by Ian Marshall
Europe enjoyed success after success, the only interloper being Thailand’s Suthasini Sawettabut in the women’s singles event. The no.3 seed, she justified her status as did Britt Eerland of the Netherlands, the top seed, Monaco’s Yang Xiaoxin, the no.4 seed and Russia’s Polina Mikhailova, the no.5 seed.
Rather differently, the one further name on the women’s list was not to be predicted, Sweden’s Linda Bergström, the no.17 seed responded and responded in style.
One surprise qualifier; in the counterpart men’s singles event, four places available, it was the full house, the complete set, not one of the top names qualified!
Slovakia’s Wang Yang, the no.6 seed emerged the most prominent name to book a Tokyo place, the Czech Republic’s Lubomir Jancarik, the no.30 seed, the biggest surprise name. Sandwiched in between Russia’s Kirill Skachkov, the no.13 seed, and Hungary’s Bence Majoros, the no.15 seed, seized their opportunities.
Britt Eerland (Netherlands)
Winner of the junior girls’ singles title at the 2010 European Youth Championships, Britt Eerland beat Spain’s Galia Dvorak (11-5, 12-10, 12-10, 11-7) to book her place in Tokyo.
Nowadays, crucial to national team success, the win underlined the consistent progress made in recent years; in February 2020 Britt Eerland was the runner up at the CCB Europe Top 12 in Montreux.
It will be her second Olympic Games, she played in the women’s team event in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Facing Austria and partnering Li Jiao, it was doubles defeat at the hands of Li Qiangbing and Sofia Polcanova (14-16, 11-9, 11-6, 11-9) followed a similar outcome against Liu Jia (11-4, 11-6, 7-11, 15-17, 12-10).
Linda Bergström (Sweden)
A backspin player, totally different to all her colleagues who have worn the Swedish shirt in the past 70 and more years, Linda Bergström was the surprise name in Doha. She beat Ukraine’s Margaryta Pesotska, the no.2 seed, to seal her place (11-7, 13-11, 9-11, 11-7, 11-9).
It was an even bigger surprise considering Margaryta Pesotska’s national team colleagues, Tetyana Bilenko and Ganna Gaponova are both defenders!
It will be the first Olympic Games appearance for Linda Bergström.
Polina Mikhailova (Russia)
Clever changes from defence to attack secured a Tokyo place for Polina Mihailova, the no.5 seed, against Suthasini Sawettabut, the no.3 seed (11-8, 11-6, 9-11, 11-9, 7-11, 11-8). On their one prior international meeting, the 2016 ITTF World Tour Qatar Open, by the narrowest of margins Suthasini Sawettabut had prevailed (10-12, 11-7, 11-5, 9-11, 7-11, 11-8, 13-11).
Five years later big match experience counted, in 2019 Polina Mikhailova had won the ITTF Challenge Plus Nigeria Open, having in 2012 won on the ITTF World Tour in Belarus; those wins made the difference.
It will be for Polina Mikhailova her second appearance in the Olympic Games; she competed in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro; she was beaten in the second round of the women’s singles event by Viktoria Pavlovich of Belarus (9-11, 8-11, 11-8, 13-11, 11-7, 11-9).
Yang Xiaoxin (Monaco)
In the closest deciding match of all, Yang Xiaoxin, the no.4 seed, overcame Spain’s Maria Xiao, the no.13 seed (14-12, 8-11, 4-11, 11-7, 11-3, 9-11, 12-10). The fast attacking close to the table play, long pimpled rubber on the backhand, proved a key factor in the success.
Also, the fact that on the ITTF World Tour in 2014 in Zagreb and in 2016 in Olomouc, Yang Xiaoxin had won the women’s singles title gave her the edge at the vital times.
The success means Yang Xiaoxin makes her Olympic Games debut
Suthasini Sawettabut (Thailand)
Incisive, positive, Suthasini Sawettabut beat Maria Xiao, to secure the last remaining place (13-11, 5-11, 11-9, 11-9, 11-8). The win was as history predicted; commencing with the 2007 Swedish Junior and Cadet Open, they had met four times; all four had been won by Suthasini Sawettabut.
