Kim leads Sotnikova as Lipnitskaia trails
South Korea's Kim Yu-Na performs in the Women's Figure Skating Short Program at the Iceberg Skating Palace during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 19, 2014 - by Damien Meyer
Fifteen-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia had been expected to challenge Kim for the gold after her dazzling displays helped Russia to the new team gold just over a week ago but instead she is struggling in fifth after a fall on a triple flip.
But it was national champion Sotnikova, 17, who had been left out of the team event, who lifted spirits with a rousing skate to "Carmen" which brought the 17,000-capacity crowd at Iceberg Skating Palace to their feet.
Kim, 23, had earlier scored 74.92 points for her skate to "Send In The Clowns" with Sotnikova just marginally behind with 74.64.
Italy's Carolina Kostner is sitting third with 74.12 with less than a point separating the top three skaters.
US champion Gracie Gold scored 68.63 and is fourth with Lipnitskaia fifth with 65.23.
"I was really nervous, my legs started trembling and shaking," said Kim, who opened with a triple lutz-triple toeloop combination and also included a triple flip and double axel in the 2min 40sec routine.
"The jumps didn't go well in the warm-up. I tried to remember the good practices I had. I just told myself: 'believe in yourself'.
"I smiled at the end because all my nerves evaporated. I'm a human being and get nervous all the time but it doesn't show on my face."
Kim was well below the world record 78.50 she achieved on her way to gold in Vancouver four years ago but it was enough to stake her claim to a second gold.
She is bidding to become just the third woman to win back-to-back titles after Norway's Sonje Henie and Germany's Katarina Witt.
Witt won her titles in 1984 and 1988.
Japanese star Mao Asada's Olympic challenge is however over as the Vancouver silver medallist slumped to 16th.
She scored just 55.51 for her skate to Chopin's "Nocturne in E Flat" after she fell on her opening attempt at a triple axel and she also popped her combination jump.
Wearing electric lime Kim had captivated the crowd despite chants of 'Julia, Julia, Julia' resounding round the rink, with her seamless skate.
Kostner took to the ice after Lipnitskaia and had to dodge the flowers which rained down despite the teenager scoring 7.67 fewer than she had in the team event for her skate to Mark Minkov's "You Don't Give Up on Love".
"I feel sad. I don't know what happened," said Lipnitskaia.
"I wasn't good enough on the jumps. Tomorrow, I will go out there and fight."
Kostner, the 2012 world champion, who has failed to rise to the occasion in her two previous Olympics, achieved a personal best 74.12 for her ethereal skate to Schubert's "Ave Maria".
The five-time European champion, landed a triple-triple toeloop combination, a triple loop and a double axel, finishing her routine with tears in her eyes.
Kim surged to gold in Vancouver but after finishing runner-up to Asada at worlds the following month she took 18 months out before returning in late 2012.
She recaptured the world title again in 2013 setting herself up as favourite for Olympic gold only to have her season hampered by a foot injury.
She missed the Grand Prix series, only competing in two low key events this season.