(by Steve Hopkins)
With the World Team Championships in Houston just a few weeks away, one of the final opportunities to prepare was held in this week at the WTT Contender event in Laško, Slovenia. Many teams didn’t send their top player, so the list of participants didn’t include some of the biggest names (Fan Zhendong, Timo Boll, Lin Yun-Ju, and Tomokazu Harimoto were all absent, for example). But the upcoming event in Houston is a TEAM event, and many of the key players we’ll see competing there were competing here in Lasko. In fact, China sent their whole team except for Fan, and Chinese players were the top four seeds.
China currently holds the top three spots in the ITTF World Rankings, so heading into a 3-person team format at the World Team Championships in Houston in a few week, they would be heavy favorites. That dominant position was weakened, when China announced that Fan Zhendong would be joined by Lin Gaoyuan (World No. 7), Liang Jingkun (World No. 12), Wang Chuqin (World No. 17), and Zhou Qihao (World No. 26) – and not by Ma Long or Xu Xin (World No. 2 and 3, respectively).
Liang Jingkun won the tournament this week – and that result should not be surprising as he was the second seed and has beaten the top seed, teammate Lin Gaoyuan, before. The more interesting story as we head into the World Team Championships is that China’s top four players didn’t dominate this tournament and didn’t push their way to the Semifinals and Finals. *The draw was designed so the top four Chinese would not have taken all four Semifinal slots, but still – the seedings would have expected to see Chinese Team members in 3 of the 4 Semifinal slots.
Zhou Qihao was the first to fall. He lost to Belgium’s Olav Kosolosky early – in Routh 2 of the Draw. *Kosolosky later fell to Germany’s Steffen Mengel 0-3 – Kosolosky is currently ranked outside of the World’s Top 375. Lin Gaoyuan was the next to fall – losing to England’s Paul Drinkhall 1-3. Wang Chuqin played well early, but fell to Liu Dingshuo 3-2 – Dingshuo is a 23 year old shakehands, lesser-known Chinese player and not a part of China’s team heading to Houston. Liu lost in the Semifinal to Kirill Gerassimenko.
Gerassimenko is the best player from Kazakhstan – a 24 year old Butterfly player who is consistently hovering around World No. 50. Gerassimenko capitalized from two of the Chinese upset matches. In the Round of 16 he defeated Japan’s Shinozuka (Shinozuka topped USA’s Kanak Jha 3-0 in the Round of 32). Gerassimenko then beat Paul Drinkhall (Drinkhall had knocked out top seeded Lin Gaoyuan), and then in the Semis, Gerassimenko topped Liu Dingshuo (a talented Chinese player, but not nearly as experienced as Wang Chuqin who Liu had upset to reach that point).
Gerassimenko fell to Liang Jinkun in the Final 4-0. The scores were not really close — the real fireworks of the event had already occurred with the upsets in the earlier rounds.
The Women’s Event was much more predictable. The top two ranked Chinese players met in the Final with Wang Yidi topping Liu Weishan 4-1. Wang Yidi topped India’s Manika Batra in a tight 4-2 Semifinal. Liu emerged from the half of the draw where Puerto Rico’s Adriana Diaz was the top seed – but Adriana fell to Singapore’s Jian Zheng in the Round of 16.
Looking ahead to Houston, China will certainly still hold the top seed in Houston (and World No. 1, Butterfly player Fan Zhendong will be anchoring the squad), but the playing field looks much more even now. The 1/7/12 ranking numbers that China can field in their top three will match up well against the next seeds: Japan (4, 18, 22), Korea (11, 13, 20), Germany (10/15/36 without Ovtcharov) and Taipei (6, 25, 74) and Sweden (9, 28, 44).
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