Second title for Plushenko

IT was not Yevgeny Plushenko's finest performance. He has been more at ease in the air, more precise with his landings and more communicative with the crowd.

CHRISTOPHER CLAREY

Yevgeny Plushenko performs during the men's free skating event. The Russian, who was ranked first by all the nine judges, bagged his second world title.-Pic. REUTERS

IT was not Yevgeny Plushenko's finest performance. He has been more at ease in the air, more precise with his landings and more communicative with the crowd. But then the 10,059 spectators in the MCI Centre for the men's free program at the world figure skating championships were not the Russian's crowd. They saved their warmest appreciation for American Timothy Goebel and the Washington-born Michael Weiss.

Plushenko had to settle for polite applause after his program, a few scattered boos when his marks were announced and another gold medal.

For now and perhaps for a season or two more, he does not need to be at his best to acquire the most important titles. Though he finished second to Aleksei Yagudin, his longtime rival and boyhood training partner, at last year's Olympics, the victory here gave him his second world title.

Plushenko's technical marks were below his usual standard, ranging from 5.6 to 5.9. But he received nothing but 5.9s for presentation, enough to relegate Goebel to second. Like the Russian, Goebel landed two clean quadruple jumps and seven triples, but he looked weary in the final stages of his now-very-familiar program set to the music of An American in Paris. He looked much closer to delighted than he did to disappointed after receiving a second consecutive silver at the world championships.

"It's been such a hard year for me," said Goebel, who has competed sporadically because of a hip injury. "Those were the three best programs I've done this season." But he finished second to Plushenko in all three phases of the event, which was a testimony to Plushenko's reputation with the judges and to his ability to grit his teeth. He aggravated a knee while practicing quadruple jumps before these championships and required therapy throughout the week.

"I'm very tired right know," said Plushenko, who was ranked first by all nine judges whose scores counted. "My knee has been bothering me. Today, the knee became all red. I didn't get an injection. We treated it with salve and massage."

Takeshi Honda of Japan won the bronze medal, just as he did in last year's world championships. Weiss, who had hoped to capitalise on his home-ice advantage to reach the podium, had to settle for fifth after an uneven program that featured one clean quadruple jump. Unlike Goebel and Plushenko, he was unable to use a quadruple in combination.

"I don't know what happened," he said. "Sometimes it's there; sometimes it isn't. I didn't feel any more pressure being in my hometown."

In the second phase of the ice-dancing competition, Irina Lobacheva and Ilya Averbukh of Russia won the original dance ahead of the Canadian veterans Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz.

Though it is best to take athletes' retirement plans with a polite dash of skepticism, both the Russians and Canadians have announced that this will be their last appearance in a major championship. After finishing second at the Olympics, Lobacheva and Averbukh won last year's world title, with the Canadians settling for silver.

"It's a very emotional program," Bourne said. "I think the best way to describe it is finding the right way to peace. That's sort of the idea of the program and sort of appropriate for this time right now in our world."

Shortly before Plushenko and Goebel tested the edges of their talent on the ice, Yagudin, who has beaten them so often over the years, was giving interviews in the much more somber press centre and expressing his longing to recover from the chronic hip pain that has kept him from competing regularly this season.

Yagudin has won four world titles, as well as the Olympic gold medal last year in Salt Lake City with a remarkable performance that did not get its proper due because it happened in the midst of the judging scandal in the pairs event.

There are no holes in his resume, but that does not mean he is ready to leave the Olympic-eligible ranks and restrict himself to professional tours and competitions. He is still only 22; still motivated by the adrenaline rush that comes only with matching quads and nerves at the highest level.

"It's really hard for me just to watch," he said. "It was, in a way, harder at the beginning of the season. When I watched Lalique, where I've been five times in a row, I almost cried. It's really hard to be part of the competitions for so many years and then suddenly, kind of your life stops. There are so many new things — tours and other shows — but I'd rather be here and compete."

There have been concerns that Yagudin's hip problems could end his Olympic career. He said the most recent diagnoses indicate that it is a congenital problem instead of being linked to the thousands of wrenching jumps he has attempted over the years. Since Skate America in October, he has rarely been able to train at full power, but he said he has landed quads in practice of late.

New York Times News Service