Tournaments

27 Apr 2020

The date Saturday 27th April, the scene set for the semi-finals of the men’s singles event at the Liebherr 2019 World Championships in Budapest.

No-one when proceedings commenced some seven days earlier, would have predicted the names of the players who would contest the penultimate round engagement in the lower half of the draw; that fact added to the occasion.

by Massimo Costantini, ITTF High Performance Elite Coach

Sweden’s Mattias Falck, the no.16 seed, faced Korea Republic’s An Jaehyun, listed at no.157 on the world rankings; a young man whose journey had started in the qualification stage on the opening day of action.

Mattias Falck, as status advised, prevailed but he needed the full seven games.

 

Road to semi-final: Mattias Falck

  • Round One: beat Adam Szudi (Hungary) 8-11, 11-8, 11-4, 11-5, 11-5
  • Round Two: beat Robert Gardos (Austria) 11-5, 7-11, 11-6, 11-9, 5-11, 14-12
  • Round Three: beat Tiago Apolonia (Portugal) 11-6, 11-4, 11-5, 11-8
  • Round Four: beat Lee Sangsu (Korea Republic) 11-13, 11-8, 11-8, 11-5, 11-6
  • Quarter-Final: beat Simon Gauzy (France) 11-8, 11-13, 11-6, 11-3, 11-7)

 

Road to semi-final: An Jaehyun

  • Group 57: beat Emir Garyagdyyev (Turkmenistan) 11-1, 11-3, 11-4, 11-5
  • Group 57: beat Alexander Valuch (Slovakia) 11-8, 10-12, 9-11, 11-7, 11-6, 11-6
  • Preliminary Round: beat Yaroslav Zhmudenko (Ukraine) 11-9, 12-10, 11-3, 11-6
  • Round One: beat Wong Chun Ting (Hong Kong) 11-3, 11-5, 11-8, 11-9
  • Round Two: beat Truls Moregard (Sweden) 3-11, 11-2, 11-13, 11-5, 11-8, 11-8
  • Round Three: beat Daniel Habesohn (Austria) 10-12, 11-6, 11-8, 12-14, 11-3, 11-4
  • Round Four: beat Tomokazu Harimoto (Japan) 11-7, 3-11, 11-8, 11-7, 8-11, 11-9
  • Quarter-Final: beat Jang Woojin (Korea Republic) 12-10, 10-12, 7-11, 11-3, 11-5, 8-11, 12-10

 

Semi-final: Mattias Falck beat An Jaehyun 8-11, 11-7, 3-11, 11-4, 11-9, 2-11, 11-5

 

The two semi-finalists had played a World Championship to say the least exceptionally, a real joy for the eyes greedy for spectacle and techniques from all over the world.

Although An Jaehyun recorded the more points, Mattias Falck earned himself a pass to the final where Ma Long awaited; that fact in my opinion gives an idea of the potential this young South Korean possesses.

An Jaehyun (left) versus (right) Mattias Falck proved an intriguing encounter (Photo: Rémy Gros)

 

Advisers

Diligently led by a fine player from the early 2000s Lee Jungwoo, a left-handed pen-holder, better off having him as a teammate than an opponent, his game was the synthesis of power, strong strokes unleashed from outstretched arms that proved really hard to block.

An Jaehyun must have learnt a great deal, not only from his coach and colleagues, also from other predecessors such as the Ryu Seungmin, the Athens 2004 Olympic Champion and Oh Sangeun as well as current head coach, Kim Taeksoo not to mention Yoo Namkyu, Kim Wan and Kim Kitaek.

The list is long and merits study but one thing is certain, without a good past you can’t hope to have a good future. I’m not referring to the specific background, I’m referring to a culture of sport that goes beyond the simple idea of: “I want to become like him or her” It’s a broader discourse.

Likewise, Mattias Falck hails from a country steeped in the annals of the sport.

Presented business card

Astutely guided by Jörgen Persson, at 6.00 pm Falck presented his business card: my name is Mattias Falck from Karlskrona, right handed, pimples out on my forehand and today I will play against you in a very aggressive manner.

