(by Steve Hopkins)
This year was a good year for the USA on the international stage. Lily Zhang and Kanak Jha lead the way for the Americans where event after event, there were US players and US teams advancing deep into the main draw – solid results among Men, Women, and Juniors. The ITTF offered a full slate of events and the new ranking system helped insure changes in the Worlds Top 10 lists.
The Hungarian Open was the first tour event of the year. The January rankings started off with Fan Zhendong and Xu Xin on top and Lin Gaoyuan and Hugo Calderano rounded out the top four seeds in Hungary. The year started with a surprise as Gaoyuan topped Chuqin in the final – two unexpected Finalists. In February, Swedish phenom Truls Morgard won the Sweden Juniors and Cadet Open. USA also did well in Sweden as Nikhil Kumar finished third in Junior Boys and Emily Tan won Bronze in the Mini Cadet Girls event.
In March, the Marvellous Twelve tournament amongst China’s best was played to help determine their World Championship team. Fan Zhendong was 11-0, proving why he was the top ranked player in the World. The rest of the tournament was full of surprises with Liang Jingkun taking second (he finished 8-3) and with third going to Xue Fei (6-5) – a player we seldom see in international events. After that, there was a seven-player tie for fourth (all with a 5-6 record).
March ended with the Qatar Open where Ma Long topped Lin Gaoyuan in the Final. Falck and Calderano and Fan and Harimoto all fell in Qatar – a tournament full of upsets. In the Asian Cup, Fan Zhendong topped a competitive field – while Ma Long fought through most of the top seeds in the other half of the draw. The World Championships had two main stories last April. The first was Ma Long completely recovering from injury to best the top players in the world. The other twist was Mattias Falck advancing to the final – an anomaly for a player with short pips on the forehand.
Lily Zhang was World No. 81 in May when she started the Slovenia Open. She advanced to the Semifinals, a run the included a win over Adriana Diaz (World No. 31) of Puerto Rico. This marked a steady rise for Zhang, whose second half of 2019 was the best of her career. The Hong Kong Open final went to Lin Gaoyuan over Tomokazu Harimoto. The Germans won the Euros in June in both Men’s and Women’s events. Timo Boll took the Singles title as well.
In June, the Pan Am Juniors ended early with a contract disagreement resulting in the facility closing before the Finals – a poor end to a great weed of play that included promising results and solid play from a contingent of US juniors. Before the event ended, both the US Boys and Girls teams won their event. When the venue closed, two Americans made the Boys Semifinals and three of four Semifinalists in Girls Singles were Americans as well (Nikhil Kumar, Victor Liu for the Boys event, and Amy Wang, Crystal Wang, and Rachel Sung in the Girls event).
July’s tour event was the Korea Open – and Xu Xin topped Ma Long in the Final. The T2 Diamond event in Taipei went to Lin Yun-Ju. The T2 events are expedited matches with shorter games, but later in the year Yun-Ju showed he can win tour events under any set of rules. In fact, Lin Yun-Ju may be the most improved player of the year.
USATT’s Nationals featured 105 events with Kanak Jha and Lily Zhang winning the coveted National Champion titles in Men’s and Women’s Singles. USA’s Men upset Brazil and went on to win the team title at the Pan Am Games. Kanak Jha anchored the team with great singles, and the team of Nicholas Tio and Nikhil Kumar started TeamUSA well with doubles wins in most of the major match-ups. Kanak Jha was invited to the World Cup when the invitations went out in August.
Tomokazu Harimoto won the Bulgarian Open in mid-August, his first tour win of the season. US Juniors and Cadets played well in El Salvador at their Junior & Cadet Open. Jayden Zhou won Boy’s Singles, Sid Naresh and Jayden Zhou won Boy’s Doubles, Jayden Zhou won Cadet Boys, Nicole Deng won Girls Singles, Nandan Naresh won the Mini-Cadet Boys. Taiwan’s Lin Yun-Ju scored his first tour win at the Czech Open – a new name in the adult ranks with a bright future. Americans Leibovitz, Van Emburgh, Sarand, and Seidenfeld all scored medals at the Parapan American Games in Lima.
In September, USA’s 8 medals shined at the Pan Am Championships with Lily Zhang’s 4 golds the top story of the event. USA women took Gold while the men took the Bronze. Germany won the Euro Men’s Teams and Romania took the Women’s title showing each is still the elite of the field in Europe.
USA’s Kai Zhang surprised the field at the Paraguay Open by upsetting Koki Niwa in the first round of the Main Draw. Marizono topped Gardos in the final, but it was Kai’s early win that was the talk of Asuncion, Paraguay. The Asian Championships in September were dominated by China with Chinese finalists in every event. It was Fan Zhendong Two young Chinese players lead the headlines in Sweden as a 19-year-old Chinese phenom dominated the Swedish open with wins over World No. 4, 5, and 8 along the way. And in the other half of the draw, it was Lin Gaoyuan who defeated Franziska, Ovtcharov, and Fan on his way to the Finals.
Historic results for Team USA at the Women’s World Cup as Lily Zhang advanced all the way to the Semifinals – keeping the USA in the discussion at the World Cup all the way through to the last day. Fort Lauderdale hosted the World Veterans Tour in October. Lily Yip won the 40-49 Women’s Singles event and teamed with Hui Huang to win the Women’s Over 40 Doubles event. A long list of famous names finished strongly including Santos Shih, Scott Preiss, Yuxiang Li, Bin Chu, David Sakai, Connie Sweeris, Dell Sweeris, and Bowie Martin.
In early November, both US Teams made the Final 8 at the Team World Cup. China over Korea in the Men’s event and China over Japan in the Women’s event. The South Shore Butterfly Open featured $10,000 in prize money – another high quality event on US soil.
The T2 Diamond was at the end of November. Xu Xin topped the field, but Yun-Ju Lin was the story of the event with a run that didn’t end until the Final. TeamUSA did well at World Juniors, with both the Boys (Nikhil Kumar, Victor Liu, Michael Minh Tran, and Kai Zarehbin) and Girls (Amy Wang, Crystal Wang, Rachel Sung, and Rachel Yang) advancing.
Xu Xin topped the rankings in December. Fan topped the rankings in October. The World Grand Tour Finals was the final major event on the ITTF tour. Fan Zhendong topped Ma Long in the Final, potentially setting up a move back ahead of Xu Xin (the world’s No. 1 player as the year ended). The US Open was in Fort Worth. A strong Japanese contingent of players dominated most of the open events, but USA’s Lily Zhang’s first US Open Women’s Singles title was the story of the tournament.
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