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Uno locks up GP Final spot; Murakami in free fall

Shoma Uno continued his assault on the giants of the skating world by clinching his second straight trip to the senior Grand Prix Final with a solid second-place finish at the Cup of Russia on Saturday in Moscow.

Only an incredible free skate by two-time defending world champion Javier Fernandez denied Uno his second GP title of the season. Uno, who won Skate America last month, led by more than seven points entering the free skate after recording a personal best of 98.59 in the short program, but was undone by a couple of mistakes on his combination jumps.

“Like my short, my free skating wasn’t quite perfect,” Uno was quoted as saying by the ISU website. “I am not completely satisfied with today’s program.”

Nevertheless, Uno once again impressed observers with his prowess on the ice as he notched a first- and second-place finish in his two GP assignments for the second straight season. The Nagoya native took third at last season’s GP Final.

“He could be the king by the end of this year,” said Eurosport announcer Nicky Slater. “He was fantastic at Skate America. He is always fantastic.”

Slater is just one of many who see Uno in contention for a medal at this season’s world championships. It’s not much of a stretch to envision him also vying with compatriot Yuzuru Hanyu and Fernandez for the gold medal at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics.

“He is 18 and he is quite a dazzling talent,” stated Slater’s partner on the Eurosport telecast. “Lovely expressive skating for someone so young. He does glorious footwork. Glorious entries to every element. The transitions, you don’t even notice them because it’s all integrated into the choreography.”

“He lists Daisuke Takahashi as an inspiration and you can see it in Shoma Uno’s presentation,” commented NBC Universal analyst John Coughlin after Uno’s short program, which received the highest score this season on the GP circuit.

It is obvious that Uno is only going to improve with more experience. “The sky is the limit” may be a cliche, but in this case it applies.

Fernandez was absolutely fantastic in victory. Ice Time sees a real genius in his skating. His free skate to an Elvis Presley medley was superb.

The Madrid native has an incredible ability to interpret the music he skates to. Ice Time remembers being amazed by his humorous exhibition program to “Satan Takes a Holiday” at the Sochi Games.

Meanwhile, 2014 Olympian Kanako Murakami struggled through another disastrous competition, finishing 11th in the 12-skater field. This came two weeks after she placed 10th of 11 competitors at Skate America.

Murakami, who turned 22 on Monday, did not make the GP Final or worlds last season, and it looks like it will take nothing short of a miracle for her to be on the squad for Pyeongchang. She had major issues with her jumps in both the short program and free skate in Moscow.

It’s bad enough that she is struggling, but when you consider that Satoko Miyahara, Mao Asada, Wakaba Higuchi, Marin Honda, Kaori Sakamoto and Yuna Shiraiwa will also be vying for the three spots on the 2018 Olympic team, it’s hard to envision Murakami making it.

Ice Time turned to an international coach for their take on what is ailing Murakami, and this individual is not quite ready to give up on the 2010 world junior champion just yet.

“From my perspective this is a very special skater who is in a slump,” the coach wrote in an email to Ice Time. “She is making small mistakes which takes her out of contention at any given competition. However, she also seems perhaps to have lost some confidence. I do not see any technical problems, she is in shape, she can be dramatic but it is not so convincing, especially when she has made a few mistakes.”

The coach believes that Murakami is going to have to work out her issues through introspection.

“This is all fixable but will have to come from within inside her,” the coach feels. “Sometimes one does not know how lucky they are to have what they have until they don’t have it any more. I have seen skaters simply get mentally tired of having to keep such a high level of performance both on and off the ice. Great champions are always hungry for more.

“In no way do I see her out of the picture, but she will need to get hungry again and do what she is so capable of doing.”

Those who were in attendance at the 2013 Japan nationals prior to the Sochi Games will never forget Murakami’s dramatic free skate to “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” that vaulted her to a second-place finish behind Akiko Suzuki and onto the Olympic team.

With 18,000 fans in attendance at Saitama Stadium that night and millions more watching on TV, Murakami rose to the occasion with a brilliant performance in the face of immense pressure. In all of my years of covering skating I believe it was one of the finest efforts I have ever seen.

It is sad to see any athlete who has seen great heights on the way down. Here’s hoping that Murakami can regain the form that she displayed on that wonderful night three years ago.

Next up: The GP series moves to Paris this week for the Trophee de France. Mao, Wakaba Higuchi and Yuka Nagai will represent Japan in women’s singles. Takahito Mura is the Hinomaru’s lone entrant in men’s singles.

Mao will look to improve after taking sixth at Skate America, while Higuchi will be making her much-anticipated senior GP debut. The Tokyo native was second at the senior nationals last season at the age of 14.

World champion Evgenia Medvedeva will present a formidable challenge for Mao, Higuchi and Matsuda.

Fernandez will be the heavy favorite for the men’s title in France.

Signage tells story: Ice Time found it interesting that nearly 50 percent of the sign boards surrounding the rink at the Cup of Russia were in Japanese or represented Japanese companies. It speaks to the power of skating in Japan.

Japanese companies are advertising with the ISU for the GP series because they know they will receive massive exposure when the competitions are televised here.

Junior GP slate set: The ISU has announced the schedule for next season’s Junior Grand Prix series. Unfortunately Japan is not on the list this time around.

The slate for the 2017-18 season includes Brisbane, Australia; Salzburg, Austria; Riga, Latvia; Minsk, Belarus; Zagreb, Croatia; Gdansk, Poland and Egna/Bolzano, Italy.

Ice Time feels that Japan should host a JGP every season and also should bid to hold the world junior championships sometime in the near future. It only makes sense when factoring in the continual production of talent emerging from the junior ranks here.

The ISU also confirmed last week that next season’s GP Final ahead of Pyeongchang will be held at Nagoya’s Nippon Gaishi Hall from Dec. 7-10.

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