Double Olympic champion Hanyu Yuzuru skates into lead at Japanese nationals
Hanyu Yuzuru was back on competitive ice for the first time in eight months, but soared to a 10-point lead behind exceptional skating. Uno Shoma is in second place.
Hanyu Yuzuru is back - and it's like he never left.
Over eight months since the two-time Olympic figure skating champion last competed, the 27-year-old returned to action at the Japanese national championships in Saitama, where he took the lead after the men's short programme on Friday (24 December).
Hanyu was sensational in the debut of his 'Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso' piano-based short programme, hitting a quadruple Salchow, quad toe-triple toe combination and triple Axel to help him to a score of 111.31.
The performance put him a safe 10 points clear of the second-place skater, PyeongChang 2018 silver medallist Uno Shoma, who turned in a 101.88. Uno doubled a planned triple toe in his combination pass.
After his short program, Hanyu confirmed his plans to go for history in Sunday's free skate: He'll attempt a quadruple Axel, a jump no skater has ever landed in competition before.
"As I said, I'm going ahead with the quadruple Axel in the free program," said Hanyu, who is without coach Brian Orser this week at nationals.
Hanyu has spent much of the last 18 months training solo in Japan.
"I cannot let up just yet. I have practice tomorrow and need make sure I don’t get hurt," he added. "I need to take care of my body and peak in time for the free."
Hanyu, Uno and Kagiyama are the favourites to make Japan's three-skater squad for the coming Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. The Japanese Skating Federation will announce the team at the conclusion of nationals, on 26 December.
Hanyu lets his skating do the talking
Saitama Super Arena was nearly filled to the brim with all eyes on the five-time and reigning national champion Hanyu, who was making his season debut.
He had missed the entire Grand Prix Series with a sprained right ankle - an injury he has repeatedly suffered over his illustrious career - and his form was uncertain coming into nationals, where he would need to show close to his best ahead of February's Olympic Games.
His new short program was well received by the crowd, drawing the biggest cheers on the night as he hit his jumps, then performed an impassioned step sequence that earned a 9.68 from the judging panel, helping him to his 49.03 in program component scores - the highest of the men's short.
Hanyu himself was happy with his first three minutes on the ice since the spring.
"After I landed the quad Salchow at the start, I was able to settle into the rest of the program," Hanyu told reporters. "I had a bunch of ideas for the short so I discussed it with Jeff [Buttle], Brian and Tracy [Wilson]. It really was a collaborative effort.
He added: "It’s not completely refined yet but this is a program really driven by the music. I want everyone to see it in its entirety and not only the jumps. I never fully simulated this short program in practice until now, so I was a little nervous. But equally I felt like I was saving it all for the real thing.
"I made a lot of mistakes in training but I learned from them. The practice sessions I’ve had have been at competition-level intensity."
Hanyu spoke to the media on Thursday prior to the short program, making it clear that he is eyeing both the quad Axel and Beijing. He landed several attempts of the jump in his practice.
"First things first, I want to nail the quad Axel," he explained. "If Beijing is something that comes along as a result of that, then great. I’ll give it my best with a performance worthy enough of being there."
Uno strong, Kagiyama struggles
The top three are all familiar names to skating fans around the world, and each should be in the running for a medal in Beijing should they make the team for February.
Uno, skating to 'When You're Smiling', had plenty to smile about himself, hitting a quad flip to open, then making a minor mistake on his quad toe combination, doubling a planned triple, before bouncing back on the triple Axel.
"The flip was really good," his coach, Olympic silver medallist Stephane Lambiel said to him in the 'kiss and cry'. "Well done."
Uno, 24, said: "After practice this morning and yesterday, I was a little worried that I might not skate very well. Yes, I could have done better in some areas, but it was the best I could do for now."
He and Hanyu both appear well on their way to making another Olympic team, a third for the 2014 and 2018 champion Hanyu and a second for Uno, who made his debut in PyeongChang.
It's likely that Kagiyama - still only 18 but who has progressed in leaps and bounds over the last three seasons - will join them, although he will need to find more measured skating on Sunday after his fall in the short.
"It’s annoying I fell on the quad toe but I think I had a strong finish to the skate," an honest Kagiyama said. "It hurts for sure but I feel like I was solid in other areas. I already know what I did wrong today and I’ll make the adjustment in the free."
Kagiyama surged back from seventh in the short program at the Italian Grand Prix last month to win gold there, then captured another Grand Prix title in France two weeks later, making him the only man this season to go two-from-two on the sport's biggest stage.
He and Uno had both qualified for the Grand Prix Final, which was cancelled earlier this month, in Osaka.
It will take a compelling set of circumstances on Sunday for anyone else to break into that trio. Yamamoto Sota is just behind Kagiyama at 93.79, followed by Miura Kao 92.81 and Miyake Sena at 90.52.
The JSF has the final say in the Beijing team, however, with international performance being taken into account, too.