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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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Who are Japan’s most visible athletes ahead of Tokyo Olympics?

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No surprise, Yuzuru Hanyu garnered the most major TV coverage of any Japanese athlete in 2018.

Nihon Monitor, a media research and analysis company in Japan, reported that the double Olympic champion figure skater received 186 hours, 26 minutes of TV time last year among six major domestic networks.

Other PyeongChang Olympic medalists made the list: figure skater Shoma Uno (fourth, 94 hours) and speed skaters Nao Kodaira (fifth, 87 hours) and Miho Takagi (sixth, 85 hours).

The only athlete in the top eight with Tokyo Olympic hopes was tennis player Naomi Osaka, who ranked third with 118 hours, one spot behind Los Angeles Angels phenom Shohei Ohtani (177 hours).

Three soccer players and yokozuna Hakuhō Shō rounded out the top 10.

Osaka, a 21-year-old born in Osaka to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, has lived in the U.S. since age 3. She won the U.S. Open in September in a memorable final with Serena Williams. She captured the next Grand Slam, the Australian Open in January, to become world No. 1.

“Every time the Japanese press is at a tournament they always talk about the Tokyo Olympics,” Osaka said in June, according to the Times of London.

Osaka just missed the 2016 Rio Games. She was 87th in the world on the rankings cutoff date. The lowest-ranked player to make the Olympic women’s singles field — outside of continental/tripartite/host country representation — was No. 86. Osaka could have been ineligible anyway because she had yet to compete for Japan in Fed Cup.

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Nathan Chen, Alina Zagitova among the top takeaways for the figure skating season

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A baker’s dozen takeaways, with some looks to the future, from the 2018-19 figure skating season, which ended Saturday in Japan with the United States winning the World Team Trophy.

1. It’s time to give Russia’s Alina Zagitova full – and massive – credit for what she has done the past two seasons.

Zagitova and her coaching team were unfairly criticized in some quarters for what turned out to be a brilliant strategy of doing all seven jumping passes in the second half bonus area of the 2018 Olympic free skate. Not only was that an impressive feat of stamina, the bonus points Zagitova got for those jumps were the difference between her winning gold and getting silver.

When a Zagitova worn down by a post-Olympic whirl of appearances flopped to fifth in the 2018 World Championships, staggered to fifth at this season’s Russian Championships and was beaten at Europeans, there were suggestions she might be a one-hit wonder. Then, as she later said in an interview on the Russian Skating Federation website, Zagitova became so unsettled by the pressure and the thought of failure at worlds her jumps deserted her in practice, and she had thoughts of quitting.

Some of her struggles were not unexpected. She had grown some three inches since the Olympics. Her body proportions were changing from those of a girl to those of a young woman. New rules minimized one of her strengths by limited skaters to just three jumping passes in the bonus area.

And Zagitova overcame all that, the psychological and the physical issues and the scoring changes, to win the 2019 worlds with two clean programs, a dazzling short and a strong, commanding free. At 16, she had added a world title to her Olympic title. That is worthy of unqualified acclaim.

2. Nathan Chen had a remarkable season, even if judged only by what he did on the ice.

When one puts his undefeated record in the context of having done it while simultaneously being a full-time freshman student at Yale University whose coach was 3,000 miles away, Chen’s was a season for the ages.

Chen was lights out in winning a third straight U.S. title. Then, he was even better in winning a second straight world title, this one more significant because two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan was in the field.

Chen has not yet decided – or perhaps just not yet announced – whether he will be a full-time student again next season, although there doesn’t seem any reason to mess with success given there are two more seasons before the next Olympics.

If Yale allows him three straight semesters off – and the University already has been very accommodating of his travel schedule and his need for ice time on the Yale rink – it would make more sense for him to take an academic leave beginning with the second half of the 2020-21 season and academic year and going through the 2022 Winter Games.

3. Vincent Zhou of the U.S. no longer is just that guy who goes from jump to jump (while collecting under-rotation marks.)

