Russian National Championships from Jan. 4 - 7 at the Ice Palace in St. Petersburg, promises to be an exciting competition as the spots for the European and World teams are determined." />

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Skaters set to battle at Russian Nationals

National champions to be crowned

Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev.
Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev. (Wire Images)

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By Tatiana Flade, special to icenetwork.com
(01/03/2008) - The Russian National Championships from Jan. 4 - 7 at the Ice Palace in St. Petersburg, promises to be an exciting competition as the spots for the European and World teams are determined.

Russia can send two men and two ladies to 2008 European Championships, but only one person in the men's and ladies fields to 2008 World Championships. Additionally, they have three spots in dance and three in pairs for Europeans, and two in pairs for Worlds. The Russian Figure Skating Federation announced that the Russian Champion and silver medalist from Nationals will be assured a spot on the team.

In an attempt to motivate skaters to try harder elements, the Russian Skating Federation will award bonus points for quads and certain triple-triple combinations in singles events at Nationals.

The Men

The most open event will be the Men's competition with five skaters who are all approximately at the same level, and each of which can become the Russian champion. Defending champion Andrei Griazev was sidelined by an injury earlier this year, but then surprisingly claimed the bronze medal at the Cup of Russia. He finished seventh a week later at the NHK Trophy.

"I hope everything will go well at Nationals, like it did last year and that I'll travel to the European and World Championships. I think there is a big difference between this and last season as I feel my strength now," Griazev said.

Sergei Voronov left an excellent impression at his only Grand Prix event, the Trophee Eric Bompard, where he took the silver. The reigning world junior bronze medalist battled an ankle injury this fall and withdrew from Skate Canada. He still wasn't able to do a triple Lutz or flip in Paris, but he seems to have recovered. At a local competition in St. Petersburg in December, Voronov not only landed a quad toe but also finished ahead of two of his main rivals, Andrei Lutai and Sergei Dobrin.

"I definitely want to do the quad at Nationals," Voronov announced.

Lutai earned the silver medal at Nationals last year, and finished a strong fifth at his debut at the European Championships in 2007; but he hasn't yet skated his best this season. He placed seventh and ninth at his two Grand Prix events (Skate America and Cup of Russia).

"I have big goals set for myself for this season," Lutai said. "I have to win Nationals and go from there. Since this season, I include the quad in the short program."

Dobrin, the two-time reigning national bronze medalist, switched coaches this summer and moved from Moscow to St. Petersburg. He is now coached by Alexei Mishin.

"Each competition is a certain step for me. Right now it's not my job to compete against someone else. My job now is to show what I can do at this time," said Dobrin.

After missing Nationals last year due to illness, Alexander Uspenski showed progress this season, he improved his consistency and landed the quad toe for the first time in competition. He was ranked fifth at the Cup of China, and seventh at the Cup of Russia.

"My goal for this season is to perform the maximum of my elements that I planned for my programs. I think it's not right to aim for a certain placement. The placement is the job of the judges," Uspenski pointed out.

Konstantin Menshov is the dark horse in the men's race. He has landed quads in competition, but is still battling inconsistency.

Some other skaters to watch include the talented Artur Gatchinski, who is competing at the international junior level, and is not yet age eligible for senior championships. Alexander Uspenki's younger brother Vladimir, and Ivan Tretiakov. Artem Borodulin, who competed successfully at the Junior Grand Prix, but then withdrew from the Junior Final after breaking his ankle in November, is listed but unlikely to compete. Eighteen men have been entered for the competition.

Ice Dancing

There won't be much competition for the gold in ice dancing at Russian Nationals. After Grand Prix champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin withdrew from Nationals due to his meniscus surgery, Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski are the clear favorites. The couple medaled in both their Grand Prix events, were fifth in the Grand Prix Final in Torino, and drew a lot of attention with their exciting free dance to "Night on Bald Mountain".

"Our goal for this season was to change our style and to work on the technique, of course. We wanted to do something different to set ourselves apart. The free dance was an idea of our coaches, and we liked it a lot immediately. I think it was the right choice," Khokhlova commented.

