By Kabir Nagpal & James Francis
Off the back of the final World Cup qualification tournament of 2019, the ITTF Africa Cup, confirmation has arrived of the 40 athletes who will be packing their suitcases for two of the most prestigious events of the year:
The 2019 Uncle Pop ITTF Women’s World Cup will get the ball rolling between 18th – 20th October, while the Men’s World Cup will take place between 29th November – 1st December.
Let’s take a look at some of the star names set to light up the shows in Chengdu, China later this year.
Liu leads the line; Zhu aims high
As world champion in Budapest, Chinese star Liu Shiwen has rightfully qualified for the Women’s World Cup in her home nation and will be bidding for what would be a record fifth gold medal in the competition. A niggling injury kept her out of last month’s Australian Open and she has yet to hit the heights of Hungary in recent months, however there is no way anyone can count Liu out of the reckoning.
2019 has been a tough ride for For China’s other participant, Zhu Yuling, who has not won on the ITTF World Tour for over a year (the 2018 Korea Open), however the World Cup is a different tournament and last year’s runner-up now has the chance to regain the gold she claimed for the first time back in 2017 in Markham, Canada, courtesy of winning the Asian Cup in April. Could last month’s triumph at T2 Diamond Malaysia prove to be the turning point in Zhu’s year, helping her to build a head of steam before Chengdu? Only time will tell.
Representing Korea, Japan, Hong Kong & Chinese Taipei…
Korea Republic’s Jeon Jihee qualified for the World Cup by taking 7th place at the Asian Cup. Boasting an immaculate work-rate, she will be a worthy representative for her nation in Chengdu. Similarly for Japan, the youthful exuberance of Miu Hirano will be on display as the 19-year-old challenges again for top honours. Her 2016 success in Philadelphia remains the only time a non-Chinese player took the ultimate prize in Women’s World Cup history.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s Doo Hoi Kem – renowned for her mixed doubles prowess, yet equally dangerous in the singles – and Chinese Taipei’s Cheng-I Cheng – who picked up silver in 2016 before two bronze medals at the 2017 and 2018 World Cups – will also provide stiff competition from Asia.
P.S.S.S. providing European quality
Romanian fan favourite, Bernadette Szocs, will be hoping to bring her A-game to Chengdu after finishing 2nd in the Europe Top 16 Cup back in February. Szocs is joined by compatriot and triple Olympian Elizabeta Samara, whose silver medal back in 2012 remains the most recent time that a European reached the final of the Women’s World Cup.
Poland’s Natalia Partyka has always amazed fans with her grit to participate in able-bodied competitions despite being a Paralympic athlete. Taking the 4th spot at the Europe Cup means that she too will be doing battle in Chengdu, as will of course the current Europe Cup champion, Petrissa Solja of Germany, who took bronze in 2015.
Queens of their continent, what about the world?
As the recently crowned Africa Cup champion for an incredible seventh time, Dina Meshref will want to leave a mark on the world stage. The Egpytian #1 has a strong left-handed shakehand attacking style which is surely going to make her opponents wary.
Pan American Cup champion, Adriana Diaz will be representing Puerto Rico with pride. Her decisive play and strategic timeouts have become a regular sight as she slowly gains on the Asian elite in women’s table tennis.
Approximately five weeks after the Women’s World Cup, the men will assemble in the same city as they go about their own pursuit for glory between 29th November – 1st December.
Ma in for the Long game
What more can be said about the legend that is Ma Long?! ‘The Dragon’ is set to appear in yet another World Cup and it will be a tough task for anyone to prevent him from claiming what would be his third career gold in the tournament.
Fan Zhendong may not have won on the ITTF World Tour yet in 2019, but you can bet the former world #1 and defending Men’s World Cup champion will be doing all he can to ensure the trophy stays by his side for another year.
Kings of their continents, now the world?
Egypt’s Omar Assar will be joining the party in Chengdu following his Africa Cup victory last weekend. This will be his third career appearance having previously qualified in 2015 and 2017.
Meanwhile the “Thrill from Brazil” and Pan American Cup champion, Hugo Calderano has started to show flashes of excellence on the international stage of late and looks determined to overcome a fairly underwhelming group-stage exit last year in Disneyland Paris.
Bringing experience: Boll & Ovtcharov
Two-time Men’s World Cup champion (2002 and 2005) and four-time runner-up (2008, 2012, 2017, 2018), fans will be delighted to see the highly popular German legend Timo Boll lining up in Chengdu after he claimed 3rd place at the Europe Top 16 Cup in Montreux this February. After having qualified for 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Boll took a small break tending to an injury, but he’s now back in the fold and ready to fire on all cylinders.
Meanwhile, his compatriot, Dimitrij Ovtcharov – the man who beat Boll to the 2017 title in Liege – has shown signs of being able to turn on the style on the big occasions again of late. His victory at this year’s Europe Cup was a perfect example of this, as he now looks for further honours.
Lin Yun-Ju, Harimoto and Gauzy: potential party crashers?
Chinese Taipei’s upcoming prodigy Lin Yun-Ju can no longer be considered a ‘dark horse’ in Chengdu. Winner of the 2019 ITTF Challenge Plus Oman Open, Lin then defeated Ma Long and Fan Zhendong on his way to claim gold at the T2 Diamond Malaysia event in Johor Bahru. Everyone’s eyes are certain to be on this fast-rising 17-year-old star.
Tomokazu Harimoto is Japan’s prime candidate for honours and the 16-year-old will be aiming to go beyond his quarter-final finish at last year’s Men’s World Cup in Paris.
France’s Simon Gauzy rarely fails to entertain the spectators and is never an easy match for anyone: certainly not if last year’s home favourite in Paris plays shots like this:
Dark Horses and Wild Cards
Representing USA will be Kanak Jha, who had a splendid run to silver in the Pan American Cup. It will be his and Indian Sathiyan Gnanasekaran’s main target to move on to the quarter-finals as a bare minimum in Chengdu.
Finally, Mattias Falck is set to be a literal Wild Card entry into the World Cup, as fans will get a taste of the impressive Swede’s style and grit in the competition.