Nathan Chen leads Grand Prix Final despite mistake

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Even without a jumping combination, Nathan Chen leads the Grand Prix Final going into Friday night’s free skate.

Japanese phenom Rika Kihira had no such problem, nailing her triple Axel and posting the highest women’s short program score this season, ahead of Olympic champion Alina Zagitova in Vancouver on Thursday.

Chen topped a flawed men’s field at the second-biggest annual international competition, tallying 92.99 points despite putting his hands down on a quadruple toe loop landing, failing to tack a triple toe loop on the end of it.

“Every mistake that I make in any program is something I both learn from but also something that I dwell on a little bit,” Chen said through U.S. Figure Skating, adding that he plans at least three quads in the free. “Of course I’m not completely satisfied with this program that I did today, but I’m glad that I got all of my levels. I’ve been struggling with my flip in the short program for the last couple of seasons so I’m glad I was able to do that here.”

The 19-year-old U.S. and world champion takes a 1.33-point lead over Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno into the free, looking to repeat as Grand Prix Final champion. The Final takes the top six skaters per discipline from the fall Grand Prix Series and is often a preview of sorts for the March world championships.

Uno, who took silver to Chen at last season’s Final and worlds, put a hand down landing his opening quadruple flip. The 20-year-old made the last three Grand Prix Final podiums, the last two world championships podiums, the last two Four Continents Championships podiums and the Olympic podium, but never on the top step.

“Today at the practice, both in the morning and the six minutes warm up, I couldn’t jump properly,” Uno said, according to the International Skating Union. “I am not ill or injured. I have absolutely no excuse as to why I couldn’t jump. I wish I could say there was a reason. The fact that I could do everything well in practice and couldn’t do in the competition probably means that the mental side is part of the problem and is my weakness,”

Men’s Short Program
1. Nathan Chen (USA) — 92.99
2. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 91.67
3. Michal Brezina (CZE) — 89.21
4. Cha Jun-Hwan (KOR) — 89.07
5. Sergei Voronov (RUS) — 82.96
6. Keegan Messing (CAN) — 79.56

The Grand Prix Final continues Friday night with the rhythm dance, pairs’ short and men’s free skates, live on NBC Sports Gold and NBCSN.

GP FINAL PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice DanceTV Schedule

Aside from Chen and Uno, the Grand Prix Final lacks any other men from the top seven at the PyeongChang Olympics or March’s world championships. Yuzuru Hanyu, the Olympic champion, is sitting out the event a second straight year with a right ankle injury.

Chen broke out at the Final two years ago, winning the free skate and placing second overall to Hanyu in his senior international debut season. He then won the event last season, at the time the biggest victory of his young career.

Chen and Hanyu haven’t gone head-to-head since the Olympics and likely will not until the world championships in Saitama, Japan, in March.

The women’s short featured an anticipated showdown between 16-year-olds: Zagitova, who has lost just once in two seasons as a senior skater, and Kihira, who has now landed a triple Axel clean and fully rotated three times in six tries in her senior debut season.

Kihira’s 82.51 supplanted Zagitova as the highest short score this season. Zagitova hit all of her jumps with positive grades of execution, too (77.93 points), but Thursday proved the theory that if both skaters go clean, Kihira will win.

“I was extremely surprised when I saw that score of 82.51, because it was not a score that I would have imagined would ever come up,” Kihira said, according to the ISU.

Zagitova, looking to make it five straight Grand Prix Final titles for Russian women, said she felt nervous and a little tense. She also declined to answer a question about how Kihira’s rise has affected her.

“I try not to pay attention to other skaters’ performances,” she said through a translator.

Women’s Short Program
1. Rika Kihira (JPN) — 82.51
2. Alina Zagitova (RUS) — 77.93
3. Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (RUS) — 70.65
4. Kaori Sakamoto (JPN) — 70.23
5. Sofia Samodurova (RUS) — 68.24
6. Satoko Miyahara (RUS) — 67.52

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season…NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

MORE: Rika Kihira more than a new Miss Triple Axel

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Figure skating’s Grand Prix fields look very different this season

Nathan Chen
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Before Nathan Chen is expected to go for a historic fifth straight U.S. figure skating title in January, he will, in a first, compete against most of his top countrymen later this month.

