Anna Shcherbakova wins again in France to secure spot in Grand Prix Final

Reigning world champ Shcherbakova finished ahead of training mate Alena Kostornaia as Higuchi Wakaba rallied for bronze. In ice dance, home hopes Papadakis/Cizeron ran away from field.

By Nick McCarvel
Picture by Alex Morean/Olympic Channel

Reigning world champion figure skater Anna Shcherbakova has shown time and again to be a fighter on the ice.

She did so once more on Saturday (20 November), an early mistake in the free skate not throwing her off as the Russian bounced back from a hard fall to turn in an otherwise strong program and claim her second consecutive Grand Prix gold at the Internationaux de France in Grenoble.

Champion at the Gran Premio d'Italia two weeks ago, Shcherbakova has now secured her place at next month's Grand Prix Final, which will feature the top six skaters and teams in each discipline.

The 17-year-old didn't get off the ground in her opening attempt of a quadruple Lutz, but bounced back to hit a quad flip seconds later, and registered a winning 151.75 total for the long program to give her a 229.69 overall, eight points north of training mate Alena Kostornaia, the 2020 European champion, at 221.85.

Japan's Higuchi Wakaba had the skate of the day, executing a beautiful triple Axel to open her Lion King free skate and jump from sixth to third, scoring 204.91. It's her first medal at a Grand Prix outside of Japan since 2017.

The Internationaux de France is the fifth of six scheduled International Skating Union (ISU) Grand Prix events, with Rostelecom Cup in Sochi, Russia, set to conclude the Series next weekend (26-27 Nov.)

In ice dance, four-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron continued their comeback having sat out last season due to pandemic challenges, the French duo distancing themselves from the field with a 221.25 overall. More on that below.

MORE from Grenoble: Maturing Kagiyama leads men after short program

Shcherbakova: 'I'm a little bit shocked'

It was not a perfect day on the ice for either of the top two finishers with Shcherbakova (the aforementioned quad Lutz) and Kostornaia (triple Axel) taking hard falls to open their respective free skates.

"Honestly, I'm a little bit shocked still after my performance because my first jump – I didn't understand what happened and after the whole program I was not realising what was happening," Shcherbakova told reporters. "I need time, I think, to watch my performance, watch my mistakes."

Though she did fall on the Lutz attempt, Shcherbakova landed the only quad in the women's event, a flip, and then seven more triples in her "Lacrimosa" free skate. Even with their falls, Shcherbakova and Kostornaia went 1-2 in program component (artistry) scores, with 71.89 and 70.06, respectively.

Kostornaia said, "I'm very sad, I had a mistake on my triple Axel, big mistake. Of course, I was shocked because I jumped this jump in practice in Moscow and I really hoped I would do two triple Axels [this weekend] but I can't and it was very sad. But I jumped other elements and I am happy about it."

Shcherbakova is already focusing on the week ahead, adding, "I still need to work - to skate clean, do my elements cleanly, bring across the characters, my program, and show my choreography cleanly. I'm not so pleased with that part today, because after my initial mistake, it was not easy for me to move on and I kept thinking about it."

Shcherbakova and Kostornaia are two of as many as seven ROC athletes who will vie for three spots at February's Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.

Higuchi soars in free skate; Bell finishes strong

The day in many ways belonged to 20-year-old Higuchi, who was called for a quarter under-rotation on her triple Axel but went from strength to strength in her free skate, landing eight triple jumps overall and setting a career best by over five points with her 141.04.

"I was really happy [that] I did the triple Axel," Higuchi said. In regard to her personal-best free skate, she added: "I was thinking there is still room for improvement so I felt happy that the best score has more to grow."

The personal best came just a week after Higuchi struggled to a 109.70 at the Cup of Austria ISU Challenger event.

Russia's Kseniia Sinitsyna finished fourth, while Americans Karen Chen and Mariah Bell went 5-6, Bell rebounding from 10th after the short program.

Bell has returned to her popular "Hallelujah" free skate from the 2019-20 season. Her coach, Olympian Adam Rippon, was not happy with her scores - particularly the component mark - as they flashed on the screen.

“Those components aren’t right. Too low. No. Not right,” Rippon said.

Bell had her own thoughts: "I feel like my score is a little bit low, so I'll have to look and see - maybe levels were a little bit off... Overall I'm just happy to have put out a strong skate and I'm looking forward to [Rostelecom Cup] next week.

"I think I was just a little frustrated yesterday at the end and I was really hesitant instead of attacking, and today I was attacking more. It was definitely good momentum for me."

Gabriella Papadakis (R) and Guillaume Cizeron, France
Picture by Alex Morean

Ice dance: Papadakis/Cizeron Final-bound, too

On the same Italy-France Grand Prix schedule as Shcherbakova, Papadakis and Cizeron have not missed a beat this season in their return to the international stage for the first time in nearly two years.

They were just four points shy of a career best in Grenoble, and 18 points clear of second-place finishers Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier of Canada, who scored a 203.16.

Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin of Russia were third with a 200.29.

Papadakis/Cizeron's free dance to "Elegie" has a subtle, elegant feel to it, though Cizeron was given Level 3 on his twizzles, which he visibly struggled with. The team received 9.50s and above for its program components, helping the French to another three-point cushion in their overall total.

"The performance was good, it wasn't perfect; there are a lot of little things to work on to go into the Final," Papadakis said. "But we're happy overall, it's not easy to do the second Grand Prix with just one week [off] in between so we did a good job."

Gilles and Poirier, having won at home last month at Skate Canada International, will join Papadakis and Cizeron in Osaka. With two third-place finishes, Stepanova and Bukin will have to wait and see if they qualify for the GPF.

"I thought we made some great improvements on the free dance today, it didn't show up in the scores but we felt like we actually made some improvements and that was helpful," said Gilles, noting their drop from 125.32 in Vancouver to 121.81 here. "We're very excited to go to the Grand Prix Final in a couple weeks."

Bukin said: "We did a little step forward compared to our first Grand Prix in Italy so we are happier than we were there, we are pleased with what we did, and now we will go and work on our mistakes [in training]."

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