Buckle up, Baku -- things are about to get interesting.
The Azerbaijani capital has hosted world cups in artistic gymnastics for the past several years, but it’s never seen one like this. As the individual apparatus Olympic qualification race heats up, an enormously talented group of specialists (and a few solid all-arounders) are descending en masse for the AGF Trophy (otherwise known as the Baku World Cup), which begins tomorrow and promises to be the most competitive meet Azerbaijan has ever seen. The level is so high that there’s a delicious unpredictability in it all, which is not always the case at world cup meets. That said, here’s a breakdown some of the likeliest possible scenarios for gold and those all-important World Cup ranking points.
Women’s Vault: A colossus of talent
Vault is normally the most neglected event at individual apparatus World Cups, but not this time. Here you get the reigning Olympic silver medalist Maria Paseka, fresh off winning vault at the Russian Championships last week in Penza, where her Amanar second vault was the biggest “ta-da!” moment of the meet. There’s also reigning World bronze medalist Alexa Moreno and her ever trusty Rudi, 2017 European vault champion Coline Devillard and her ever trusty Rudi, Oksana Chusovitina and her arsenal of power, and Jade Carey, who may be the only finalist to actually throw a double twisting Yurchenko. Carey is in some circles regarded as a shoo-in for the World Cup title on vault, but in this field she’ll need to be near her best to win. Barring falls, all should make finals.
Indian sensation Dipa Karmarkar will be making her 2019 “no pressure” debut at this meet after a less-than-spectacular return last year following an ACL tear in 2017. Karmakar has abandoned her Produnova and now relies on a less risky Tsuk double full to get her into finals. She’s a wildcard category because her form often hinders her, and without the D-score power of the Produnova she’s less likely to challenge for the podium. On the home front, Azerbaijan’s best hope of a final lies with Marina Nekrasova, a former World Cup medalist on this event.
Uneven Bars: A mini-Euros, with China too
Bars is never an event you can count on a gymnast to hit, especially at a World Cup, but this field is too stacked not to produce some memorable routines. Between 2013 European bars medalist Jonna Adlerteg, Ukraine’s Diana Varinska, 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Sophie Scheder and Russian specialist Anastasiya Ilyankova, we’re really spoiled for style. Lyu Jiaqi, whom China has been sending to do bars at world cups likely in the hope of getting her an Olympic spot, should be a medal contender here as well.
Balance Beam: Narrow margins
China has sent two extremely talented competitors in Li Qi and 2018 World team member Chen Yile, but both could have stiff competition from Russia’s Varvara Zubova and Youth Olympian Anastasiya Bachynska, who will be making her senior international debut in Baku. As a junior, Bachynaska proved to be a quintessential Ukrainian competitor -- elegant, poised and completely unpredictable. She does have a wonderful front handspring, front tuck combination at the top of her routine, however.
After a successful comeback on floor at the Melbourne World Cup at the end of February, Vanessa Ferrari is back on the beam here too. France’s Marine Boyer, a solid all-arounder who is quite good on beam, might have an opportunity here too.
Floor Exercise: It’s anyone’s game
Ferrari won floor in Melbourne in an extremely shallow field, and Baku is likely to be a little (but just a little) more indicative of where she stands internationally. Floor still feels like the most up-for-grabs title in the women’s competition. Carey will have far and away the hardest tumbling of the bunch, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee her anything. She had the hardest tumbling in Cottbus last November as well, but multiple passes landed out of bounds and some form mistakes left her in fifth place.
Bachynska, meanwhile, has wonderful form, excellent precision, and was quite overlooked in 2018 as a potential floor contender. Boyer could make noise here too, as might Australian floor specialist Alex Eade.