Despite the fact that Suthasini Sawettabut was amongst the favourites to progress, she had no prominent international title to her name; her prior best, women’s singles runner up at the 2019 ITTF Challenge Indonesia Open.
Notably, Suthasini Sawettabut competed in the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games; she was beaten in the bronze medal match by Korea Republic’s Yang Haeun (9-11, 11-5, 11-4, 11-7, 11-6). Later, she competed in the women’s singles event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, she beat Congo Brazzaville’s Han Xing (11-8, 10-12, 7-11, 8-11, 11-6, 11-7, 11-9), before losing to Li Jiao of the Netherlands (12-10, 11-8, 9-11, 8-11, 11-5).
Lubomir Jancarik (Czech Republic)
A series of thoroughly professional performances, the no.30 seed, a semi-final success against Great Britain’s Liam Pitchford, the top seed (11-6, 2-11, 13-11, 9-11, 11-7, 12-10), followed by victory in opposition to Ukraine’s Kou Lei, the no.12 seed (11-5, 14-12, 11-9, 11-6) proved the winning formula.
Present time and time again on the international scene but never beyond the men’s singles early rounds, it was a landmark win for the 33 year old; his best on the ITTF World Tour, under 21 men’s singles runner up in 2008 in Kuwait.
Lubomir Jancarik competed in Rio de Janeiro in 2016; he was beaten in the men’s singles first round by Uzbekistan’s Zokhid Kenjaev (8-11, 11-2, 13-11, 11-6, 8-11, 11-9).
Bence Majoros (Hungary)
Impressively, Bence Majoros, the no.15 seed, overcame Belgium’s Florent Lambiet, the no.32 seed, to reserve his Tokyo place (11-6, 11-7, 11-9, 8-11, 11-8). Bence Majoros had lost three of the four most recent meetings at international level against Florent Lambiet; significantly, he had won the most recent, the 2017 ITTF Challenge Belgium Open in de Haan (12-10, 11-6, 11-8, 12-10).
Doha underlined progress, at the 2018 ITTF Challenge Slovenia Open, Bence Majoros had won the under 21 men’s singles title.
It is an Olympic Games debut for Bence Majoros.
Wang Yang (Slovakia)
Defensive skills to the fore, an unusual occurrence even more so when both players extolled the art. Wang Yang, the no.6 seed, secured his Tokyo place courtesy of success in opposition to Panagiotis Gionis of Greece, the no.10 seed (3-11, 11-5, 11-9, 6-11, 11-6, 11-7).
Very much the 26 year old seized the chance afforded; arguably the best result of his career, on the ITTF World Tour in 2014 he had been a men’s singles semi-finalist in Hungary, the same on the ITTF Challenge Series in 2018 in Slovenia.
He competed in the men’s singles event in Rio de Janeiro; he was beaten in round two by Nigeria’s Quadri Aruna (11-7, 7-11, 11-7, 11-9, 11-6).
Kirill Skachkov (Russia)
One year earlier Liam Pitchford had been a sensation, at the 2020 ITTF World Tour Qatar Premium Open during the first week of March, he had beaten Xu Xin at the semi-final stage (3-11, 11-7, 11-9, 6-11, 15-13, 11-9), prior to losing to Fan Zhendong (11-9, 11-7, 8-11, 11-4, 6-11, 11-7). One year later, it was very different, he was beaten in the Tokyo deciding match by Russia’s Kirill Skachkov, the no.13 seed (11-7, 7-11, 11-8, 14-12, 11-7).
A notable achievement for the 33 year old, who has always proved most competitive but has yet to really make an impact on the international stage. On the ITTF World Tour he won the under 21 men’s singles title in 2007 in Bremen, as well as the following year in Warsaw and more significantly, at what was to prove a happy hunting ground, the city of Doha!
Alongside Alexey Smirnov and Alexander Shibaev, Kirill Skachkov represented Russia in the men’s team event at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Russia lost 3-1 to China in the opening round; Kirill Skachkov was beaten by Zhang Jike (11–5, 12–10, 11–7) but partnered Alexey Smirnov to men’s doubles success against Ma Long and Wang Hao (11-8, 7-11, 6-11, 11-9, 11-6). It is the only match Ma Long has ever lost at an Olympic Games!