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Men's No. 1 spot up for grabs in 2008-09

Joubert on top for now; Takahashi leads group of chasers

Brian Joubert is happy at No. 1, but he's got work to do to stay there.
Brian Joubert is happy at No. 1, but he's got work to do to stay there. (Getty Images)

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By Todd Hinckley
(10/17/2008) - Jeffrey Buttle surprised the figure skating world by winning the world title last March in Gothenburg, Sweden. Then, he surprised everyone again last month by retiring from competitive skating.

Two-time world champion Stéphane Lambiel won the Grand Prix Final last year and was hoping to win another world championship this season. He had been bothered by a persistent groin injury, though, and he announced his retirement this week.

With those two champions out of the running, the race for the world's top spot heated up as figure skating's best bunched up atop icenetwork.com's World Figure Skater Rankings. The top four are all veterans, while there are plenty of young stars who hope to crack into that group in this and other years to come.

Following his runner-up finish at the 2008 World Championships, Frenchman Brian Joubert reclaimed the No. 1 ranking. He had an up-and-down season in 2007-08 that was plagued by an unusual illness that sidelined him following his gold medal at Skate Canada. Joubert's free skate in Gothenburg showed that he could reclaim his world-championship form in 2007. Now fully healthy again, he is certainly a favorite for the top spot next March at the world championships in Los Angeles.

The main challenger for the No. 1 ranking is Japan's Daisuke Takahashi. His performance at Four Continents last season made him the favorite at worlds, but a subpar free skate kept him off the podium. If he can earn some level of consistency, he will be tough to keep off any podium.

With Lambiel's retirement, U.S. champion Evan Lysacek moved up to the third spot. The two-time world bronze medalist had hoped to return to the worlds podium last spring, but a fall during training caused an injury that forced him to withdraw. Lysacek's had a busy summer, but he is ready to regain his championship form.

Fellow American Johnny Weir is No. 4, and he is also striving for a place on the podium in Los Angeles. The reigning world bronze medalist had been training all summer with Lambiel at the Ice Vault in Wayne, N.J. Weir shouldn't be affected by the loss of his training partner. Instead, his focus is on Skate America, where he hopes to win his fourth Grand Prix event. Also, he will be squaring off with Lysacek for the first time since they tied at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Rounding out the top five is Canadian champion Patrick Chan. The 17-year-old struggled at his first world championship last spring, finishing ninth. But since Buttle's retirement, Chan has embraced the title of Canada's best hope for the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver. In the meantime, he hopes to add to his one Grand Prix gold a year ago.

European champion Tomas Verner of the Czech Republic is sixth in the rankings. Since his breakthrough in Zagreb, Croatia, Verner has not been at his best. He finished a disappointing 15th at worlds and has started slowly in 2008-09, finishing fourth and third at the Nebelhorn Trophy and at the Karl Shafer Memorial, respectively. He has yet to show the kind of form that will keep him this high in the rankings.

The newly married Kevin van der Perren of Belgium is No. 7. He hopes to capitalize on his strong performance in 2007-08, in which he made his first Grand Prix Final and finished a career-high sixth at worlds.

Young American Stephen Carriere is eighth after finishing his first season at the international senior level after winning the world junior title in 2007. He earned his first Grand Prix medal at the NHK Trophy and finished 10th at the world championships.

Russian champion Sergei Voronov is ninth. He won a silver medal at the Trophée Eric Bompard last year, his only 2007 Grand Prix appearance. With a full senior GP schedule this year, he hopes to move up even higher in the rankings and complete the rise to be the next Russian world champion.

Rounding out the top 10 is another young American, Adam Rippon. The 2008 world junior champion will be competing in his first senior-level international season. He's finally added the triple Axel to his repertoire, and he could make an even bigger splash on the senior scene than Carriere did last season.

Alban Préaubert, No. 11, defeated Joubert at the French Masters event last month. He struggled because of an injury for most of the 2008-09 season, so he may have shown that he's healthy and has the ability to climb up these rankings.

In 12th is another young skater on the rise, the Czech Republic's Michal Brezina, who has already won two golds on the Junior Grand Prix circuit this year. He defeated his countryman Verner at the past two Nebelhorn Trophies, winning a gold and silver. He is certainly the favorite now to win the world junior championship next March.

Veteran Sergei Davydov of Belarus is 13th. He will turn 30 next March before the world championships, and his best years could be behind him. With so much young talent, it's hard seeing him rise any higher than his current standing.

The third Frenchman on the list is Yannick Ponsero at No. 14. Ponsero celebrated his 22nd birthday last weekend by defeating Préaubert for gold at the Coupe de Nice, the last tune-up for both before the Grand Prix Series. Ponsero hopes to use this performance to get his season on the right track. He'll need more skates like that to improve on his 18th-place finish at worlds last March.

Japan's Takahiko Kozuka is sitting at No. 15. The 2006 world junior champion made his first senior world championship last year, and he cracked the top 10, placing eighth. He has not had the immediate success at the senior level that some other recent world junior champs have had, but his rise could come soon.

Brandon Mroz of the U.S. is 16th in the world. He was overshadowed by Rippon in the junior ranks last year. He even fell short of the podium at world juniors, finishing fourth for the second year in a row. He might struggle at first, but the potential is certainly there for him to rise in the polls.

Veteran Kristoffer Berntsson is 17th. The Swede had a disappointing Grand Prix Series last year, but he'll look to turn the tide this year. It doesn't look like he'll be able to get much higher in the rankings though.

The final American on the list is Jeremy Abbott at No. 18. He got to skate at worlds last year, thanks to Lysacek's injury, but will need some breakthrough performances this year to make it back.

Two Russians round out the top 20 -- Andrei Lutai (No. 19) and Ivan Bariev (No. 20). Lutai's position here is tenuous. He'll need better performances than his eighth-place finish at Nebelhorn this fall to stay in the rankings. Bariev has used two second-place JGP finishes this year to make his way to 20th in the rankings. The youngster has not shown the promise that Brezina has, but he will certainly challenge for the podium at world juniors.

Japan's Nobunari Oda has the best chance of anyone outside the current top 20 to make some noise this season. He's already won two gold medals -- at Nebelhorn and the Karl Schafer Memorial -- and he's hoping to regain the form he showed before missing all of the 2007-08 season.