Two Grand Prix events in, four to go (well, if you get technical with me, it's five including the Final). We've had two really exciting GPs so far, and we now move to Beijing for the 2015 Audi Cup of China. Note that we moved from Lexus to Audi in sponsorship this year ... gotta love those Audis. I'm mixing it up with the previews a bit this week and starting with the ladies. Why? Well, Mao Asada is back, that's why.
Rocker predictions: 2015 Cup of China
GOLD Mao Asada JPN - Yes, fan favorite Mao Asada competed and impressed a whole lot at Japan Open a month ago. But Cup of China marks her real return to competition after her win at 2014 Worlds. But from what we saw at Japan Open, she's more than ready to compete with the best, and likely even as strong as she's ever been. The triple axel is there, she's training that flip-loop again, and her other jumps look solid. There's little reason to think that she's not going to dominate this week in her Grand Prix return. She's won 14 Grand Prix titles already, why not add another?
SILVER Rika Hongo JPN - Her win at Finlandia Trophy was more than impressive. In a lot of ways, Rika Hongo benefited most last season from an unexpected win at Rostelecom Cup, which propelled her PCS and accelerated her ascent in the figure skating world a lot more quickly than her skating really deserved. That said, she comes into this season with upgraded jumps and a huge stride in her programs that make her very much worthy of being in the conversation with the best in the world. It's nice to see.
BRONZE Elena Radionova RUS - We have been seeing it with other Russian phenoms - this is the season for Elena Radionova where growth spurts start messing with jumps and inconsistency could seep in. She withdrew from Finlandia a few weeks ago, so we don't know much more about where her jumps are other than a domestic test skate earlier in the season - and her jumps looked fine, if a little more tentative than last season. But she can definitely give Asada a run for the gold if she's clean.
4. Courtney Hicks USA - Third at Nebelhorn to start her season, Courtney Hicks looks to be solidifying who she is as a skater and reining in the power of her jumps. She's one of the ladies this season who has been toying with the triple axel, and you may see it this week in at least one of her programs. She's got the dynamic jumps to really surprise this week, but the key to success will be that short program and getting herself into the conversation early on.
5. Anna Pogorilaya RUS - She started her season with two ridiculously hard falls at Nepela Trophy in her short program, but Anna Pogorilaya recovered well, pulling up to silver at that event and winning Mordovian Ornament. Now, she's not getting the kinds of marks she got at Mordovian even if she skated absolutely perfect programs, but she's definitely got podium potential. Her confidence is always a bit of a wildcard; somehow, she doesn't feel like she belongs, but her jumps - and her improved skating this season - say otherwise.
6. Karen Chen USA - The U.S bronze medalist was a strong fifth at Skate America two weeks ago. Karen Chen has a lot of eyes on her every time she takes the ice, because she has both the technical goods and the wow factor to make her a potential star. But her technique on some jumps is suboptimal, and it's led to inconsistency and injuries. If she puts together two clean programs, she can get on the podium. But like at Skate America, a strong short program is necessary for her to keep her PCS in contention.
7. Zijun Li CHN - Sometimes, I don't know what to say about Zijun Li. She's the strongest all-around ladies singles skater that China has had in the post-Chen Lu era. But she's both wildly inconsistent and, frankly, has been stagnant in her skating for the past couple of seasons. And thus you get middling results - middle of the pack in Grand Prix events and off the podium at Four Continents. She found a bit more consistency last season, but she often looked completely out of breath halfway through her programs. We'll see what this season brings for the four-time Chinese champ.
8. So Youn Park KOR - The current closest thing to a Yuna Kim successor, So Youn Park just feels like she's on the cusp at every competition - and then she doubles a jump, and then she doubles another jump, etc. Until she puts together two clean skates at a big competition, it will be tough for her to truly have that breakthrough. She's a no-frills solid skater, which threatens to keep her under the radar like she's been since her 9th-place breakthrough at Worlds in 2014.
9. Nicole Rajicova SVK - What a fantastic GP debut Rajicova had at Skate America, where she skated a brilliant free skate to finish 7th with a personal best. She's got the potential to surprise again this week if she can skate the way she did in Milwaukee.
10. Hannah Miller USA - Miller makes her Grand Prix debut in Beijing this week, and she's bringing two technically ambitious programs. But she definitely has a history of underrotated jumps, which will likely keep her from being competitive with this field. That said, if she brings her rotations to the table, she's got top 6 potential.
11. Ziquan Zhao CHN - The four-time Chinese silver medalist makes her Grand Prix debut at home this week. She's had some international experience, with a 15th a Four Continents two seasons ago.
12. Lu Zheng CHN - I have no other data points on Zheng outside Chinese Nationals - she was 5th three years ago and 9th the last two years. It looks to be her international debut, and she's got a lot of great skaters to contend with.