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Dec 13, 2015

Grand Prix Final 2015: the Men

For the past few years, the men's discipline in figure skating has been steadily acquiring the enviable reputation of being a splatfest. Indeed, the past three Olympics have been generally disastrous for the men, multiple World Championships have been marred by mediocre performances making the podium, and much ink has been spilled on how the quest for the almighty quads have more often than not pushed the men into meltdown mode when the chips were on the table (or so to speak).

All this makes what happened tonight at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona all the more incredible. What was in the water in Barcelona? I don't know, but whatever it is, I hope it makes its way to Pyeongchang in 2018 so we can have a non-disastrous men's competition at the Olympics for once. The top four of this event had such amazing LPs tonight it was hard to believe they were mostly the same men who had imploded at various times at big events throughout the past few years. What a great night of skating, in both the quality of the performances delivered and the sheer difficulty of the programs. Indeed, it was probably one of the finest nights of men's skating in recent memory.

1) Yuzuru Hanyu
It's one thing to skate well and win. It's another thing to skate well after all your competitors have also skated well, and triumph over them nonetheless. This is what Yuzuru Hanyu did tonight--in all honesty, given the monstrous score he posted in the SP, he didn't even need to be perfect, he could've held back and still won by a comfortable margin. But Mr. Hanyu did as champions do and met the challenge posed by the competition head-on.

There's a certain kind of light-headedness you feel when you realize you're watching a truly great performance. It's that sense of wonder bought on when your mind comprehends that what you're watching is not someone who is very talented, or even great relative to their peers . . . instead, it's that sense of scales recalibrating in your head when you realize that your notion of excellence in sport, and your understanding of what an athlete is capable of, is smashed to smithereens and entirely transformed. I remember feeling that light-headedness while watching Mr. Hanyu skate at NHK Trophy two weeks ago, and though mightily impressed, the cynic in me wrote it off as a fluke. It just wasn't possible for someone capture lightning in a bottle twice and sustain that level of excellence . . . wasn't it?

Not for the first time, I was forced to eat my words as I watched Yuzuru Hanyu at the Grand Prix Final this year. And for the second time in two weeks, I experienced a déjà vu moment as I watched those mind-boggingly difficult transitions, the huge, airy quads, the commanding footwork, the complex choreography, the power, flow, and speed across the ice, the record-obliterating scores. It wasn't until later when I realized the impetus behind that weird light-headed feeling of what the fuck did I just watch--it was just my brain finally comprehending that what Mr. Hanyu did at NHK was no fluke, and I was indeed watching someone to whom the normal rules do not apply.

330.43 points. And to think, just a few weeks ago, the 300 point barrier had not yet been breached, and it was considered very impressive to hit the 280s. Will Yuzuru Hanyu ever top that score? Will anyone ever top that anytime soon? I don't know. But what I do know is that people are already bestowing the "Greatest of All Time" epithet on Yuzuru Hanyu. And after what happened tonight, I'm starting to agree.

2) Javier Fernandez
Javier Fernandez repeated his silver-medal result at the Grand Prix Final from the year before, albeit with far better performances this year. Mr. Fernandez's SP to Malaguena has shades of Stephane Lambiel's Poeta at certain moments (not surprising given that they same the same choreographer, Antonio Najarro), and it is one of the best-choreographed programs of the year. Great maturity displayed throughout, and it's an excellent rebuttal to those who claim that Mr. Fernandez's range is solely limited to more comedic programs. Perhaps the judges were rather generous given the performance Mr. Fernandez gave at the Grand Prix Final, but he definitely deserved a solid second place in the short. And the Guys and Dolls LP--Mr. Fernandez gave the performance of his life and became only the second man to break the 200-point LP barrier (the first man being, of course, Yuzuru Hanyu). Highlights: the smooth as butter 4S-3T, the 3T out of nowhere, the jaunty choreographic sequence. In many ways, though, Guys and Dolls is a very typical Javier Fernandez program, from the rather on-the-nose pantomime (e.g. the "luck be a lady" section") to the general comedic tone of the program. But does it matter though? The audience and judges are clearly eating it up year after year, and Mr. Fernandez has enough charm and charisma to sell such programs effectively (as opposed to someone like, say, poor Han Yan, who sometimes looks like he's dying on the inside at times during such programs).

