by Simon Daish
Odds stacked against him?
It’s not often Ma Long is referred to as somewhat of an underdog, he is after all a member of the very exclusive Grand Slam club but you could have been forgiven for thinking along those lines as he approached the 2019 Qatar Open.
A seven month long battle with knee problems saw Ma drop out of the top 10 of the official World Rankings list. He was forced to withdraw from the 2018 Austrian and Swedish Opens and his previous appearance on court resulted in an opening round defeat at the 2018 Bulgarian Open.
The very fact Ma progressed all the way to the men’s singles final in Doha was a major achievement in itself! Ma battled past Tristan Flore, Timo Boll, Jun Mizutani and Xu Xin in the earlier rounds. Just one opponent remained, but the task would prove tough with Lin Gaoyuan standing between Ma and an incredible title win.
Lin was a man in form – runner up at the highly prestigious World Tour Grand Finals at the end of 2018, Lin enjoyed the perfect start to the New Year with his title winning performance at the 2019 Hungarian Open and was keen to achieve a one-up against his fellow countryman in their first international head-to-head.
All hail the comeback king!
Intensity was high right from the start of the final as both players looked to take the early initiative, but of the two finalists it was Lin who enjoyed the better of the opening exchanges. Showing great variety in his game, Lin caught his lower seeded opponent off guard a number of times in the opening two games and deservedly found himself ahead.
Trailing 0-2 on the scoreboard but Ma refused to let that knock his confidence, showing great fighting spirit to recover a magnificent 4-2 victory over the second seed (9-11, 8-11, 11-5, 11-5, 11-9, 11-9).
“In the context of my longstanding injury, to come back the way I have done, this is the happiest ITTF World Tour title victory of my career. Winning here provides the perfect boost ahead of next month’s World Championships and, of course, aids my long-term preparations for next year’s Olympic Games.” Ma Long
Success at long last for Ma Long and with it the ‘Dictator’ reached an important milestone, equalling Vladimir Samsonov’s record of 27 men’s singles titles on the ITTF World Tour which Ma has since surpassed. Ma’s victory also stood him in good stead ahead of the 2019 World Championships, an event he would go on to conquer just under a month later! since
A point to prove
The women’s singles event also played host to an all-China final as Wang Manyu and Liu Shiwen met face-to-face yet again at the Qatar Open.
One year earlier in Doha, Wang looked on course to land gold only for Liu to mount a fine comeback effort to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. So close but yet so far – it was a painful defeat for Wang to take, leaving her with somewhat of a point to prove one year later.
Seeded one position below her fellow finalist but Wang had the wind in her sails in the build up to the title contest, having produced a crushing 4-0 win over Ding Ning in the penultimate round. As for Liu the semi-finals proved a much more taxing experience, requiring the full seven-game distance to see of teenage star Sun Yingsha. The opportunity for revenge had presented itself and Wang wasn’t going to pass up on it!
Imposing her authority from the world “go” Wang was simply imperious in game one. However, a brighter performance in game two saw Liu draw level at 1-1, the no.3 seed wasn’t going down without a fight. With the previous year’s result in the back of her mind it would have been easy for Wang to lose her focus, but she pressed on looking to put things right.
Forming an immediate response Wang went on to win three of the next four games to prevail 4-2 over Liu (11-3, 10-12, 12-10, 11-6, 11-6, 5-11, 11-5).
“This win gives me a big confidence boost ahead of the World Championships. It proves to me that I have been working in the right way in recent weeks and months, while I still have some time to tweak other aspects of my game before heading to Budapest.” Wang Manyu
So, it was a case of sweet, sweet revenge for Wang Manyu who, like Ma Long, would go on to carry her good form into the 2019 World Championships, reaching the semi-finals on her debut!
Thus Sunday 31st March 2019 proved to be a very important day for the two Chinese stars!