18 Dec 2019

The year approached a close, the December men's world rankings were announced; Xu Xin, Fan Zhendong and Ma Long occupied the top three respective places. Later in the month all three reached the semi-final stage of the men’s singles event at the Agricultural Bank of China 2019 ITTF World Tour Grand Finals but when the year started it was the one further player to reach the penultimate round who attracted the attention.

On Sunday 20th January, in Budapest, Lin Gaoyuan won the men’s singles title at the ITTF World Tour Hungarian Open.

by Ian Marshall, Editor

A decade after we first saw this highly talented left hander, when as a 14 year old he reached the semi-final stage of the boys’ singles event at the 2009 World Junior Championships in the northern Colombian city of Cartagena de India, could 2019 be the year when the young man from Shenzhen would really make an impact and win one of the sport’s big titles?

Fan Zhendong and Xu Xin had each won the Men’s World Cup and had succeeded at the Grand Finals; Ma Long had won everything. Could Lin Gaoyuan join the club?

Increasingly difficult task

Gaining success for any Chinese player at an ITTF World Tour tournament is always a most testing challenge; the problem is that other leading names from that country also appear!

In days gone by such titles have been secured without a Chinese player in sight; in the modern era with a different ranking scheme in progress, they are very much in evidence. A total of 12 tournaments on the 2019 ITTF World Tour calendar, in every tournament Chinese names appeared.

Winning a men’s or women’s singles title at an ITTF World Tour tournament is harder than ever!

Greater triumphs on horizon?

The fact Lin Guoyuan won in Budapest suggested that greater triumphs were on the horizon.

On his march to the victory of his five wins, just one was not against a Chinese adversary and that was against one of the most prestigious names of all; after accounting for Zhao Zihao and Fang Bo, he beat Vladimir Samsonov of Belarus, before accounting for Xu Xin and Wang Chuqin to secure the title.

Later, in the year in June, he won again; he succeeded in Hong Kong. Again he beat colleagues. After defeating Germany’s Ricardo Walther, he overcame Ma Te, Wang Chuqin and Liang Jingkun prior to prevailing against Japan’s Tomokazu Harimoto to seal the title.

Most acceptable

Looking overall at the year, it was one of which the vast majority of players would have been more than proud.

Time and again he reached the later rounds. Four times he suffered at the hands of Ma Long; on the ITTF World Tour in the final in Qatar and on home soil in Shenzhen, at the quarter-final stage in Australia and at the Liebherr 2019 World Championships in Budapest. Similarly, in Sweden he experienced defeat in the title decider. After beating Fan Zhendong, he lost Wang Chuqin.

The lulls on the ITTF World but to keep matters in perspective defeats against high quality players, came when departing the scene in round two on three occasions. In Japan he lost to Chinese Taipei’s Lin Yun-Ju, in Germany to the host nation’s Patrick Franziska, in Austria to colleague Zhao Zihao.

On the men’s world rankings, he never dropped below no.4, the position in which he started and finished the year, for three months commencing in May, he occupied the no.2 spot.

One step short in Yogyakarta

Accepted, winning titles on the ITTF World Tour is one of the hardest feats of all but is not being continental champion, one of the highest prizes? In 2017 he had won the Asian Cup title in Ahmedabad, now in 2019 in October he had a major opportunity to secure the men’s singles title at the ITTF-ATTU Asian Championships in Yogyakarta.

Just as on three consecutive occasions at the World Junior Championships starting – Bratislava (2010), Manama (2011), Hyderabad (2012) – he concluded play the runner up. He lost to Xu Xin in the final after having beaten Fan Zhendong in the penultimate round.

Once again, a step short; always in contention, performances of high quality but the really major title in 2019 proved elusive; can 2020 be different?

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