But can Mr. Fernandez ever challenge Yuzuru Hanyu? Given that Mr. Fernandez gave the LP performance of his life so far and still came up approximately 20 points short, maybe not anytime soon. But what he can do to close in on the gap is further improve his skating skills and work on his spin levels and GOEs (especially his camel and sit positions). Base value-wise, Mr. Fernandez is not too far off from Mr. Hanyu, especially when Mr. Fernandez will add the second quad to his SP (I'm assuming it'll be inevitable, given Mr. Fernandez's fantastic 4S). But Mr. Fernandez really trails Mr. Hanyu in terms of GOE, particularly on the spins--where Mr. Hanyu receives +2s and +3s on his various spins, Mr. Fernandez gets +1s and +2s instead (and let's face it, objectively, some of those +2s are the generous results of the World Champion bonus). Plus boosting all those Level 3 spins to Level 4s will also help make up the deficit as well.

3) Shoma Uno
As a recovering Daisuke Takahashi fanatic, it's only natural that I latch onto the skating of Daisuke Takahashi's most devoted acolyte: Shoma Uno. Mr. Uno, who has patterned himself after Mr. Takahashi in virtually every single way except for his hair, has proved himself a worthy heir apparent by winning a bronze at his very first Grand Prix Final. Mr. Uno's SP music is rather befuddling and quite difficult to skate to, but the brunt of my fannish gushing is reserved for Mr. Uno's Nessun Dorma LP, which was just . . . exhilarating to watch. The long, flowing edges. The elegance of his arms. The way the cantilever at the climax whipped the crowd to a frenzy, which did not abate until long after Mr. Uno finished his program. The fact that the exits off the jumps weren't even that swingy at all! And to think that Mr. Uno, whose 190.32 LP score stands as one of the highest LP totals ever achieved, was struggling to land a triple axel a couple years ago.

What is also remarkable is that Mr. Uno is still only 17 years old. This of course leads to the inevitable question: who was better at 17, Shoma Uno or Yuzuru Hanyu? In terms of jumps, I'd have to give the edge to Mr. Hanyu at 17. Although the jumps Mr. Uno uses in his programs are more difficult than Mr. Hanyu's at 17, the quality of Mr. Hanyu's jumps are superior, particularly in terms of landings and flow. Spins and footwork are negotiable. But I will say that Mr. Uno has better skating skills, quality of movement, polish, and stamina than Mr. Hanyu at his age. And look how far Mr. Hanyu has come, and how good Mr. Uno already is! All in all, Mr. Uno is a very special skater, and I will not be surprised if he is a World Champion one day.

4) Patrick Chan
Continuing on the pattern he set at Skate Canada this season, Mr. Chan skated a truly dismal short program with a popped quad and two invalidated elements to finish an inglorious last place after the short, a whopping thirteen points behind fifth-place finisher Daisuke Murakami and approximately forty points behind Yuzuru Hanyu. But Mr. Chan (again following the pattern he set at Skate Canada this season) redeemed himself with a very strong LP, albeit only with one quad. Nonetheless, Mr. Chan scored a very respectable 192.84 for his LP, coming in fourth place overall.

