by Ian Marshall, ITTF Publications Editor
Success in Hangzhou in 2012 when he beat colleague Wang Hao was a watershed moment for Xu Xin, it was his first really big title. In early 2014 in Dubai, when he retained the crown by overcoming Ma Long in the title decider, the success cemented his place amongst the very elite of the sport.
Equally having won the Liebherr 2016 Men’s World Cup in Saarbrücken when beating Xu Xin in the final; Fan Zhendong indelibly underlined his credentials.
Now for Fang Bo and Lin Gaoyuan, the jury is still deliberating the verdict.
Both have won ITTF World Tour Men’s Singles titles. Equally at the Qoros 2015 World Championships Fang Bo reached the Men’s Singles final, earlier this year Lin Gaoyuan beat Fan Zhendong in the final at the Asian Cup in Ahmedabad.
In Astana, an opportunity awaits for Fang Bo and Lin Gaoyuan to make a real impact; it is as though they are in the athletics arena competing in the 110 metres hurdles race. They have safely negotiated nine hurdles now the tenth and the finishing line beckons.
Xu Xin and Fan Zhendong have both broken the finishing tape, so why are they one stride ahead of the colleagues?
Simply, Xu Xin is Xu Xin; there is no player like him. There have been pen-hold grip players in the past and Xue Fei, winner of the Boys’ Singles title at the recent 2017 World Junior Championships, looks set to maintain the tradition but compare Xu Xin and Xue Fei, they are as different as chalk and cheese. The long raking forehand and incredible sideways movement sets Xu Xin apart.
In particular, he has proved the nemesis of European players; you have to take your hat off to Japan’s Tomokazu Harimoto for extending Xu Xin the full seven games distance at the recent Seamaster 2017 ITTF World Tour Swedish Open.
Meanwhile for Fan Zhendong, he is safe and in the rallies, he’ll fight his way back into contention when all seems lost; put the first ball on the table and proceed from that point.
Surely it is from Fan Zhendong that Fang Bo and Lin Gaoyang can heed lessons? Fang Bo is safe on the first attack but can he maintain a rally in the same style as Fan Zhendong?
Unquestionably, the quicksilver Lin Gaoyuan oozes talent but does his impetuosity sometimes proves his downfall, a fraction safer when pressure mounts, could that see him move one step higher?
The answer lies in Astana.