by Massimo Costantini, ITTF High Performance Elite Coach
China’s Fan Zhendong, the top seed and winner of the Liebherr 2018 Men’s World Cup in October in Paris, departed proceedings. Likewise it was farewell to Japan’s Tomokazu Harimoto, the no.4 seed, the sensational winner at the ITTF World Tour Grand Finals some two months later in Incheon.
Fan Zhendong had already savoured the big occasion; he had been a finalist at the Liebherr 2017 World Championships in Düsseldorf, beaten by Ma Long in an iconic match, a contest that lives long in the memory because of the technical content and emotions of the moment.
Having come so close in Düsseldorf, the goal for Fan Zhendong in Budapest was the title; further east, Tomokazu Harimoto, fresh from his Incheon success, projected the young man, at the time 16 years old, as one of the possible star names in the Hungarian capital city.
They were both challengers for honours but the fifth morning of play turned into a nightmare. In the fourth round, the last 16, Fan Zhendong lost to compatriot Liang Jingkun, the no.9 seed. Tomokazu Harimoto was beaten by An Jaehyun, the 19 year old having started proceedings in the qualification stage, was the revelation of the tournament.
At the time, An Jaehyun was listed at no.157 on the men’s world rankings, of those competing in Budapest, he was the 121st name in the order of merit, of Korean names, the 10th highest on the list! It was somewhat of a surprise he was even present.
Most difficult obstacle
Excluding Ma Long, Liang Jingkun was arguably the most difficult obstacle of all, a player who is growing stronger and has a very similar game to Fan Zhendong. He has powerful legs, arms, torso; quite simply he is powerful everywhere! Also, his speed of play near the table is impressive, as are his backhand strokes, played with great anticipation and usually masterfully placed.
The head to head prior to Budapest was heavily in favour of Fan Zhendong, he had won five of their six encounters. However the one defeat had a significance; it was their most immediate prior meeting on the international stage.
Some five months earlier in November at the 2018 ITTF World Tour Austrian Open in Linz, at the semi-final stage of the men’s singles event, Liang Jingkun had beaten Fan Zhendong (10-12, 11-9, 6-11, 11-7, 11-8, 11-9), before overcoming Xu Xin (11-5, 4-11, 11-6, 9-11, 13-11, 11-13, 11-2) to secure his first ever such title.
It was a statement of considerable importance; it made him a leading player for China.
- 10.00 am – Table No.1 – Round Four (Last 16): Liang Jingkun beat Fan Zhendong 5-11, 11-4, 11-8, 11-9, 8-11, 11-7
Conversely, Fan Zhendong was not in top form; the draw certainly didn’t favour him, nor did it give him confidence. In fact, if he had won that round and the next, in the semi-finals Ma Long awaited. It was an uphill battle, the defeat stopped him half way up to the top of the moment.
One rally told the story
First game, they could have played one rally only and ended it there! The whole game was monotonous in the sense that the two did the exactly the same thing to the other. Proceedings developed 95 per cent on the backhand diagonal; thus underlining the fact that in style there are so alike.
Fan Zhendong showed much more consistency, making very few mistakes, almost none at all. Liang Jingkun was often in a state of breathlessness, he couldn’t contain his countryman’s anticipated returns.
From the number one in the world, it was an absolutely exemplary game, also in attitude, always focused and determined. Liang Jingkun seemed to not have entered the field well prepared and even indicated during the game by stretching to unlock his back, the warm-up was incomplete.
After the change of ends, in the second game the two immediately started with similar services, short backspin to the forehand and then seize the initiative on the third ball with a backhand flick to open the play. A super-tested scheme that would put any player in the world in trouble but for the two aces, it was absolutely normal to handle that kind of tactic.
Liang Jingkun won the second game without any sensational happenings. Too many times Fan Zhendong waited for his opponent’s mistake as in the first game, the mistakes did not accrue. Also he played with more and more top spin, the ball often flying long over the end of the table.
Third game, same script, they stood their ground; it was almost a fight between two lions who wanted to impose territorial domination.
Fan Zhendong understood that his backhand was not as effective as he would have expected. He started to step around the backhand more to attack with powerful forehands often directed to his opponent’s backhand but on occasions, suddenly to the forehand.
The strategy held up well, at 6-all it was parity, the stage at which Liang Jingkun improved his control. He didn’t risk as much, he believed he could overcome his teammate utilizing the weapon of consistency; out of character Fan Zhendong helped, he made unforced errors, Liang Jingkun held a one game advantage.
Undoubtedly, the fourth game was a compendium of the table tennis player’s manual; a game of absolute refinement for technical and tactical content. Most impressive was the speed as certain technical and tactical choices were implemented.
Imagine for a moment a second divided by 1,000; here, the decisions taken by these champions were made in the order of milliseconds. If it is true that decisions are made in no time, errors are also generated in no time. In fact, the errors made by the two rarely referred to incorrect evaluation of spin or of a type of service; they referred to timing errors; maybe for a millisecond not well prepared?
Maybe they noticed the ball a millisecond too late? Perhaps the position at the table was wrong by a few millimetres? In short, here we enter a sphere of space-time understanding that goes beyond the very understanding of things. I’m not exaggerating. We are talking about almost extra-terrestrial!
