(by Steve Hopkins/Photo courtesy of ITTF)
The finals of the Liebherr 2019 ITTF World Table Tennis Championships lacked much of the drama and surprise that had become almost commonplace this week. Ma Long is the World Champion. He accomplished this feat losing no more than 1 game in any match, including the final which was won 4-1 over Mattias Falck. This is the third World Championship in a row for Ma Long, a reign of four years that also includes both World Team titles and the Olympic title as well.
The World Championships was in Budapest, Hungary this week (April 21-28). Events included Singles (Men’s, Women’s) and Doubles (Men’s, Women’s, Mixed). The singles events had 64 seeded players and 64 qualifiers (who each won a preliminary group). The field had nearly all of the world’s best. For the men, that included all ten of the Top 10 on the World Rankings list, and for the women, nine of the Top 10 were present.
Team USA had solid results this year. Kanak Jha was seeded into the main draw and won his first match. His one loss came to the eventual winner, a 4-1 loss to Ma Long (and his scores were closer than those in the final Ma Long/Falck match). Victor Liu scored two upsets in the qualifiers, including a 4-2 win over Nigeria’s Segun Toriola (currently World No. 135, but a savvy and experienced player who has been an Olympian and an African champion). Jennifer Wu made it to the round of 32, where she lost to Hitomi Sato of Japan. Jennifer had been seeded into the draw and won twice – advancing further than any other American player. Lily Zhang was also seeded into the draw, and won her opening match easily. Lily then fell to Mima Ito, one of the tournament’s top seeds. Amy Wang qualified into the draw and then pulled off one of the best wins of the tournament with her opening match win over World No. 10 Feng Tianwei 4-2. Wang fell in the next round, but she won’t be taken lightly in the future.
Other players in this region performed well also. Puerto Rico’s Adriana Diaz made it to the round of 32 before losing to the Women’s top seed, Ding Ning. Canada’s Mo Zhang also advanced to the round of 32 before losing to Miu Hirano. Combined with the performance of USA’s Jennifer Wu, this was three players from our region in the top 32 at the World Championships.
The biggest story of the Men’s Singles even was the number of upsets. Taking the top eight seeds in order: Fan Zhendong fell to Liang Jingkun (Round of 16), Xu Xin fell to Simon Gauzy (Round of 32), Lin Gaoyuan fell to Ma Long in the Quarterfinals, Harimoto fell to Jaehyun An (Round of 16), Boll fell to Woojin Jang (Round of 16), Sangsu Lee fell to Mattias Falck (Round of 16), Hugo Calderano fell to Ma Long (Round of 16), and Koki Niwa fell to Liang Jingkun (Quarterfinals). Only two of the top eight seeds made it to the final eight in the tournament, and none of the top eight seeds made the Semifinals.
There were three Cinderella story lines early, and they all came from the bottom half of the draw. France’s Simon Gauzy pulled off one of the upsets of the tournament with a win over Xu Xin (4-2). Gauzy followed that up with a win over Wang Yang (4-0) for an unexpected run all the way to the Quarterfinals before his loss to Mattias Falck. Jaehyun An arguably had the best tournament of any qualifier. He had to play his way in to the draw, and then made the most of his opportunity with upset wins over Wong Chun Ting (World No. 14), Truly Moregard, Daniel Habesohn (World No. 29), Tomokazu Harimoto (World No. 4), and Woojin Jang (World No. 10). You can expect that Jaehyun’s World No. 157 ranking will see some positive change.
Falck, as World No. 16, can’t be considered the biggest surprise with any single win, but cumulatively his run to the Final has to be the biggest surprise of the tournament. Falck scored wins over Szudi, Gardos, Apologia, Lee, Gauzy, and Jaehyun An before finally falling short in his match against Ma Long in the Final.
Mattias Falck is not a typical player. He is 6’2” and many of his shots and close to his body so he does not use his large frame to be overpowering. He uses short pips on his forehand and inverted on his backhand. He plays an aggressive topspin from the backhand side, with his flips and loops looking like other modern professional players. But his forehand side is completely different, with his “flips” often flat hits against short serves or an inside out soft played ball to the center of the table. His winners from his forehand side are often flat blocks or flat smashes and he mixes in soft balls drop quickly without the heavy topspin that has become the norm. Neither of the aggressive shots from his forehand side are common on the tour in this era – both a throwback to the era of Asian penholders who attacked with flat hard shots. Falck has adapted to use his inverted side on his forehand for serves, switching quickly to return the pips to his forehand for the point. Mattias Falck has had success in his career. He has won medals in the European Championships, and was a part of a Bronze winning Swedish team at the World Team Championships. But his highest world ranking has been No. 12 and he has never won a world tour event. Falck’s success here is something new, and at just 27 years of age, perhaps something that can be repeated.
Ma Long had a streak of over two years where he was the best player in the world. He once won five tour events in a row, a streak that included 35 straight match wins against the best players in the world. Many thought his time had passed, as he lost the top spot in the rankings and then injury. But his comeback is complete. Over the last few months, he has had as much success as any other player – and he just won the Asian Cup, the last tour event that he entered. He made it back just in time to defend his title. As further testament to how well Ma Long is playing right now, this week he also teamed with Wang Chuqin for the Men’s Doubles title.
Ma Long’s threepeat today reaffirms that he is one of the best players to ever play the game. And when you take on one of the world’s best at a time when they are preforming at the peak, it’s a tough combination. Falck never really had a chance on Sunday, falling behind early and not challenging to win a second game. But Falck was no more a victim than the rest of the field, as Ma Long dominated from the start, never losing two games in any match throughout the whole tournament.
While the stories on the Men’s side have focused unexpected results, upsets and comebacks, the Women’s Singles event offered few surprises. The top four women each advanced to the Final 8, and each of those top seeds won their match. The final four, all Chinese, were Ding Ning, Chen Meng, Wang Manyu, and Liu Shiwen. Liu Shiwen, the fourth seed, provided the only drama of the final two days. She upset World No. 1 Ding Ning to advance to the final. And she dispensed with second seeded Chen Meng to win the tournament.
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