Without Vonn, Maze favorite at slalom opener
LEVI, Finland -- With Lindsey Vonn skipping the race, Tina Maze of Slovenia is the favorite heading into the opening World Cup slalom on Saturday.
Maze won the season's first giant slalom and looks to add a slalom victory to extend her lead for the overall World Cup title.
Four-time overall champion Vonn is skipping the event to focus on races later this month in Aspen, Colo., the only U.S. stop on the women's circuit.
Maze was the distant runner-up to Vonn in the overall standings last year, when she failed to win a race all season. She ended that 20-month drought with a World Cup victory two weeks ago in Soelden, Austria.
Maze arrived with the Slovenian team on Sunday in Levi, Finland, 105 miles north of the Arctic circle. It's the northernmost World Cup venue.
"You have time to explore the places, people and, of course, the race course and snow," she said. "It's the opening (slalom) for the season, and I'm going to do my best on Saturday."
For American teenager Mikaela Shiffrin, the black piste course will be a new experience. Organizers last year cancelled the races because of a lack of snow. This year the forecast is much better.
"It will be interesting racing where it's dark most of the time," Shriffin said.
There are doubts about Olympic slalom champion Maria Hoefl-Riesch, who has a hip injury and had to limit her training. A win by Austrian slalom specialist Marlies Schild could match the discipline record of Swiss great Vreni Schneider. Schild won six of 10 slaloms last season and has 33 in her career. She won the Levi races in 2006 and 2010.
On the men's side, defending slalom title holder Andre Myhrer of Sweden will go head-to-head with defending overall champion Marcel Hirscher of Austria.
American Ted Ligety, a 2006 Olympic gold medalist and the season-opening giant slalom winner in Soelden, also joins the field.
"Levi is a pretty tame hill with a lot of rolls, some flats and a short steep into a flat finish," Ligety said. "But it is in the Arctic Circle. So it can be super icy and wet in some spots, plus you have a lot of variability with light since the sun sets so early."
Hirscher and Croatia's Ivica Kostelic dominated most of last season's slaloms, sharing eight wins between them. But Myhrer finished strong and captured the discipline title. The Swede told The Associated Press on Friday he's ready to defend his title.
"I think I can take it home again, and that is my goal," Myhrer said. "This is a slope that I like, and it suits me really well."
Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Grange, the 2011 world champion and 2010 race winner, will skip the race because of a knee injury.
AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
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