The battle for the silver and the bronze will be tough. Reigning world junior champions Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev left a good impression in their debut on the senior Grand Prix, coming in fourth and fifth at their two events. Ekaterina Rubleva and Ivan Shefer were the bronze medalists at Nationals last year, and were ranked 12th at Europeans. There are two new couples who look promising: former world junior champion Alexander Gratchev teamed up with Anastasia Platonova. Platonova's former partner, Andrei Maksimishin is now competing with 2006 world junior silver medalist Natalia Mikhailova. Overall, ten couples are entered for the competition.

Despite Domnina and Shabalin not competing in this event, Shabalin is expected to come back to the ice on Jan. 6, Coach Alexei Gorshkov told icenetwork.com. Shabalin was released from hospital and is recovering well.

The Pairs

The pairs event will focus on the duel between the current top teams Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov and Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov. Both medaled in the Grand Prix, but it was Kawaguchi and Smirnov who edged out the reigning national champions Mukhortov and Trankov at the Cup of Russia to advance to the Grand Prix Final. Both couples are rather equal, and it will come down to the performance of the day. Mukhortova and Trankov are the more elegant team, and include two different side by side triples in their routine. Kawaguchi and Smirnov have a quad throw Salchow in their arsenal, but have yet to land a clean one in competition.

"Our goal is to do our job, to do what we can do and to do it consistently," Mukhortova said. "We don't have a certain goal regarding placements", her partner added. "We did the triple Salchow as juniors, but then we didn't do it for a long time, and now we brought it back. We worked a lot on our off-ice physical preparation. We did some special exercises for figure skating and did a lot of ballet and gymnastic training. I think we became more artistic and more flexible," Trankov continued.

Kawaguchi, on the other hand set clear goals for herself and partner Smirnov: "We want to fight for a podium placement at Europeans and Worlds."

With Julia Obertas and Sergei Slavnov taking the season off, the third medal most likely will go to one of the young teams. Vera Bazarova and Juri Larionov not only competed successfully on the junior circuit this season and won the Junior Final, but also were bronze medalists at Skate America. This team looks very promising. However, 14-year-old Bazarova is too young to compete at European and World Championships.

The other top junior team, Ksenia Krasilnikova and Konstantin Bezmaternykh, who were ranked second at the Junior Final, would be age-eligible for senior championships. Arina Ushakova and Sergei Karev and Elena Efaieva and Sergei Rosliakov have a shot at the podium, and at a trip to Europeans as well. Efaieva was a bronze medalist at Nationals last year with former partner Alexei Menshikov, who retired from skating this summer. Originally the new Russian-French couple of Valeria Vorobieva and Jerome Blanchard wanted to compete at Nationals, but apparently the Russian Figure Skating Federation decided not to let them participate, because they don't want to provoke the French Skating Federation. The French haven't yet released Blanchard.

The Ladies

The Ladies are currently the weakest spot of Russian skating, and the outcome of Nationals is completely unpredictable. Reigning national champion Ksenia Doronina didn't skate well this season, and was pulled from the Cup of Russia. The same happened to national silver medalist Alexandra Ievleva after her seventh place performance at Skate America.

Katarina Gerboldt has improved her consistency, and is a medal contender at Nationals. Nina Petushkova, who surprisingly finished sixth at the Cup of Russia, is also a threat. However, both girls need still to work on their presentation and their non-jump elements. Maybe one of the junior ladies such as Alena Leonova and Margarita Tertytchnaia will make a breakthrough at Nationals. Additionally, Lilia Biktagirova, a former two-time national bronze medalist, is hoping for a comeback.

"I'm admitting it openly, the Ladies are our weakest discipline right now," Federation President Valentin Piseev said. "We have some promising young skaters such as Polina Shelepen and Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, and we hope to build them up for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sotchi."

Nobody seems to be able to fill for now the gap left by Irina Slutskaya, Elena Sokolova, Maria Butyrskaya and the other top Russian ladies of the past ten years. Tuktamysheva has been entered as one of the 15 competitors although the now 11-year-old isn't even age eligible yet for international junior competitions.

Arina Martynova, one of the top contenders in the Ladies event at Russian Nationals withdrew Thursday, January 3, from the competition citing injury. According to her coach Marina Kudriavtseva, the skater has been experiencing pain in her foot for some time.

"Arina is still skating, but she can't jump right now. We don't know yet how long her recovery will take," Kudriavtseva told icenetwork.com.