Philosophical considerations aside, Fan Zhendong several times gave the appearance of being really uncomfortable in backhand to backhand exchanges. He wanted to escape the stalemate, remove himself from that vicious circle. On some occasions he succeeded with incredible changes of ball placement but then back to the backhand to backhand exchanges, he hit a dead end.
Differently, Liang Jingkun was totally at ease; he opted for control, he knew he did not have to take chances and give his opponent presents. The fourth game also slipped away like the others, another photocopy to add to the previous documents.
Leading three games to one, Liang Jingkun felt the outcome was increasingly in his pocket, justifiably Fan Zhendong had concerns but he could have no complaints. Liang Jingkun was the better player.
The scenario is an important aspect in the perception of a table tennis athlete. The question is when to recognise the value of oneself as well as that of your opponent. There are athletes who don’t look beyond their noses; defeat is always their own fault, there is another category of players who have no difficulty in admitting: “yes, my opponent was better than me”.
Self-consciousness is fundamental in table tennis; it must always teach us where we have done well and where we have gone wrong, while respecting the value of our opponent.
Ups and downs, at the start of the fifth game Fan Zhendong did not enjoy the best of fortunes, he trailed 4-6. In that phase of the contest, he remembered not to use his reverse serve from his own forehand side.
He directed his serves short on Liang Jingkun’s forehand; this strategic change allowed him to place his tactical shots more effectively as his opponent found himself disoriented by that new situation. Fan Zhendong recovered, he played well, he won the fifth game.
A one game advantage for Liang Jingkun; the sixth game, it was the same module, no variation, a game of nerves where both collided on the ground of consistency.
On two occasions, Liang Jingkun took advantage of two lucky points; that certainly didn’t help Fan Zhendong increase his much needed confidence level. On the contrary the loss of the points caused an air of depression; his attitude always correct but the evident disappointment was visible to everyone.
Liang Jingkun won the sixth game 11-7; he had reached the top eight. Fan Zhendong had lost to an opponent for whom he had displayed absolute respect; a player who had excelled in the game strategy. In the technical execution of tactics Liang Jingkun had shown himself to be one of the best in the world.
Shortly afterwards, Japan’s Koki Niwa faced Croatia’s Tomislav Pucar who the previous day had surprisingly beaten Germany’s Dima Ovtcharov. Liang Jingkun awaited the winner.
Little time to draw breath, just over one hour later, two stars of the table tennis constellation graced the scene, stars of medium to high brightness, stars who soon lit up the entire table tennis planet. We can call this match “High Noon” after the famous 1952 movie directed by Fred Zinnemann; following vicissitudes we arrive at the final duel in an epic scene of contemporary cinema.
I could stop here and leave you with an idea of what happened between these two guys from the Far East, it was a classic, no holds barred but there is more to the story.
Maybe you will not believe but it is true. I was about 90 per cent certain that this contest could present a major problem for Tomokazu Harimoto. The day before there was a discussion about this match and how easy it would be for Harimoto to eat the young South Korean guy in one bite. I warned my colleagues that it wouldn’t be like that, I was referring to the fact that Harimoto tends to suffer more with opponents of the same age and that there were precedents.
An Jaehyun is two years the elder. I had seen their battle in Cape Town at 2016 World Junior Championships in the boys’ team event when one was 13 years old and the other 15 years of age. It was a real battle at the highest level. It was a shame for those who were there and hadn’t watched that match, they would have learnt a great deal.
On that occasion Tomokazu Harimoto succeeded in four games (11-4, 5-11, 11-8, 12-10) but it was the only occasion in their four previous meetings when he had prevailed.
Simply I based my prediction on that last match played between the two; it give me the feeling of uncertainty; if Harimoto was to win he would need seven games. However, as you know, things turned out differently; the Japanese champion lost in six games.
- 12.00 noon – Table No.2 – Round Four (Last 16): An Jaehyun beat Tomokazu Harimoto 11-7, 3-11, 11-8, 11-7, 8-11, 11-9
A surprise outcome; quite the reverse in my opinion, it’s a match that on the eve of play I believed was more in favour of the young man from the Korea Republic.
Safely through the group qualification phase, An Jaehyun had beaten Hong Kong’s Wong Chun Ting, the no.14 seed (11-3, 11-5, 11-8, 11-9), prior to ousting fellow qualifier, Sweden’s Truls Moregard, the no.118 rated player on duty (3-11, 11-2, 11-13, 11-5, 11-8, 11-8). Next he followed with success in opposition to Austria’s Daniel Habesohn, the no.25 seed (10-12, 11-6, 11-8, 12-14, 11-3, 11-4).
Taking all factors into account, the defeat was not a real surprise.
Play commenced, the Korean almost always directed a short serve to Harimoto’s forehand; he trusted the Japanese to open the rally with a backhand flick and was ready to attack with a fast third ball.
Harimoto also performed the same service but his opponent was more familiar with the short ball push to the forehand; thus finding himself in the same situation as his opponent. Harimoto played a flick on the third ball, An Jaehyun responded with speed.
