by Kabir Nagpal
What makes a world no.1? From all the athletes that have held the ranking ever, if there is one thing to learn, it is never ever count them out to make a significant comeback into the limelight.
Fan Zhendong has shunned away the ghosts of this year and successfully secured his first 2019 ITTF World Tour title. The Chinese star defeated compatriot and current world no. 1 Xu Xin to claim the German Open in Bremen (5-11, 11-8, 14-12, 11-7, 11-7).
Significantly, it his first ITTF World Tour men’s singles final since Sunday 4th November 2018 when he emerged successful in Sweden.
Clearly in the 343 days since his last title, he can probably argue he was never close enough to reach the trophy as much in Bremen.
Barren but only barely
It is highly intriguing to note the journey of the 22 year old and those around him over the past 12 months. Over the intervening period, Fan lost his world no.1 position to Xu, who in turn went on to confirm his supremacy by winning three consecutive gold medals at this year’s Japan, Korea and Australian Opens.
Fan won the Liebherr 2018 ITTF Men’s World Cup in Disneyland Paris, something which incidentally came to be because of his fantastic display against Xu Xin. Having lost the title in 2017, his win the following year was looked at the point of his coronation – something which did not last into the new year.
What’s more – on Sunday, up until the second game of the final, media channels were in fact working on multiple statistical records being broken by Xu with his potential win over Fan. It had looked like Fan’s barren streak would continue in Bremen and Xu had his sights set on equalling the record of four ITTF World Tour men’s singles titles in a calendar year. How they all were proven wrong, was probably a delight for the current world no.2.
Fan has had several close run-ins during this year but sadly was unable to convert any of them. The semi-final exits in Hungary and then again in Japan really made him contemplate his personal decisions at the table, especially because he was still winning consistently across the doubles – with Xu Xin at Japan, Korea and Sweden Opens.
At the semi-final stages in Bremen, Fan needed to dig deep versus no.7 seed Liang Jingkun and that was the first sign of the visible change in Fan’s new found mental steeliness in the face of possible loss.
These inner thoughts had clearly made him focus on the problems at hand and he rallied his mental ability to fight back in the final on Sunday. The German Open now becomes the 12th of his career in the ITTF World Tour men’s singles competition, raising hopes that he is finally ready to kick on and put a difficult 2019 behind him.
“This is an enormously important victory for me. I am overjoyed to have won against Xu Xin. Since we know each other so well it’s really hard for me to surprise him with anything. I never let up, always put pressure on him until the last rally. I had a lot of fun here, especially with this great crowd.” – Fan Zhendong
“Fan-ing” Olympic Dreams
It comes as no surprise the Chinese winner in Germany has no bigger dreams than to make the Olympic Games happening next year in Tokyo. After the slow start to 2019, it seemed to be dream that would be long-lost especially given the immaculate form of his peers.
Fan has previously won two gold medals at the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing 2014 – for singles and mixed team. However, he is yet to participate at an Olympic Games – and what better time is there than the present?
The immediate next challenges for Fan Zhendong will now be the ITTF Men’s World Cup and the final world tour of the year, the ITTF Austria Platinum Open – both happening within weeks of one another in November. His performances across both events will be critical in the choices made for Tokyo 2020 by the Chinese Team coaches. If Fan’s previous years’ winter displays are any evidence, we might just see the enigmatic Fan close to the Olympic Games medals next year.