He did just that, in the opening game against his opponent’s first two short sidespin serves, he made his debut with two forehand flicks, very unusual in these times of a “banana” flick played in a maniacal way; the first one, went just out, the second succeeded and prepared him for a proverbial smash that ended the rally.

The young South Korean, on the other hand, preferred the setting of the traditional game starting from a short push and focusing everything on the fourth ball. He started well, psyched up as never before in his career. Reaching this stage he had displayed great technical ability and competitive maturity. Lively, fast, powerful; I would define him, an athlete without hesitation. For him it seems that everything runs smoothly in a linear way.

An Jaehyun psyched up for the occasion  (Photo: Rémy Gros)

 

High stakes

Make no mistake, the stakes were high, the door to the final, glory that will remain forever. Falck controlled the play. He made his adversary move, punched him, unbalanced him and punished him as soon as the ball was returned. However, at the end of the opening game Falck was guilty of mistakes; he erred four times, three on the third ball and one with a flick when receiving.

Notably, both seemed to be at ease, the pimpled rubber yielded a couple of favourable results, the South Korean had only one thing in mind, nail his opponent on the backhand; use his best weapon with a pivot movement to release his powerful and unpredictable forehand.

Calmer player

Matters progressed, Falck appeared the more calm; too many times An showed his disappointment when losing a point. The Swede dominated the second game, notably winning eight points in a row.

There were injections of wisdom, a down-the-line opening, a soft return to the centre, a top spin; then another without rotation. The South Korean managed a minor recovery, more by the demerit of his counterpart; eventually the Swede held five game points.

The game ended in beauty with a smash, like a real champion. After a short serve and the predictable short receive, on the third ball the Swede played a deep push, a few inches from the end line of the table. It was tight, fast, low. An managed with a pivot movement to turn and attack with a forehand top spin down-the-line. Falck stretched, used all his long leverage and, almost unbalanced, made the smash of the game.

Able to cover wide angles is a feature of Mattias Falck’s play (Photo: Rémy Gros)

 

Fast action

Parity, the third game started with fast action. An appeared to have regained a certain mental freshness.

It seems “freshness” in Korea draws its origins from the Koryo dynasty but the official name comes from the term Joseon whose meaning is “morning freshness”. I cannot say whether our little big hero remembered his ancestors or simply wanted to win but that inter stellar rocket start gave everyone the idea of ancestral freshness.

The game had no history, it ended in the blink of an eye 11-3; Mattias being completely unarmed, the opponent seemed to have an arsenal of weapons worthy of a great army.

Dark cloud

Somewhat differently, the fourth game was like a dark cloud had passed over, full of bad omens; that’s what An must have felt.

Imprecise, hasty, at 8-4 in favour of Falck, the South Korean played a backhand flick, something really not functional for his game. On the other hand, the Swede had the lucidity to change the placements once again but there was a signal that attracted the eye. Falck faced his opponent on the most congenial field, the short game, the one preferred by An; the one in previous games that had allowed him to show his class. I think that Falck, with this strategic move, had somehow created strong insecurities in An’s game system; matters were level once more.

Dynamic but An Jaehyun rather missed his chance (Photo: Rémy Gros)

 

Started tarnished

In the fifth Falck started tarnished, perhaps having won the previous game in an easy way, he did not exude the right emotional charge, there was an emptying of muscles and thoughts. On the contrary, An wanted to make up for the game that he lost without even fighting a shred.

He used his game speed to take advantage of Falck’s inability to regain the reins of the game. An played blow after blow with confidence until 7-2 when during a rally, finally, a long rally, he couldn’t take advantage of a net cord that would have allowed him to shorten the ride towards game victory. Not only did he not seize the advantage, he became bewildered, there were signs of hesitation, until this stage not evident. He lost the next point. Lee Jungwoo was forced to take action and give him a break for an energy drink. He called “time-out”.

Received badly

Back on the table the South Korean seemed fine but maybe that break also benefitted Falck who had to catch up. An immediately received badly. It was not a sign of failure to read the service; there was something more, there was a clear leak in the boat that was sailing him far away. The boat was taking water. There was a discomfort in responding to the backhand service of the Swede.

