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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Stars Eye World Skating Titles

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Russia's Alexei Yagudin is just one of the defending champions under pressure before this week's world figure skating championships, which promise to be the most unpredictable in recent memory.

Yagudin, a triple-world champion, has not beaten compatriot and arch-rival Yevgeny Plushenko in the last three competitions, and his is not the only crown that could fall in Vancouver.

Last month women's champion, American Michelle Kwan, was defeated by Russian Irina Slutskaya at the Grand Prix Final.

At the European championships in January, French ice dancers Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat lost their title to Italy's Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio, while Russian world champion pair Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov could only manage fourth in their event.

"It's pre-Olympic year, everyone's going to be at the top of their game. Nothing is in stone. I don't think they can be engraving any names on medals right now," said twice Olympic silver medallist Brian Orser.

"Other years, it has been predictable. Ladies, men's, pairs, dance — even dance — is up in the air."

Despite Yagudin's recent poor run, his coach, Tatyana Tarasova, said he was physically and mentally back in form.

"He's working very hard and very well. I think we're ready for the worlds, 100 percent, although everyone here had the flu last week," Tarasova said last week.

As an added incentive, the championship results will determine how many entries each country is awarded for the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

The men's qualifying round, worth 20 percent, was to begin Monday with Yagudin, Canadian triple world champion Elvis Stojko, 1996 world champion Todd Eldredge from the United States, and 43 others.

Stojko, 28, and Eldredge, 29, have been suffering from injuries this season, and Stojko will be making his first appearance in competition this season.

Others to watch in the men's competition include Japan's Takeshi Honda, China's Li Chengjiang and American Timothy Goebel.

The pairs event was also to begin Monday with 24 couples skating their short programs, worth 30 percent.

Petrova and Tikhonov, hampered by injury this season, are the least likely among the four titleholders to successfully defend their crown.

They won last year in the absence of twice world champions Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, also of Russia, who were suspended due to her positive dope test, attributed to a cold remedy.

Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze have since reclaimed their European title, and will find themselves in a race for gold with Canada's Jamie Sale and David Pelletier and China's Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao.

Among the 49 women to take to the ice for their qualifier Wednesday, Slutskaya could be the one to beat.

The 2000 silver medallist defeated Kwan at Skate Canada and the ISU Grand Prix Final, and beat 1999 world champion Maria Butyrskaya at both the Russian nationals and European Championships.

"I do not consider myself as the favorite," Slutskaya said in an e-mail from Moscow.

"Of course, winning the gold at worlds has always been my dream. However, at the competition I just go out and skate as well as I can."

American youngster Sarah Hughes, 15, and Japan's Fumie Suguri, who did not compete last year due to injury, could prove to be the spoilers in this event.