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Fernandez strikes gold, Russians face dilemma Teen makes history

BUDAPEST, Jan 18, (AFP): Spaniard Javier Fernandez boosted his Olympic medal hopes as he defended his men’s crown at the European figure skating championships in Budapest on Saturday as Russia faced a dilemma over who to choose for their men’s team in Sochi. The 22-year-old from Madrid landed three quadruple jumps in the free skating final to take the gold by a 14.56-point margin on Russia’s Sergei Voronov with another Russian Konstantin Menshov taking the bronze medal. There is now a battle for Russia’s sole men’s berth in Sochi as national champion Maxim Kovtum slumped to fifth after an error-strewn free skate. “I had a couple of mistakes that I have to fix for the Olympics. I think with a little bit more I will have a chance,” said Fernandez.

He scored 175.55 points for his free skate to the “Peter Gunn” soundtrack and “Harlem Nocturne” for an overall total of 267.11. “I don’t want to expect anything. I just want to go there (Sochi), try my best and hope I can fight to be on the podium,” he added. On the podium for the first time at 26 years, Voronov scored 167.04 for his Tango-themed programme for 252.55 overall, with Menshov achieving 165.12 and 237.24 overall. Russian champion Kovtum slumped to fifth after an error-strewn performance. The 18-year-old Kovtum had been battling 2006 Olympic champion Yevgeny Plushenko for the berth in Sochi after stunning the former three-time world champion to win the national title last month. Plushenko is not competing in Europeans with the Russian skating federation due to make a decision next week.

Fernandez was a surprise winner of the men’s title last year in Zagreb becoming the first Spanish figure skater to medal at an ISU championship and he went on to take bronze at the worlds. Fifteen-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia of Russia became the youngest woman ever to win the European title on Friday night, with Italy’s Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte winning ice dancing gold earlier in the week. The competition concludes with Sunday’s pairs final. World and European champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia have a 7.22-point lead on Germany’s former pairs title-holders Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy going into free skating final. Two Russian pairs of Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov; and Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, the national champions, are third and fourth respectively.

Fifteen-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia became the youngest woman ever to win the European figure skating title, a result which she believes should give her one of the coveted berths on the Winter Olympic team of hosts Russia. The skater from Ekaterinburg broke down in tears after grabbing gold in her first major competition ahead of compatriot Adelina Sotnikova, 17, with five-time winner Carolina Kostner of Italy taking bronze after falling in the free skating final. “There are only two slots on the women’s team for Sochi. As European champion I think I should make it now,” said Lipnitskaia, who had been trailing in second just 0.76 points behind national champion Sotnikova after the short programme. She also put Russia back on the top of the European podium for the first time since Irina Slutskaya won her record seventh continental crown in 2006 when Lipnitskaia was just seven years. “When I was seven years I wasn’t even watching figure skating,” she admitted. A childlike figure on the ice in red, Lipnitskaia pulled out a flawless performance to the music of “Schindler’s List,” a film which she admitted she has watched many times, bringing the crowd to their feet. She scored a personal best 139.75 for the free skate for an overall total of 209.72.

“My head is spinning, I think I might faint now,” she said. “I skated at 200 percent.” “My goal for the Olympics is just to skate clean and show good skating,” added Lipnitskaia, who finished second behind Japanese Olympic hope Mao Asada in the Grand Prix final this season. Sotnikova, 17, scored a personal best 131.63 for her free skate to “Rondo Capriccioso” where the only glitch was two-footing the landing on her opening triple lutz. “I didn’t think I could achieve the gold medal, but I’m pleased I managed to pull myself together and deliver a good programme,” she said. “I have the same place as last year, but this medal feels like gold to me,” added Sotnikova, who finished 5.36 behind Lipnitskaia with an overall 202.36. Clad in black, defending champion Kostner had looked in with a shot at a sixth title but the 26-year-old fell on a triple toeloop jump in her routine to Ravel’s “Bolero”.

The former world champion scored 122.42 for the free skate and 191.39 overall. “This is the best training I could have for the Olympics,” she said. “I made a mistake but I don’t feel bad. I’m going home with a medal which is a big thing.” Earlier world champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia opened their pairs defence by leading the short programme. The two-time titleholders hold a comfortable 7.22-point lead on Germany’s Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, four-time world champions and Olympic bronze medallists, going into Sunday’s free skating final. Savchenko, 29, two-footed the landing and touched the ice on her opening throw triple flip jump in their routine to Andre Rieu’s “When Winter Comes” as they achieved a score of 76.76, almost three points off their best. Skating second last, Volosozhar, 27, and Trankov, 30, scored a career-best 83.98 for their flawless skate to Aram Khatchaturian’s “Masquerade Waltz”.

Savchenko’s coach Ingo Steuer blamed the “beginning of bronchitis” for the errors. “Considering that we weren’t sure this morning if Aliona can skate at all, it was okay,” said Steuer. Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov are third with 71.70 ahead of fellow Russians Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, the reigning national champions, 70.90. In the men’s event, Spaniard Javier Fernandez is leading going into Saturday’s free skating final where he will defend his title. The 22-year-old from Madrid has a 6.05-point lead on Russian Sergei Voronov with Czech Tomas Verner in third after the short programme.

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