Figure skating-Japan's Sakamoto tops short programme, Miura and Kihara shine

Figure Skating - World Figure Skating Championships - Saitama Super Arena, Saitama, Japan - March 22, 2023 Japan's Kaori Sakamoto performs during the women short program REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

SAITAMA, Japan (Reuters) - Kaori Sakamoto produced a near-flawless display to lead the field after the women's short programme at the figure skating world championships in Saitama, Japan on Wednesday with a season's best score of 79.24.

Skating to "Rock With U" by Janet Jackson, the 22-year-old from Japan nailed her routine that included a double axel and a triple Lutz to move ahead of Lee Hae-in (73.62) and training mate Mai Mihara (73.46) with Friday's free skate to follow.

"I was pretty calm today and able to skate like my everyday practice," said Sakamoto, who aims to become the first woman to claim back-to-back world titles since Evgenia Medvedeva.

"I hit a plateau with my short programme score this season, so I'm happy with my score and I think it's a good score leading into my free skate."

Japan's hopes in the men's competition took a hit as world champion Uno Shoma suffered a right ankle injury after falling on a quadruple Salchow in practice and the 25-year-old will be assessed before Thursday's short programme.

Earlier, home favourites Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara drew a standing ovation from the predominantly Japanese crowd at the Saitama Super Arena with an assured run to top the pairs event with a career-best 80.72 in the short programme.

The 2022 worlds silver medallists have been in red-hot form having won the Grand Prix Final in Turin and last month's Four Continents Championship and dazzled again skating to "You'll Never Walk Alone."

Kihara said they were inspired by Japan's victory over the United States in the World Baseball Classic final.

"We wanted to watch the ninth inning but we had to prepare for the event, so we rushed out to grab lunch and by the time we got back it was over," Kihara said.

"I've been supporting them from my heart and they gave us courage before we performed."

The Toronto-based duo -- who became only the fifth team to cross the 80-point mark in their short programme -- can secure Japan's first ever world title in pairs with another strong showing in Thursday's free skate.

They lead reigning world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier of the United States, who overcame a fall by the latter during their side-by-side jumps to sit second with 74.64.

Knierim and Frazier are without coach Todd Sand as the two-times Olympian recovers from a heart attack.

European champions Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii of Italy were third (73.24).

(Reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar in Bengaluru; Editing by Christian Radnedge)

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