Junhwan Cha

AP

Figure skating Grand Prix series: Eight matchups to watch

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Now that the Grand Prix figure skating assignments have been announced, a look at eight of the most exciting head-to-heads this fall …

Men
Skate America – Nathan Chen vs. Jason Brown
Two of the U.S. men are showcased at the Grand Prix opener in October. What makes this so special? The last time these two competed at the same Grand Prix, in France last November, Brown actually led Chen after the short program. In the end, though, Chen rallied to keep his undefeated season intact.

Also notable in the field: South Korea’s Cha Jun-Hwan, who trains with Brown in Toronto.

Internationaux de France – Nathan Chen vs. Shoma Uno
Chen and Uno have shared world podiums, most recently in 2018 when Chen took gold and Uno the silver. Uno’s coaching change should only spice things up; however, he has not announced where he will train.

Also notable in the field: world junior champion Tomoki Hiwatashi makes his senior Grand Prix debut. He was fourth at the U.S. Championships in January.

Rostelecom Cup – Shoma Uno vs. Vincent Zhou
After competing in France, Uno gets a week to rest before facing another top American in Vincent Zhou. Zhou had a breakthrough end of last season, claiming his first, top-level senior international medals — bronze at Four Continents and worlds.

MORE: Nathan Chen learns from chaos of balancing Yale, skating

Women
Skate America – Anna Shcherbakova, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, and Yelizabet Tursynbaeva
All are known for jumps: Shcherbakova, the 15-year-old Russian champion, for a quadruple Lutz, Tuktamysheva, the 2015 World champion, for her triple Axel and the Kazakh Tursynbaeva for a quad Salchow in taking silver at worlds.

Also notable in the field: 2017 U.S. champion Karen Chen returns to competition for the first time since the PyeongChang Olympics; 2018 U.S. champion Bradie Tennell, Chen’s Olympic teammate.

NHK Trophy – Rika Kihira vs. Alina Zagitova
Kihira, who swept her Grand Prix starts last fall, will likely show off her triple Axel on home ice, but Olympic and world champion Zagitova is also beloved in Japan.

Also notable in the field: Russian Sofia Samodurova, who defeated Zagitova at January’s European Championships.

MORE: Bradie Tennell on self-doubt, lessons learned in 2019

Pairs
NHK Trophy – Sui Wenjing and Han Cong vs. Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres
We have to wait a while for it, but China’s Sui and Han facing off against France’s James and Cipres should be a real treat.

Sui and Han own two world titles, including from March despite a series of injuries that kept them out most of the season. James and Cipres had been undefeated last season before a short program error at worlds, where they finished fifth.

Also notable in the field: The two U.S. pairs, Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea and Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim, should be pretty evenly matched. It could be a preview of January’s nationals.

Ice dance
Skate America – Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue vs. Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin
The Americans earned world champs bronze ahead of the Russians by a slim 1.88 points in March. Similar to last season, Hubbell and Donohue will get their Grand Prix starts out of the way in the first two weeks and likely become the first qualifiers for December’s Grand Prix Final.

Also notable in the field: Spain’s Olivia Smart and Adrian Diaz train in Montreal alongside Hubbell and Donohue and a number of other teams that will be at Skate America.

MORE: Hubbell, Donohue already eyeing 2020 World Championships

Internationaux de France – Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron vs. Madison Chock and Evan Bates
Four-time world champions Papadakis and Cizeron will face stiff competition from training mates Chock and Bates. Chock and Bates had an abbreviated season last year, as Chock was away from competition for nearly 10 months after ankle surgery. Nevertheless, they won Four Continents and placed sixth at worlds.

Also notable in the field: European bronze medalists Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri from Italy, who earned bronze at their first Grand Prix Final last season.

MORE: Chen, Zagitova among top takeaways from last season

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Nathan Chen defends world title, defeating Yuzuru Hanyu at World Championships

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Nathan Chen is now the first U.S. man to win back-to-back World titles since Scott Hamilton did so four times, from 1981-1984. He defeated two-time world champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan in their first head-to-head competition since the PyeongChang Olympics on Saturday in Saitama, Japan.

