by Dominique Plattner, ITTF High Performance Manager
Sweden’s Mattias Falck took full advantage of the situation, listed at no.16 on the world rankings current at the time, he caused a significant upset; he beat Korea Republic’s Lee Sangsu, named at no.6 in the global order, a bronze medallist two years earlier in Düsseldorf and at the 2018 Asian Games.
In the fourth round Mattias Falck gave one of best performances in the opening five days of competition. Impressively, in the opening round he had beaten Hungary’s Adam Szudi (8-11, 11-8, 11-4. 11-5, 11-5), before overcoming Austria’s experienced Robert Gardos (11-5, 7-11, 11-6, 11-9, 5-11, 14-12) and in a most authoritative manner, Portugal’s Tiago Apolonia (11-6, 11-6, 11-4, 11-8), a contest that lasted just 33 minutes.
Meanwhile, Lee Sangsu, like Mattias Falck, faced respective adversaries from Austria and Portugal. In the opening round, he had recovered from a two games to nil deficit to beat Andreas Levenko (10-12, 8-11, 11-5, 11-9, 11-9, 11-5), before rather more comfortably overcoming João Geraldo (11-5, 11-3, 11-4, 11-9). A place in the third round booked, after losing the opening game he ended the progress of Germany’s Patrick Franziska (5-11, 12-10, 11-9, 11-5, 11-5).
Status suggested Lee Sangsu was the favourite; it was marginally the same when past results were considered.
On the international scene, at the 2011 ITTF World Tour English Open, Lee Sangsu had prevailed in the encounters in both the men’s singles and under 21 men’s singles events. Five years later at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, in the men’s team event, the decision had gone in favour of Mattias Falck. Notably none of the three encounters had been decided in straight games.
Evidence suggested there was little to choose.
In Budapest, the match statistics reflect Falck’s dominance, the Swede scored 15 points more than the Korean in the entire match; the points won on his own serve and on the opponent’s serve speak for themselves.
- 10.00 am – Table No.2 – Round Four (Last 16): Mattias Falck beat Lee Sangsu 11-13, 11-8, 11-8, 11-5, 11-6)
- Match duration: 42 minutes 47 seconds
Lee Sangsu created the impression that he was very tense, highly focused, blanking out everything and everyone around him. Mattias Falck seemed to be quite relaxed, smiling while going through the tactics with his coach, the Swedish legend Jörgen Persson, former world number one and 1991 men’s singles world champion in Chiba.
Both started in a very active way, aiming to force their game on each other. They implemented a very popular tactic nowadays, to serve one of their first serves long, to make the opponent feel a bit more under pressure.
In general, Lee Sangsu used a short pendulum serve to the forehand and middle in order to make Falck move towards the ball and create a small gap in his backhand. The Korean’s body language was very active; he pushed himself a great deal with vocal encouragement.
During the early rallies, Falck performed well executed backhand strokes, regardless of whether the “banana” flick or a topspin return. Lee Sangsu was certainly aware of Falck’s backhand qualities. Often he tried to return either long to the middle or short to the forehand. Also he played aggressively towards middle or fast and deep to Falck’s backhand.
Lee knew that Falck wanted to avoid receiving top spin to his forehand, so he pushed long into the middle while waiting for Falck’s attack with the backhand. The Korean had to fight to find the right timing and struggled. Also Mattias Falck’s forehand pimpled rubber caused problems. The fact that the Swede is unusual because he uses short pimpled rubber on the forehand, makes it difficult to prepare against him.
At the start, Falck’s forehand was somewhat unstable, particularly when performing from the middle. A very good change within the tactics was the long backspin stroke of the Swede at 8-7.
You could see that Lee Sangsu was totally surprised and not balanced. It enabled Falck to perform without any risk and to take a 9-7 lead. At 9-8 the Swede missed the chance to attack when playing over the table and lost the point; at 9-all it seemed he had been waiting for Lee Sangsu’s long serve, ready to step around and perform a forehand attack.
Falck’s return was very flat, almost returned with backspin. In this situation Lee should have used a longer movement, more wrist action and hip rotation to achieve the right trajectory. The Swede saved a game point by using a feinted flick for the first time, completely against the direction in which the Lee Sangsu was moving. It threw him off balance.
