by Blythe Lawrence
In modern times Asian associations, especially China, have been dominant, but in Olomouc, the four finalists in men’s and women’s singles flew the colours of four different flags.
There was China, represented by Chen Xingtong, playing Japan’s Miu Hirano for the women’s title. From Chinese Taipei, talented 18-year-old Lin Yun-Ju faced off with Ukrainian-born German legend Dimitrij Ovtcharov, who completed the party. A big four with four different passports was unusual enough, but layers below them quarter- and semi-finalists representing Austria, Russia and Brazil in singles and Austria, Hungary and Brazil in doubles seized their opportunities to challenge for finals. Make no mistake: the table tennis universe is expanding outward, and quickly.
Germany’s 1-2-3 punch of Timo Boll, Dimitrij Ovtcharov and Patrick Franziska is having an effect — all three made the quarter-finals, with Ovtcharov ultimately advancing to face Chinese Taipei’s Lin Yun-Ju in the final. Lin, who captured his first ITTF World Tour title in Olomouc, dispatched Boll in the semi-final.
Boll and Ovtcharov are legends of the game, but the big surprise has been the emergence of 27-year-old Franziska, who took down former World no. 1 Fan Zhendong earlier this summer and has been playing some of the best table tennis of his career. He gives Germany just one more reason to be excited for the future.
The big-hitting, backflipping Hugo Calderano, the most exciting Brazilian player to grace the world stage since the great Hugo Hoyama, leads a South American team hungry for success. Fresh off his second consecutive Pan American Games title in men’s singles earlier this month, the 23-year-old from Rio de Janeiro arrived in the Czech Republic fresh and full of energy. He reached the semi-final, where he fell to Dimitrij Ovtcharov.
Good news for Brazil in doubles play stems from 35-year-old Gustavo Tsuboi and 19-year-old Bruna Takahashi, who reached the semi-finals in mixed doubles before suffering defeat at the hands of Japanese stars and eventual runners up Jun Mizutani and Mima Ito. Tsuboi and Takahashi are one more example of the veteran pairing with the promise of the future to further the nation’s aspirations.
European medallist Alexander Shibaev put on a show to reach the quarter-finals in the Czech Republic. The 29-year-old has been something of an under the radar competitor in European competitions but made a lot of noise in Olomouc by fighting his way through England’s Liam Pitchford and China’s Ma Te before ceding to Calderano in the round of eight. A sign of things to come?
He may not have made it past the round of 16, but Cristian Pletea’s takedown of top seed Tomokazu Harimoto in the first round of the main draw underscored the strength of this young Romanian and the unpredictability of even the most seemingly unshakable players. The 19-year-old’s strength is sure to serve him — and his nation — well in future tournaments.
Courageous play and a never-say-die attitude characterised the Austrian showing in Olomouc, with Sofia Polcanova leaving everything on the table in a winning battle to advance to the quarter-final over Japan’s Saki Shibata. Impressive too the play of Daniel Habesohn and Robert Gardos in men’s doubles, as well as Polcanova and Stefan Fegerl in mixed doubles, to reach the semi-finals in both categories. Austria, with room to grow, certainly has something to build on.
China, Japan, Korea and Chinese Taipei
The four powerhouses of table tennis flexed their muscles in the Czech Republic, with all but Japan coming away with at least one title. The Czech Open may be remembered, among other things, as the coming out party for 16-year-old Cho Daeseong, who captured his first two ITTF World Tour wins in the same day, partnering with Shin Yubin in mixed doubles and later teaming with Lee Sangsu in men’s doubles.
Lin Yun-Ju, only 18 but the hope of Chinese Taipei, captured his first men’s singles title on the World Tour, defeating Dimitrij Ovtcharov in what history may look upon as a passing of the torch.
For Japan, there was disappointment for Harimoto, who made history with the Czech Open title in 2017, but plenty can be learned in defeat as well as victory. Japan can take solace in the performance of 19-year-old Miu Hirano, who nearly overcame a 0-3 start to challenge Chen Xingtong for the title in women’s singles, as well as runner-up performances from Hirano and Shibata in women’s doubles and Mizutani and Ito in mixed doubles.
As for China, the planet’s most dominant players were absent from Olomouc, but reinforcements in the form of Chen Xingtong, who came out with her second consecutive win, and Gu Yuting and Mu Zi, who earned the women’s doubles title. The rest of the world may be catching up, but as the sun sets on Olomouc, China remains the nation to beat.