Is Yuzuru Hanyu beatable? World Championships men’s preview

Yuzuru Hanyu
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BOSTON — This edition of the World Figure Skating Championships could be billed as the greatest three-man competition in 28 years. Except one skater is in a class of his own.

Three different men’s World champions from the last three years will go head-to-head-to-head at Worlds for the first time since 1988 this week in Boston.

There is defending champ Javier Fernandez of Spain. There is three-time World champion Patrick Chan of Canada, at his first Worlds since his last title in 2013.

And then there is the man who deserves his own paragraph, Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, the Olympic and World champion of 2014.

Three men from three continents, but one is the clear gold-medal favorite.

“There’s definitely people that can take the title from Yuzu,” NBC Olympics analyst Johnny Weir said, “but at this point it’s definitely his to lose.”

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Hanyu, a 21-year-old who trains in Toronto under 1988 Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser (one of that 1988 Worlds trio), had actually been beaten in four of his last five top-level international competitions going into November.

But he soared at his next two fall events, shattering Chan’s 2013 record for most points in the decade-old judging system (by a whopping 27.13) at NHK Trophy in Japan. And bettering that by another 8.03 at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, where he distanced second-place Fernandez by 37.48 points.

“When he skates well and clean, it is untouchable,” NBC Olympics analyst Tara Lipinski said. “But we’ve seen Yuzu fall apart or make several mistakes or get sloppy.”

Like in his last two defeats.

Chan outscored Hanyu in both programs at Skate Canada in October, in the Canadian’s first top-level competition since taking double silver at the Sochi Olympics. Hanyu stood sixth in the short program after receiving zero points for two of his three jumping passes, then fell on a triple Lutz in the free skate.

At last year’s Worlds, Fernandez became the first Spaniard to take the title. Hanyu fell on his lone quadruple jump attempt in the free skate, as Fernandez overtook him in Shanghai.

And in Hanyu’s last competition, the Japanese Championships on Christmas weekend, he fell three times over two programs (but still won by 19.21).

“He isn’t faultless,” Weir said. “It would definitely take a real disaster of a performance for him not to be the front-runner, not to have that victory almost assured. But if he is a little bit off, Patrick Chan and Javier Fernandez both showed really stong performances at the Europeans [in January] and Four Continents [Championships in February].”

True. In their aforementioned most recent competitions, Fernandez put down his highest-scoring short program ever (a total bettered only by Hanyu under this system), and Chan recorded his best free skate ever (again, bettered only by Hanyu in this decade).

Soon but unlikely this week, Hanyu, Fernandez and Chan could be rivaled by a pair of 18-year-olds for gold.

China’s Jin Boyang landed six quads at the Four Continents Championships, finishing second to Chan.

Japan’s Shoma Uno, the reigning World junior champ, arrived on the senior stage by beating Fernandez and Chan at the free skate-only Japan Open exhibition in October. Then he kept Chan off the podium at the Grand Prix Final in December.

“Jin Boyang in particular, he’s got the technical firepower, but the artistry, no matter how well he jumps, his artistry is what brings him off the podium,” Weir said. “Shoma Uno is wonderful technically and artistically. It’s going to be about controlling his nerves and keeping it all together.”

A medal is not expected from the U.S. contingent of national champion Adam RipponMax Aaron and Worlds rookie Grant Hochstein. In Rippon and Aaron’s five combined Worlds appearances, the best finish was Rippon’s sixth in 2010.

Rippon has backed off from February hopes of adding a quadruple toe loop or a quadruple Salchow to his quadruple Lutz. He said after practice Monday at TD Garden that he plans only the Lutz and only in the free skate.

Rippon, still the only man to win back-to-back World junior titles (2008 and 2009), is strong in other areas such as spins. But even he recognized the void when asked what one thing he would take from Hanyu, Fernandez or Chan’s bags of tricks.

“I would take their quads,” he said. “But I hope that if I took it, they wouldn’t have it back.”

The key for the U.S. men will be the number 13. If the top two U.S. men’s placements this week add up to greater than 13, the U.S. will downsize from three men to two for the 2017 World Championships.

That means that one of Rippon, Aaron and Hochstein must finish sixth or better to have any shot at meeting a combined 13.

“A big ask,” Weir said. “If everyone skates their best … that really puts the United States men looking at a top-10 finish almost as if it would be like winning a medal.”

Here are Lipinski and Weir’s medal predictions from last week:

Lipinski
Gold: Hanyu (JPN)
Silver: Fernandez (ESP)
Bronze: Chan (CAN) or Uno (JPN)

Weir
Gold: Hanyu (JPN)
Silver: Chan (CAN)
Bronze: Fernandez (ESP)

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