The Russian was at her outstanding best at the World Team Trophy figure skating event in Osaka, Japan, on Saturday (17 April), leading her team to its first-ever victory at WTT, held every other year and previously only won by the U.S. or Japan.
Shcherbakova scored a 160.58 to hold off a sublime Sakamoto Kaori (150.29) and teammate Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (146.23) to seal the win after fellow world champs Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov had won the pairs free skate earlier in the day.
WTT debuted in 2009, with the Americans having captured four of the six stagings. Russia now adds its name to that list, the U.S. with four and Japan with two.
Russia won with 125 points, the U.S. followed with 110 and Japan was third with 107. Russia will go into the Olympic season as the favourites for the Olympic figure skating team event, which debuted in 2014.
The event signalled the official finish of a topsy turvy figure skating season, in which a myriad of events were cancelled.
"I want to say I'm so proud of my team; we all skated so good after a difficult competition, after worlds we were so tired," team captain Tuktamysheva said in English. "But we showed all of our power here; [we were] so strong. That's why we were able to [be] in first place."
Shcherbakova, Kihira shine in free skate finish
In her World Team Trophy debut, Anna Shcherbakova didn't take her foot off of the gas having won her first world title in late March.
The new world champ had told Olympic Channel she wanted a more relaxed approach to the event, but she looked as determined as ever in Osaka, unblemished in the short program and then delivering another chilling performance of her medley free skate.
She saved the landing on her opening quadruple flip - the only female to attempt a quad here - then doubled down technically, hitting seven triple jumps and two double Axels.
"I really wanted to show good skating," she said in English on the TV broadcast. "I was trying to enjoy it [out there]. I was really proud to be here and skating for Team Russia." - Anna Shcherbakova
"I couldn’t let up after Stockholm because of this competition, but now that this is over, I can finally relax," Shcherbakova added.
Her 160.58 is two points shy of a personal best, a 162.65 at the Grand Prix Final in 2019.
It was a personal best kind of day for Sakamoto, who delivered in full after a frustrating event for teammate Kihira Rika, who was hampered by a back injury this week and finished fifth in the free skate.
Sakamoto's fan favourite Matrix free skate was sensational from start to finish, complete with seven triples and program component (artistry) marks in the eights and nines. She was just a point behind Shcherbakova (74.32 to 73.12) in that category.
"I felt rough this morning, but I was determined to leave here with a smile," an honest Sakamoto said in Japanese. "I just let my instincts take over and I’m happy with the way things turned out. Despite the little mistakes here and there I still managed a 150 which I like to think is a testament to all the practice. It’s a confidence booster for sure."
She added: "I’m excited for the new season. I’m going all in because it’s the Olympic season. I’ll be as aggressive as ever."
Strong showings for Tuktamysheva, Tennell
Tuktamysheva, the world silver medallist last month, ended her season on a high, as well. She was the lone female skater to attempt a triple Axel - she hit two in her free skate.
"This was the last competition of the season for me so it was important to skate as well as possible," Tuktamysheva said.
She has her eye on adding a quad to her armor next season: "I can do the quad in practice but still need to work on the little things to do it in competition. It’s not consistent enough. This season with all the competitions lined up, I just didn’t have time to hone it but hopefully I will be able to do this soon."
While Kihira was fourth, it was American Karen Chen who was fifth. Tennell hopscotched her teammate, who had beaten her at worlds in Stockholm.
She pumped her fist at the conclusion of her program, set to "Sarajevo" and "Dawn of Faith."
"It feels amazing to come here and put out a program like that," she told reporters.
"That’s what I’ve been training for. It was so much fun to skate for the fans again. I’m just kind of enjoying the after of my skate here and will think about everything else when I get home." - Bradie Tennell
Russia will no doubt lead the ladies' race in the coming Olympic season, while the Japanese and Americans will look to challenge for spots on the Beijing 2022 podium.
Pairs: Mishina/Galliamov finish season on a high note
In pairs, Mishina and Galliamov backed up their win in the short program with a triumph in the free skate, as well, winning with a comfortable 18-point margin, 151.59 to the 133.63 of second-place team Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier of the U.S., who bounced back from a fourth-place finish in the short.
Japan's Miura Riku and Kihara Ryuichi finished third with a 130.83.
It was a memorable season for Mishina/Galliamov, who were surprise winners at the world championships just a few weeks ago. They capped off the pre-Olympic year with another strong showing in Osaka.
They opened their "Bohemian Rhapsody" program not with the usual triple twist, but with a side-by-side triple Salchow-Euler-triple Salchow combination and then flew from there, executing the twist, a throw triple Lutz and rotational lift with energy that matched their up-tempo music.
Their 151.59 was just shy of the personal best 151.80 they received at worlds.
"We are very happy, great to have the crowd behind us. We can feel the support," Mishina told reporters in Russian. "This season we had our usual competitions in Russia but few international events. The start was delayed by two, three months and we’re thankful of the support from the federation. We will prepare a new program, get some rest and think of how we can lead up [to Beijing] with our coach.
"We didn’t choose this music knowing we’d become world champions. It’s funny how things turned out that way. But we are happy with the outcome." - Anastasia Mishina on the serendipity of their "We Are the Champions" music
The Americans Knierim/Frazier, a new team in the last year, finished their season on a high note, turning in a strong free skate.
Nicole Della Monica and Matteo Guarise were fourth for Italy, but the third-place finish by Miura/Kihara is a good sign for Team Japan's medal hopes in the Olympic team event at the coming Winter Games.
"I was hoping we’d finish in the top three so I’m pretty with the result," Miura said. Kihara added: "We've managed to take the trust to another level."