by Blythe Lawrenson
China take charge
If upsets have been the predominant theme on the singles side so far on the Seamaster 2019 ITTF World Tour, steadiness is a way to describe what has transpired in the doubles, at least as far as China is concerned. The powerhouse nation continues to blitz the field in two-person play, leaving the rest of the world scrambling to catch up.
Through five World Tour events, Chinese stars have won all but three championship contests across the men’s, women’s and mixed doubles categories. Behind them, however, are a host of hungry players searching for the formula that will allow them to challenge Chinese supremacy.
The cloud king and his court
Much of China’s success in doubles has been due to the internet-breaking returns of Xu Xin, dubbed the “Cloudwalker” for his polished penhold grip play. The 2016 Olympic team gold medallist has been the common denominator in China’s success in men’s and mixed doubles play, delivering a total of five victories and counting this year.
The 29-year-old, who first achieved world no. 1 status as a singles player in 2013, has been as effective in encouraging China’s next generation as he has in shutting down the opponents across the table.
Xu had nothing but kind words for partner Liang Jingkun after the two captured the men’s doubles title at the Hungarian Open in January, shutting down Fan Zhendong and Lin Guoyuan 3-2. “I think the encouragement from Xu towards me was very important,” Liang commented after the match. “I feel honoured to be with him on the same side.”
Finding the right formula
Xu has paired with the best and brightest of his nation, including Fan and Liang on the men’s front, and star female players Zhu Yuling and Liu Shiwen in the mixed doubles to mammoth success, but China’s continual partnership tweaking indicates the nation is still seeking the perfect pairing ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. It’s a similar story in the women’s doubles for Chinese star Wang Manyu, who has already won twice this year, once with Sun Yingsha in Qatar and once with Zhu Yuling in Hungary.
The rising sun
More switches may be in store for Japan as well as their teams prepare to bask in the spotlight sure to be cast upon them during Tokyo’s Olympic summer. A very promising duo has emerged in 16-year-old Tomokazu Harimoto and 18-year-old Hina Hayata, who only practiced together a handful of times before achieving their first wins in mixed doubles at the Hong Kong Open. In Japan a week later, they wound up in the found themselves in the final looking across the table at Xu and Zhu — as auspicious a beginning to a partnership as could be asked for.
A handful of pairs, including current world no. 1s Jeoung Youngsik and Lee Sangsu of Korea and Japan’s and Minyuu Kihara and Miya Nagasaki have made semifinals appearances on the world tour as they chase the Chinese stars.
The shock of the season, however, came when German veterans Timo Boll and Patrick Franziska upset world champions Ma Long and Wang Chuqin 3-0 to take the men’s title at the China Open, serving their hosts a rare defeat at home. If the Chinese were stunned, so were the Germans:
“We didn’t expect this. We had not played together for a long time before the beginning of the season, but we know each other very well off the table too, so that helps and makes it a lot of fun.” Patrick Franziska