Grand Prix Final schedule, previews

Javier Fernandez
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U.S. ice dancer Evan Bates calls it “the most important competition we’ve ever done,” speaking for himself and his partner.

It is the Grand Prix Final, the most elite figure skating competition. The Olympics and the World Championships earn more prestige, but the Grand Prix Final is more exclusive.

The top six skaters per discipline over the six-event Grand Prix series this fall were invited to this week’s event in Barcelona.

The constantly changing figure skating landscape will be apparent in Spain, a nation with no history of Olympic medalists in the sport.

Of the 12 Sochi Olympic (non-team event) medalists, only two made it to the Grand Prix Final — men’s champion Yuzuru Hanyu and pairs silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov (plus ice dance bronze medalist Yelena Ilinykh with a different partner).

The two-time Olympian Bates, with partner Madison Chock, make up the U.S.’ biggest gold-medal hope with Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White not competing this season. That’s why Bates holds this weekend’s event in such high regard.

Here’s the schedule (all times ET):

Thursday
Pairs short program — 2:15 p.m.
Women’s short program — 3:30 p.m.

Friday
Ice dance short dance — 1:45 p.m.
Men’s short program — 3 p.m.

Saturday
Pairs free skate — 10 a.m.
Women’s free skate — 11:25 a.m.
Ice dance free dance — 1:25 p.m.
Men’s free skate — 2:45 p.m.

Icenetwork.com will stream all the sessions to subscribers live. NBC will air coverage Sunday (4-6 p.m.).

Here are event-by-event previews:

Men

The men’s competition will be the most anticipated because it includes Spain’s only entrant — Javier Fernandez.

Fernandez, 23, is the two-time reigning World Championships bronze medalist. He trains in Canada under two-time Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser but is very passionate about Spain.

In Sochi, Fernandez fell from third place after the short program to fourth overall and said he felt sad he couldn’t bring a medal home for his country. Spaniards have won two Winter Olympic medals, both in Alpine skiing, the last in 1992.

Fernandez grew up in Madrid, training on an ice rink that is now a restaurant. Fernandez believes there are nine rinks in all of Spain, with about half in Madrid.

“To fight against sports like soccer or tennis or cycling [in Spain], those kinds of sports have been there for a while,” Fernandez said. “It’s kind of more difficult to make people change their minds [about] other sports than they’re used to seeing, but we’re getting there.”

There is no clear favorite among the six men at the Grand Prix Final. Fernandez has been the most consistent over the calendar year and posted the second-best overall score in the Grand Prix season.

Japan’s Tatsuki Machida, the reigning World silver medalist, posted the highest score this season in winning Skate America in October. But Machida scored more than 30 fewer points at his more recent Grand Prix skate in November.

Russia’s Maksim Kovtun was the only man to win both of his Grand Prix series starts this season. Kovtun, who also raps, won last season’s Russian Championships but was passed over for Russia’s lone Olympic singles spot for 2006 Olympic champion Yevgeny Plushenko. He finished fourth at Worlds, just behind Machida and Fernandez.

Not to be forgotten is reigning Olympic, World and Grand Prix Final champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan. Hanyu snuck into the Grand Prix Final over American Jason Brown by .15 of a point at the last Grand Prix series event. Hanyu, also coached by Orser, is a wild card given a head injury sustained in warming up for the Cup of China free skate on Nov. 8.

Women

Just like last year, it’s four Russians, one Japanese and American Ashley Wagner.

Wagner, seventh at the Olympics and March’s World Championships, will be fortunate to repeat her bronze medal from last year’s Grand Prix Final, if the just-concluded Grand Prix series is any indication.

Three of the four Russians — Yelena RadionovaElizaveta Tuktamysheva and Anna Pogorilaya — scored higher than Wagner this season. The fourth, Yulia Lipnitskaya, was the star of the Sochi Olympic team event and won silver at the World Championships.

None of the other Olympic or World medalists competed this Grand Prix season, including Russian Olympic champion Adelina Sotnikova, out with a torn ankle ligament.

Wagner also lost Olympic teammate Gracie Gold, who qualified for Barcelona but pulled out last week with a small stress fracture in her foot.

Wagner, 23, is more than four years older than the other five women in Barcelona.

Of the Russians, Radionova and Tuktamysheva impressed the most in the Grand Prix series. Radionova, the Skate America and Trophee Bompard winner, was too young for the Sochi Olympics. Tuktamysheva, the Cup of China winner, was 10th at last season’s Russian Championships.

Ice Dance

Meryl Davis and Charlie White won the last five Grand Prix Finals. The U.S. streak could very well continue, even with the Olympic champions sitting out this season.

That’s because Madison Chock and Evan Bates were the top qualifiers for Barcelona, winning both of their Grand Prix series starts.

They prevailed in the absence of not only Davis and White but also the entire top five from Sochi this Grand Prix season.

“The throne is vacant,” Bates said. “We’re going to try to take it.”

Chock and Bates were eighth in Sochi and fifth at the World Championships in March. Canada’s Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, who were seventh in Sochi and second at Worlds, qualified second behind Chock and Bates into the Grand Prix Final.

The other U.S. Olympic ice dance couple, siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani, qualified fourth into Barcelona. It’s their first Grand Prix Final appearance in three years.

Pairs

Like ice dance, the pairs landscape looked different this season.

Olympic champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov are out due to Trankov’s shoulder injury.

World champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy are out due to Szolkowy’s retirement.

Russians Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, who won silver behind those pairs at the Olympics and Worlds, qualified first into the Grand Prix Final. Right behind them were Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, the World bronze medalists.

The comeback story is that of Russians Yuko Kavaguti and Aleksander Smirnov, who missed last season due to Smirnov’s knee injury. They were fourth at the 2010 Olympics.

There’s also 2006 Olympic silver medalist Zhang Hao, looking for his first Grand Prix Final medal in six years. Zhang, formerly partnered with Zhang Dan (no relation), was eighth in Sochi with new partner Peng Cheng.

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