Yevegenia Tarasova

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Alina Zagitova first after World Championship short program; drama in pairs’ short

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Gold medal favorite Rika Kihira of Japan dug herself into a hole with a popped triple Axel attempt at the World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan on Wednesday.

The Four Continents champion scored 70.90 points, good enough for seventh place headed into Friday’s free skate. She rallied to land her triple flip, triple toe combination and her triple Lutz.

Instead, it’s Olympic champion Alina Zagitova currently atop the leader board with 82.08 points. She opened her “Phantom of the Opera” program with a triple Lutz, triple loop combination and had a clean double Axel and triple flip. Despite being the reigning Olympic gold medalist, Zagitova has never won a world title on the senior level. She was fifth at last year’s World Championships.

The last time the two 16-year-olds met, at the Grand Prix Final in December, Kihira came away with the victory.

Japanese national champion Kaori Sakamoto sits in second with 76.86 points. She skated a clean program, opening with a triple flip, triple toe. She executed a double Axel and a triple loop to finish out the program.

“Today was my season’s best skate, so I feel that I was victorious over myself,” she told the International Skating Union.

Kazakhstan’s Elizabet Tursynbaeva is in third with 75.96 points, and expected to attempt a quadruple Salchow in the free skate. She trains with Zagitova in Moscow. No clean quad has been landed in senior ladies’ competition.

Two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva from Russia, the Olympic silver medalist, sits in fourth after a redemptive short program which scored 74.23.

“You owned that baby, you owned it,” new coach this season Tracy Wilson told Medvedeva as she exited the ice. Medvedeva’s coaching change, plus her up and down season, put her in doubt to even skate at the World Championships.

The Americans, Mariah Bell and Bradie Tennell, finished in sixth and 10th, respectively, after the short program. Bell has been 12th at the past two World Championships, and in her debut in 2018, Tennell finished sixth.

“Everything I have done this season has prepared me for this moment,” Bell said through U.S. Figure Skating. “I thought ‘I’ve done this so many times, it’s just one more time.’ I knew I could do it so I’m happy I got through it.”

Wednesday, Tennell was called for under-rotating the toe of her triple Lutz, triple toe combination.

One of the Americans’ biggest challenges will be to secure a third spot for next year’s world championships. To do so, their combined finishes need to add up to less than 13; for example, if Bell holds onto sixth and Tennell finished seventh.

Full results are here.

Overnight Wednesday, some high drama in the pairs’ short program. In the six-minute warmup, Vanessa James collided with Matteo Guarise, though both skaters appeared to be OK. Nicole Della Monica and Guarise finished the short program in eighth (67.29 points) and relatively unscathed, however gold medal favorites James and Morgan Cipres finished a shocking seventh. Cipres doubled a planned triple toe and James fell on the throw triple flip. They scored 68.67 points.

“We’ve had some hard situations but we always push through them,” James told Olympic Channel.

Guarise called it a “shock” and “distracting” in a post-skate interview.

Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov sit in first place with 81.21 points after a short program with no major mistakes. Olympic silver medalists Sui Wenjing and Han Cong from China skated cleanly as well, finishing in second place with 79.24 points. The second Chinese pair in the field, Peng Cheng and Yang Jin, are currently third with 75.51 points.

The lone American pair, Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, scored 66.93 for ninth place ahead of the free skate. Cain fell on their side-by-side triple loops. Their top priority is to finish the championships within the top 10 to ensure two U.S. quota spots at the 2020 World Championships.

“We’ve trained really consistently coming into this competition and this was just a fluke mistake where I was too far forward,” Cain said. “I was happy with how I recovered, but as an athlete I was upset with myself and want to do better tomorrow.

MORE: Schedule/How to watch | Ladies’ preview | Pairs’ preview

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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World Championships pairs’ preview: Can Vanessa James, Morgan Cipres cement their undefeated season with a win?

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Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres of France are coming to the 2019 World Championships with plenty of momentum. They won their first Grand Prix Final title in December and became the first French team since 1932 to win gold at the European Championships in January. 1932 was also the last time a French pair won the world title.

They’re the favorites at the World Championships in Saitama, Japan from March 18-24. But they’ll still have to battle 2017 World Champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China as well as two-time world medalists Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov of Russia if they want to stand atop the podium.

Here is a closer look at the field:

Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres, France

Credentials: Grand Prix Final champions, European champions, fifth in PyeongChang, 2018 world bronze medalists

James and Cipres own the highest three free skate scores of the season and the two highest total scores of the season. Their free skate point gap over the Russians, Tarasova and Morozov, is around 5 points. They are the overwhelming favorites outside of the 2017 World Champions, Sui and Han of China. But unlike the other podium threat teams, they’ve never vied for a world title before, and the pressure to deliver could be a factor for James and Cipres.

Worth noting: The pair told NBCSports.com/figure-skating they would have retired had they won an Olympic medal, but now they want to keep going and take things one season at a time.

Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, China

Credentials: Olympic silver medalists, 2017 world champions plus two-time worlds silver medalists

Sui and Han’s first full competition of the season was last month’s Four Continents. Despite winning, they were not clean in the short program or the free skate.

Worth noting: Reports have also surfaced that neither Sui nor Han is 100 percent. Sui hasn’t made a full recovery from her foot injury, and was injured again during an exhibition in North Korea in February.

Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, Russia

Credentials: Two-time world medalists (bronze, 2017; silver, 2018), two-time European champions, fourth in PyeongChang plus won silver in the team event as Olympic Athletes from Russia

Two gold medals on the Grand Prix circuit, plus a bronze in the Grand Prix Final have set up Tarasova and Morozov well for the second half of the season. They had a messy free skate in the Final but improved by Russian nationals, which they won. They earned a silver at European championships after Tarasova downgraded her triple toes in both the short and the free.

Worth noting: They changed their short program after Russian nationals. The pair was previously skating to James Brown’s “I Got You” but now skate to music by Rachmaninov, the same program they used during Olympic season.

The American outlook:

Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc are the lone U.S. representatives in the field. Their main task in Saitama is to finish inside the top 10, which would guarantee two pairs quota spots for the U.S. at the 2020 World Championships. The newly-crowned national champions told NBCSports.com/figure-skating that this has been their goal all along this season, and they feel ready to do so, despite Cain’s December concussion.

Honorable mention: The other Chinese team in the field has done well this season. Peng Cheng and Jin Yang were the 2019 Four Continents bronze medalists and won the silver medal at the Grand Prix Final.

Canada’s Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro are also a team to watch, as they were silver medalists behind Sui and Han at Four Continents by just 0.06 points.

Two other teams in the field also competed at the Grand Prix Final: Italy’s Nicole Della Monica and Matteo Guarise and Russia’s Natalya Zabiyako and Aleksandr Enbert.

MORE: How to watch the World Figure Skating ChampionshipsLadies’ preview | Pairs’ preview | Men’s Preview

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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Olympic pairs’ champs crush world record for world title; U.S. struggles

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Germans Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot added a world title to their Olympic gold with a world-record score, while U.S. pairs’ struggles continued with the Americans’ lowest-ever results at a world championships.

Savchenko and Massot broke the longest-standing record total in figure skating, extending their lead from Wednesday’s short program to win by 20.31 points over Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov.

“It was exactly the season that we wanted,” Massot said. “We reached our goal today.”

Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres took bronze, France’s second Olympic or world pairs medal in 86 years.

Full results are here.

Savchenko and Massot’s free skate — the first to eclipse 160 points under the current judging system — included a side-by-side triple Salchow-double toe loop-double toe loop combination and a throw triple flip and throw triple Salchow.

Their total score — 245.84 points — shattered 2014 Olympic champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov‘s record of 237.71 set at 2013 Skate America. Their winning margin also broke Volosozhar and Trankov’s record for an Olympics or world championships under the 14-year-old points system.

Savchenko earned her 11th world medal — tying the female record held by Norwegian singles legend Sonja Henie — and sixth world title — tying Soviet Alexander Zaitsev for second on the all-time pairs’ list, four behind Irina Rodnina.

This was the French-born Massot’s first world title. Savchenko’s previous five world titles came with now-retired Robin Szolkowy.

Savchenko is 34, a five-time Olympian and the oldest pairs’ gold medalist in Winter Olympic history. The logical question — will she continue competing next season?

“Think about tomorrow,” she said, with Massot adding, “Ask again next week.”

The two U.S. pairs finished 15th and 17th, which means the U.S. drops to one pairs’ spot for the 2019 Worlds, its fewest since 1957.

U.S. champions Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim dropped from 11th after the short program to 15th of 16 pairs after the free skate. Scimeca fell on their death spiral and a throw triple flip, looked distraught skating off the ice and tweeted 10 minutes later, “I’m sorry for losing us a spot” and “Bad day to have a bad day.”

The Knierims made the top 10 in their four previous world championships appearances with a best finish of seventh.

The other U.S. pair, 2000 World junior singles silver medalist Deanna Stellato and 2014 Olympian Nathan Bartholomay, were 17th in Wednesday’s short program, missing the cutoff for the free skate by one spot.

It’s the first time all U.S. pairs finished outside the top 11 at a worlds, granted worlds didn’t regularly have a field greater than 15 pairs before 1990.

It came on the heels of the U.S. having its smallest pairs’ contingent — one pair — at an Olympics since the first Winter Games in 1924. The Knierims were 15th in PyeongChang, marking the first time the U.S. sent a pair to an Olympics and put none in the top 10.

The last U.S. pairs’ medal at worlds came in 2002, making this the nation’s longest drought in any figure skating discipline. The last Olympic medal was in 1988.

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