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Thursday, December 8, 2011
Five things to watch at Grand Prix Final

By Meri-Jo Borzilleri

Compelling matchups highlight the 2011 Grand Prix Final in Quebec City, Canada, where the culmination of the season will give a glimpse of what's to come at world championships in the spring.

As for the U.S., next month's national championships are shaping up for suspense (who will be the ladies champion?), drama (will Evan Lysacek skate?) and a jump (will Brandon Mroz reprise his historic quad lutz?).

Until then, starting Friday, all skating eyes are on Canada.

Ice-dance throwdown. How else to describe the collision of the two best ice-dance teams on the planet, other than "too close to call?"

Charlie White and Meryl Davis (U.S) have won two Grand Prix events; Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue (Canada) have won two. This will be the first time this season they'll compete on the same ice -- if you don't count the fact they train at the same Michigan rink, and with the same coaches.

The razor's-edge comparisons don't end there. White and Davis are defending world champions; Moir and Virtue were second. Moir and Virtue won the 2010 Olympics; White and Davis won silver.

Look for this to come down to the free dance: Strauss' Die Fledermaus by White/Davis vs. Moir/Virtue's Funny Face (soundtrack from the 1950 movie starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn).

Waiting in the wings are the youngsters Alex and Maia Shibutani, in their first Grand Prix Final. They proved their world bronze last season was no fluke by winning gold and silver on the Grand Prix tour. They will free dance to selections from the movie musical Sun Valley Serenade.

Settle in and don't forget the popcorn.

Teen spirit. Fourteen-year-old Russian Elizaveta "Liza" Tuktamisheva is the best surprise of the Grand Prix season, and look for her to possibly win in her first senior Grand Prix Final.

In her senior Grand Prix season debut (she was the junior world and Grand Prix runner-up last season), all Tuktamisheva did was bolt out of the gate, winning two golds.

She is leading the charge of young Russians who may challenge Japan's dominance in ladies skating. She's got the whole package -- poise, triple-triples, charm, even some attitude. Plus, she's got incentive. Tuktamisheva is too young to compete at the world championships until 2013, so this could be considered her season's international highlight event.

Veterans renewed. Carolina Kostner and Alissa Czisny have breathed fresh life into their careers. Kostner, the world bronze medalist from Italy, won three Grand Prix medals this season and is brimming with confidence.

Czisny has won gold and bronze this year and is the defending Grand Prix champion, the first American to win it since Sasha Cohen in 2002.

She clearly has benefited from a coaching change (to Yuka Sato and her husband Jason Dungjen) before the 2010-11 season and an ambitious program with more triples in combination. Her short program is one of the best, but she has to stay on her feet for a chance at the podium.

Only five skaters will compete in the ladies division. Japan's Mao Asada, the two-time world champion, will not be skating. She withdrew late because her mother turned critically ill.

Where's the love? Patrick Chan set skating fans abuzz this week when he was quoted in The Toronto Globe & Mail that he's feeling "unappreciated" and underfunded by Canada and thinks he could get more of both if he skated for China. (Chan's parents were Hong Kong immigrants.)

Since then, Chan has clarified that he was only "daydreaming," about a better situation for his parents, who have had to make sacrifices for his career.

Either way, the timing couldn't be worse for a guy who will be skating in Canada, for Canada, and locked in a close duel with rival Daisuke Takahashi of Japan.

Chan is the reigning world champion, winning Grand Prix Canada and the Trophee Eric Bompard. Known for his choreography, Chan is the only man to win twice this season.

2010 world champion Takahashi, famed for his technical skills and complex programs, has won once. Jeremy Abbott represents the United States and has an outside shot at the podium. Watch out for Czech skater Michal Brezina and first-ever Spanish qualifier Javier Fernandez, both Grand Prix Finals rookies.

Pairs make for musical chairs. Three teams have won two golds each on the Grand Prix circuit. (Suffice to say none of them are Americans, who failed to qualify a pair for the final).

It's hard to figure who will snare the golden ring in Canada.

Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy are world champions and posted their season's best score of 208.69. Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia are world silver medalists and tallied 201.38 points.

A second Russian team, Yuko Kavaguti/Alexander Smirnov aren't far behind with 197.84 points.

Call it a toss-up. But don't discount China's Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang, who won two silver medals and are seasoned veterans. Up-and-comers Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran have a second- and fourth-place finish and the distinction of being the first pair team from Japan to make the GPF field.