by Klaus-Reinhold Kany
The NHK Trophy is named after Japan’s only public media (especially TV) organization Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK) which has transmitted this skating competition for many years and is the main sponsor. This year, the Trophy is the last of the six Grand Prix. The site of this competition changes every year, similar to Skate America. This year it is held in the Olympic city of Sapporo, where it has been organized already in 1998, 2011 and 2016. Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido, the northernmost of the four big Japanese islands, and has a population of about 1.9 million. The distance to Tokyo by air is about 520 miles, The event is held in the Makomanai Ice Arena with 11,000 seats, which was built for the figure skating events and some ice hockey games of the Olympic Winter Games of 1972. Many spots for the Grand Prix Final are still open, and in all four categories top skaters are competing, therefore the tension is high and the event has been sold out for a long time.
In the men’s competition, Japan’s superstar and multi-millionaire Yuzuru Hanyu leads the field, especially after his excellent performance and victory at Skate Canada. Everything but a clear victory of the 2019 World silver medalist (behind Nathan Chen who has already two vicories) would be a big surprise. Several skaters have an eye on the two other medals: One of them is Jason Brown who was second at Skate America. Another silver medal would almost guarantee him a spot for the Final in Torino, Italy. Another medal candidate is Kevin Aymoz from France who won bronze in his home town of Grenoble.
Two skaters from Russia also have medal chances: The Cup of Russia surprise bronze medalist Makar Ignatov wants to capture a small chance to reach the Final in his first Grand Prix season. „Oldie“ Sergei Voronov reached the Final in 2018 and 2019, but was only sixth in France this year and seems not as strong any more. The second U.S. skater and reigning Junior World Champion Tomoki Hiwatashi was fifth in France and hopes to reach at least this position again in Sapporo. In good shape the two other Japanese skaters Sota Yamamoto and Koshiro Shimada also hope for good results, as well as the Israeli Alexei Bychenko. The two Canadians Conrad Orzel and Roman Sadovsky were not stable and consistent in their first Grand Prix, finishing only 11th and 10th and hope to be better this time.
In the ladies event, a battle between two Russian and one Japanese skaters for the victory may be expected. Alena Kostornaia from Russia won in France mainly because of her triple Axels, but also because of her excellent style. She beat the reigning World Champion Alina Zagitova there, but without Zagitova’s mistakes the race between these two may be close. Rika Kihira is the best jumper in Japan and also has the triple Axel in her repertoire – and she may have a bit of a home advantage in Sapporo. If everything runs normal, these three should win the medals and qualify for the Final all three. Outsider chances for a medal might have Eunsoo Lim from South Korea or the third Russian skater and reigning European champion Sofia Samodurova. The three U.S. skaters do not seem to be strong contenders for a medal. Starr Andrews might be better than Karen Chen and Meagan Wessenberg.
Four times World Champions Gabriella Papadakis & Guillaume Cizeron are the hot favorites in the ice dance competition after winning their home event in Grenoble in an outstanding way. They are chasing one world record in points after the other even if the ISU does not call them „World Record“. The other dance teams know that they can aim only for silver and bronze if everything remains normal. Charlene Guignard & Marco Fabbri from Italy will try to win silver after being third in France. The same is true for Alexandra Stepanova & Ivan Bukin from Russia, who had been second at Skate America. Both couples can hope to qualify for the Final together with the French team.
The other couples have only limited chances to win a medal. The rising British couple of Lilah Fear & Lewis Gibson, third in Canada nevertheless hope for a surprise. Another rising team is from the U.S.: Christina Carreira & Anthony Ponomarenko want to move forward and to come as close as possible to a medal. And a third team has become very strong lately: Shiyue Wang & Xinyi Lui from China were fourth at the Grand Prix in their home country. The only Japanese couple Misato Komatsubara & Tim Koleto withdrew from the NHK Trophy a week before the event. Koleto wrote that Komatsubara had a concussion in August and after the Cup of China some symptoms returned.
In the pairs competition there is also a highly favored team: The reigning World Champions Wenjing Sui & Cong Han from China are expected to win their second Grand Prix after being successful in China. If Kirsten Moore-Towers & Michael Marinaro from Canada take the silver medal, they would be happy because this would probably qualify them for the Final after being second at their first Grand Prix in Canada. But there are other strong teams: Anastasia Mishina & Aleksandr Galliamov, the reigning Junior World Champions from Russia, had won the Grand Prix in France and want to show that this was not a nine-day wonder.
The Italian pair of Nicole Della Monica & Matteo Guarise was not yet very good in their first Grand Prix in China after a long injury break in the summer, but they hope for more in their second Grand Prix. Two U.S. teams and former U.S. champions also want to show that their shape is going up and that they are candidates for another U.S. title in January: Alexa Scimeca Knierim & Chris Knierim were fourth at Skate Canada, Tarah Kayne & Danny O’Shea placed sixth at the Cup of China, but both teams have a lot of room for improvement.