs who will overwhelm them in PCS. I think Pavliuchenko/Khodykin might be able to snag the silver here because of their high base value, but Cain-Gribble/LeDuc will be right there too, so it might be a close fight there.

I really don’t know what to expect from the rest of the pairs. I like Minerva Fabienne Hase/Nolan Seegert, and I think they have some good skills to put them towards the top of the list. Miriam Ziegler/Severin Kiefer of Austria have beautiful programs and finished in the top 10 at Worlds last year, but their early-season competitions looked shaky. Denney/Frazier, Ruest/Wolfe, and the Italian pair of Ghilardi/Ambrosini round out the roster. It really looks like spots 4-8 will depend upon how each pair skates on that day.

My predictions:

Gold: Anastasia Mishina/Aleksandr Galliamov

Silver: Daria Pavliuchenko/Denis Khodykin

Bronze: Ashley Cain-Gribble/Timothy LeDuc

 

CUP OF CHINA:

For the past few years, Cup of China has been fondly known in my mind as the Wenjing Sui and Cong Han Trophy. They’re crazy talented and so dang consistent. As long as they don’t skate half the program on their bums, they should be able to win this competition easily. If all goes well, Peng/Jin should have no problem securing the silver and giving China a 1-2 at the home Grand Prix.

The real battle will be for the bronze. Nicole Della Monica/Matteo Guarise, who finished eighth at Worlds last year, did not do any Challenger Series events, so I have no idea where they’re at. Nicole had a shoulder injury during the summer, but she says she’s doing better now. Ilyushechkina/Bilodeau will also be in the hunt for a medal here. Alisa Efimova/Alexander Korovin, who are one of my favorite underdog pairs, narrowly beat Ilyushechkina/Bilodeau at Finlandia Trophy, so they have a shot too if they can deliver. I’m leaning towards Della Monica/Guarise because they’ve made it to the Grand Prix Final and have the highest personal best, but it’s going to be close.

The North Korean team, Tae-ok Ryom/Ju-sik Kim, have great programs this year. I love that they’re stepping out of their box of “the cool team with the black unitards” and trying something new. Based on the timing, I’m assuming their withdrawal from Internationaux de France had to do with visa problems, not injuries. Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea looked decent at US Classic (considering the altitude problems), and I’m rooting for my new loves Tang/Yang to have a great skate in front of the home crowd.

My predictions:

Gold: Wenjing Sui/Cong Han

Silver: Cheng Peng/Yang Jin

Bronze: Nicole Della Monica/Matteo Guarise

 

ROSTELECOM CUP:

Rostelecom Cup tends to be my favorite event on the Grand Prix because usually, there ends up being a great showdown between the Russian pairs. At the top, it looks very much like Skate Canada International: Tarasova/Morozov favored to win with Boikova/Kozlovskii on their tail. The thing is, home Grand Prix events are often a politicking game, and Rostelecom Cup is no exception. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just Russia – the American fed is pulling strings at Skate America, the Japanese fed at NHK Trophy, and so on. To be clear, if both teams go clean, Tarasova/Morozov deserve to win. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Russia might hold up a messy Tarasova/Morozov over a cleaner Boikova/Kozlovskii. Tarasova/Morozov have a shot at the world title this year, and you can bet your matryoshka dolls that good old Grandma TAT is going to push them as far as she can.

For a year and a half, I’ve been talking about Ksenia Stolbova’s comeback like it’s the second coming of Christ. But after many of my long monologues about cursed triple twists, Nikolai Morozov, and getting release forms from Didier Gailhaguet, I can finally say Stolbova/Novoselov are here to compete. Judging from what I saw at Russian Open Test Skates, the twist looks a little rough and her side-by-sides are still shaky. However, for a new pair they look surprisingly good, and I think they could challenge for a medal here and complete the Russian sweep, as long as they stay mostly on their feet.

Behind the Russians, it’s open season. Out of Hase/Seegert, Ziegler/Kiefer, and Walsh/Michaud, I would give the edge to Hase/Seegert, but ice is slippery and you never really know what’s going to happen until the scores come up. I’m interested to see Audrey Lu/Misha Mitrofanov. Last season, they showed some potential for the future of US pairs. I enjoyed their programs at US Classic, but their lifts have been a very costly Achilles’ heel for them. Ghilardi/Ambrosini are also assigned to this event.

My predictions:

Gold: Evgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov

Silver: Aleksandra Boikova/Dmitri Kozlovskii

Bronze: Ksenia Stolbova/Andrei Novoselov

 

NHK TROPHY:

This was going to be an epic showdown between Sui/Han and James/Cipres, but the Frenchies decided “no thanks, we’re taking the season off”. Still, I think this event might be the biggest catfight for the medals. Sui/Han are head and shoulders above the rest of the field, but I have no idea who will medal after them. Moore-Towers/Marinaro have the highest season’s best going into this event, but if Mishina/Galliamov can go clean, they could easily slip into the silver spot. There’s also Della Monica/Guarise and the Knierims, who have an equally good chance of medaling, and not to be forgotten are Efimova/Korovin and Kayne/O’Shea. Honestly, trying to predict a podium for this event is like trying to guess the combination on a safe. These kind of events are both the most exciting and the most terrifying for me. NHK Trophy also marks the debut of Riku Miura/Ryuichi Kihara, the new pair from Japan. I was a fan of Kihara with his last partner, so I am excited to see what this new team can do.

My predictions:

Gold: Wenjing Sui/Cong Han

Silver: Anastasia Mishina/Aleksandr Galliamov

Bronze: Kirsten Moore-Towers/Michael Marinaro

 

There’s not much left to say here; the predictions are in, and now the skating will determine the results. In just a few days, I’ll be back with my review of Skate America, the first Grand Prix of the season. Who are you most excited to see, and who do you think will top the podiums? Leave your comments below. Until next time, happy skating, and may the odds be ever in your favor.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s