Zhou’s improvement in the last two months of the season was tremendous. He went on from a bronze medal at worlds to do two terrific skates at the World Team Trophy, his free skate a seamless, compelling performance and an athletic tour de force. The under-rotation calls were disappearing.

Doing three quads at World Team Trophy instead of his usual four seemed to give Zhou the time to breathe and create an entertaining impression. Maybe he should keep thinking less is more.

4. The changes in the scoring system had a small mathematical effect on their goal of rebalancing athletic (TES) and artistic (loosely, PCS) scores in singles free skates, especially among the men.

This is tricky to calculate, because the drops in value of the highest scoring jumps were offset by the possibility of higher (and lower) Grades of Execution when the range was expanded from +3/-3 to +5/-5. And the limiting of free skate bonus area jumping passes lowered potential TES scores.

At the 2017 worlds, each of the top four men in the free (Hanyu and Shoma Uno of Japan, Boyang Jin of China, and Chen) had significantly higher TES scores, with none getting more than 44 percent of the total from PCS.

At the 2019 worlds, the top four men in the free did get a higher percentage of their total from PCS, even if the difference was insignificant for winner Chen (43.8 to 43.9). The others: Hanyu, 46.5; Vincent Zhou, 46.7; Uno, 49.8 (Uno’s TES scores were dramatically affected by two downgraded quads).

The women’s scores shifted in the opposite way. At the 2017 worlds and 2018 Olympics, six of the top eight in the free had higher TES. This season, it was seven of the top eight (only fifth-place Kaori Sakamato of Japan had a higher PCS, and it was a minimal difference of less than one percent). Japan’s Rika Kihira, second in the free, had a TES score nearly 12 points higher than her PCS, accounting for 54 percent of her total, even though she fell on a triple Axel.

Given the concurrent rise of PCS scores, almost across the board, it would have seemed the change in score percentages might have been more dramatic.

5. Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron could take the next two seasons off and return to waltz to the 2022 Olympic gold.

The French ice dancers have a greater gap on their competition than any team in the 15-season history of the IJS. They won the 2019 world title by 10.89 points, a margin topped only by their 10.96 of a year ago, when reigning Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada skipped worlds.

In the 13 previous seasons, no team had won by more than 5.95 (Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov of Russia in 2005).

Ice dance had been blessed with compelling rivalries from 2010 through 2018: Virtue/Moir vs. Papadakis/Cizeron, Virtue/Moir vs. Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S. Now the French are unrivalled, competing only against themselves and abstract ideas of brilliance. So far, they haven’t been slowed down by having to play a solo game of “Can you top this?”

6. The most anticipated figure skating event in the United States next season is the Aug. 28-31 Junior Grand Prix stop in Lake Placid, N.Y.

That is where reigning U.S. senior champion Alysa Liu, 13 (until Aug. 8) and ineligible for senior international competition until the 2021-22 season, will likely debut in a consequential junior international junior event. (She could be in a lesser event before that.) Liu, who hit three triple Axels at nationals, may have added a quad by Lake Placid. She tried two unsuccessfully in last season’s U.S. Regionals.

7. The quad wave is about to sweep into senior women’s competition.

Russians Anna Shcherbakova (quad Lutz) and Alexandra Trusova (quad Lutz, quad toe, quad Salchow) who finished 1-2 in seniors at this season’s Russian Championships and 2-1 at the World Junior Championships, are the headliners. They join Kazakh Elizabet Tursynbaeva, whose quad Salchow at worlds made her the first woman to land a quad in a senior event.

8. Ting Cui, 16, looks ready to take one of the two U.S. singles spots at next year’s senior worlds.

Cui, 2019 junior world bronze medalist and fifth at senior nationals (third in the free skate), has a good chance to bump either Mariah Bell or Bradie Tennell, more likely the former. Bell has finished an unremarkable ninth, 12th, and 12th in the last three worlds. After underwhelming performances much of this season, 2018 U.S. champion Tennell (seventh and sixth) in the last two worlds, ended with the best free skate of her career at the World Team Trophy.

