Plushenko in top form, Kavaguti-Smirnov win pairs

Wednesday, January 20, 2010
By JIM HEINTZ, Associated Press Writer

TALLINN, Estonia —  The Russians are back.

Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko won the short program at the European championships Wednesday with a spectacular performance that proved he has the goods to repeat in Vancouver despite a three-year layoff. Plushenko scored 91.30 points, beating the world record he set at the Turin Games. 2007 world champion Brian Joubert is about two points behind and fellow Frenchman Yannick Ponsero is third going into Thursday's free skate.

Compatriots Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov followed with an upset in the pairs competition, beating two-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy to give Russia its first European pairs title since 2006. They were barely able to contain their joy when they finished.

"We got a lot of pleasure out of this skating, and we made our coach happy," Smirnov said, referring to legendary pairs coach Tamara Moskvina.

Plushenko retired after the 2006 Olympics but announced his return last spring, hoping to become the first man since Dick Button to repeat as gold medalist. With this performance, he is nearing his old form.

Or, maybe, even better.

Plushenko landed a quadruple toe loop-triple toe combination with cool precision, and had great height on his triple axel and triple lutz. But it was his spins that truly showed how much he's improved since 2006. His spins were longer and had more positions, and they were so perfectly centered the tracings looked as if they'd been made by a protactor.

He showed how much the performance meant when he completed his program with a celebratory clenched fist.

"To put it simply, I count this as the return of the sporting feeling," Plushenko said. "I am so happy with my feelings today. Of course, I am not going to fly to the moon because tomorrow is going to be a big fight."

Joubert, who skated last, had an energetic program, but he cost himself a few points by doubling the second jump in his planned quad toe-triple toe combination.

"I was very nervous when I came on the ice, so when I did the quad I wanted to do a clean combination ... the quad was good and I was about to do a triple, so I am a little bit disappointed in that," said Joubert, who missed the Grand Prix final and French nationals after needing surgery to repair a cut in his foot.

Joubert vowed that he'll do two quads in the free skate Thursday. Plushenko promised only one _ but with a smile that indicated he had more in mind. Ponsero, aiming for his first European medal, also did a quad-double combination.

Olympic silver medalist Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland, also making a comeback after a brief retirement, was fifth in the short program.

This is Lambiel's most significant competition since his return, and his performance was highly anticipated _ especially since it renewed his long-standing rivalry with Plushenko. But within seconds, he doubled a planned triple axel, then put both hands to the ice when he stumbled out of the first part of a quad-triple combo.

Kavaguti and Smirnov got off to a worrisome start when she stepped out of a triple toe loop, but afterward their technique was solid and their spirits visibly soared.

Savchenko and Szolkowy have had a stranglehold on the European title the last three years, but were a mere 0.2 points ahead after the short program and ran into trouble when she put her hand and knee down on a throw triple flip. They also had some unison issues on their side-by-side elements.

But they brought gasps of delighted surprise from the audience with a very pretty throw triple salchow in the final seconds of their program to music from "Out of Africa."

Russians Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov won a second straight bronze medal.

Thursday's schedule also includes the original dance, with world champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin holding a substantial lead over fellow Russians Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski and Italy's Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali.

The women's program begins Friday.

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