by Massimo Costantini, ITTF High Performance Elite Coach
Occupying the no.3 seeded position, in the final they faced Japan’s Maharu Yoshimura and Kasumi Ishikawa, the no.2 seeds, on duty in their third consecutive final.
In 2017 they had won in Düsseldorf, having been the runners up in 2015 in Suzhou.
Road to the final – Xu Xin and Liu Shiwen (China)
- Round One: beat Luka Mladenovic / Ni Xia Lian (Luxembourg) 11-6, 11-4, 11-4, 11-2
- Round Two: beat Tomas Polansky / Hana Matelova (Czech Republic) 11-8, 11-5, 11-6, 12-10
- Round Three: beat Alexander Shibaev / Polina Mikhailova (Russia) 11-8, 11-6, 11-6, 11-2
- Quarter-Final: beat Lee Sangsu / Jeon Jihee (Korea Republic) 10-12, 9-11, 11-7, 11-9, 9-11, 11-5, 11-7
- Semi-Final: Fan Zhendong / Ding Ning (China) 11-5, 11-8, 13-11, 16-14
Road to final – Maharu Yoshimura and Kasumi Ishikawa (Japan)
- Round One: beat Lionel Weber / Rachel Moret (Switzerland) 9-11, 12-10, 11-4, 11-8, 11-7
- Round Two: beat Ham Yu Song / Cha Hyo Sim (DPR Korea) 11-8, 11-7, 11-8, 11-9
- Round Three: beat Adam Szudi / Szandra Pergel (Hungary) 5-11, 14-12, 6-11, 11-6, 11-8, 12-10
- Quarter-Final: beat Lubomir Pistej / Barbora Balazova (Slovakia) 6-11, 11-8, 11-5, 8-11, 11-7, 11-8
- Semi-Final: beat Patrick Franziska / Petrissa Solja (Germany) 11-9, 11-6, 11-6, 5-11, 11-6
Final: Liu Shiwen / Xu Xin beat Ishikawa Kasumi / Yoshimura Maharu 11-5, 11-8, 9-11, 11-9, 11-4
Mixed doubles is truly intriguing and dynamic. The forces become fused, creating an interesting interaction between the predominant player and the one, who let’s say prepares the game. The preponderant player is not always embodied in the male figure, on the contrary it’s the opposite. It’s an extremely tactical contest because for one pair the male player plays to towards the female; then the roles are reversed.
It seems so trivial, to say the least but in reality, it is not. The tactic, or rather the strategy is very subtle and it is necessary for the pairs to have great understanding, above all, a strong predisposition to discipline for things that need to be done and not done.
The Chinese pair arrived in Budapest with victories on the 2019 ITTF World Tour in Hungary and Qatar; furthermore, they had beaten Maharu Yoshimura and Kasumi Ishikawa (8-11, 11-8, 11-5, 11-9) at the quarter-final stage in November 2018 at the ITTF World Tour Platinum Austrian Open.
Xu Xin and Liu Shiwen pressed the accelerator from the start, Maharu Yoshimura and Kasumi Ishikawa were left standing at the start line, struggling to reach first gear. Only at 10-2 did the Chinese pair decide to slow down, so as not to go beyond the permitted speed limits. The brakes were caused by three valuable Japanese backhand flicks, one played by Ishikawa and two by Yoshimura in reply to Xu Xin’s service. He returned with what many commentators call the “strawberry” flick.
Yes, like the fruit; this stroke is considered the opposite action of the “banana” flick (a different fruit, of course) where the wrist makes a rotation upwards; in this case, the “strawberry” one, the wrist goes downwards. Well executed, it is deceiving.
Eventually, the game ended 11-5 for the Chinese pair, the message was clear: if you push or play passively in general and don’t attack first, you better go and take a shower. The two Japanese must have understood this well, thanks also to the advice of their coach Akira Kito.
Overall, the first game did not create great emotions. The two Chinese were very determined, the exultation was almost always contemporary, while in their corner sat a respected coach, Ma Lin.
Usually, in this kind of specialty, there are three main dynamics.
The female player who plays to the man must necessarily play more aggressively to avoid her male opponent taking over and putting her partner in trouble. Therefore, every stroke that is played softly generally produces a negative result. For the man who plays to the woman, the placing of the returns, which must necessarily be of high quality, must be in the middle or at the extreme of the corners. In the case of left-handed and right-handed pairs (like the pairs in the final), it is always important to create an imbalance for the opponents by making them cross during the movements.
Losing the first game for the Japanese meant facing a match that has a chasing taste. In the next game, in the even ones, Xu Xin directed his serves to Ishikawa. The Japanese definitely didn’t make the most of the “advantage” of the first game when they had the opportunity when the man played to the woman.
Of course, it’s not a rule, there are many exceptions but generally, the woman stays close to the table and uses the speed skills while the man tends to stay a little further from the table and manages incredible recoveries using the power of the legs.
The situation seemed to be reversed. In fact, the athletes from the Land of the Rising Sun opened whatever return arrived in their field, in the second game they led 5-1 but then, with Xu Xin’s service on hand, things went back on track, the Chinese deliberately served topspin, a variation of the Tomahawk serve. A bit of Ishikawa’s artful naivety, she rushed playing a backhand flick on a service that was definitely long. Xu Xin made two identical serves. Liu Shiwen immediately accelerated an aggressive backhand topspin over the table towards Yoshimura.
Xu Xin was irrepressible; not only did he collect his four service points, thanks also to his partner, he overturned situations where Yoshimura didn’t make the most of his technical skills. From probable parity at 5-1 to the Japanese duo, the Chinese pair secured a two games lead. They were definitely playing better, they played with precision and tactical care.
