29 Apr 2020

A debut at the 2018 ITTF World Tour Kaisa China Open, the semi-final winners against the host nation’s Ma Long and Xu Xin, before losing to Lin Gaoyuan and Fan Zhendong; at the Liebherr 2019 World Championships in Budapest, the combination of Romania’s Ovidiu Ionescu and Spain’s Alvaro Robles proved the incredible performance some ten months in earlier in Shenzhen was no fluke.

On Friday 26th April, in the Hungarian capital city, they booked their place in the men’s doubles final.

by Dominique Plattner, ITTF High Performance Manager

Once again, as in Shenzhen, the European duo upset the order of merit; they commenced play, the no.7 seeds.

  • Round One: beat Vildan Gadiev / Krill Skachkov (Russia) 13-11, 11-6, 11-5, 11-8
  • Round Two: beat Mihai Bobocica / Niagol Stoyanov (Italy) 11-6, 9-11, 11-7, 11-5, 11-7
  • Round Three: beat Jonathan Groth / Liam Pitchford (Denmark / England) 11-7, 11-6, 11-9, 9-11, 11-8
  • Quarter-Final: beat Mattias Falck / Kristian Karlsson (Sweden) 11-5, 11-7, 13-11, 11-9
  • Semi-Final: beat Tiago Apolonia / João Monteiro (Portugal) 11-6, 3-11, 10-12, 11-7, 11-7, 9-11, 11-8

En route to the penultimate round, Ovidiu Ionescu and Alvaro Robles had been most impressive, they had lost just two of the 18 games played; the partnership of Tiago Apolonia and João Monteiro, a pair that had been required to compete in the preliminary stage, awaited.

The contest lasting one hour and four minutes had everything, a rollercoaster regarding the mental aspect, great rallies, high quality placements, amazing combinations, tremendous individual efforts. Moreover, the emotions brought a tear to the eye.

A healthy respect, the players shake hands before the start of play (Photo: Rémy Gros)


Major strength

Robles started as usual to return service with one of his biggest strengths, his “banana” flick but Monteiro was well prepared, in some situations even able to step around and spin the ball with his forehand from the backhand side. Nevertheless it was still a very good combination due to the fact Ionescu could wait to play a forehand counter attack in different directions.

Ionescu and Robles were the more active pair, also when being in a passive position, they blocked effectively close to the table, often directing their efforts towards Portuguese backhands.

Both pairs varied between float and backspin serves. Robles was so smooth, he played positively from different positions. However, Apolonia and Monteiro were in no mood to surrender; their body language remained positive, encouraging their partner after each point. They were precise in their placements, they forced Ionescu and Robles into a situation where reaction was the only option; they found it difficult to put the Portuguese under pressure.

João Monteiro (serving) and Tiago Apolonia contributed immensely to a memorable contest (Photo: Rémy Gros)


Portuguese dominant

From the beginning of the second game Apolonia and Monteiro were dominant, varying their returns and attacking strokes over the table, often playing long. Ionescu and Robles could not find a way to impose themselves on proceedings.

Several times in the third game Ionescu and Robles tried to play short. Matters became hectic, chances were missed, especially by the Portuguese pairing. Monteiro saved a game point and created one when anticipating the situation. Robles flicked into his backhand, Monteiro stepped around and performed a forehand top spin into Ionescu’s forehand, he twice performed the feat successfully, the Portuguese duo held a one game advantage.

Trailing, in the fourth, Ionescu and Robles were accurate with their short play; Apolonia and Monteiro mostly played half-long. Ionescu was on fire, he was especially effective from the mid-point of the game with his powerful forehand, either counter attacking of opening the game.

Nervous moments for the coaches, Andrei Filimon (furthest from camera) looks tense; Alfredo Carneros bites his nails to the quick  (Photo: Rémy Gros)


Problems with short play

Parity, in the fifth the Portuguese struggled, they had problems with their short play; their opponents were able to seize the initiative. Also, Robles varied when using his “banana” return to both corners, caused Monteiro problems; the Portuguese wanted to step around his backhand to execute a forehand but that was risky. Ionescu and Robles played stress free; in particular Ionescu performed amazing counter attacks from both forehand and backhand.

Leading by one game, Ionescu and Robles started in the manner they finished the fifth. Everything was under control, they established a lead, they were active, accurate placement, good body language.

Trailing 0-3, the Portuguese duo called “time out”. They returned, played with great quality, became active, Ionescu and Robles rushed matters. The momentum changed, a deciding game beckoned.

Seventh game

The deciding game, spectacular rallies, deep counter sidespin attacks, down the line bombs or even chop blocks. Just great! Apolonia and Monteiro went ahead 8-4 lead. At that stage Ionescu and Robles played aggressively; they attacked anything short. They increased the speed of the encounter, they directed their attacking play down the line; they put the Portuguese under pressure.

At 10-8 they held two match points, they needed just one; emotions ran wild!

Alvaro Robles and Ovidiu Ionescu remember

You played an incredible tournament, what did you expect before the tournament?

Robles: Well, I needed one year to realise, how important this result was. It happened especially during the lockdown, as before we were running from tournament to tournament, so we didn’t have time to realize it. These days I had the chance to watch some of our matches. Well, the performance was incredible, we played the best level we could play. I remember that Ovi (nickname Ionescu) said that we needed to be in the top eight seeds to have a good result. It was very important to get out of the way of the best doubles.

