(by Steve Hopkins)
As the table tennis world emerges from shutdowns caused by the Pandemic, there are great opportunities to speculate on how those stoppages have affected the world’s best. Some areas completely shut down facilities leaving players to struggle to find competition (Timo Boll, for instance, released videos of his solitary training with an Amicus Prime robot, and later notes about limited training with a single partner per session). On the other side of the spectrum is the Chinese team who managed to spend most of the Pandemic in a training environment they set up in Macau – working for hours every day in a “pod” that included 4 of the Top 10 players in the world.
Many in the US have been watching professional matches in the German and Chinese Leagues – seeing many of the top players competing regularly in abbreviated seasons. Thus, we’ve seen Timo Boll and Franzisca and Calderano leading their teams in Germany and the same is true of Fan Zhendong, Xu Xin, Ma Long, and Lin Gaoyuan in China. But all of this has been in very controlled environments with a limited number of matches.
This last week was our first chance to see players in action in a tournament environment. The WTT’s Middle East Hub is running several events in a row, and the first one ended on Sunday in Doha. The Chinese Team is not participating, but that provides opportunity to see the rest of the World’s Top 10 more – and also provides some exposure to other rising players who are in the World’s Top 100 but sometimes can’t get through the qualifiers to the Main Draw.
Harimoto was the top seed, and he was dominant early. We haven’t seen much detail about Harimoto’s routine during the Pandemic, so there are some questions as to where he is with his game. What we can see from last week is that Harimoto was dominant early – but he seemed to run out of gas against Ovtcharov. Perhaps the pressure of preparation and match-play in three consecutive days – and two matches on the same day – show that he needs to work on his stamina.
Calderano was the second seed, and he was certainly disappointed in his result. That said, his loss was to Ochsenhausen teammate Simon Gauzy – so its hard to read too much into a loss to a practice partner who knows you well. Calderano fared well against a strong Korean player, and Gauzy finished much higher than his seed – both players probably feel that their preparation through the Pandemic has kept pace. And as both are competing this week in the second WTT event in Doha, Gauzy will be trying to keep the momentum going and Calderano will be looking to made a deeper run (if both win, they’ll face each other in the Round of 16).
The other two players who reached the Semifinals were Lin Yun-Ju and Dimitrij Ovtcharov. Both play for the same Russian team, Fakel Gazprom Orenburg. Fakel players practiced and competed in Russia (and won the Russian league title) and also traveled – where Ovtcharov had success in the Dusseldorf Masters events and played in the World Cup and Grand Tour Finals. Clearly both players have benefitted from a slightly more open environment and consistent play – and the efforts of both paid off when they each emerged from their half of the draw to play in the Finals of 2021’s first ITTF event.
The second WTT event has just started the Main Draw, with the top seeds set to play for the first time on Tuesday. Many players are shaking off the rust from not playing in competitions in a few months, others are still working to develop their game. All are focused on hitting their peak at the Olympics this July.
Check in at ButterflyOnline.com for news and scores.