Marina Zoueva, far right, coaches both Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White and their Canadian rivals Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

SOCHI, Russia — Just 2.56 points separate Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the front-running Americans, from their Canadian rivals Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir entering Monday’s free skate, which will crown the 2014 Olympic ice dance champion.

One woman will share the anxious moments in the kiss-and-cry area with all four as they await their scores: Marina Zoueva, the Russian-born coach of both duos.

It’s an arrangement that’s impossible to imagine in other sports. Picture Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer pitted against one another on Wimbledon’s Center Court, each looking to the same box for guidance when their serves desert them or backhands go astray.

But Zoueva has a special gift for giving each team the nurturing they need, Davis explained Sunday night, after she and White earned a short-program record 78.89 points for their performance.

“Marina does an incredible job,” Davis said. “If you want to delve into it, the two teams have very different styles and approaches and strengths. She’s an incredible coach. She knows a lot about life in general and she brings that to the ice with her. When those complexities arise between the two teams she does a wonderful job implementing necessary solutions.”

Davis and White, who have been on-ice partners since age 10, are on the cusp of becoming the first Americans to win Olympic gold in ice dance, a Russian point of pride since the discipline was added to the Winter Games in 1976. Dance duos from the former Soviet Union or Russia have won gold in seven of the 10 Olympics at which medals have been awarded.

But the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union had a profound effect on the development of young skaters. Facilities fell into disrepair, and many of the most gifted coaches left for greater opportunities in the West—not only more pay but also the freedom to work with athletes of their choosing, rather than being assigned particular pupils by government officials.

Zoueva, 57, was among them. A former competitor-turned choreographer in the Soviet Union, she moved to Canada before settling in suburban Detroit. And for the past three Olympics, her hand has been behind what success the U.S. has had in dance, leading Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto to the silver medal at the 2006 Turin Games and Davis-White to silver at the 2010 Vancouver Games—while also coaching Virtue-Moir to their 2010 gold medal.

Three U.S. couples advanced to Monday’s free skate. The Shibutanis are up first (9 p.m. local), the 12th skaters to perform. Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who stand eighth, will skate 14th (9:16 p.m.).

Virtue and Moir will compete 17th (9:46 p.m.). And Davis and White will close the competition, due on the ice at 10:11 p.m.

Despite an overhaul of figure-skating’s scoring system following the judging scandal that marred the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, the subject of judging remains a flashpoint—particularly in ice dance, which is so deeply rooted in theatrics.

Ice dancers receive scores for the difficulty of the steps and lifts they perform, based on an established code of points. But they also receive what are called “component scores” that reflect more subject qualities, such as transitions, choreography and skating skill.

To be sure, the unschooled eyes of sports fans and journalists view performances differently than the trained eyes of Olympic judges. But there is always an element of personal taste in evaluating figure-skating in general, and ice dance in particular.

So it was to be expected that Sunday’s scores triggered comment. What accounted for the biggest differential in the marks accorded the American and Canadians was a required step sequence, known as the Finnstep. The judges awarded the top score possible, Level 4, to Davis and White for theirs but gave Virtue and Moir a Level 3.

Two-time Olympian Petri Kokko, a 1995 European ice dance champion and 1995 world silver medalist, was among those who took to Twitter to voice his puzzlement. But in otherwise sterling performances, the step has been a weak point for the Canadians all season, earning Level 3 marks in their own national championship.

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Photos from Day 10 | Daily TV schedule | U.S. medal winners