MINNEAPOLIS, FEB. 14 -- The word traveled slowly to the U.S. figure skaters here tonight. Japan's Midori Ito, the 1989 world champion and the favorite to win the gold medal next year at the Winter Olympics, is expected to miss the world championships next month in Munich because of jaw surgery.

With reigning world champion Jill Trenary of the United States out with an injured ankle, this leaves a void that likely will be filled by Kristi Yamaguchi, the leader after tonight's original program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Target Center.

But neither Yamaguchi nor her coach, Christy Ness, had any idea Ito was injured when they walked into the interview room to discuss her nearly perfect performance tonight. Someone asked what the two of them thought of Ito probably missing the worlds.

Ness started giggling. She couldn't stop.

"Is this a plant?" she asked.

No, she was told. It was for real.

She might as well have followed with: Is this too good to be true?

Ness said she'll wait to comment, after finding out how severely Ito is hurt. But, in the back of her mind, she must be figuring the path is now clear for Yamaguchi to become the reigning world champion going into the Albertville Olympics, a most enviable position in a sport where re'sume's count almost as much as performances.

This is not to say that the world title will simply be handed to Yamaguchi any more than the U.S. title will automatically become hers Saturday afternoon during the long program (that counts for two-thirds of the final score; tonight's program is one-third). But if Yamaguchi skates as flawlessly the next month as she did tonight, there will be no doubt.

Yamaguchi, 19, who gave up trying to double as both a singles and pairs skater less than a year ago to devote her time to singles, is stronger and more confident than she has ever been.

She waited until the final 10 seconds of her two-minute 40-second program to attempt the last required jump, a double axel. She moved from one end of the ice to the middle, right in front of the judges, to end her program with the daring move. None of the other 13 skaters dared wait that long to perform a jump so important.

"It wasn't a risk," she said. "It shouldn't be a problem."

Yamaguchi landed the double axel without trouble. For her required elements, she received only 5.8s from the nine judges. For presentation, she received two 5.8s and seven 5.9s.

"Kristi's stronger this year and she's also matured," Ness said. "You're seeing a different performer out there. I don't care if she is the favorite or not."

Yamaguchi, from Fremont, Calif., now trains in Edmonton with Ness after deciding to split with pairs partner Rudy Galindo. They were the U.S. champions last year, but Yamaguchi decided the strain of practicing and competing in both events was too much for her. She has been runner-up the last two years at the U.S. championships.

"Here my schedule is so much easier," Yamaguchi said. "A couple days ago, I had only one practice. Last year, I'd have five practices some days. It was just outrageous."

Dove-tailing with her decision to go it alone came Trenary's injury.

Trenary, the reigning U.S. and world champion from Minneapolis, isn't here -- and won't be at the worlds either. She underwent two operations on her right ankle after blisters on her foot became infected. She is hoping to return to the ice in the spring.

"Whether Jill is here or not, I still have to perform," Yamaguchi said. "There are so many other great skaters here who could put up a fight."

The only one with much of a chance this weekend is Portland's Tonya Harding, seventh a year ago, who finished second in the original program. Nancy Kerrigan of Stoneham, Mass., was third, while Holly Cook of Bountiful, Utah, was a disappointing fourth. Cook finished third at the worlds last year, while Yamaguchi was fourth.

Ito, the most spectacular jumper in the world, had two operations on her salivary gland after being hospitalized Jan. 26. She is out of training and not expected back in time for the worlds.