As the season has unfolded, my view of the ladies has evolved. Not only has there been a tremendous increase in the overall level of difficulty in the field this season, but there has also a number of storylines that have altered the horizon going into next week's 2013 World Figure Skating Championships.
Schedule: Universal Sports/CBC/Eurosport
Looking at the entrants, there are certainly a very big number of skaters to be very excited about seeing. And I count over 15 skaters who would've rightfully deserved to be in the top ten had this been last year's Worlds. It's really looking to be a fantastic competition - my guess is that most, if not all, of the top 20 skaters will be names that are very recognizable. My top ten? See if you agree.
GOLD Mao Asada JPN - I would've never imagined picking Asada for the gold at the beginning of the season. But the numbers don't lie - she's potentially got such a heavy base value advantage over the rest of the field that she can afford to have a few jumps called underrotated and still maintain a solid advantage. Of course, with Asada, it's always about consistency - just because she's got 11 triples planned total (3 in the short, 8 in the free) doesn't mean she will rotate them. But one thing is for sure, she seems to be enjoying skating a whole lot more than she has in many years, and that might make the difference.
SILVER Yuna Kim KOR - You wouldn't have said/thought this three years ago at the Olympics, because the rules and the scoring were slightly different, but Kim will be coming into Worlds next week at a technical disadvantage. Sure, she still has one of the most consistent triple lutz-triple toes, but her lack of a triple loop could hurt her against the barrage of seven-triple programs that are planned. Clean programs aren't necessarily Kim's strength, and she will certainly need to be clean to have a chance at gold.
BRONZE Ashley Wagner USA - The wild card amongst the top ladies, Wagner had such a great start to her season, but neither of her last two competitions went so well. Now that she's had a couple of months since Nationals to recuperate, will we see a refreshed Wagner at Worlds? Her key this week will likely be the triple toe, as in the backend of her triple-triple in the short and the backend of her axel-toe in the free. It's likely going to be crucial for her to attempt the triple-triple in the short in order for her to remain competitive with these other top ladies - but we do know already from Grand Prix Final that she's capable of mid-60s without it. The difference between this year and last year for Wagner? Respect from the international panel.
4. Carolina Kostner ITA - The reigning World champion comes in with increased difficulty, but she's also up against better competition than she was last year. Perhaps her biggest disadvantage is on the technical side, where she's got all of one lutz and one flip planned total in her two programs. She will need to avoid the pops if she's going to land on the podium again.
5. Elizaveta Tuktamisheva RUS - It hasn't been an out-of-the-ballpark kind of season for Tuktamisheva. In fact, her sophomore year on the Grand Prix series was actually somewhat of a learning experience as compared to last season. But her clean free skate at Europeans was a good sign for her upcoming Worlds debut.
6. Akiko Suzuki JPN - Bronze last year, Suzuki has had an interestingly up-and-down season. She was off the podium at Japanese Nationals, but she looked strong at Four Continents just a few weeks ago. She's got two strong programs this season. Getting back on the podium next week will be tough, but don't count her out.
7. Kanako Murakami JPN - As far as maturity goes, Murakami has been the one this season who has made the greatest leaps. There's a sense of musicality that she's developed that has made her skating stronger. But her biggest issue is always full rotation on the jumps. Top five is certainly possible, but it will require two clean programs for her to do that.
8. Gracie Gold USA - Where does Gold end up this week? American skating fans are interested, particularly in relation to Wagner's placement - their combined placements has to be no greater than 13 in order for the U.S. to regain three spots for next year's Olympics. Technically, she's one of the best, even with that pesky loop. If she skates cleanly in both programs, then Gold certainly has the potential to be in the top five.
9. Adelina Sotnikova RUS - At Europeans, Sotnikova probably had her two best skates as a senior skater by far - but that's to say that consistency hasn't really been her friends during the past two seasons. Avoiding careless mistakes will give her a chance to move up there in the standings.
10. Kaetlyn Osmond CAN - Knocking on the door. The magic number for Osmond (and the skating observers in Canada) is 10. She needs to be in the top ten to earn Canada two spots at the Olympics next season. It'll be close, if only because her technical base value is just not as high as those of the top ladies.
Others to watch:
Elene Gedevanishvili GEO - That Skate Canada short program in the fall that lots of people were talking about turned out to be the highlight, by far, of Gedevanishvili's season. Other than that, there have been a lot of inconsistent performances, most recently with a 14th place finish at Europeans (she was the bronze medalist the year before). At her best, she has top ten potential.
Viktoria Helgesson SWE - Helgesson's season really hasn't been great, but she was fifth at Europeans most recently. Technically, it'll be tough for her to compete with the other ladies up there, and that's her biggest hurdle.
Alena Leonova RUS - Yeah, last year's silver medalist has had quite a tumultuous season. The spark hasn't been there, but she willed her way back onto the Russian team. Could she possibly skate her best at Worlds again?
Zijun Li CHN - It's a tough one to call for Li. She's definitely solidly in the 8-12 category at Worlds. She's strong on jumps, but there's no technical wow like we get from Gold's or Kim's jumps. She's pretty decent artistically, but again, not the wow factor.
Valentina Marchei ITA - Fourth at Europeans, Marchei is having another very solid season, perhaps the best of her career. She's got top ten potential, but with no triple-triple in the short and only five triples planned in the free, it'll take two clean programs for her to get up there.
Mae Berenice Meite FRA - She hasn't been back to Worlds in a few seasons. Her first and only previous appearance was in 2011, where she was 14th. And while she's improved a good bit since then, it's possibly that she will actually finish lower than that - that's just how good this field is.
Kexin Zhang CHN - After a great Worlds debut last season, Zhang has been M.I.A. most of the season with injury. She came back at Four Continents, only to get a bunch of jumps called underrotated. It's tough to see her back in the top ten this year, but she has the goods if she delivers.