With their soaring double twist lift and a throw triple loop that flew half the width of the rink, Russian pair Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze won the short program round at the World Championships late Monday.
The couple was the unanimous choice of the nine judges. China's Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo edged Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier 5-4 for second place. Any of the three can win gold today by winning the free skate, worth two-thirds of the total score.
Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze, twice world champions, could not compete in 2000 because of a suspension after Berezhnaya tested positive for a banned substance. The pair linked it to a cold remedy taken at the European Championships.
"Of course we were nervous. Everyone is," Sikharulidze said. "Tonight was probably our best short program this season," he added.
While the top two pairs had no deductions for major errors, Sale and Pelletier lost points when she touched down with a hand and foot to avoid falling on a triple toe loop.
Russia's reigning world champions, Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov, were fourth after the short program.
ICE DANCING: The top two couples the past two seasons won their compulsory groups Tuesday.
Barbara Fusar Poli and Maurizio Margaglio of Italy, the European champions, finished first in their group. World champions Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat of France won the other.
Compulsories are worth 20 percent of the final score, and the top 15 finishers in each group advanced.
European bronze medalists Irina Lobacheva and Ilia Averbukh finished second behind the Italians, tied with Canada's Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz.
Three-time U.S. champions Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev were fifth in their group. Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto, who won the World Championships as juniors last year, tied for eighth in the same division.
It was Anissina and Peizerat's first time competing since the European Championships, when a fall in the free dance helped cost them the title.