MOSCOW -- Maxim Kovtun's two confident quads gave him a big lead after Friday's short program in the Rostelecom Cup, the last of six Grand Prix events before the final.
As the only competitor to try two quads, much less complete them, Kovtun ended the day nearly nine points ahead of Japan's Tatsuki Machida, who opened with a clean quad but then stepped out of the triple toe loop that was the second jump in his combination. Javier Fernandez of Spain was in third despite falling on his quad.
In the women's short program, Russian Julia Lipnitskaia was in the lead, followed by Carolina Kostner of Italy, the 2012 world champion. American teammates Agnes Zawadzki and Mirai Nagasu were one-hundredth of a point apart at third and fourth, though well behind the two leaders.
Kovtun is gunning for the sole Russian men's slot in Sochi, which Turin Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko also wants. Plushenko was to have been part of the Rostelecom field, but withdrew from what would have been his first top-tier competition since back surgery this spring. Plushenko blamed his withdrawal on a knee injury.
"I was interested in trying my strength against such a fantastic skater," Kovtun said. "But I hope I will have another chance at Russian nationals."
Kovtun was strong throughout his flamenco-themed program, the only notable flaw that he was almost sitting on the landing of his second quad to keep his balance.
Machida, who won gold at Skate America, lamented that he was not in good condition in Moscow, but said it's not clear what's troubling him.
"Actually, I don't know," he said when asked about the specifics.
Fernandez, the European champion and world bronze medallist , expressed satisfaction despite his fall.
"I think I just had a little problem in the pattern and I just need to keep my mind clear," he said.
All four of the top women did triple-triple combinations. But Lipnitskaia landed a more difficult triple lutz-triple toe combo while Kostner, Zawadzki and Nagasu all did triple toe-triple toes.
In pairs, four-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy led after the short program, followed by Russians Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov and Canada's Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch.
Lipnitskaia, who won gold at Skate Canada, will qualify for the Grand Prix final with a medal of any shade in Moscow. Kostner would qualify with a gold, but Zawadzki, after a seventh-place finish in the Cup of China, is out of contention. The top six skaters in each discipline qualify for the final, which is Dec. 5-8 in Fukuoka, Japan.
Lipnitskaia's program began on a mysterious note, with her crouched down and drawing figures with her finger on the ice. Asked what that's all about, she chose to keep the meaning hidden.
"Everyone can see what he wants to," she said.
But once she rose from the crouch, the 2012 junior world champion's program was crystal-clear: a clean triple-triple, a precisely landed double axel and a very fast combination spin at the end.
The veteran Kostner, who said she is contemplating retirement after the season, said she was soothed by being back on the ice at Moscow's Luzhniki Small Arena. The arena was the practice rink for the 2005 world championships, where she won her first world medal, a bronze.
"It feels very special," Kostner said. "It's funny to see so much time has passed."
The top pairs all struggled, notably Savchenko's hard fall on a throw triple axel, a challenging move that the pair daringly puts almost at the end of their program when their energy has flagged somewhat.
"It's a risky element," Szolkowy acknowledged. "We tried it in several positions; we found at the end it is best."
Bazarova put her hand down on the pair's opening triple toe loop and landed awkwardly on the throw triple loop, but said it was all an improvement over last week's Trophee Bompard, where the pair was fourth.
"Today, we got the maximum levels," she said.
Moscovitch took his fall in stride, saying, "I was working on some yoga positions on the landing."