But the burning question is, can Mr. Chan catch Yuzuru Hanyu, or even keep up with the technical firepower of his non-Hanyu competitors? So far, Mr. Chan's GOE and PCS have been keeping him in the game despite the deficiencies in the base value of his jumps, but Mr. Hanyu has outpaced him in both categories, and Mr. Fernandez has beaten him in PCS at the Grand Prix Final already. And it's not surprising--though Mr. Chan's skating skills remain very strong, objectively, Mr. Chan has indeed watered down his programs in terms of transitions and choreography. This is true especially in the first minute of Mr. Chan's LP, which is relatively sparse in transitions and choreography between the big jumps. Of course, as both Maxim Trankov and Bruno Marcotte have candidly pointed out, the judges are more than willing to hand out PCS based on the choreography and transitions you had in the past, but watch Mr. Hanyu's and Mr. Chan's LPs back to back, and the difference is quite glaring (one might think that the judges will eventually notice, sooner or later). As for jumps, Mr. Chan has stated that he will add a second 3A or perhaps another quad to his LP--almost certainly a 4S--but is it enough? And can Mr. Chan increase his jump difficulty at his age while maintaining the quality of his components? I don't know, but it'll be exciting to see him trying--the sport is better for it.

In many ways, Mr. Chan is emblematic of how far the sport has come in the past five years. During the 2010 Grand Prix season, Mr. Chan set the technical standard among the men by having two 4Ts and one 3A in his LP. And five years later, Mr. Chan's two 4Ts and 1 3A LP is the least technically ambitious program at the 2015 Grand Prix Final. The level of men's skating has never been higher, and I for one am looking forward to what happens next.


  1. And it looks like Mr Hanyu didn't said last word yet as he is preparing quad loop to competition. Just landed monster one at gala end

    1. I have seen the 4Lo at the gala, and I will not be surprised if Mr. Hanyu attempts it in his competitive programs in about a year or so.

  2. Uno will be 18 in December 17th so I don't think he is as good as Hanyu at 17 years 3 months old when Hanyu won WC 2012.

    1. Hm, it's difficult to compare because the level of skating (and score inflation) has progressed so much since 2012. But I think it's safe to say that Mr. Uno's performances at GPF this year would have definitely made the podium at 2012 Worlds.

    2. Yes but Uno at GPF 2015 is 18 already. Not 17. If you want to count Uno at 17 years old then it's his performance at Junior World Championship when he lost 10 points in FS to Boyang Jin.

    3. Using his Jr. World Championship performance to support your (flawed) point while blatantly ignoring the very strong programs from JGPF or Japanese Nats 2014? Nope, not fooling anyone.

      Whether 17 or 18, morozombie's analysis remains spot-on. 18 y/o Yuzuru with Notre Dame de Paris still did not have this level of conviction in his performance or SS (not to mention stamina) although the jump quality back then remains superior to Shoma.

    4. I'm honestly not a big fan of pushing this "Hanyu - Uno rivalry".

      Yes, there are things in which Uno is better than Hanyu was (when the equivalent would be Hanyus 2012-13 season), but at the end what made Hanyu stand out so much is that he seemed to have unlimited potential, even if so much was missing at that point. With Uno, while I adore absolutely everything else about him, his jumps do scare me. He has improved so much in recent years, so you never know, but I still can't trust his jumps. And the things that Hanyu was missing - posture, quality of movement, polish - are the usual things you see younger skaters missing. But you know they can improve. I'm not so sure with this about Uno's missing qualities.

      And as a side note, I don't agree with the assessment of Uno having better skating skills than Hanyu in 2012-13. Having just seen Hanyu train in Barcelona live, his SS are even better outside of his technically loaded programs (I'd actually say his SS are on par with Chans). And that's pretty much what people have been saying since 2010. It wasn't so much a problem of not having the SS, but not having the stamina and strength to pull them off in competition. So if you're making that comparison as in "he might have more potential there/is further ahead in that regard" I'd have to disagree and say we just don't know. Shoma is definitely way ahead in stamina though, that ones a given.

    5. Oh no! It feels like being a fan of both Mao Asada and Yu-Na Kim in 2008 again and being forced to pick a side . . . !