At 12-11 Lee Sangsu held game point. Falck performed an excellent block on the Korean’s counter attack, it looked like Lee Sangsu couldn’t reach the ball but he recovered into an active position to win the point and the first game.
Falck wasn’t impressed by the result of the first. He entered the second with a very active attitude. Lee Sangsu tried to slow the pace. The Swede had to work more to produce quality.
The Korean still tried to keep him short and then start his attack afterwards. Mattias Falck varied much better, changed to other serves than the straight and pendulum ones. He started to test how Lee Sangsu would react to the reverse pendulum but that plan didn’t succeed.
Thus he went for his backhand, top spin serves; this helped greatly to destroy the rhythm of the Korean. However, the key of success in the second the game was over the table, particularly when returning service. Falck took more risks, performed bravely and was rewarded.
Lee Sangsu could not find the right timing when blocking or in the rallies. The Korean’s movement was still too short. He had to start to rotate his upper body more vigorously. The short returns were not enough anymore. The Swede adapted and attacked over the table.
Gaining in confidence
One of the biggest changes within the match was in game four. Falck became more secure and more self-confident when performing strokes from the middle. Also, he played with higher accuracy when changing length with his backhand top spins strokes, playing down the line he broke Lee Sangsu’s rhythm. The Swede was determined.
Slowly but surely both players adapted to each other. Different tactics regarding placement, speed and trajectories made a difference and, of course variation, especially when serving. It became a very tactical game. The Swede’s main tactic when returning service was to push either short to the middle or long to the backhand. It was all about placement.
At 8-all, Falck was in a very comfortable position to use his forehand smash with the pimpled rubber. Such strokes can be very unpleasant for the opponent, as the ball will not jump high when bouncing. In most cases it will skid through. There aren’t many players left on the international scene who are able to perform this stroke.
Mattias went for a very clever variation at 9-8. He played with top spin from the forehand, the ball travelled slower and lower to Lee Sangsu’s backhand. He did not read the spin; the right change in the right moment. It was simply world class!
Searching for answers
Lee Sangsu was searching for answers. Falck used another great variation. In game four, initially, he played slower when attacking from the forehand; thus the trajectory was very flat. The next stroke was timed as early as possible to keep the Korean busy.
Somehow, Lee Sangsu had to find answers and a tactic and a way to stay in the match. In the fifth game he tried to avoid playing short-short; it enabled Falck to open the game. However, not missing a backhand, the Swede proved that on the day, he was the better player.
Total commitment, Lee Sangsu tried everything he knew but always his opponent held the answers, for the first time at a World Championships, Mattias Falck had booked a quarter-final place.
Disappointment for Germany
Delight for Sweden but disappointment for Germany; illness forced Timo Boll to withdraw, like Mattias Falck and Lee Sangsu he was in the lower half of the draw and seemingly in good form.
In the opening round he had beaten Croatia’s Andrej Gacina (11-8, 7-11, 11-7, 18-16, 7-11, 11-8), followed by success against Slovakia’s Lubomir Pistej (11-5, 11-7, 11-8, 11-2) and Japan’s Masataka Morizono (11-3, 11-9, 11-7, 11-8) to reach the fourth round. Jang Woojin, like Lee Sangsu from Korea Republic, awaited, he received a walk-over to the quarter-finals.
Likewise, partnering Patrick Franziska in the men’s doubles, they were forced to withdraw when in sight of a medal. They had beaten Nigeria’s Quadri Aruna and Olajide Omotayo (13-11, 11-13, 6-11, 11-5, 11-2), Egypt’s Mohamed Beiali and Ahmed Ali Saleh (11-7, 11-8, 11-9, 11-4) to reserve a place in round three where they ousted the French partnership of Tristan Flore and Emmanuel Lebesson (11-9, 11-4, 11-8, 9-11, 7-11, 6-11, 11-8).
A place in the quarter-finals achieved but no further; Tiago Apolonia and João Monteiro received a walk-over, thus securing a first ever medal for Portugal at a World Championships.