by Dominique Plattner, ITTF High Performance Manager
In the second round, Timo Boll faced Qiu Yike, the Chinese teenager and listed at no.40 in the global order. Timo had a good start, he won the first two games before Qiu Yike recorded one of the biggest upsets of the tournament.
He won the next four to secure a six games victory; after this win the general consensus was that there was no way avoiding a Chinese men’s singles gold medal.
Werner Schlager, listed at no.6 on the world rankings at the time and the previous month in early April the winner of the mixed doubles event in partnership with Krisztina Toth at the European Championships in Courmayeur, had different ideas.
He shares his thoughts of now 17 years ago.
“My goal was to reach the maximum but I had not thought about winning a gold medal, just to go step by step. A most interesting thing happened prior the competition, in our preparation. Due to the SARS virus, Hong Kong could not join our camp but our head coach Ferenc Karsai was able to organise practice partners from Hungary at the last minute. Retrospectively it was good, because all the focus was on me.
When I saw the draw for the first time, I realised that my potential opponents were strong but I was not afraid of any of them. I knew that I could beat every one of them.” Werner Schlager
Players of renown, national heroes awaited.
“My journey started with a 4-1 win against the African Champion, Segun Toriola from Nigeria. In the second round I was able to beat Koji Matsushita in straight games. Afterwards I beat Slobodan Grujic from Serbia 4-1. In each of the matches I felt in good shape.” Werner Schlager
In Werner’s opinion, his opponent in the round of 16, Kim Taeksoo from Korea Republic, was one of the top players but as he was a proponent of the “old” pen holder style of play, he was a comfortable opponent for Werner with his two-winged style of attack.
Through to the quarter-finals, the ensuing matches against China’s Wang Liqin and Kong Linghui were not for the faint-hearted.
“From the statistical point of view I was the clear underdog. I knew that I had to perform at my peak level and try to use unpredictable tactics. I felt Wang Liqin was tense from the beginning. Furthermore, when playing against Chinese players, I had to adapt within the game to their sticky rubbers, although I had the advantage of having Chen Weixing as a team member, who used a sticky rubber too.
There was a moment against Wang Liqin when I became clueless and started to use top spin serves into his deep backhand. He was well prepared but not for this unpredictable one. At 2-3 and 6-10 I changed to other varieties with the serve, a heavy backspin serve and long. I recognised that Wang had become more and more nervous. My goal was to perform with high quality and no risk, to wait for his mistakes. To put it simply, fortunately I made the right decision.” Werner Schlager
Similar mental aspect
Regarding the mental aspect, the semi-final against Kong Linghui was similar to the previous match.
“Both of us had match points. It is very difficult within situations when you are already overwhelmed with emotions to control and not show them. I managed quite well, although I was rather nervous. At the end of the match it helped me that Kong was scared and not ready to win the match. Again, I made the right decision.” Werner Schlager
Korean defence specialist in spotlight
Joo Saehyuk, 23 years old, ranked no.60 in the world at the time, was kind enough to share his memories and thoughts. He far outdid his own expectations.
“My goal was to reach the round of 16, even though my confidence and my competitive condition was not high, because of a three month military training prior the World Championships. I just tried my best to avoid bad results.” Joo Saehyuk
Guided by Yoo Namkyu, Joo played an incredible tournament. He beat Chinese Taipei’s Chuang Chih-Yuan, the fifth seed 4-1 in the round of 16. He continued by overcoming China’s Ma Lin, ranked no.2 at the time, in a seven game thriller, 11-9 in the decider to reach the semi-final, where he faced Kalinikos Kreanga of Greece, also a top 10 ranked player.
Also, performing at his peak level, Joo reached the final.
Shortly before 4.00 pm, 13,000 spectators filled the sold-out Palais Ominsports de Paris-Bercy. They were ready for the big clash between Werner Schlager and Joo Saehyuk.
“It was an incredible feeling, which I will remember for the rest of my life. I will never forget the moment very shortly before the players’ presentation. I moved the curtain a bit to the side and then my heart started to beat faster. It was a new situation for me. The atmosphere was amazing but when I entered the playing field, I was fully focused and blocked out all external influences without processing them consciously.” Werner Schlager
Similarly it was the feeling of a lifetime for Joo Saehyuk.
“In other tournaments, I had been afraid of not achieving a good result. Here, I was very confident, I felt at home in that venue. I had not seen so many spectators before and was happy that the Europeans supported me against the Asian players, while the Asians cheered for me against the Europeans. I enjoyed every single second of the tournament. It was an unforgettable competition.” Joo Saehyuk
Understandably, both players were well-prepared, the goal in the pre-game preparation was to find unpredictable tactics to surprise the opponent.
Nevertheless, Joo Saehyuk emphasised that he entered the match without any specific tactics.
“The success rate of my forehand counter top spin throughout the whole tournament was unexpectedly high, so I tried to go for it against Werner as well. Although I was in good shape, Werner was very experienced and made it difficult for me to adapt to his various tactics and persistency”. Joo Saehyuk
What did Werner plan prior to the match?
“First of all I have to say that I had the advantage that Joo Saehyuk’s playing style was similar to Chen Weixing, the modern defensive style. I tried to change quickly between short and long pushed returns respectively and integrate top spins, so that Joo had to move quickly forwards and backwards, which defensive players do not like at all.
From studying his previous matches, I knew that I could not win by “battering” him, as no one had succeeded with this. My goal was basically to use as many different serves, rotations and placements as possible and to increase the use of my backhand attack, as Joo was not familiar with it and had to adapt.
Another goal was to avoid long rallies, because I was at my physical limit and needed to restrain Joo to make simple mistakes quickly, which disturbs the rhythm of a defensive player.” Werner Schlager
What made the difference?
Both were unexpected finalists, both had exceeded expectations; after the loss experienced by Timo Boll in round two, China versus China was the prediction, not Austria versus the Korea Republic.
“I was not eager to become the champion, already satisfied with the fact that I made the final and was honestly too arrogant against Werner, as I had won against him in the 2001 Japan Open.”
After a very closely contested match, Werner Schlager was crowned World Champion beating Joo Saeyuk in six games (11-9, 11-6, 6-11, 12-10, 8-11, 12-10), thereby becoming the most recent non-Chinese World Champion.
How did this tournament change the life of both of them? It was for Joo Saehyuk a major step.
“It was a great step in my career and life too. A lot of companies contacted me to offer sponsorship, a lot of agencies called to recruit me for their clubs and I got a lot of offers for international matches. Moreover, I was able to play as a national team player for Korea, which is a great honour.” Joo Saehyuk
Equally for Werner Schlager there were lucrative financial rewards.
“I signed highly remunerated endorsement deals. On the one hand new friendships were created but on the other a few broke up, due to jealousy or greed for profit. I enjoyed the hype and to be in the spotlight but nevertheless it had its dark side. In 2004 I was selected as the most famous foreign sportsman in front of Tiger Woods and Michael Schumacher in China. It was a big gala and an amazing experience.” Werner Schlager
On Sunday 25th May 2003, it was a day of history, not just for Werner Schlager and for Austria; also for the whole table tennis scene!