05 May 2020

Simply when in the mood there was no player on planet earth comparable to Sweden’s Jan-Ove Waldner; on Monday 5th May 1997, he was in the mood.

He won the men’s singles title at the World Championships in Manchester beating Vladimir Samsonov of Belarus in the final (21-12, 21-17, 21-13); thus having won in 1989 in Dortmund, he secured the crown for the second time in his career. More significantly he won, without at any stage of the event, dropping a single game!

by Ian Marshall, Editor

Quite simply it was a breathtaking performance in the venue in those days known as the G-Mex Centre, once a thriving railway station that provided services to London St Pancras. Later the name changed to Manchester Central, at present moment it is a temporary hospital for the suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

En route to the final, Jan-Ove Waldner had been imperious, matches in those day best of five games, each game to 21 points and a change service every five points. It was a performance full of superlatives, nothing should detract from the master class but one wonders with the modern day system of changing service every two points, would the Swedish master have been able to achieve the same perfect feat?

Win four points or more on your own service at the start of a match, it is a massive boost. At the art of serving was there ever a player better that Jan-Ove Waldner?

Samsonov the favourite

However, there was a mode of thought before the match began that Vladimir Samsonov was the favourite; the thought was rife even though he had celebrated his 21st birthday just some three weeks earlier and was ten years younger than Waldner. At the 31 years of age for European players, that is when they are considered by many to be at their peak.

Undoubtedly, the major reason for the Samsonov vote was that in the semi-finals he had beaten China’s Kong Linghui, at the time all the evidence suggesting he was the best player in the world. He was the reigning World champion, he had won the Perrier 1995 Men’s World Cup in Nimes, prior to succeeding at the inaugural ITTF World Tour Grand Finals in 1996 in Tianjin.

Simply at the time his curriculum vitae provided enough evidence that he was the title favourite in Manchester. Vladimir Samsonov prevailed in four games (21-15, 21-18, 17-21, 21-17).

Vladimir Samsonov did nothing wrong, just Jan-Ove Waldner did everything right (Photo: Butterfly)

 

Delayed presentation

No men’s singles gold for Kong Linghui but prior to the men’s singles final, he had partnered colleague Liu Guoliang men’s doubles success. In the final they beat Jörgen Persson and Jan-Ove Waldner (19-21, 21-15, 18-21, 21-13, 21-17).

Presentations were to be made but Waldner did not want to be involved in a presentation ceremony prior to the men’s singles final. The organizing committee quickly agreed to his request; there was no great debate.

Packed auditorium

A packed auditorium, the crowd waited with great anticipation as the “king” faced the “young pretender”; the tiered seating was full, chairs for players were hastily brought into the arena.

It was a quite daunting task for Richard Scruton, now Secretary-General of the European Table Tennis Union and responsible in Manchester for the show court arena; in his trademark calm manner, solutions were found. Memorably, Jean-Philippe Gatien, the 1993 World champion was gently advised by security that he could not put one chair on top of another to gain a better view. Politely the Frenchmen concurred.

Supported by his wife, Anita Porter, better known as Anita Londesbrough, gold medallist in the 200 metres backstroke at the Rome 1960 Olympic Games, Hugh Porter, winner of four world pursuit cycling titles, announced the players.

Asserted authority

Preliminaries completed play began, both players extolled their skills in their smooth, balanced, stylish manner; nothing to choose in that department but in serve and return of serve, Waldner was the master. Vladimir Samsonov did nothing wrong but trying to prevent his Swedish adversary seizing the initiative proved a step too far.

Over the years, Vladimir Samsonov has proved himself the master of control, making the opponent move, enforcing passive returns, moving the adversary out of position. Against Waldner, he suffered a taste of his own medicine; rarely has Vladimir Samsonov been required to cover so much territory in match that lasted three games.

Equally, when he attacked, the Waldner blocking skills were at their peak; whatever, the man from Belarus tried, the man from Sweden was more than the equal.

Elder brother Kjell-Åke Waldner sat courtside alongside Ulf Carlsson, the head coach. Anders Johansson sat half a metre back. They applauded their charge’s every move; more often that not, they just watched in awe; pleased to be Swedish.

The control exerted from the backhand by Jan-Ove Waldner when required to counter the attacking skills of Vladimir Samsonov was simply remarkable (Photo: Butterfly)

 

Glimmer of hope

Waldner secured the opening game, he led from start to finish; a fact that was crucial in the overall context of the engagement. The one glimmer of hope for Vladimir Samsonov came in the second game, he led 16-14, the door was ajar but soon it was tightly shut. He was never able to extend that advantage, in fact in that game, he won just one more point.

Now if Waldner needed a boost of confidence; winning that game was a major injection of self-belief.

The Swedish hero was now playing on different planet, the fact underlined in the third game when serving at 11-8. He served an ace, the likes of which his tennis contemporaries Bjorn Borg or Stefan Edberg would have been proud. The forehand serve switched down-the-line at the very last split second, it left poor Samsonov totally flat footed; Waldner turned to Ulf Carlsson as much as to day “did you see that!”

Standing ovation

Total control, the game secured, the title regained, Waldner sank to the floor, mission completed; in what must have been a moment of great disappointment, Vladimir Samsonov politely shook hands with his conqueror. The crowd stood in unison, they applauded, they smiled in incredulity, they had witnessed sheer genius, a special moment in sport.

Hugh Porter picked up the microphone, he announced Jan-Ove Waldner, World champion; the man in the mood.

In Depth Vladimir Samsonov Jan-Ove Waldner