by Kabir Nagpal & Blythe Lawrence
They say a street fight has no rules, generally because the prize is above all that. Given what’s at stake for German athletes Dimitrij Ovtcharov and Patrick Franziska – a coveted spot in men’s singles play at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 – this personal battle between the two is likely to end up going the same way.
German star Timo Boll has guaranteed himself one of the two slots for German singles players in table tennis at the big dance in Tokyo next summer, and while player number two remains unknown, there are only two candidates for the job.
At the ages of 30 and 27, both Ovtcharov and Franziska have the earned the right to be called veterans of the sport they highly excel at. It is a testament to the standards of quality in German athletes that these two are currently engaged in a battle for the final men’s singles spot.
All three have already booked their tickets to Tokyo, where Boll, who qualified by winning the 2019 European Games in Minsk, will partner with both of them in the Team event. But only one gets to play singles alongside Boll.
So, who’s got the better case, especially considering Ovtcharov’s 4-0 win over Franziska earlier yesterday at the 2019 ITTF World Tour Czech Open?
Dima following Boll’s example
After you climb the dreaded three-o, everything changes – or so we are told. As someone who has grown in stature in table tennis right next to ‘Magic’ Boll – still going strong at 38 – it’s understandable why Ovtcharov would want to follow his footsteps.
The former world no. 1 turns 31 in almost a fortnight and we have seen him learn from the best, who happens to be one of his close friends. “Dima” has followed Boll’s example, choosing his tournaments wisely, playing to his own strengths and making sure he’s still very much a colossal figure – literally and figuratively – near the table.
His win over Franziska on Saturday displayed the wisdom of age and experience in a way only Boll has previously. The tactical timeouts, the forehand attacks on the net and the calm stupor when he was unable to break serve were all factors in his success, leaving Franziska unable to get a word in edgewise (11-6, 13-11, 11-7, 12-10). In the greater Olympic Games race, it is now advantage Ovtcharov.
Patrick’s running point
But Franziska, the current world no. 15, has been very much in form these days. He has been garnering attention on the international stage with his performances on the World Tour. As recently as Friday, in the second round of the men’s singles event at the 2019 ITTF World Tour Czech Open, he eliminated the Rio 2016 bronze medallist, Japanese Jun Mizutani.
Victory came after Franziska fought back from 1-3 down and saved three match points in to beat the no. 6 seed 4-3 (10-12, 11-6, 13-15, 7-11, 12-10, 11-8, 11-1).
More than just a win, it was a display of Franziska’s “never say die” attitude, and it drew praise from no less than Ovtcharov himself.
“Patrick has turned into a world class player – he beat the top Chinese players, so I knew this match would be a tough challenge,” Dimitrij Ovtcharov
It is also good to note that this was not a one-off and he has shone on the international stage for the better part over this year. At the 2019 ITTF World Tour Platinum Qatar Open in March, Franziska prevailed against Frenchman Simon Gauzy and Japan’s Koki Niwa to reach the quarter-final stage in style.
Then, at the 2019 ITTF World Tour Platinum Australian Open in Geelong he excelled even further, beating China’s former world no.1 Fan Zhendong and Liebherr 2019 World Championships runner-up Mattias Falck from Sweden. He narrowly missed out against Xu “Xu-perman” Xin at the semi-final stage, though not for a lack of effort. Should he continue progressing this way, he may eventually be in a position to outpace Ovtcharov.
Ovtcharov aiming ever higher
At the 2015 inaugural European Games, Ovtcharov won gold in a manner that made everyone gape in awe. This week, he defeated a friendly old rival in Vladimir Samsonov from Belarus, the architect of his exit in the men’s singles quarterfinals at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
Ovtcharov won the match 4-1 (11-7, 5-11, 11-5, 12-10, 11-7). He believes his victory came from securing the fourth game, which gave him a 3-1 lead.
“I won the fourth game 12-10 and that broke him a little bit. We are really good friends off the court so it was important to set your mind to that we are now rivals and that it is important to win and put the friendship away for 45 minutes. Maybe I did this a little bit better than Vladi. Actually, it was one of my best matches in the past few months, so I am very satisfied,” Dimitrij Ovtcharov
Then came Saturday and that 4-0 win over Franziska. Proven time and again, his penchant to produce at the highest level is why Ovtcharov has the reputation and results he does – and it’s also why, at this point anyway, he holds an edge over Franziska for that final Olympic Games spot.