Performing to “Land of All” by Woodkid, Chen landed four quadruple jumps and scored 216.02 points in the free skate, a new highest score in the world this season. His free skate, 323.02 points, was also the highest score in the world this season. The Yale University freshman extended his 10.59-point lead from the short program to 22.45 points to claim his second consecutive World gold medal. He heads back to class next week, after spending his spring break at this competition.

“It’s breathtaking to be in this arena. Thank you so much for being loud and carrying me through my program,” Chen told the Saitama crowd.

“I’m glad I was able to put out two strong skates both here and last year and I hope to be able to compete against Yuzuru further in the future,” Chen continued later in the press conference. “Every time Yuzu skates, he does something amazing and incredible and it’s just a huge honor to be able to skate with him, skate after him, especially knowing that how he sets the bar. It’s great to be able to follow that.”

Skating after Hanyu wasn’t an unfamiliar situation for Chen, he told reporters in a press conference following Thursday’s short program.

“It’s not my first time skating after him,” he said. “The raining of the Pooh bears is actually a pretty amazing sight to see. Knowing that fact, it’s something that I can prepare myself for — it’s not even something I have to prepare myself for. It’s an amazing thing. It’s amazing to see the fans love us, care for us and do all this to hypothetically make us happy. That’s such a great feeling.”

Two-time Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu told reporters he was 100 percent, recovering from a lingering ankle injury, and he proved it. Skating at home, at the site of his first of two world titles, he was third after the short program but rallied to score 206.10 points in the free skate and 300.97 points overall. His Origin (“Art on Ice”) by Edvin Marton free skate earned him the silver medal. Afterward, his fans covered the ice with stuffed Pooh bears, as has become tradition for whenever Hanyu takes the ice.

“I was thinking about Plushenko when skating this program, because I am somehow lending it from him, and I feel that I have done what I could in this free program,” Hanyu said, referencing four-time Olympic medalist Yevgeny Plushenko of Russia. “But I lost, that is about it. To tell the truth, it is like death to me. I really want to win.

“When I was going through my rehabilitation, I watched the American Nationals where Nathan Chen was performing,” Hanyu continued. “I am a really competitive person, and I want to compete with a strong opponent. I respect Nathan in this sense. Now I will have enough time until the next season, and I will try not to get injured and do my best to get stronger.”

Vincent Zhou performed to the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon soundtrack, skating first in the final flight of skaters. He was called for two under-rotations — on his quad toe and the triple flip in his triple Lutz, Euler, triple flip combination — to score a season’s best free skate (186.99) and a season’s best total score (281.16). Zhou had his best-ever World Championships finish, claiming the bronze medal.

“I had a good Nationals and Four Continents and used the momentum to build and build, and finally, I was able to put out two great performances in the same competition, here at Worlds,” Zhou said. “I really couldn’t be happier to do what I did here.”

The last time the U.S. put two men on a World Championship podium was 1996, when Todd Eldredge won gold and Rudy Galindo claimed the bronze in Edmonton, Canada.

The third U.S. man in the field, Jason Brown, fell from second after the short program to ninth overall with a 157.34 point free skate and a total overall score of 254.15 points. He skated to a Simon & Garfunkel medley.

For Brown, skating last and closing out the competition was a little less familiar from a logistics standpoint, he said in the post-short program press conference. Once he found out the draw, he texted coaches Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson to figure out how it would work — as he shares those coaches with Hanyu.

“I feel great, it is not the performance that I had wanted, but I am so proud of the fight that I put out there, the growth that I made this year,” Brown said. “Also I am so proud at my teammates. It feels amazing to perform here, I love the Japanese crowd, I love the feeling of performing out on that ice, especially in Japan.”

Full results are here.

Shoma Uno, January’s Four Continents gold medalist, likely buckled under the immense pressure of a home World Championships. He stepped out of both of his first two quad jumps in his program, both of which were called under-rotated. He managed 178.92 points in his Moonlight Sonata free skate for a total overall score of 270.32 points. His medal streak (silver 2017-18) snapped in Saitama and he finished in fourth place.

