by Kabir Nagpal
No.1 Fan Zhendong
The defending champion from 2018 in Paris won the most recent ITTF World Tour events, succeeding in Austria and Germany; that’s a major warning for his opponents. Newly reinstated as world no.1, Fan Zhendong arrives in Chengdu high on confidence and with a trophy laden backpack.
Despite his downturn in fortunes after his momentous victory in Disneyland last year, Fan has not stopped short of working his way to the latter stages of every tournament in which he has competed.
Notably he has an impressive record at the Men’s World Cup, two golds (2018, 2016) and one silver (2015) in three outings. It is a record of which any elite table tennis athlete would be envious. Will Fan make it a triple crown in China?
No.2 Ma Long
If there is a direct threat to Fan’s crown, it is one very close to home. The “Dragon” himself, Ma Long will be appearing in his seventh Men’s World Cup, having missed the 2018 edition. Still, that did not stop him from becoming World champion for the third time earlier this year in Budapest.
Winner in Liverpool in 2012 and Halmstad in 2015, Ma will want to end his year the same way he started with another three-time victory. The most encouraging thing about the Chinese star’s record at the World Cup is that he has never been off the podium in his six attempts. Betting against that happening this time does not seem wise.
No.3 Tomokazu Harimoto
Ranked no.5 in the world, Japan’s Tomokazu Harimoto has taken the table tennis fraternity by storm over the past year or so. The 16-year-old has often been dubbed as the “Mozart” of the sport, with his explosive forehands now quickly becoming a signature move.
Having secured the fourth place at the ITTF-ATTU Lion Asian Cup this summer, he qualifies as the third seed at the Men’s World Cup, with hopes of going beyond his quarter-final finish in his debut at the event in Paris last year. By no means will this be an easy task; however it is exactly the kind of environment in which the teenager thrives.
No.4 Hugo Calderano
The pride of Brazil is the fourth seed in Chengdu. The 23-year-old shake hand attacker has been amongst the top since his debut in 2011 as a professional and is set to participate in his third men’s World Cup.
Winner of the ITTF-Pan Am Cup for a second consecutive time, Calderano brings the hopes of an entire continent with him. The world no. 6 has picked up form in recent weeks, he reached the semi-finals at the ITTF World Tour Austria Open; a destination that he will want to attain as a minimum as the knock-out stages begin at the World Cup.
No.5 Timo Boll
Germany’s legendary Timo Boll will also be in action after his third place finish at the CCB Europe Top 16, representing his nation at a World Cup yet again. The 38 year old has a strong history of pulling off the impossible at this tournament, as evidenced by his gold medal finish on his debut in 2002 at Jinan.
The world no.8 then went on to win the World Cup again at Liège in 2005, assuring himself the standard of “world-class” 14 years ago. For a man who has now qualified for next year’s Olympic Games, a third Men’s World Cup would only add to his insatiable hunger of achieving the impossible, again and again, and again.
No.6 Mattias Falck
The wild card ITTF selection is Sweden’s Mattias Falck. He secured a momentous silver at the Liebherr World Championships in Budapest. It is on the grand stage where Falck rises to the top.
The world no.9 makes his second consecutive appearance at the World Cup, he reached the round of 16 last year in Paris. It has been a year of “almosts” for Falck, as he reached the semi-final stages at the ITTF World Tour Qatar Open and lost out in the final of the ITTF Challenge Plus event in Muscat to Lin Yun-Ju. Will the wild card entry disrupt the set order in Chengdu and change the almost into a podium certainty?
No.7 Lin Yun-Ju
Chinese Taipei has recently found their very own shining light, 18 year old Lin Yun-Ju has burst on to the scene this year, winning the ITTF World Tour Czech Open, ITTF Challenge Plus Oman Open and the T2 Diamond Malaysia tournament in Johor Bahru.
Add to that his fifth place finish at the Asian Cup, the world ranking of no.10 reflects his progress. Making his debut at the Men’s World Cup this year, Lin has his sights set on leaving yet another mark at a world tournament. How far will his determination and decisive play take him?
No.8 Koki Niwa
Finally, sealing up the top seeds in Chengdu is the “King of block” from Japan, Koki Niwa. The world no.11 arrives in China for his fourth Men’s World Cup; all his previous endeavours in the tournament having ended at the quarter-final stages.
After attaining third place at the ITTF-ATTU Asian Cup this year at Yokohama, Niwa certainly has the experience to play the topmost athletes and will be looking to count on that as he prepares for the challengers seeded 9-20.