Now, with a two game disadvantage and thinking about the fact that Xu Xin will still have two more games where he will play to Ishikawa, the situation had taken a really bad turn for the reigning world champions.
In the third game finally, the Japanese duo became aggressive, fizzy. Yoshimura’s efforts were especially felt by Liu Shiwen who witnessed bombs coming straight to her body. Xu Xin appeared faded, maybe he was confident he had an advantage and that all in all, losing a game shouldn’t be a threat. Thus without much fuss it was 10-4 for the golden couple of Düsseldorf 2017. The Chinese duo secured the next five points, “time out” called. The break proved wise. A well disguised serve from Ishikawa, Xu Xin rushed for a backhand flick that went wide, game to Japan.
Interesting to note, which by the way is a feature of many players, is that in mixed doubles it is taken for granted that the services are 100 per cent short, so you try to anticipate the position by moving the right or left leg to set a flick opening. In this game, however, many of the services were long, anticipating a short serve generated a poor receive.
In the fourth game it was another super start for the Chinese aces. They were 6-1 in the blink of an eye. At 2-1 and 6-1 you can think of relaxing for a moment; here, in a moment, three points were lost, the score 6-4. The idea of relaxing is like a latent worm, which sometimes peeps into your head and can create damage. Luckily for the Chinese, the little worm was hiding somewhere. They resumed their journey towards the highest podium.
Two interesting facts happened. At 8-5, a strange recovery played by Xu Xin deceived Ishikawa, the ball wedged upwards, an opportunity to smash, inexplicably the white ball took a bizarre trajectory that made Ishikawa look like a novice.
At 9-5 maybe that little worm showed up again. A bad service by Xu Xin, this time, evidently long, returned the favour of the previously given point. It didn’t go unnoticed by Ma Lin, who requested a moment of reflection by calling them to the bench for a “time out”. Liu Shiwen didn’t seem to agree with that, she would have been ready to resume but she was in the minority because Xu Xin also agreed to take a break.
After Xu Xin’s service and the winning exchange, the Chinese pair had four game points at their disposal.
Finally, Yoshimura, who only participated in the mixed doubles showed his class in all its beauty. Three beautiful actions of refined technique.
At 10-9, after another fine play by Yoshimura, luck came to the aid of the Chinese pair. A backhand hit the ribbon of the net, forcing Ishikawa to move unnaturally and play a backhand smash. Unfortunately, the ball went out, a tiny gesture of anger from the great champion was caught by the cameras. She apologised but it’s hard to tell if it was because of the touch of anger or the sensational stroke she missed.
The Chinese led 3-1; the fifth game had nothing remarkable except two things that happened later. The two Chinese were rampant. Xu Xin won points everywhere, from close to the table, from very far away, from his far left, from very far right, he’s stole the show.
Liu Shiwen played the role of stooge for her partner in a superb way, always precise and present on every point. On the other side of the table, the two partners lost motivation and above all lucidity in their strokes, point after point.
At 7-3, four points from gold, there was also room for improvisation to the enjoyment of the spectators; maybe not so much to the Chinese and the Japanese. After an errant serve by Ishikawa, Xu Xin played a topspin loaded with rotation towards the centre line, Yoshimura prepared by moving to the right and opening his arm to counter attack with his forehand. However, he realised that the ball was going towards his body; he decided for an effort behind his back, playing with the forehand.
Quiet, Liu Shiwen didn’t seem surprised. Such are really unusual shots but when it happens, they can create a short circuit in the brain of the opponent. So, the women’s singles runner up at the 2015 World Championships, indifferent, played her usual backhand but with some indecision; Ishikawa did not return. The possibility of comeback almost disappeared from the sight of the two Japanese.
Point of joy
Another two points followed to collect seven match points. The Japanese recorded a point thanks to a forehand flick, played by Xu Xin, which went out.
The point of joy came again, Yoshimura, who for the second time in a little more than a minute replayed another forehand from behind the back, this time with more quality. Liu Shiwen responded, lively she accelerated her backhand, almost a half-volley. Ishikawa does what she can and out of it comes a slow forehand drive.
After bouncing back on the table the ball was slowly moving to her opponent’s forehand to gently rest on the red floor. Xu Xin can reach anywhere, even to the moon, so he recovered a ball a few inches off the ground and sent it back with a side topspin. Yoshimura rushed towards the umpire’s position, he played a forehand top spin intending to end the rally; alas for Japan the ball died in the net.
Delighted the two Chinese raised their arms in glory. Ma Lin had a smile on his 32 teeth, he was super happy for this achievement, his first of world relevance. The men’s singles gold medal winner at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games knew he had a pair that could win but they had to deal with the reigning world champions; things in this sport can never be taken for granted. In perfect Japanese style, with extreme dignity, the outgoing world champions bow in respect to their coach, their opponents and the entire crowd.
Maybe the Japanese deserved more, their value was absolute but the Chinese pair played more consistently and made very few mistakes. Xu Xin was a giant, an essence of class, technique and intuition, not to mention his extraordinary adaptability to any situation.
Equally impressive Liu Shiwen, made a handful of mistakes, she anticipated. She caused both her opponents to lose their timing.
Yoshimura was not at his best, often on-and-off, often not making a difference to this match; his famous services were not as effective as usual and he couldn’t give his partner a good opportunity to exploit the next ball. Several times Ishikawa found herself not so sharp; she didn’t express her best play, especially the backhand over the table to put Liu Shiwen off balance was not effective.
There are many good pairs around the world; most certainly will see Xu Xin and Liu Shiwen many times; maybe in the Land of the Rising Sun when the Olympic flame will light up our hearts.