by Ian Marshall, Editor
Time to shine for top seeds?
Portugal’s Marcos Freitas is the top seed in the men’s singles event in Muscat. A semi-final appearance at the 2019 ITTF World Tour Bulgaria Open is the 31-year-old’s best performance in recent memory, although you have to turn the clock back to 2014 for his last gold medal in a singles event when he triumphed at the ITTF World Tour Czech Open in Olomouc and also the Europe Top 12 in Lausanne (before it became known as the Europe Top 16 the following year).
Accepted we are only in the very early months of the year but Freitas has yet to excel. At last week’s 2020 ITTF World Tour Platinum Qatar Open in Doha, he did not enjoy the best of draws; in the opening round he was beaten by China’s Wang Chuqin, a very hungry teenager with a point to prove. He had just returned from a three month suspension.
It is a similar story for the other leading seeds in Oman: Denmark’s Jonathan Groth, Egypt’s Omar Assar and India’s Sharath Kamal Achanta. All have enjoyed notable past successes, but the time span since their major glories is becoming ever greater.
Arguably Groth’s biggest achievement came last June as the men’s singles runner up at the Minsk 2019 European Games, which saw the Dane qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Assar was a winner of last year’s ITTF Africa Cup, but you need to go back to 2014 when he last struck gold on the ITTF World Tour, in Nigeria. Meanwhile, for Sharath Kamal Achanta it is necessary to turn the clock back a decade for his last international title: the ITTF World Tour India Open in 2010.
All have yet to shine this year, as have the next on the list: a semi-finalist in 2018 in Slovenia, Slovakia’s Wang Yang is the no.5 seed. He is followed by Frenchman Emmanuel Lebesson, Romania’s Ovidiu Ionescu and Portugal’s Tiago Apolonia.
Notably, partnering Yuan Ji Nan, Lebesson secured mixed doubles gold this February at the ITTF Challenge Plus Portugal Open, but he has yet to replicate the form in singles competition that saw him become European champion in 2016 in Budapest and the winner of the 2019 ITTF Challenge Belarus Open.
It is no different for Ionescu, the silver medallist at the 2018 European Championships in Alicante. Equally, turning back time much further, Apolonia last won on the ITTF World Tour in 2010 in Austria.
Looking to maintain momentum
Scroll further down the list of seeds in Oman and note the names of Kazakhstan’s Kirill Gerassimenko and Portugal’s João Geraldo, both of whom enjoyed success in February. Gerassimenko took the title at the ITTF Challenge Spanish Open, while Geraldo was the runner up on home soil at the ITTF Challenge Plus Portugal Open in Lisbon. In Oman, Gerassimenko is the no.10 seed and Geraldo the no.22 seed.
Amongst the leading names in the women’s singles event, Japan’s Honoka Hashimoto and Monaco’s Yang Xiaoxin have made their mark this year. Last month in Spain, Hashimoto overcame Yang Xiaoxin in the final.
Hashimoto is the no.4 seed and Yang Xiaoxin the no.6 seed in an event that witnesses a strong Japanese presence. Hitomi Sato, with four ITTF Challenge Series women’s singles titles to her name, is the top seed, Miyu Kato is the no.3 seed, Maki Shiomi is the no.11 seed.
Like many of the top-seeded men in Muscat, a number of leading women are also seeking better fortunes this year, not least Romania’s Bernadette Szocs, the no.2 seed, who last won a major title at the Europe Top 16 in 2018. Meanwhile, Slovakia’s Barbora Balazova is the no.5 seed, while Singapore’s Lin Ye and Russia’s Yana Noskova complete the top eight names.
Japan up for the Challenge!
Japan has enjoyed an affinity with ITTF Challenge Series events since they became entities in their own right in 2017, as opposed to members of the ITTF World Tour. Of the 36 tournaments over these last three years, Japan has prevailed on 22 occasions.
Similarly, Japan is prominent in the women’s doubles, as six times Challenge Series tournament winners. Honoka Hashimoto and Hitomi Sato occupy the top seeded spot in Muscat, while the number one seeds in the men’s doubles event are Belgium’s Martin Allegro and Florent Lambiet, Challenge Series runners up last year in both Croatia and Canada.
The mixed doubles top seeds are Slovakia’s Lubomir Pistej and Barbora Balazova, looking to replicate their gold medal success last year in Canada.
In the under 21 men’s singles, India’s Manav Vikash Thakkar heads the list; in the under 21 women’s singles, Maki Shiomi is the name at the top of the order. Significantly both have enjoyed recent ITTF Challenge Series success; in December, Thakkar won in Canada and just over one month ago, Shiomi prevailed in Spain.