(by Steve Hopkins)
Table tennis is an equal-opportunity sport. In many tournament in the US, adults play kids, men play women, and many of our para athletes play in the same events. So it could be possible for a tournament player to face a senior, a junior, a woman, and a wheelchair player – and because of the unique nature of our sport, each player could present their own challenges in style and skill set and they could all be the same level (or “rating”).
Comparisons of men and women occur regularly – and as USATT’s own T2 challenge showed, men and women can compete at the highest levels. But, generally, the consensus of our community is that at the highest levels, the men’s teams have an advantage and that the lightning-fast backhand exchanges that occur in top-level women’s matches would not be able to keep pace with the powerful strokes and extreme footwork that is present in the top echelon of the men’s game. This week, China pitted its men’s team against it women’s team in a battle of those World No. 1 squads. The results are a little surprising.
MATCH 1: Fan Zhendong versus Chen Meng. Lots of smiles among players and coaches early on, but with Fan Zhendong down a point at the end of the first game, you could see a little hand shake and stress that normally isn’t present in the World’s top male player. Chen went ahead to close out the first game 11-8. Fan won the second game (a tricky serve at 10-9 to pull out the win 11-9) in another tight battle. Chen again pulled ahead in the third game, but Fan scored two in a row to even the score at 9-9, with Fan pulling out the 12-10 win to go up 2-1 in games. Game four saw another 9-9 tie, but this time it was Chen that forced two errors and took the win. Game five ended with an edgeball – giving Fan an 11-9 win and a 3-2 advantage in games. Fan reached 10 first in the sixth game, but Chen won four the next five points to tie the match at 3-3 and set up a decisive seventh game. The two traded points to 7-7, but it was Chen that rose to the occasion, winning three points in a row and leaving the top man in the world looking stressed and rattled. Fan fought off two match points, but it was Chen that won the day… and the best World No. 1 on this day was Chen Meng. Ladies 1, Men 0.
MATCH 2: Xu Xin versus Sun Yingsha. Xu Xin pulled ahead late in the first game – turning an 8-8 tie into an 11-8 win. Sun came back in the second game pulling ahead and holding on for an 11-8 win. The script was flipped again in the third game – this time with Xu pulling ahead late for an 11-9 win. Sun held on for an 11-9 fourth game win to even the score yet again. The fifth game was tight again – with Sun up 8-7 when Xu missed a serve (9-7), and she then scored on a reaction block for a 10-7 advantage, and a sneaky backhand angle crosscourt to pull ahead 3-2 in games. At 9-9 in the sixth game, Sun missed a backhand long and then a forehand long – two unforced errors that allowed Xu to even the match at 3-3. Sun Yingsha dominated the final game, winning 11-6 and giving the women a 2-0 lead (and the win in this best-of-three competition).
MATCH 3: Ma Long versus Liu Shiwen. Down 3-2, but tied 9-9, Liu Shiwen had a real chance with a backhand winner, but it floated wide. Ma Long was then up a point (and a game), and he didn’t falter. A strong backhand winner down the line gave Ma Long the 4-2 win… logging the only win for the Men.
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