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Kaori Sakamoto dazzles in Grand Prix Final to take lead into women's free skate in Beijing

Two-time world champion Kaori Sakamoto was nearly flawless during her short program at the Grand Prix Final on Friday, taking a comfortable lead over Belgium's Loena Hendrickx and Nina Pinzarrone into the free skate.

Sakamoto, trying to make it back-to-back titles for Japan after Mai Mihara's title last year, opened with an effortless double axel before landing a triple lutz and a triple flip-triple toe loop. She also received her usual high marks for artistry, and the result was a score of 77.35 points, the best short program of her season.

“I want to answer the expectations of those around me, and my own expectations as well,” said Sakamoto, who failed to medal in her two previous appearances at the capstone event to the Grand Prix season. “I was able to do well in the (short program) in the previous GP Final. The real competition starts from here. I think I have to win against myself.”

Hendrickx, the reigning Grand Prix Final bronze medalist, turned out on her triple flip but was solid on her double axel and triple lutz-triple toe loop to score 73.25 points for second. The 17-year-old Pinzarrone was a surprising third with 66.72 points.

“It's amazing to have two Belgian women here in the final,” Hendrickx said.

In the pairs competition, Minerva Fabienne Hase and Nikita Volodin of Germany barely held off Italy's Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii and the Canadian duo of Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Maxime Deschamps to win the gold medal.

The Canadians finished with a total score of 204.30 points, just 2.13 points back of the German gold medallists,

Stellato-Dudek and Deschamps were the top ranked duo heading into the event.

“We were the top team by, like, 10 points so we know this is way below expectations. But we are still scoring really competitively with mistakes on all the big elements almost. So if we can just clean it up, we’re going to get higher than what we even got at Skate Canada,” Stellato-Dudek said.

Another Canadian pair, Lia Pereira and Trennt Michaud, finished sixth with 185.16 points.

In the rhythm dance, where several teams struggled with their twizzles, the American team of Madison Chock and Evan Bates had no trouble. The reigning world champions — and four-time Grand Prix Final silver medalists — scored 89.15 points to lead the Italian team of Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri and the Canadian duo of Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier.

The competition concludes Saturday with the men's and women's free skates and the free dance.

It was a disappointing night for Isabeau Levito, the 16-year-old American, who was hoping to climb to the top step of the podium after a second-place finish at year ago. The reigning U.S. champion received no points for her opening double lutz, took a step on her double axel and was shaky on a triple flip-double toe loop to score 56.53 points and finish sixth of six.

“It was just a bad skate, I guess,” the tearful Levito said afterward. “I am a little bit sick right now, but in general nothing is really wrong. Tomorrow is another day and we will see how that goes.”

The highlight of the day at National Indoor Stadium in Beijing may have come in the Junior Grand Prix Final, when Mao Shimada became the 14th woman to land a clean quad internationally with her toe loop early in her free skate. The 15-year-old from Japan also landed a triple axel and finished with 206.33 points, which would have been good for second in least year's senior event.

“In the short program, I made a mistake and so today I was very nervous for the free skate,” said Shimada, who also won the title last year. "Before the competition I was able to get my nerves under control and performed well.”

The pairs competition, where Hase and Volodin were in first place after their short program, wound up being one of the tightest in recent memory. The three teams on the podium were separated by just 2.13 points.

“I'm just overwhelmed and surprised,” said Hase, who along with Volodin finished with 206.43 points. “It was super hard today and we both had to fight through this program. It’s even nicer that this was rewarded with the gold medal in the end.”

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AP sports: https://apnews.com/sports

Dave Skretta, The Associated Press