PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- World and European champion Alexei Yagudin appeared wan and confused after a disastrous qualifying round Monday at the European Figure Skating Championships.
Where he normally soars, he'd crashed. Right on his first jump, a triple axel.
His mental fitness collapsed with the axel. Yagudin then barely held a triple toe and a triple lutz, and he doubled the flip and the salchow. He skated his "Lawrence of Arabia" long program slowly and his face expressed stern concentration, not the joy of competition.
The performance placed him third in a group that didn't even include his chief rivals, fellow Russians Alexei Urmanov, the 1994 Olympic champion, and Yevgeny Plushenko, the Russian national champion.
Plushenko already has beaten Yagudin twice this season, and skated the strongest routine of the day, pulling off a quad and two triple-triple combinations -- among eight triples he landed squarely.
Urmanov crashed even more dramatically than Yagudin, hitting the boards on an off-center triple opening the program, at a spot he has been marking for a possible quad in practices. He finished second in the group, landing two shaky triples before recovering for a strong finish: three triples in the last minute.
For the first time, the qualifying counts for 20 percent of the final score. For Yagudin, third in his group, the result isn't desperate. If he pulls it together at Tuesday's short program, he'd still be in position to defend his title.
Coming off the ice, Yagudin struggled to understand why he'd skated so poorly. He'd won six competitions this season, though the last two -- including Russian nationals -- he'd lost to 16-year-old Plushenko.
Maybe it was the new boots he replaced last week, he suggested. It wasn't practice. That was going well. Yagudin, a natural jumper, even dared to wonder if perhaps he'd launched himself too high into the bungled triple axel.
The champion was perplexed.
"During practice, I skated so well. But during competition, I don't do a single jump," Yagudin said wearily. While most days, he can bank on eight triples, including a triple-triple combination, Yagudin made just four triples and no combinations.
"I was really shocked when I fell. When you skate, you want to put all the power into your jumps," he said.
Instead of Yagudin's classic figure leading the group, the ungainly French champion Laurent Tobel, skating his first Europeans, led the first qualifying group, gaining confidence with every triple nailed, and nailing all eight.
This is no underdog pleased just to have skated well. French hopes for a champion lie with Tobel since Olympic bronze medalist Phillipe Candeloro turned professional after the 1998 Olympics.
"I have a new title, and and I'm responsible for the French nation," said Tobel, as quirky as his predecessor, Candeloro, is flamboyant and flirtatious. While Candeloro assumed the roles of historic figures, like Napoleon, to project his charisma, Tobel's appeal is in his idiosyncratic spins with the free ankle turned in, or flared single jump with a two-footed landing.
In pairs, world and European champions Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze won the short program with a cleanly skated up-tempo routine, departing from the classical "Swan Lake" that earned them 6.0s for artistry at the Europeans last year.
The Russian duo hit all the required elements, including a side-by-side triple toe loop and a throw triple salchow, earning six 5.9s, two 5.8s, and one 5.7.
"When we made this program, we knew it was a 5.9, not 6.0. But we are trying a new style and for us, that's more important than a 6.0," Sikharulidze said.
Sarah Abitbol and Stephane Bernadis of France finished second, and German champions Peggy Schwarz and Mirko Mueller were third going into Wednesday's free program.
The 1999 Europeans is the first skated under new rules introduced to help make the sport more understandable to fans and to reduce bias.
Judges can now view technical elements from the short programs on instant replay video, and scoring has been changed to reduce hard to comprehend topsy-turvy finishes, like the 1997 Europeans won by Urmanov even though he was behind another skater after both had skated the long program.
Judges from North America, Australia and Japan also are at Europeans to help dilute national bias. And judges for ice dancing, where rankings rarely change without retirements from eligible competitions, will be drawn for each competition.