Xu Xin is having a moment: the 29-year-old achieved the triple crown of table tennis in Sapporo, becoming only the second player ever to capture men’s singles, men’s doubles and mixed doubles titles at the same ITTF World Tour stop. Xu joining a club so exclusive that only one other player – Korea’s Jang Woojin, who achieved the treble at this tournament last year – is a member.
The ‘Cloudwalker’ descends on Busan targeting the world #1 position currently occupied by his doubles partner Fan Zhendong, while Jang returns to the place of his greatest triumph hoping for a repeat performance.
Pairs of aces
For all his tenacity elsewhere, Xu has been most effective in mixed doubles, winning three of the five World Tour contests, partnering with Liu Shiwen in Hungary and Doha and most recently with Zhu Yuling in Japan. For Korea, he’s back with Liu.
If there’s one pair with the potential to play spoiler, it’s Taipei’s Lin Yun-Ju and Cheng I-Ching, victorious at the China and Hong Kong Opens. Lin and Cheng have yet to face off against Xu in a World Tour final this year.
A tight race at the top
A small spread separates women’s world #2 Liu Shiwen, #3 Ding Ning and #4 Zhu Yuling, while #1 Chen Meng maintains a fairly tenuous lead over Liu. While Chen leads in points, it’s #5 Wang Manyu who has most consistently appeared in late round play on the tour this year, etching victories against Liu in Doha and Chen in China, as well as a semi-finals appearance at the Hungarian Open.
The player who has emerged as the biggest threat to the top four’s dominance is China’s Sun Yingsha, who surprised Liu and everyone else in taking the Japan Open two weeks ago, though she had served warning by making it to the semis in Doha in March as well. Sun is currently ranked #18, but another sunny performance would raise her stock significantly.
China doubles down
What happens when you put the #1 and #3 singles players together? Generally, you get a pretty good pair out of it. That’s what China is banking on with Fan Zhendong and Xu Xin. Both have been on fire in singles competition, with Fan establishing himself as the most consistent points-earner on the circuit and Xu coming out on top at the last World Tour stop in Sapporo.
Yet the Chinese coaches hesitated to enter the 2017 world champion duo in early season competitions, preferring to rely on Ma Long and Wang Chuqin and Liang Jingkun and Lin Gaoyuan, who took the Hong Kong Open. But when Fan and Xu finally took the floor together, they cruised to a 3-0 victory over Germany’s Benedikt Duda and Qui Dang, a feat they’ll try to replicate in Korea.
Shifting forces in women’s pairs
As usual, China has been absolutely dominant in women’s doubles play for the first half of the year, and nobody has stood in the winner’s circle more than Wang Manyu, who with Zhu Yuling or Sun Yingsha has already seen action in four of five finals and won two of them.
What she hasn’t done yet in 2019 is pair with Chen Meng, who with Liu Shiwen defeated Wang and Sun at the Japan Open. They will however now have the chance to team up in Korea, as China once again shifts its doubles teams, seeking the ultimate combination of stars.