9. Rika Kihira rose and fell (literally) on the success of her triple Axel.

The jump carried her past Zagitova to win the Grand Prix title. Then it cost her a chance at the world title after Kihira popped (singled) the jump in the short program.

Kihira’s season triple Axel tally, in ISU or national championship events: 13 clean in 23 attempts (56.5 percent), with five falls, three pops, one downgrade and one double.

10. Yevgenia Medvedeva showed she deserved her spot at worlds. So did Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, who did not get one.

Sofia Samodurova’s surprising win at the European Championships and the illness that sidelined Tuktamysheva at her nationals left the Russian federation in a quandary.

They couldn’t keep the European champion off the team. And they wanted to include Medvedeva, no matter that she had struggled – but slowly improved – all season after leaving Russia to train in Canada with Brian Orser. And hadn’t Tuktamysheva been an also-ran for the three seasons after her 2015 world title, no matter that she won two Grand Prix events and a bronze at the Grand Prix Final this season?

Medvedeva skated well enough at worlds to win a bronze medal when Kihira and Sakamoto made big mistakes.

Tuktamysheva went to the World Team Trophy and was outstanding in winning the free skate and finishing second in the short program. She did a massive, effortless triple Axel in each program, having regained full command of a jump she added to her arsenal in 2015 but could not land cleanly the next three seasons.

Beyond that, Tuktamysheva at age 22 became a presence: she developed a funny, outgoing persona on social media, pushed the limits with a sexy “striptease” in her exhibition program – and accepted her worlds snub with grace.

11. It’s great that French pair Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres have decided to keep competing.

They began 2018-19 uncertain about their future beyond the season, then reached heights they never imagined possible a few years ago, coming into worlds as the undefeated European and Grand Prix Final champions. That worlds was their one poor competition of the season, leaving them fifth, undoubtedly was a motivation to continue.

James and Cipres finished with a stunning free skate at World Team Trophy, showing flawless unison on their big tricks.

It would be a real treat to see what the judges do if they and the sparkling Chinese world champions, Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, both skate cleanly in the same competition next season.

12. Canada went without a world medal for the first time since 2004**.

Its best finish at the 2019 worlds was fifth in dance.

Its top woman’s singles finish, 11th by Gabrielle Daleman, was the lowest since Alaine Chartrand was 11th in 2015. And, according to Skate Canada, its top men’s finish, 15th by Keegan Messing, was its lowest ever (the previous low was 13th by Kevin Pockar in 1979.)

So why the asterisks**?

The gold and bronze medalists in ice dance, from France and the USA, are coached by Canadians Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon in Montreal.

Montreal is also the site of the 2020 worlds, but Canada’s medal chances don’t look much better even on home ice. It earned just one 2020 worlds spot in men’s singles and barely got two in women’s singles.

13. Yuzuru Hanyu’s desire to push the technical envelope, admirable as it is, may shorten one of the greatest careers in the history of skating.

The Japanese superstar was out of competition for three months in both the last two seasons, missing two Grand Prix Finals and Japanese Championships, after injuring his right ankle while attempting quad Lutz (November 2017) and quad loop jumps (November 2018).

He has done just one quad Lutz in a competition. Although he has had 10 clean quad loops in 18 attempts, according to skatingscores.com, Hanyu won the 2018 Olympics without that difficult edge jump.

After he finished second at the 2019 worlds, the Japanese Skating Federation announced Hanyu would need two to three months of treatment on the long-term ligament damage in his ankle. Getting the ligaments to heal completely will not be easy, especially should Hanyu choose to try to reach his stated goal of landing a quad Axel.

Hanyu means too much to the sport for him to risk his future on jumps he likely can still win without if the rest of his skating is flawless.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: Takeaways and top moments from the World Figure Skating Championships

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2018-19 figure skating season 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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