Fields for the Grand Prix Series, figure skating’s autumn international circuit, were published Thursday. As expected, every top skater entered will compete in his or her home country, or nearest to where he or she trains, and in one of the six events.

Traditionally, skaters compete in two of the six events and are scattered among competitions in the U.S., Canada, France, Russia, China and Japan based on world rankings.

But the International Skating Union restricted travel this season due to the coronavirus pandemic. Skaters are limited to compete locally. And the Grand Prix Final at the conclusion of the Grand Prix Series has been postponed from its scheduled December setting in Beijing.

That means that Chen vies for a record-tying fourth straight Skate America crown in Las Vegas in three weeks against a field mostly made up of countrymen, including Olympic teammate Vincent Zhou and U.S. bronze medalist Tomoki Hiwatashi.

In all, there are eight U.S. men entered in Skate America, 11 women (including past national champions Bradie Tennell and Gracie Gold), six pairs and nine ice dance couples (including U.S. champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue), plus some skaters from other nations who train in the U.S.

Traditionally, a country has no more than three entries per discipline at a Grand Prix event.

GRAND PRIX FIELDS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance

Sochi Olympian Jason Brown, who trains in Toronto, is entered in Skate Canada the week after Skate America.

Two-time U.S. women’s champion Alysa Liu will not be old enough for the Grand Prix Series until the 2021-22 Olympic season.

All of the reigning Olympic champions are absent from the series.

Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan previously announced he wouldn’t compete due to virus-related travel risks. Russian Alina Zagitova extended her indefinite break from competition dating to last autumn, rather choosing to participate in a skating-themed TV series.

Ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada retired. The German pairs’ team of Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot last competed in the 2018 Olympic season.

Instead, the headliners include Chen, the two-time world champion undefeated since placing fifth in PyeongChang. And a deep crop of Russian teenage women, all of course entered in the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow in November.

MORE: Brian Orser reacts to Yevgenia Medvedeva’s coaching switch

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French Open: Karolina Pliskova, top player sans Slam, again exits early

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No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova exited yet another Grand Slam in the early stages, falling to 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia in the second round at Roland Garros on Thursday.

Ostapenko, whose only match wins at the French Open before this week came in her title run three years ago, bounced the big-serving Czech 6-4, 6-2.

Pliskova put fewer than half of her first serves in play, while Ostapenko fired 27 winners to 19 unforced errors. Pliskova was on the ropes in her first round, too, needing three sets to get past an Egyptian qualifier.

“Maybe same level as the match before, but of course [Ostapenko] is much better player,” Pliskova said. “Not much to say about this match.”

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Pliskova is the highest-ranked player of either gender (No. 4) without a Grand Slam title, yet hasn’t made it past the fourth round at a major since the 2019 Australian Open.

She’s played six Slams as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, one shy of Caroline Wozniacki‘s total before she broke through at the 2018 Australian Open and two shy of Simona Halep‘s total before she won the 2018 French Open.

Ostapenko, meanwhile, is having a very different career.

She won the 2017 Roland Garros title, two days after turning 20, while ranked 47th. She hasn’t gotten past the third round of a major since 2018 Wimbledon, including first-round French Open exits the last two years, and is back down to No. 43 in the WTA rankings.

“It’s hard to compare with 2017. As I said, it was like three years ago, and I was much younger, and also I was fearless. Nobody knew me,” Ostapenko said. “The world doesn’t stop with winning only one Grand Slam. Of course I want to achieve more, and I want to be back in top five, top 10.”

She dropped just nine games in four sets this week.

Ostapenko gets 87th-ranked Spaniard Paula Badosa in third round. Badosa dispatched 2018 French Open runner-up Sloane Stephens 6-4, 4-6, 6-2.

MORE: Serena Williams ‘struggling to walk’

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