by Kabir Nagpal
Currently, teenagers are very much at the forefront; both 19 years old, China’s Sun Yingsha and Japan’s Mima Ito commence play the top seeds. Sun won on the ITTF World Tour in Japan, Australia and Germany; Ito secured gold most recently in Austria after being the silver medallist in Germany, Sweden and Hong Kong.
Scintillating, whatever the experience and pedigree of the opposition they must be considered amongst the title favourites. Arguably for Ito, the challenge may be considered bigger – she is the only non-Chinese to win a women’s singles title on this year’s ITTF World Tour. She could have to take on the Chinese on her own! Aggressive play on first three attacking strokes and having pimpled rubber on backhand make her different from the field.
However, there are those who have the experience of winning this tournament before and more than once; Chen Meng, the world no.1, is a prime example.
The Chinese superstar is seeking a third straight Grand Finals title, having succeeded in 2018 in Incheon and also in 2017 in Astana. On the 2019 World Tour she has prevailed in Hungary, China, Korea and Sweden!
Three in a row, it is the feat Liu Shiwen achieved commencing in 2011; on all three occasions she beat Ding Ning in the title decider.
If any player in 2019 has responded in the major tournaments it is Liu Shiwen; not an ITTF World Tour women’s singles title to her name but she was crowned World champion in April, Women’s World Cup winner in October, success one month later at the Team World Cup, can Liu Shiwen make it four?
The dark horses
Compared with her incredibly high standard, Ding Ning, the “Queen of Hearts” has not enjoyed the best of years but when it comes to the top competitions she has the experience. The Olympic Games champion knows the way to the podium – the fact that she’s reached the Grand Finals seven times underlines that fact.
The seventh seeded Ding won this title in 2015 in Lisbon; one can expect her to be involved in the later stages.
Completing the top five seeds are Chinese compatriots Wang Manyu and Chen Xingtong. Wang struck gold in Qatar, Chen enjoyed back-to-back summer successes in Bulgaria and Czech Republic – both could be this year’s He Zhuojia – she was the runner up in Incheon 12 months ago.
He Zhuojia is seeded no.13 this year and will have a much tougher task repeating last year’s feat. Add the likes of Chinese Taipei’s Cheng I-Ching and Singapore Feng Tianwei into the equation this year, picking out the potential upsets is a tough task.
What remains interesting to note is for both Cheng I-Ching and Feng Tianwei – a quarter-final place is a minimum target after their recent performances on the World Tour and at the Women’s World Cup. Olympic Games on the horizon for the veteran Feng, one wonders could this be her last Grand Finals? She would want to leave with a bang, just like she did in Seoul in 2010!
Now, if there’s someone who knows how to cause a bang it’s Miu “Hurricane” Hirano from Japan.
She has total license to exploit her speed advantage over her opponents – something that enabled her to reach the final at the Czech Open in Olomouc. Teammates Kasumi Ishikawa and Hitomi Sato will both want to support their country’s cause for claiming glory but only one of them has experienced the path to victory at the Grand Finals.
Ishikawa won the tournament with style in Bangkok and will want to channel her 2014-self this year as well. For Sato, who beat Ding Ning in the quarter-finals in Japan, repeating that will be a daunting task.
Similarly for China’s Zhu Yuling, who won the title in 2016 in Doha but has not had an entirely successful year, she will want to end 2019 on a high note one way or the other; her compatriots who complete the top 16 roster in Zhengzhou are Wang Yidi and the 2018 World junior champion, Qian Tianyi.
Wang won the Hong Kong Open earlier this year, asserting herself amongst the table tennis elite. The 19 year old Qian recently reached the semi-finals in Austria, meaning she knows how to deal with latter stages pressure.
Who out these 16 will nail down a marker in Zhengzhou? It’s too close to call.