by Kabir Nagpal
Upsets galore: Whose day is it?
If there was to be a theme to this year’s ITTF World Tour, it would have to be ‘upsets’. The Japan Open alone saw defending champions Tomokazu Harimoto and Mima Ito eliminated in the round of 32 on home territory, the former by a virtual unknown: Sun Wen (CHN), ranked 599th in the world!
Even China’s finest have not avoided shock defeats: men’s world no.2 Lin Gaoyuan and reigning women’s Olympic champion Ding Ning both bowed out prematurely a fortnight ago in Sapporo.
The men’s singles especially has thrown up a number of surprise packages: world #72 Alexander Shibaev (RUS) reaching the quarter-finals in Hungary; #9 Mattias Falck (SWE) coming within a whisker of the Qatar Open final; #56 Lubomir Pistej (SVK) defeating #10 Jang Woojin (KOR) in China; #22 Simon GAUZY (FRA) seeing off #11 Lee Sangsu (KOR) in Hong Kong.
The sudden shift of unpredictability in this year’s World Tour is one being loved by fans and keeping everyone guessing!
At the same time, there were some matches headed towards surprising ends, which were masterfully avoided by the veterans. Most notably, German legend Timo Boll had a heart-in-mouth contest versus India’s Sharath Kamal Achanta at the Hong Kong Open, with victory secured only in the very final game.
Ma Long’s Resurgence
Speaking of veterans, there are few who can match the standards set by ‘The Dragon’ himself. Despite spending seven months sidelined with a knee injury since last summer, Ma Long has been a virtually indomitable force since returning to action in March at the Qatar Open. After winning the final 4-2 against his compatriot Lin Gaoyuan, the 30-year-old maintained his targets were still to be at the top:
“In the context of my longstanding injury, to come back the way I have done, this is the happiest ITTF World Tour title victory of my career. Winning here provides the perfect boost ahead of next month’s World Championships and, of course, aids my long-term preparations for next year’s Olympic Games.” Ma Long
Low and behold, since then, ‘The Dragon’ roared to his third consecutive World Championships crown and clinched gold at the China Open in Shenzhen to break the record for ITTF World Tour men’s singles titles – an incredible 28!
China dominant across Singles
It is unbecoming to not notice how singularly focused this year’s ITTF World Tour has been on China and their exploits, but with stunningly consistent performances coming from the country’s top athletes, there is hardly any blame to follow.
Chen Meng and Wang Manyu have been rock-solid in the women’s singles, recording victories at the China Open and Hungarian and Qatar Opens respectively, with Ma Long and Lin Goayuan the main men so far. The highly impressive Lin has reached four out of five men’s singles finals in 2019, winning two titles along the way in Hungary and Hong Kong.
Europe’s finest have found it increasingly difficult to keep up with the aggressive style of play of the Chinese this year as was evidenced by the German Dimitrij Ovtcharov surrendering a 10-5 lead to lose 17-15 at the final hurdle of his seven-game marathon against Lin at the China Open.
More to come from big names?
Leading the respective men’s and women’s world rankings at the start of 2019, the Chinese duo of Fan Zhendong and Ding Ning have yet to really click into top gear this year.
Lin Gaoyuan (14,400) has come to within just five points of Fan’s leading world-ranking tally (14,405) as the latter has struggled for any of the consistent form, which saw him take the men’s game by storm in 2018.
Meanwhile, Ding Ning’s early exit in Japan led to her falling down the pecking order to the world no.3 spot behind Chen Meng and Wang Manyu. Expect the top of the world ranking charts to keep fluctuating too!
Japan’s struggles to upstage Chinese
Despite the best efforts of Japan’s Tomokazu Harimoto and Mima Ito, the gap between them and China’s elite shows no sign of narrowing. In the Hong Kong Open final, 15-year-old Harimoto learnt the hard way what it is to allow Lin Gaoyuan an inch of space on the table. The Chinese star took no mercy and, from being 1-2 down, won the match 4-2.
Japan’s Hina Hayata suffered the same fate in the Japan Open against Chen Meng, in spite of a momentous 12-3 win in the first game. Chen eventually rolled up her sleeves to win the contest 4-2, and with that stalled yet another keen attempt by the Japanese to dent China’s immense form so far on this year’s ITTF World Tour.