(by Steve Hopkins, photo by ITTFworld)
If this event were a true Olympic Trials, the table tennis world might have just been turned on its collective ears. As each of the Chinese Olympic Team members fell to much lower ranked opponents – and if the winner made the team, a relatively unknown Zhou Qihao would now be leading the Chinese Olympic Team.
This week’s 5-day event has been called an Olympic Trial, but the team has already been chosen (in 2020) so this is more a warm-up designed to simulate Olympic conditions and prepare their team for Tokyo. The event included Fan Zhendong, Xu Win, Ma Long (World No. 1, 2, and 3 respectively) as well as Lin Gaoyuan (World No. 5), and Liang Jingkun (World No. 10), and Wang Chuqin (World No. 14), and Zhao Zihao (World No. 23). Despite that extremely elite company, the winner was….. World No. 122, Zhou Qihao.
The Final just finished (see the video below). World No. 1 Fan Zhendong fell to Qihao 4-2.
World No. 2 Xu Xin and World No. 4 Lin Gaoyuan both lost in the group stage and failed to make the Quarterfinals. Xu Xin fell to Lin Shidong, a 15 year old phenom who will likely be finding his way onto the National Team in the next year. Lin Gaoyuan fell to savvy veteran Fang Bo. *Lin Shidong fell 4-2 to Fan Zhendong – playing close for three games, but then fading.
Zhou Qihao’s final two matches? A win over World No. 1 Fan Zhendong and a win over World No. 3 Ma Long. Qihao isn’t a rising junior, he’s an elite talent who has been inconsistent through his rise and that has kept him off the top tier of the Chinese Team. Still, despite peaking at World No. 37, since 2018 Qihao has logged wins against Ovtcharov, Chih-Yuan, Samsonov, Franziska, Duda, Jingkin, and (of course) now Ma Long and Fan Zhendong.
China is 80 days away from competing in Tokyo – perhaps the upsets this week will be a wake-up call that will help prevent similar missteps when it really counts.