The first game slipped away smoothly; it was clear on more than one occasion that Harimoto had definite problems managing the game.
In the second game, Harimoto understood that it was not the time for immediate openings; on several occasions he pushed wisely, leaving his opponent to open and make himself ready for the counter attack.
An Jaehyun seemed unhappy with this situation and found himself out of co-ordination many times, he left the table open to the devastating closing attacks of Japan’s number one. The second game ended without historical drama; total domination by Tomokazu. Equality, the next two games proved crucial to understanding the mindset of the champions and when the sense of defeat begins to make its way inside.
The third game was a repetition of the previous, same attitude, same idea of game setting; only this time, Harimoto seemed to respond badly to the sidespin serve directed to his forehand. On several occasions, he returned weakly.
Evidently, a devious woodworm was creeping into his brain twists. A certain resigned body language didn’t go unnoticed either and there was worse, there was an attitude during the rally almost of reflexive pause. He lacked the fluidity of leg and arm movements that often allows him to dominate an opponent; that day instead he was suffering and did so without showing reaction.
One ahead, then the other, the game ebbed and flowed, at 8-all it was parity but then two mistakes made by Harimoto, made in good faith. He attempted two exquisite returns down-the-line; both missed by fractions, it was 10-8 to An Jaehyun. On the next point, Harimoto returned the service too high, the Korean closed the game with a fast topspin directly to his opponent’s elbow.
Another recovery needed
Things were now difficult for Harimoto; behind after losing the first game, he was now behind after losing the third. He had to recover again. He began to enter a phase of emotional stress, a factor of considerable importance; on the other side of the table, the Korean was perkier than ever, knowing he had everything in the right place to send his opponent back home to Tokyo.
In the fourth game, An Jaehyun went on the rampage; he showed a series of skills out of the ordinary, in a very short time he led 9-3. He took the time to relax for a few seconds, a serious mistake; Harimoto won the next four points without much effort. Maybe the young Korean thought that Harimoto was going to surrender, maybe he thought it was a matter of little effort to win; this attitude was very wrong.
It has been said many times that distractions in table tennis can be devastating and you should avoid them. In this is a complex sport, simple things turn out to be complicated, what seems difficult turns out to be easy, what seems impossible appears every day.
Nevertheless, An Jaehyun prevailed, not so much by his own merit but by the demerit of his opponent.
Inexplicably, Harimoto made a mistake, after a beautiful backhand; perhaps surprised by the return somewhat high; he did not have time to recover to position. The stroke that followed was clumsy and too long, outside the diagonal of the forehand.
The other mistake; or rather it was a double mistake. The first was a reverse serve decidedly not short, the Korean waited for the ball to come long over the end of the table, making a topspin loaded with rotation, he forced an error which Harimoto he blocked badly, the return long and wide. Perhaps, he was surprised by the amount of spin on the ball but certainly the setting of the racket lowered at table level compromised the correct execution of the block, a stroke that must be made with the racket above the ball.
Now it was really a dramatic situation, the number four in the draw was down 3-1 against the number 121 on the list. A drama was taking place as the minutes ticked away.
The fifth game followed the same matrix. Both played short serves to the forehand with two options for the opponent: short return from the forehand, flick from the backhand, set up the third ball to execute with speed. The two young men made many simple mistakes; somehow they balanced each other out.
However, the Korean’s attitude appeared more serene, cool; he kept that inner confidence that for Harimoto was on and off. Too many times the Japanese lowered his head in a sense of desperation and resignation, a way of appearing as if he will not be able to make it. He fought but in the long distance you could see that for him the road to victory was becoming longer and longer.
He managed to win the game and boosted himself in his typical way of cheering with strong screams, a closed punch of his fist addressed to his coach Yosuke Kurashima, a really great coach.
One game difference
Now just one game separated the teenagers. In the sixth, the average exchange duration was five strokes, each point ended with the fifth ball; this is an interesting aspect for the younger generation to understand, the importance of the early part. Unfortunately many instead focus on a long rally, which at a high level may never occur.
Same module, same system, seen and reviewed, played and replayed, only this time, the Korean had an extra tactical weapon, he knew there was a weakness in the Japanese, the return from the centre, the so-called indecision point where the player has to decide backhand or forehand.
The fact clear but thinking of past games, surely the problem should have been overcome; the issue was more subtle. Harimoto has displayed in the past, especially on the forehand but also sometimes when using the backhand that he loses points when playing from the centre of the table. He is that precious millisecond late and is thus not able to respond in a positive manner.
Time and again An Jaehyun caught Haromoto with the same execution in a game that was like children fighting for a toy until an adult intervenes.
At 9-all it was parity with Harimoto receiving service; on the first, he attempted a backhand flick return, the ball caught the ribbon of the net and flew out; the second, a forehand flick, directly out.
Proceedings ended with a liberating scream of happiness for An Jaehyun who went straight to his coach Lee Jungwoo for a hug. Defeat for Tomokazu Harimoto, ruefully he returned home.
No matter how bright you shine on the day, it matters that the future will be bright; it is the morale of the story.
Most significantly we can add another star to the table tennis firmament. The name is An Jaehyun.