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Savchenko, Szolkowy take over pairs top spot

Europeans create volatile week in world rankings

Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy's gold medal at Europeans made them the new No. 1 in icenetwork.com's world pairs rankings.
Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy's gold medal at Europeans made them the new No. 1 in icenetwork.com's world pairs rankings. (Getty Images)

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By Todd Hinckley
(01/30/2008) - Icenetwork.com's World Figure Skater Rankings had its busiest week in over a month, mostly thanks to the 2008 European Championships. Many of the world's best skaters were in action in Zagreb, Croatia. And when you add in the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Saint Paul, Minn., last week proved to be a volatile one in the polls.

Pairs

Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy continued their recent trend of brilliant skating, blowing away the competition at Europeans. They achieved a new personal-best total score, earning 202.39 points and taking the gold by almost 33 points. On top of it all, the Germans took over the top spot in icenetwork.com's pairs rankings, jumping past China's Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang, who had been No. 1 for roughly two-and-a-half months.

Savchenko and Szolkowy have not lost a competition since Zhang and Zhang beat them at the Cup of Russia in November. But the Germans won the rematch at the Grand Prix Final a month later. For now, Savchenko and Szolkowy seem to be the team to beat at worlds. If they can duplicate their performance from Europeans in Sweden, there are not many couples that could match their superior style. Zhang and Zhang will have their last chance to make their case at the Four Continents Championships in mid-February.

There was more movement in the standings behind the top two. The rest of the top finishers in Zagreb all moved up. Silver medalists Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov moved up two places to eighth overall. Bronze medalists Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov, who won gold over Mukhortova and Trankov at Russian nationals, are now seventh. The victims in the advancement of these Russian pairs were their teammates, Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov, who dropped to ninth this week. The young couple had a strong start to their first season at the senior level, winning bronze at Skate America, but they finished a disappointing sixth at nationals and did not make Russia's team for Europeans. Their best years on the international circuit seem to still be ahead of them.

Meanwhile, two American teams flip-flopped at Nos. 5 and 6, with Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker switching with Rena Inoue and John Baldwin after the former beat the latter at the U.S. Championships. The torch seems to have clearly been passed in U.S. pairs skating, although Inoue and Baldwin will have a chance to reclaim their spot since McLaughlin is still too young to skate at worlds.

Ice Dancing

There was no movement among the top eight in the ice dancing rankings last week, but that does not mean those teams were idle. Despite their fifth consecutive U.S. national title, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto's lead, which peaked at 140.61 points after their second gold medal of the season (at the Cup of China), has shrunk to 6.77 points.

Russia's Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin are the ones applying the most pressure. The Russians continued their hot run, winning gold at Europeans and showing that they are picking up after Shabalin's December meniscus surgery right where they left off. They won the GP Final right before he went under the knife.

Domnina and Shabalin have not lost in competition since taking silver behind Belbin and Agosto in China. That loss only happened because Shabalin made a mental mistake, accidentally picking Domnina up during a spin, causing them to receive a deduction for an extra lift in their program.

Their gold last week, however, came under some question, as some viewers felt that they were not the most deserving. The couple missed Russian nationals while Shabalin recovered from his surgery, and they seemed to come back lacking a bit of speed. With another month to rest though, they will be the favorites heading into the world championships, but it is really a race that is too close to call.

The gap is so tight between the world's best that the event in Sweden will be a crapshoot. Belbin and Agosto have held the top spot in the rankings all season, and they did win the U.S. title again last week, but their performance was not as dominant as some might have expected. Agosto had one stumble in their original dance, but the close outcome was due more to the strong performance put forth by their training mates, Meryl Davis and Charlie White. Davis and White earned their first national silver medal, but they remained No. 8 in icenetwork.com's rankings.

France's Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder won the compulsory and original dances at Europeans. Some believed that they probably should have won the gold. The couple did not show too much disappointment following the event; they simply know that they will get their rematch in a month and a half.

The race for the podium has included four teams all year, with the young Canadian champions, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, rounding out the group. But Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski were the talk of Zagreb after performing an outstanding free dance that was only lacking in the scores it received. Since finishing in a somewhat distant fifth place at the GP Final, the Russians won their first national title in Domnina and Shabalin's stead and earned bronze at Europeans. And their free dance showed the crowd in Zagreb that they hope to challenge for the podium in Gothenburg as well.

Italy's Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali and France's Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat remained in sixth and seventh, respectively, after their placement in Zagreb. Sinead Kerr and John Kerr did move up three places, to No. 9, after their sixth-place finish at Europeans. The British couple had some issues with scoring at their national championships earlier in January, but they had no such trouble last week, keeping pace with the top five teams and distancing themselves from their nearest pursuer. Their first placement in the top 10 at worlds should be just around the corner.