30 Oct 2019

First staged in 2008, when the host nation’s Vladimir Samsonov beat a young upstart in the guise of China’s Xu Xin to win the men’s singles title; the tenth edition of the tournament, now entitled the 2019 ITTF Challenge Belgosstrakh Belarus Open, commenced with qualification on Wednesday 30th November.

Furthermore, could a young Chinese prodigy of the modern era make presence felt? There are plenty on duty; most notably of those required to compete on the first morning of play, all recorded wins.

by Ian Marshall, Editor

Arguably the most notable of all is a player with the same family name as the young man who 11 years ago announced his arrival on the international scene; Xu Yingbin, 18 years old, is in a rich vein of form.

In the first week of September, he won the junior boys’ singles title at the Asia Junior and Cadet Championships in Ulaanbaator; just over one week ago he clinched the men’s singles title in Władysławowo at the ITTF Challenge Polish Open.

Aspiring names

He is one of several aspiring Chinese players present in the Belarus capital city, the names of Xu Fei, Xiang Peng, Xu Haidong, Yu Heyi, Niu Guankai and Yuan Licen all catch the eye. Notably of the group, Xu Fei is the only seeded player and only just; he occupies the no.31 spot.

Xu Fei was crowned world junior champion in 2017 in Riva del Garda, Xu Haidong was his successor just under one year ago in Bendigo; significantly in an age when the shake hands grip is preferred, both are pen holders. Similarly, Yu Heyi, Niu Guankai and Yu Licen have all won ITTF World Junior Circuit titles in the past two years.

Seeking first title

In an event where no past winner is in action, the presence of the talented Chinese poses a major challenge to the leading names; the vast majority of the 32 seeds in the men’s singles event have never previously reserved the top step of the podium on either the ITTF World Tour or at an ITTF Challenge Series tournament.

The notable exceptions are Sweden’s Anton Källberg, the no.9 seed, who won earlier this year in Zagreb and Iran’s Nima Alamian, the no.13 seed, successful in 2015 in De Haan. Also, we should add Frenchman Emmanuel Lebesson to the list; claiming the men’s singles title at the Liebherr 2016 European Championships in 2016 in Budapest was a major achievement. He is the top seed ahead of Slovenia’s Bojan Tokic, Russia’s Kirill Skachkov and Romania’s Cristian Pletea.

Generations apart

Different generations; for those present one will never forget Bojan Tokic beating the Swedish legend, Jan-Ove Waldner, at the 2004 Croatian Open; on that day no player in the world had a better backhand! Trying to interview him he was so exited my pen nearly caught fire trying make notes!

Now, fast forward 15 years; in August at the ITTF World Tour 2019 Czech Open, Cristian Pletea ousted Japan’s Tomokazu Harimoto in the opening round. Both have clearly shown they are capable of competing at the very highest level; the quest is to build on the big wins and progress to the top step of the podium.

Problem for leading names

However, for Cristian Pletea, Minsk is somewhat of a favourite city; last year he was a semi-finalist. The problems for the leading quartet is the none has really shone this year.

Emmanuel Lebesson was a quarter-finalist in Oman and at the European Games, Kirill Skachkov reached the same round in Croatia; a somewhat different situation when compared with the young men from China.

Similar scenario

It is not a dissimilar situation in the women’s singles event; Chinese names attract the attention. Feng Yalan, Shi Xunyao, Chen Yi, Kuai Man, Wu Yangchen and Fan Siqi are all on duty, all players with international success. Moreover, similar to their male counterparts, the only seeded member is Zhang Qiang, listed at no.24.

Different eras, Feng Yalan, crowned world junior champion in 2006 in Cairo, won women’s singles titles on the ITTF World Tour in 2010 in Germany as well as in 2012 in Russia and Kuwait. Ten years following the success gained by Feng Yalan, Shi Xunyao was crowned world junior champion in Cape Town. Impressively, earlier this year in under 21 women’s singles events, Fan Siqi won in Lisbon, more recently Kuai Man succeeded in Poland.

Note Chen Yi

Likewise, Wu Yangchen has enjoyed success on the ITTF World Junior Circuit, last year she won in Hungary but the player to note is Chen Yi.

In early September at the Asian Junior and Cadet Championships she secured the cadet girls’ singles title; more pertinently just over a week ago she reached the women’s singles final in Poland, losing to colleague, He Zhuojia.

Out do each other

Just as in the men’s singles event, they provide major challenges to the top names. Japan’s Saki Shibata is the top seed, followed by colleague, Hina Hayata; each is striving to out do each other.

Both have five ITTF Challenge Series women’s singles titles to their credit; since 2017 when the Challenge Series became an entity in its own right, no player has been more successful. Equally, each has won four in a year, Saki Shibata in 2018, Hina Hayata this year.

Pan American Games silver medallist

Wu Yue of the United States, the runner up in August at the Pan American Games, is the no.3 seed, followed by Honoka Hashimoto, also from Japan.

Notably, she matches Saki Shibata in terms of appearances in women’s singles Challenge Series finals since January 2017; seven is the number. Alas, unlike Saki Shibata, only twice a silver medallist, she has been the runner up six times!

Names to note

Contenders and challengers for honours, also note the name of the venerable 56 year old Ni Xialian, the winner on the ITTF World Tour in 1998 in Houston, she is the no.5 seed in Minsk.

Also be aware of Lily Zhang from the United States, she is the no.7 seed and like Xu Yingbing is on fire; sensationally at the recent Uncle Pop 2019 Women’s World Cup finished in a most unexpected fourth place.

Same scenario

Testing times ahead for highly seeded players, it could well be the same for highly seeded pairs.

In the men’s doubles event Belgium’s Martin Allegro and Florent Lambiet occupy the top seeded position, in the women’s doubles competition that distinction belongs to Saki Shibata and colleague Satsuki Odo.

Meanwhile on the under 21 men’s singles seeding Russia’s Vladimir Sidorenko and Denis Ivonin occupy the leading positions; in the under 21 women’s singles competition, Russia is also to the fore, Maria Malanina is the no.2 seed. The leading name is Belgium’s Lisa Lung.

Challenge Series 2019 Belarus Open Xu Yingbin

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Day 3 - 2019 ITTF Challenge Belarus Open