      As other commenters have pointed out, it's a bit of a frivolous exercise comparing different skaters at certain ages, given that a skater's development is far from linear. For example, which 17-year-old Shoma Uno shall we use as a point of comparison, the one from earlier this year or the one in December? Mr. Uno himself has changed rapidly over the span of a year or so, after all. Yuzuru Hanyu himself made a quantum leap in terms of skill himself over the summer of 2011. Skaters improve at different rates, so I definitely agree that comparing skaters' stages of development at the age of 17 is totally cherry-picking (and thus has little bearing on true potential/legacy).

      But to fan the flames of fiery comparisons even further, in terms of sheer preference, I'd have to say that Romeo and Juliet 1.0 >>> Nessun Dorma >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Don Juan DeMarco >>> Notre Dame de Paris. Have at me, various commenters!

      Personally, I don't really care how good a skater is in practice, though I envy you for seeing Mr. Hanyu train in Barcelona live. If you can't do it in competition, it's not worth a hill of beans (or so to speak). And I do disagree with what you said about Yuzuru Hanyu's skating skills in 2010, as I think there was a BIG improvement in that regard under Brian Orser.

    6. Judging wise, of course you are right that what you can do in practices doesn't matter. But if you want to compare skaters with the question in mind who is going to be better in the future or has more potential, I think what one can do in practice is very much an important point. Scoring-wise and potential-wise are 2 different things for me (maybe I'm just making stuff to complicated!;) )

      And it wasn't about Hanyu's SS in 2010, but more in 2012 - I just meant that people already said Hanyu was so much better in practices back then. I think in those years, a lot of what he did in competitions was limited by his stamina, even aspects as SS or performance. Though I agree the biggest jump in SS came towards the 2013-14 season (though I think he has made another huge leap since then).

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  3. When I first saw Shoma Uno, I was like he is a "Mini-Daisuke!" :D I would say Shoma is a better performer than Hanyu. I kinda miss the wild abandon and passion of Hanyu from his days as Romeo. He is a much better skater and competitor now but artistically, he hasn't reached the level of Daisuke. Shoma has the potential.

    1. Absolutely Re: Shoma being a mini Daisuke. Plus, Dai is Shoma's #1 favorite skater. He is definitely on the path to reach Daisuke's level of artistry.

    2. That's exactly how I feel!

      I really wonder what it was that made Hanyu so special in those Romeo days. He wasn't really artistic, but there was so much passion and emotion coming out of his performance, that I felt I was just skating and going through all those emotions with him, which made me pleasantly exhausted whenever I watched him skate.

      Now Hanyu is a phenomenal athlete, while Shoma is an artist, just like Daisuke was. I'm a Shoma fanatic. I could watch him skate all day. He's fascinating to watch.


      I nominate myself the President.

    4. I'd be honored if I could become member number one!

    5. I don't agree that Hanyu has to be an "artist" like Daisuke. I don't get the idea that any skater has to be "on Daisuke's artistic level" to be considered an artist on ice. Each skater has their own destiny and their own style which they has to choose to follow and make some mark in the history.
      Personally I think Brian Jourbert contributed not much less than Lambiel or Daisuke in the history of figure skating, how can I not count him in, the quad king who landed more than 100 quads in competitions over the years of his longevity?
      There's always someway to leave your mark in the history, even Zayak did.
      Sorry for my rant, I am just kind of annoyed whenever people mention that this or that skater is not on a certain skater's artistic level. To me, athletic side should not be used to downgrade the impact of a sport even in a sport which people regard artistry as something superior.

    6. I just want to make clear that in my book, each skater should has their own style, I don't see the point of categorizng them into level, like Lambiel level of artistry or Daisuke level, that's silly to me. I love these skaters as they are, even if they only jump quad or only triples, they have their own way to stand out. In my book, Daisuke's artistry is not more superior than Jourbert's archivement with his quads. They are all important to the sport. So I don't get whenever a skater do well, they toss out the comment "not on ABC level of artistry yet".

