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.