Yuzuru Hanyu roars to Worlds lead amid pressure of rising expectations

Yuzuru Hanyu
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Yuzuru Hanyu feels the expectations, rising with every world-record performance. He stepped on the TD Garden ice with an unfamiliar nervousness as thousands cheered in anticipation on Wednesday night.

Many Japanese fans flew more than 6,000 miles to Boston for the World Championships this week, most of all to watch Hanyu perform for not even eight minutes over two programs.

But he’s used to that, having swept the Olympic and World titles in 2014 and shattered short program, free skate and total scores at his last two international competitions.

“I was pretty nervous today, and just the quality of the nervousness was a little bit different from usual,” Hanyu said through a translator afterward. “It’s hard to explain, but I felt a little unsettling in my mind.”

Hanyu’s first task was Wednesday’s short program, jumping, stepping and spinning to Chopin for just under three minutes.

He appeared calm and cocooned as he skated towards center ice, seconds before his turn as the penultimate competitor among a group of 30.

“When I was skating the short program, I was kind of released from that feeling,” Hanyu said of the nervousness, “and I just skated.”

Nearly to perfection.

Hanyu nailed all of his jumps, unlike his two main rivals, including two quads and tallied the second-highest short-program score under a judging system that debuted in 2005.

He roared twice before gliding off the ice, carefully avoiding Winnie the Pooh bears tossed by adoring fans. They’ve been a staple since before he became the world’s best skater at age 19 two years ago.

“The reason that I was so emotional at the end today was because I felt kind of different,” said Hanyu, attributing the nervousness at least partly to obstacles faced in pre-Worlds training, including a poor practice Tuesday. “With that circumstance, I was still able to pull out the good performance. That’s why I showed my emotion so strongly.”

The scoreboard read 110.56, just off the record 110.95 set at his last international competition in December.

Hanyu goes into Friday’s free skate (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra) with the largest short-program lead for any skater in any discipline at a Worlds or Olympics — a whopping 12.04 points.

“I do feel the expectation of my standard has been rising, and I do feel the pressure, actually, but it doesn’t really affect my performance,” Hanyu said. “I want to really enjoy my skating, and I think I was able to show that today.”

Neither 2015 World champion Javier Fernandez nor three-time World champion Patrick Chan can say they showed their best Wednesday. Both men fell on jumps and are second and third, respectively, going into the free skate.

Fernandez, who erased Hanyu’s comparatively paltry short-program lead of 2.46 points to win Spain’s first World title a year ago, added a second quadruple jump to his short program earlier this season.

He needed it to continue challenging Hanyu, his training partner under 1988 Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser in Toronto.

But Fernandez couldn’t land it, slamming his right arm and then the rest of his body on the ice on a Salchow.

“When we decided to put two quads, we knew it was more risk,” Fernandez said. “Hopefully in the free program I can keep myself more concentrated, I don’t do any more mistakes, because Yuzu is already like 10 points away.”

Chan, the last man to beat Hanyu in November, fell on a triple Axel at his first Worlds since he three-peated in 2013. The Canadian took more than 18 months off from competition after grabbing silver behind Hanyu at the Sochi Olympics.

He called his third-place standing Wednesday a success.

“There’s a lot of pressure that I haven’t been familiar with for two seasons,” Chan said. “I’m very happy with how much I’ve improved already this year, being a comeback year.”

The U.S. men are out of the medal picture, as expected. U.S. champion Adam Rippon skated clean but didn’t attempt a quad. It showed in his score, an 85.72 for seventh place.

The 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron did attempt a quad but put a hand down and slotted in 4.44 behind Rippon in eighth place. Worlds rookie Grant Hochstein fell on his lone quad and is 16th.

Rippon and Aaron must make a net gain of two places in the free skate for the U.S. to keep three men for the 2017 World Championships.

As for Hanyu, the numbers to watch are 219.48 and 330.43, his world-record free skate and total scores set in December. They are not at the front of his mind.

“I am not thinking of setting new records,” he said.

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Men’s Short Program
1. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 110.56
2. Javier Fernandez (ESP) — 98.52
3. Patrick Chan (CAN) — 94.84
7. Adam Rippon (USA) — 85.72
8. Max Aaron (USA) — 81.28
16. Grant Hochstein (USA) — 74.81