Nevertheless, An stretched the lead to 9-6. As proof of the discomfort expressed, An also tried to respond softly with a backhand to Falck’s usual backhand serve, the ball finished in the net. Next at 9-7 for the South Korean and the serve in his hand, he made two truly inexplicable serves. They weren’t short. They weren’t long. They weren’t loaded with spin. They weren’t even low. The result was that Mattias opened very easily taking the initiative. An could not find co-ordination; level at 9-all.

Now Falck demonstrated his experience, the Korean boat sank; the Swede won the game with a simple, banal and disarming backhand service.

The fifth game was pivotal between An Jaehyun (nearest camera) and Mattias Falck (Photo: Rémy Gros)

 

Fourth ball

A mistake often seen with today’s youngsters is the fourth ball position; when you receive the serve, you usually have an automatic disadvantage, so even if the receiver plays a push, next there is always the tendency to move with a short backward step.

At a high level and I would say also at lower levels, when the opponent plays the third ball with a short push, it happens that because of that short step back, you hit the fourth ball with delay, thus favouring the opponent who takes a comfortable initiative and almost always win the point. It is what happened when An had to receive to from Falck’s backhand service.

Different attitudes

Problems. An after being one step away from leading 3-2, found himself 2-3, now there were two triggering attitudes: one of resignation, the other of powerful reaction. As far as Falck was concerned, he had to manage an unexpected advantage and above all he had to be careful of a possible reaction of a rampant horse that would not be easy to tame.

An found that “freshness of the morning”, he was not resigned at all, indeed he had an inner pride that led him to even more efficient and effective play than previous games. Falck after a bland start with technical errors realised he could not make another effort as in the fifth game, it would be too much and could affect the final outcome of the match.

Undoubtedly, the Swede possessed an attitude almost of renunciation, his legs didn’t move, his arm was slow, he didn’t follow accurately the progress of the ball. Everything suggested that he was preparing for the decisive game. He lost 11-2.

Mattias Falck is notably strong from the backhand (Photo: Rémy Gros)

 

Deciding game

It was the roller coaster predicted, incredible climbs, breathtaking scary descents, thrilling tight turns, all at speed.

The decisive seventh game, what goes through your mind in those moments emotionally?  You want to be calm but you feel the inner turmoil. You want to win but there is also the possibility of losing. You want to do great things but you would rather win without doing great things. You think about your coach, your family, your friends. The mind produces a large amount of condensed thoughts in a split second. What if you lose? What if I win?

You also start to experience post-match scenarios. In this case there is only one way to drive away any interference that may cause a short circuit for the malfunctional system, think about the game and continue the exercise of tactical discipline.

Short points

It was the game with the shortest duration, each rally had a length of only two strokes from each player. Emotional pressure was high, the stakes even higher, the two players realised the fact, the two coaches became over excited.

An started well, he won the first two points, Falck erred with two flicks but at the change of ends, the Swede led 5-4; from that point onwards, it was an escalation of great play. Falck made the South Korean move from left to right, An returned the best he could. However, Falck executing forehand smash and backhand placements caused Jörgen Persson to jump from the bench, a sign of happiness.

Significantly, there was no need to call a “time-out” for Falck during the match, very unusual.

On the stroke of the eleventh point, Mattias raised his arms to the sky, reclined his head, closed his eyes to enjoy a dream come true, a dream that had become reality round after round, a dream that also excited his coach. There were bright eyes of sweet emotion.

Delight for player and coach Mattias Falck (left) and (right) Jörgen Persson  (Photo: Rémy Gros)

 

Added element

No question, An is a great player, now Kim Taeksoo, head coach, knows he has another strong element to add to an existing great team.

Most certainly An must recriminate that fifth game, if  he had won that game things would have turned out differently; in Italy we have a saying, but I don’t know the origin. It sounds roughly like this: if my grandmother had wheels, she would be a wheelbarrow.

High Performance and Development In Depth Liebherr 2019 ITTF World Table Tennis Championships Mattias Falck An Jaehyun
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Day 8 - 2019 World Table Tennis Championships

Match Highlights