    7. Yup,I'm on the Shoma Uno fanclub bandwagon, president morozombie.

    8. Nobody is saying that Hanyu has to be like Daisuke. Yuzuru has far more fans than Shoma, and I can understand that. Yuzuru will definitely go down in history as one of the greatest, maybe even as the best figure skater of all time.
      It's just a matter of taste. To each his own.

    9. Yuzu is my second favorite skater, by the way ;-)

    10. I never believe in the title "greatest of all time". To me they're all great and they all contribute something very important to the sport. I don't see Hanyu as greatest of all time but surely he is the most all rounded skater of this generation.
      I am just saying I never appreciate the idea of "ABC's artistic level". To me the word artistry has been abused too much and it has been taken for granted. I like Daisuke. To me he is one and only. I don't need copy. Same as Lambiel, Joubert, Plushenko... What make them stand out is that they're their own they don't have to skate like anyone to be remembered. They have their flaws and strength and they play to it. I value the variety of the field. Even Jason Brown is great to watch and I would never demand that he should improve to be able to reach "Daisuke's artistic level" or "Lambiel's artistic level" or Jeffrey.
      I like to see them as they're.

    11. @Hakkai

      Maybe I'm speaking for myself here, but I don't think anyone is saying that Yuzuru Hanyu must skate like Daisuke Takahashi (or anyone) to be considered a fine interpreter of music (sorry, I really hate the term "artistry" and its various connotations in figure skating). I think what people are saying is that they don't believe that Yuzuru Hanyu has displayed the same skill as Daisuke Takahashi in phrasing movement to music (i.e. interpretation).

      But you know what? I disagree with that assessment. I think that Yuzuru Hanyu has, in various programs, demonstrated a similarly high level of musical interpretation and understanding of musical nuance in his movements. Mr. Hanyu's way of doing so just different, not necessarily inferior. I would characterize the difference as similar to the difference between extroversion (Takahashi) vs. introversion (Hanyu). Hmmm, maybe I should write a post on this . . .

    12. Thank you for your kind words, I feel quite uncomfortable with the word "artistry" because to me there is no best or no worst "art". If you love it, then it's the best art. But to me true meaning of "art" is to enjoy the creativity with an open mind.
      After Radinova's free skate at Cup of Russia, I found myself singing to the lyrics and you know I hate Titanic. Even something so cheesy can move me with enough passion.

  4. In terms of competitiveness, Shoma Uno will be a very strong contender but I would love to see his own charisma more instead of being a mini-Daisuke Takahashi. As far as I am not a fan of Yuzuru Hanyu, at least he has had quite an expressive, tough and independent character since a very young age. IMO what makes Hanyu a success is not (only) his talent, but his monstrous (and weird) mental toughness and that unlimited eagerness to challenge. Uno will show more in the future in regards to his character and other strengths, right now I can see he is absolutely competitive among the seniors but will wait to find out more inside him.

    In terms of artistry, I believe there is no definite answer to it. While Takahashi has his own kind of artistry, other people can also have their own form of presentation of artistry. I might say some of the athletes are not my sweethearts but I can't judge them as "not an artist" when they just don't match my taste. It's difficult to say Pablo Picasso is an artist and Vincent van Gogh is not, or, saying that Picasso is the only artist in the world.

    Nonetheless one's development is not necessarily in a stable and proportional rate - no matter who's better at their 16/17/18/19, it hints little to the future who will be greater, given that the "veteran" Hanyu is still competing, just had his 21st birthday.

    1. I do agree that Yuzuru Hanyu's mental toughness is incredible. It's that killer instinct so many of the great champions of the sport had--Alexei Yagudin, Evgeni Plushenko, Michelle Kwan, Katarina Witt, etc. I really admire Mr. Hanyu's sheer tenacity and will to dominate, especially because I wish I possess those qualities in abundance (ok, maybe that's a bit TMI).

      I basically agree with everything else you wrote in your comment, by the way :)