Olympic champ Zagitova dazzles in short skate at worlds

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Russian Olympic champion Alina Zagitova overcame an inconsistent season to take top spot in the ladies short program at the world figure skating championships, with her compatriots also leading the pairs competition on Wednesday.

Zagitova, 16, set a world record to claim gold at last year's Pyeongchang Winter Games but fell three times in her free skate at the 2018 championships and finished fifth overall in her only loss for that season.

Skating a haunting program to "The Phantom of the Opera", Zagitova had some trouble with her initial combination triple Lutz and triple toe loop.

However, she clinched the rest of her program, including a triple flip and double axel, to finish on 82.08 points and embraced her coach as she left the ice at the Saitama Super Arena outside Tokyo.

Zagitova, who finished second in the 2018 Grand Prix Final after Rika Kihira of Japan, told the International Skating Union she had "some rough practices" before the competition.

"I didn't always skate so well in the short program this season, there were some under-rotations or other little errors," she added.

"Here, I skated with joy, I didn't have to hold back. The audience was great."

The ladies championship this year was left wide open with 2018 champion Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada sitting out the season, but Zagitova — who set four world records this season under a new points system — was heavily favored going in.

Second went to 18-year-old Kaori Sakamoto of Japan, whose flowing program before an ecstatic home crowd gave her 76.86 points.

"I'm very satisfied that I was able to extend my personal best on such a big stage," Sakamoto said.

"No matter what the results were, I wanted to skate like myself, and I did that, so I'm happy."

Elizabet Tursynbaeva was third with 75.96 points after a lyrical and fluid routine. The 19-year-old became the first Kazakh ladies skater to ever make the podium when she took bronze at the Four Continents meet in February.

"I love the ice here and I love skating in Japan and it helped me reach my season's best," she said.

Russia's Evgenia Medvedeva, 19, who won silver in Pyeongchang, finished fourth.

Kihira, 16, whose stellar season has seen her win every international meet she has entered, turned her opening triple axel into a single and fell to seventh.

China's Sui Wenjing (top) and Han Cong perform during the pairs' short program competition of 2019 ISU World Figure Skating Championships at Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, on March 20, 2019. (Xinhua/Wang Lili)

China's Chen Hongyi finished 15th with 58.53 points, but qualified for the free program.

Chen, 16, performed first in the short program and made a good debut at the worlds.

"It is my first senior world championships," said Chen, who took a 19th-place finish at the junior world championships earlier this month. "After a lot of competitions, I am more mature and I am not as nervous as I used to be."

Russian pair Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov took a commanding lead after the short program after a fall left French favorites Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres in seventh.

James and Cipres, undefeated this season and the first French pair to win the European Championship in over 80 years, went down when James botched the landing on their throw triple flip and fell to the ice.

Tarasova and Morozov, who placed fourth at the 2018 Winter Olympics and second at last year's worlds, renewed their season's best score with 81.21 points in a dramatic, dynamic routine that had the audience clapping along.

Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China, who have had an injury-plagued season, were second on 79.24 after delivering a graceful routine, with compatriots Peng Cheng and Jin Yang in third with 75.51.

"While we had several mistakes at the beginning of the program, otherwise the score would be above 80 points, we still performed our best, and we would like to skate well in the free program as well," Sui said.

The pairs winner will be decided on Thursday with the free skate. The championship competitions last until March 23.

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