Ionescu: I mean, it was a really, really big achievement. It took a long time to realise it. Like Alvaro said, now we have a lot of time, so I watched the matches and I am very, very happy with the result. Now I can go to sleep, dream that I am vice-world champion. In the morning I still have a smile on my face, because it wasn’t a dream, it’s reality.

After beating Ma Long and Xu Xin and losing close to Jonathan Groth and Liam Pitchford in the European Championships I told Alvaro to play some tournaments to collect points, in order to be in the top eight seeds. As a top eight seeded you can have a better draw and then you just need to catch good opponents, perhaps non-Asian in the quarter-final; then you have to take the chance. Luckily we were seeded seven. The draw was very good for us. Until the final, we just played against European doubles. I think their style is very good for us. We took the chances. Many people do get chances but they don’t take them. We took it fully and won the silver medal.


You are a left handed and right handed pair, you have the advantage to cover all the table with both your forehands. What was your main tactic in the semi-final; what did you have to adapt in the match?

Ionescu: Before the match we studied with our coaches their previous matches, point by point. We did very good “homework”. We knew that we had to close the game as soon as possible and attack their backhands; then they are more passive and we can could use our strengths, our forehands. For the receive we always count on Alvaro’s “banana”, because it gives us a tremendous advantage and then I get to opportunity to perform my forehand. I think it is very dangerous for every opponent.

Robles: As Ovi said, I remember how we prepared for the match with some small tips from our coaches; it was always important that I opened the point and Ovi finished it, most of the times with his forehand. During the match we had to adapt many times, they made a lot of changes. We were prepared. They were quite clever. We had to find all the time a way to win a point; that was the key!


What were the crucial moments for both of you?

Robles: We had some moments, in which we led and we thought that we could finish the match. They always came back to a 50:50 match. The key was, when we were 4-8 down in the deciding game, we said to each other, that we have to be aggressive and open the game, otherwise we will lose. The time from 4-8 to 11-8 felt like a few seconds. If I see our faces on the video, I can see that we were very much focused. We didn’t even know that the match finished. It was an amazing feeling.

Ionescu: I think that this match had everything what should be included in a World Championships semi-final. I mean, it was a 4-3 with many ups and downs from both pairings. One key point was the moment when we led 3-2 in games and 3-1 in points. At this moment we were under control. I thought that we will do it, if we just keep in the game. Somehow they managed to go to a higher level and gain new energy, I don’t know from where. They are experienced players, they have had great achievements, so they found a way to come back. At 3-2, 9-9 it was maybe the pressure, but I returned so badly.

So it came to 3-3. At the beginning of the decider both pairs had ups and downs but somehow they controlled the game better than us. At 4-8 we trusted each other, we said that we have to risk and go for the points. We knew that we had to enjoy the occasion, the hall was full; we were playing a World Championships semi-final. Enjoy the moment, doesn’t matter what will happen, point by point. We came back and saw that our opponents were struggling. Perhaps they were surprised at our strength to comeback in such a moment. I think that we were brave but this match could have ended in another way. They played a perfect match from the beginning till the end. I am happy that we were the winners!


What about your feelings? How were you able to stay calm and self-confident?

Robles: Well, until this moment, we repeated always one sentence “We are in the semi-final of the World Championships; this is a unique moment, we have to enjoy it.” Whenever we were in a struggling situation, we tried to convince each other to enjoy the moment. It gave us the strength to play our game, to be free and to continue being focused in the match. I think that it was the key during the entire competition.


How did the idea arrive that you play together?

Robles: Well, everything started at the China Open. I went there as the one and only Spanish player. We had talked with each other about playing together. I don’t know how but we have played one our best tournaments in our lives, starting with good players in every round, we reached the final. We beat Ma Long and Xu Xin, Tomokazu Harimoto and Jin Ueda. Of course we continued to play together after these results!

Ionescu: Everything started as follows. I had searched for a doubles partner and played against Alvaro in the doubles event at the European Championships in 2016. I remember that his “banana” made me crazy. I saw that he didn’t have a constant partner. I thought “his banana, my forehand, this can be a good combination”. I spoke with him in Düsseldorf. We should have played at the Qatar Open but due to the regulations, just 16 pairings competed in the qualification. We didn’t have any points, so we weren’t allowed to play. For the China Open we had barely reached the qualification and then I was so nervous during the first game because I knew that we could build something. Somehow we found a rhythm and we just enjoyed the whole tournament.

It was an incredible feeling. It is a moment I will never forget in my life. After that in each of the following tournament we did something amazing. I remember the press conference at the China Open. They asked us, for how long had we practised together. We told them that it is the first time we have played together. They asked us again and again. Nobody could believe that we never practised with each other before, they asked us about our doubles training camps. Even Lin Gaoyuan was smiling.

Robles: During the press conference we had said to each other that maybe it will be the last time that we are in such a nice situation with so many people and journalists taking pictures and speaking about us. We were really happy about living this moment and then one year later we were in the same situation in the World Championships.

Alvaro Robles (serving) was the architect; Ovidiu Ionescu was the killer! (Photo: Rémy Gros)
Features Liebherr 2019 ITTF World Table Tennis Championships Alvaro Robles Ovidiu Ionescu

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