Spain’s Javier Fernandez delivered one of the greatest long programs in the history of the world figure skating championships, storming back from more than 12 points adrift of Japanese star Yuzuru Hanyu with a flawless skate to defend his title on Friday night at TD Garden.
The 24-year-old from Madrid followed up the favored Hanyu’s error-strewn program with a gripping performance to Frank Sinatra’s Guys and Dolls, skating with strength, conviction and passion and building crowd support with each of three cleanly landed quadruple jumps.
“Before skating, I knew that I had a chance to win, but that I have to do a clean program,” Fernandez said. “And I did.”
When it was over, Fernandez’s combined score of 314.93 was more than enough to top Hanyu (295.17), the Olympic gold medallist with whom he trains and shares coaches Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson. China’s Boyang Jin (270.99) took bronze, while American skaters Adam Rippon, Max Aaron and Grant Hochstein finished sixth, eighth and 10th, respectively.
It was a stunning end to Hanyu’s otherwise incandescent season, one that saw him rewrite the record books several times over. The 21-year-old had become the first ever to eclipse in the short program, in the free skate and in combined total score at December’s Grand Prix Final in Barcelona – a mere two weeks after breaking the previous marks for all three categories at the NHK Trophy in Nagano.
That dominance spilled into Wednesday’s short program, where Hanyu skated cleanly for a score of 110.56 while foremost rivals Fernandez and Patrick Chan fell. That gave him a 12.04-point cushion – the largest ever midpoint advantage at an Olympics or worlds under the ISU scoring system – and lent Friday’s free skate the feeling of a coronation. Hanyu, fueled all year by confidence and an otherworldly consistency, was not merely skating’s most dominant competitor, he’d left an entire sport desperate simply to catch up.
On Friday, it did.
“I’m not sure what to say, I’m disappointed,” he’d say afterward. “I want to do it over.”
Hanyu, the world champion two years ago who had drawn the fifth-to-last position, elicited oohs and aahs from the crowd as he circled the rink during his warm-ups. But the excitement that had pulsated through the arena quickly turned to nervous energy when he stumbled and dropped his hand to the ice on his opening quadruple salchow during the first measures of Seimei by Shigeru Umebayashi.
The book on Hanyu was that his only weakness was a tendency to go off the rails when things go badly early, but it had been so long since it happened that it was impossible to know whether the flaw had been outgrown. He initially recovered nicely with a quadruple toeloop and triple flip, moving seamlessly into a balletic step sequence as a thudding drumbeat invited the crowd into the performance, but the miscues then redoubled: a fall on a quad salchow, a turn-out on a triple axel in combination, another hand down on the closing triple lutz.
After the music ended Hanyu doubled over and seemed to drift aimlessly at the center of the rink while the crowd littered the ice with flowers, gifts and the Winnie the Pooh plush dolls that have become his signature token. He looked exhausted. The judges handed down a score of 184.61 for an overall tally of 295.17, the four negative grades of execution having suddenly opened the door for his rivals.
He was still in first when Fernandez stepped on two skaters later, but the Spaniard capitalized on the opening and whipped the crowd into a frenzy with each perfectly executed jump, spin and and step sequence, prompting a standing ovation before he went into his culminating spin. He was rewarded with a score of 216.41 – the highest ever save for Hanyu’s Grand Prix masterpiece in December (219.48) – for a combined score of 314.93. Both were personal bests.
Chan, a three-time world champion tabbed before the competition as one of three true contenders for the gold, turned in a sloppy free skate and finished fifth.
Rippon, the top American finisher who in January finally captured his first US national title at 26, skated to a medley of Beatles songs and drew wild cheers from the partisan crowd, particularly during a finale set to the Sgt Pepper’s reprise. His season-best score of 178.72 lifted him temporarily into first with a combined 264.44, a position he held until Hanyu skated. Yet ultimately the night belonged to the charismatic Fernandez.
“It was the last program of the season,” the two-time world champion said. “I didn’t think about how important it was for me to win or anything, just kept going from jump to jump.”