“I really admire Yuzuru Hanyu who always seeks for high scores and good results, which made me realize I am still immature,” Uno said. “Overall I am still disappointed in myself. I need to become mentally much stronger. I want to skate better next year so that when I look back this World in the future, this would be a good lesson for my skating career.”

MORE: How to watch the World Figure Skating Championships | Sui Wenjing, Han Cong recapture world pair titleAlina Zagitova wins first world title | Papadakis, Cizeron win fourth world title; Hubbell, Donohue land on podium

As a reminder, you can watch the world championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating 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.

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Nathan Chen on his way to defending World Championship title, Jason Brown in silver medal position

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Nathan Chen set up his World Championship title defense well, sitting in first place after the short program on Thursday in Saitama, Japan.

“That was fun,” his coach Rafael Arutunian told Chen in a hug as he walked off the ice.

Chen opened with a triple Axel, hung onto the landing of his quadruple Lutz, and ended with a quad toe, triple toe combination. He scored a season’s best 107.40 points to lead the field by a whopping 10.59 points.

“I’m very happy with my short program today,” Chen said in a press conference. “There’s always things that I can do better. Everything that I did, I did as best as I could. I hope to continue that into the long program.”

Chen is looking to become the first U.S. man to win back-to-back World titles since Scott Hamilton did so four times, from 1981-1984. Only six American men have won multiple World Championships. Chen is currently juggling school and skating, and his spending his spring break from Yale University at worlds.

In second place after the short program, Jason Brown also scored a season’s best 96.81. He opened with a triple flip, then a triple Axel, and a triple Lutz, triple toe combination to be in medal contention.

“I’m super pleased with today’s performance,” Brown said. “I’ve been working really hard this season building my consistency with my coaches.”

In a surprise finish, neither of Japan’s home favorites are in gold medal position after the short program — though they are within striking distance.

In his first competition since his November injury, two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu scored 94.87 points and is in third place. Hanyu turned his planned quad Salchow into a double but recovered to cleanly execute his triple Axel. His quad toe, triple toe combination was also called clean.

Saitama, Japan is the site of his first World Championship title from 2014 and this year he is vying for his third world title. Ahead of the start of this season, Brown moved to Toronto to train under Brian Orser, where Hanyu also trains. Brown added in the press conference that Hanyu has pushed him daily to be a better skater, while Hanyu returned the compliment and said Brown has inspired him, too.

“I’m basically very disappointed with my short program,” Hanyu said through an interpreter during the press conference. “I made a very big mistake. I aim to reflect back and figure out what I can do better for my free skate. I will look at everything I can do to improve upon my performance.”

Hanyu also said that he hopes to continue to compete against Chen — this is their first meeting since PyeongChang.

Hanyu and countryman Shoma Uno are skating on home ice in Japan, showing off the country’s depth of skating.

Uno, meanwhile, skated to “Stairway to Heaven” and fell on his opening quad flip attempt. He pulled off a subsequent quad toe, double toe combination (though it was a planned quad-triple) and triple Axel through the remainder of the program.

Fresh off his first major victory at the Four Continents championships in February, Uno scored 91.40 points and is currently in sixth place.

Full results are here.

Last months’ bronze medalist at Four Continents, Vincent Zhou, skated two quads in the short program and scored 94.17 points. The third U.S. man in the field had a clean quad Lutz, triple toe combination but his quad Salchow was called under-rotated, something he’s struggled with all season. He is in fourth place ahead of the men’s free skate on Saturday.

Two-time world bronze medalist Jin Boyang earned 84.26 points in the short program and is in ninth. He finished in 19th at last year’s championships following a fourth place in PyeongChang.

Canada’s Keegan Messing, who qualified for December’s Grand Prix Final, fell on his opening quad toe attempt. He didn’t add a combination to his triple Axel or triple Lutz but earned 82.38 and is in 13th place.

The rhythm dance gets underway on Thursday at 11 p.m. ET.

MORE: How to watch the World Figure Skating Championships | Sui Wenjing, Han Cong recapture world pair title | Alina Zagitova leads after ladies’ short program

As a reminder, you can watch the world championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating 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.

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