15 Dec 2019

Winner two years ago in Astana, a quarter-final exit last year in Incheon; on Sunday 15th December at the Agricultural Bank of China 2019 ITTF World Tour Grand Finals in Zhengzhou, China’s Fan Zhendong regained the men’s singles title.

At the final hurdle, the no.2 seed, he beat colleague, Ma Long, the no.4 seed (11-6, 12-10, 11-6, 6-11, 11-8) to complete a quite incredible period of just over two months of success upon success.

by Ian Marshall, Editor

In early April, he won at the Lion 32nd ITTF-ATTU Asian Cup in Yokohama but in a period of almost one year; that was his only title.

At the end of the first week in November, he had struck gold at the 2018 ITTF World Tour Swedish Open; however, in 2019 by his standards the outcomes were not good, more than acceptable for 99.99 per cent of all mortals but not for Fan Zhendong.

Semi-final exits had been the order of the day on the ITTF World Tour in Hungary, Japan and Sweden, a quarter-final farewell on home soil in China and in the Korea Republic, a second round goodbye in Australia. Equally at the Liebherr 2019 World Championships in Budapest, he had departed in round four, later in the year, he was the runner up at the T2 Diamond in Johor Bahru and a semi-finalist in Yogyakarta at the ITTF-ATTU Asian Championships.

Changed in Bremen

On Sunday 13th October all changed; in Bremen on the ITTF World Tour he won in Germany, the following month in Austria. Sandwiched in between he was a member of the successful Chinese outfit at the Zen-Noh 2019 Team World Cup, before at the end of the month succeeding at the Chengdu Airlines Men’s World Cup.

In the first nine months of the year, Fan Zhendong struggled to put a foot right; in the last three months he cannot put a foot wrong!

Success in Zhengzhou meant he avenged the previous defeats again Ma Long when they had met in the title deciding contest at the Grand Finals; runners up spot against his illustrious adversary had been his lot in 2015 in Lisbon and one year later in Doha.

Never extended full distance

Moreover, Fan Zhendong secured the title in Zhengzhou without ever being extended the full distance. In the opening round he beat Germany’s Timo Boll, the no.9 seed (11-5, 18-16, 12-10, 11-7), prior to overcoming Brazil’s Hugo Calderano, the no.8 seed (12-10, 11-5, 11-7, 5-11, 11-9) and colleague, Lin Gaoyuan, the no.3 seed (11-7, 11-13, 11-3, 11-3, 9-11, 11-3) to reach the final.

A series of fine performances but without doubt he saved his best for the final. The manner in which, especially from the backhand, he controlled the fearsome attacks of Ma Long and then turned matters to his advantage was simply mind blowing,

He adapted, adjusted, anticipated, creating angles that more than once left Ma Long gasping for air as the ball travelled with bullet precision wide to the Olympic and World champion’s forehand.

Likewise, the same scenario applied when Fan Zhendong directed missiles wide to the backhand, at 10-5 in arrears in the opening game, Ma Long was forced to switch hands, use his left hand in order to make a return. It didn’t work, the ball finished in the base of the net.

Crucial game

A vital first game to Fan Zhendong; then came what was to prove the crucial second game. Ma Long led 10-8, two game points for parity but it was Fan Zhendong to serve. He made full use of the advantage, levelled and then won the next two points.

Increasingly confident, Fan Zhendong established an 8-3 lead in the third, he never looked back; in the fourth Ma Long went ahead 7-6, eventually finding ways to penetrate the blocking and counter top spin skills of his in-form adversary.

Ma Long won the next four points but it was only a respite; in the fifth game Fan Zhendong repeated the form of the first three games, he forced Ma Long to innovate, to try chop blocks. Nothing was stopping the Fan Zhendong express, at 10-7 he held three match points; at the second attempt he converted.

It was the fourth contest of the year between Fan Zhendong and Ma Long; the third win for Fan Zhendong. Previously he had succeeded in the ITTF-ATTU Asian Cup and ITTF World Tour Lion Japan Open; Ma Long had won at the ITTF World Tour China Open.

Big three

Now are we not looking towards their next encounter with great eagerness and anticipation?

In years gone by I heard the phrase “not two Chinese again, not interesting”; now times have totally changed. “Interesting” the contests are “enthralling”!

Add to the equation Xu Xin and just as in the 1960s in the golfing world there was Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, named the “Big Three” it is the same now in table tennis.

The three legendary golfers set new standards for their sport; Fan Zhendong, Ma Long and Xu Xin are doing the same for table tennis.

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Day 4 - Agricultural Bank of China 2019 ITTF World Tour Grand Finals