China Open Long Shot? Ma Long Stakes His Claim for No.1
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China Open Long Shot? Ma Long Stakes His Claim for No.1

China Open Long Shot? Ma Long Stakes His Claim for No.1

(By Steve Hopkins/Photo and Video by ITTF)
China Open Long Shot? Ma Long Stakes His Claim for No.1

The Seamaster 2018 ITTF World Tour Platinum Kaisa China Open concluded this weekend.  Each year, this is as competitive as any event in the world, featuring nearly every name in the top 10 of the World Rankings.  In addition to the international contingent, there were seven of China’s best – all enjoying the added benefit of a sold-out home crowd.
Ma Long has a history of world championships and world tour wins, but he is currently the World No. 6 – which placed him as the fifth seed in the tournament, and the fourth seeded Chinese player.  With a premium on participation now baked into the World Rankings, the travel schedule of the national teams contributes to where each country’s players appear in the rankings.  Fan Zhendong, who is currently first in the World Rankings has appeared in more tour events this year than any other Chinese player.
Many have expected this to be Fan Zhendong’s year.  He has traded the top ranking with two Germans (Timo and Dima), he anchored the Chinese team at the World Championships, and China has sent him to nearly all of the major tour events.  In fact, just about everyone seems on-board with this being Fan’s year.   – Everyone, that is, except for Ma Long.
Fan Zhendong was the top seed, and he performed as expected – winning four matches convincingly to get to the finals (dispensing with Youngsik Jeoung, Emmanuel Lebesson, Koki Niwa, and Lin Gaoyuan).  The second seed, Timo Boll, did not fare as well.  In the second round, Boll lost to 21 year old Chinese player Liang Jingkun 4-3.  Jingkun lost to Ma Long in the Quarterfinals 4-3 (after being up 2-0 and also 3-2).   
Fourth seeded Lin Gaoyuan advanced in the top half to face Fan Zhendong in the semifinals.  He defeated Sangeun Jeong, Tomakazu Harimoto, and Jun Mizutani along the way.  The surprise semifinalist was Jonghoon Lim of Korea who upset Xu Xin (the third seed) in the opening round and then proceeded to upset both Chih-Yuan Chuang and Sangsu Lee. 
Ultimately, Ma Long ended the impressive run of Lim with a 4-1 win in the semifinals.  Fan Zhendong dispensed of Lin Gaoyuan easily as well, winning the first three games and then holding on for a 4-2 win.  This pitted Ma Long against Fan Zhendong in the final.
This was the sixth time that these two players faced each other in the finals or semifinals of a tour event in the last three years.  And unlike every other top player over this period, the advantage between these two is not in Fan’s favor.  In the previous five meetings, Ma Long has won four.  In 2017, Ma Long won both meetings (winning 4-3 at the World Championships, and winning 4-2 at the Qatar Open).  In 2016 they split (with Ma Long winning the Grand Tour Finals 4-2 and Fan Zhendong winning the China Open 4-0 and in 2015 Ma Long won the only meeting (the Grand Tour Finals 4-3).  They have a history of close matches — but between these two, Ma Long has a history of close wins
In this event, Fan Zhendong jumped out to an early lead with an 11-7 win in the first game.  But after that, it was all Ma Long.  Ma Long won the next three easily (-8, -4, -3).  The final game was tightly contested, but also went to Ma Long 14-12 to seal the win and the China Open title.
Fan Zhendong will retain his World No.1 ranking.  Ma Long should move up in the rankings.  With all of the established players and young talent rising as well, China’s position as the best team in the world is likely to continue.  Perhaps the more intriguing question is who will reach the top spot in the World Rankings this year.  This year, that position has rotated between Timo Boll, Dima Ovtcharov and Fan Zhendong.  Perhaps Ma Long has eyes on that top spot as well.

2018 China Open Highlights | Ma Long vs Fan Zhendong (Final)
(Courtesy of ITTF)

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