by Simon Daish
Understandably all the attention prior to the final was centred on Liam Pitchford, the no.15 seed who defied the odds to steal the show in Doha. Opening his campaign with victory over Spain’s Alvaro Robles, Pitchford progressed to account for Belarusian legend Vladimir Samsonov and in form Chinese Taipei player Chuang Chih-Yuan to make the final day of play.
Then on Sunday morning Pitchford pulled off arguably the shock of the tournament with his stunning 4-2 win over World no.1 Xu Xin (3-11, 11-7, 11-9, 6-11, 15-13, 11-9), becoming the first Englishman to reach a World Tour Platinum event men’s singles final in the process!
Seeded first for the event Fan Zhendong was widely anticipated to be challenging for the title in Doha but nearly came unstuck at the first hurdle, requiring the full match distance to see off Sweden’s Anton Källberg (7-11, 11-6, 11-13, 11-5, 7-11, 11-8, 11-3). Victories over Xu Chenhao, Jon Persson and Wang Chuqin handed Fan his ticket to the final.
While 14 positions separated Fan from Pitchford in the seeding there was a sense of unpredictability heading into the final – this was after all the first head-to-head contest between the two on the ITTF World Tour and what a first meeting it panned out to be!
Play underway and both players were switched on right from the word “go” as Fan and Pitchford went in chase of an early lead. Certainly the more experienced when it comes to men’s singles finals on the international stage, it was Fan who looked the more comfortable of the two at the start and found himself 2-0 up with under 20 minutes.
Knowing that he had to change up the tactics if he was going to trouble his Chinese opponent Pitchford began to up the pace, forcing Fan from side-to-side and it appeared to work as the Englishman wrote his name on the scoreboard with a successful display in game three. Fan’s incredible power proved too hot to handle in game four but Pitchford reduced the deficit once again with an immediate response.
With the scores sitting at 3-2, the question was whether Pitchford could force a deciding seventh game? Spectators were wowed with sensational point after sensational point as both finalists gave it their all. A match for the ages, it seems a shame that it was brought to an abrupt halt as Fan’s shot clipped the back edge of the table to bring the match to a close – fortunate perhaps, but as they say: fortune favours the brave!
Success for Fan Zhendong who now holds a total of 14 ITTF World Tour men’s singles titles, two of which have come at the Qatar Open having also won in 2018. As for Liam Pitchford he can return home with his head held high following a truly inspiring campaign in Doha.
In fact Pitchford can rejoice in joining a pretty exclusive club of players to have beaten China’s finest. At the 2018 Bulgaria Open, Pitchford beat World and Olympic champion Ma Long. Two years’ later in Doha the English star has added Xu Xin to the list and caused Fan Zhendong his fair share of problems. What does the future hold for this talented man from Chesterfield?