BEIJING - Evgeni Plushenko and Irina Slutskaya weren't even expected to compete in the Grand Prix Finals. Now, the Russians are the favorites.
Both skaters had different reasons for thinking they would not be at the season finale of the six-event International Skating Union series that begins Friday.
Plushenko wanted to skip it, preferring to rest for the major championships and skating tours. He skated just one competition, the Cup of Russia, but surprisingly made the field as an alternate when series leader Johnny Weir of the United States dropped out with a foot injury.
Slutskaya, after a season of illness and an injury, was unsure of herself when she skated in her first Grand Prix meet in two seasons at the start of October - the Cup of China in the same Capital Gymnasium where this weekend's event is being held.
Yet both are here to face the rest of the top six scorers in the men's, women's, pairs and ice dance events.
Some other big names aren't. In addition to Weir, the U.S. champion and winner of two meets on the circuit, Michelle Kwan, the five-time world champion, and Sasha Cohen, the world silver medalist this season, are absent.
Kwan bypassed the series after first being entered into Skate America and Skate Canada. Cohen, who won the Grand Prix final in 2003, had a back injury and withdrew from her competitions.
However, Slutskaya beat both of them at a pro-am event earlier this month after wins at the Cup of China and Cup of Russia.
Plushenko also beat Weir at the Cup of Russia.
Yet, despite three previous GP Finals titles, along with three world championships and the Olympic silver medal, Plushenko would rather be somewhere else.
'' I thought this season was going to be different,'' Plushenko said. ''We planned it different. But I will skate here and I will try my best.''
He said this title is not the major victory the ISU first planned it to be.
''When I started skating, the first time, the Grand Prix Finals was kind of like a world championship,'' Plushenko said. ''This year I think: ''OK, it is not a big title for me. '
''Still it is six people, the best people, and I am going to be prepared, for sure.''
He is not the defending champion. Last year's title went to Canadian Emanuel Sandhu when Plushenko lost on a technicality after a third combination jump was not allowed under the rules of the new scoring system in force last December. That system adds up points for jumps, spins and footwork, as well as artistic content and was officially adopted this year, in great part because of the pairs judging scandal at the Salt Lake City Olympics.
''Last year I did two great combinations, two quads and I lost because of the new system. That was a joke. Now we know the rules. At that time we didn't know the rules,'' Plushenko said.
The rules have been changed, partially because of Plushenko's skating, to include three combinations now.
Sandhu is part of the field, along with Brian Joubert of France, who beat Plushenko at last year's European championships in Budapest. Another Canadian, Jeff Buttle, American Ryan Jahnke and Chinese Li Chengjiang complete the men's field.
Slutskaya has three high-jumping Japanese to worry about: Shizuka Arakawa, who won the world title with two triple-triple combinations last March; Miki Ando, the only woman to complete a quadruple jump in competition; and Yoshie Onda, who has come close to a triple axel in the past.
Two more Canadians, Cynthia Phaneuf and Joannie Rochette, also are here. No Americans qualified.
Local fans will eagerly follow the pairs events, with three Chinese pairs competing, headed by two-time world champions Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo.
Ice dance is the only event with all the top competitors from last year. Three couples had two wins apiece during the season; Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov of Russia, Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviyski of Bulgaria, and Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto of the United States.
The short programs and original dance are Friday and the free programs are Saturday.
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