(by Steve Hopkins, photo ITTFWorld)
The Knock-out Rounds of the Dishang 2020 ITTF Men’s World Cup have almost concluded. Of the 21 elite players who qualified, only four remain. Fan Zhendong versus Jang Woojin and Tomokazu Harimoto versus Ma Long.
The first Semifinal was Harimoto and Ma Long. Ma Long started fast, logging the first game quickly 11-7. But Harimoto turned the script early in the second game – running off an easy second game victory and jumping out to a 4-2 lead in the third game as well. Harimoto’s play is sharp, a combination of quick and lot shots taken just off the bounce and precisely placed and then using his whole body generate powerful shots from both sides when needed. Ma Long is consistent and strong, controlling the pace early in most points. However, at least through most of the second and third games, it is the unexpected variation in speed and angle by Harimoto that has carried the day. A 2-1 lead for Harimoto. Ma Long reached 5 first in a tight fourth game. Harimoto turned up the pace even more, playing big attacks in a long rally to tie the game at 5. Two strong attacking service returns, one from the backhand and one from the forehand, gave Harimoto a 7-5 lead. The players traded points off of great rallies – both attacking short balls at wide angles, and extending rallies with heavy topspin pushing each other away from the table (9-7 Harimoto). A strong attack by Ma Long to narrow the lead followed by a great backhand attack down the line (10-8 Harimoto). Another big backhand down the line ends an 8 shot rally to give Harimoto the 3-1 lead. Aggressive play by Ma Long to start the fifth game creating a little separation to a 4-2 Ma Long lead. But a miss by Ma Long, followed by a pair of winners by Harimoto led to a Ma Long timeout trailing 5-4. The players trade the next two points – each with a great forehand winner wide of the other’s forehand. Ma Long retook the lead with two strong forehand attacks to Harimoto’s backhand. Ma Long extended the lead to 9-6, holding on for an 11-8 win. Harimoto still leads 3-2. Ma Long started fast in the sixth game, winning the first 4 points. Ma Long’s service toss has gotten higher, and his serves have become more deliberate, and more effective. The lead holds through 7-3, coasting to an 11-6. Entering the seventh game, momentum has completely changed with the passing shots that were winning points for Harimoto not landing, and with Ma Long turning up the pace and striking the ball harder and harder. Interestingly, Harimoto took a seat between games – clearly tired and taking his coaching while resting. The final seventh game started with an eight shot rally, with Harimoto’s backhand flying long. A netball from Harimoto created a winner in the second point (1-1). Two great rallies over the next two points, one winner for each player (2-2). A Ma Long forehand tipped the net and missed, and then the same occurred with a backhand from Harimoto (3-3). A missed Harimoto flip, and a missed Harimoto forehand gave Ma Long a little separation (5-3 Ma). Harimoto pounds a service return for a clear winner wide of Ma Long’s forehand, but misses a block in the next rally (6-4 Ma). Another missed backhand block by Harimoto, and then another backhand is missed down the line (8-4 Ma). A missed serve return, a missed backhand, a missed forehand attack and that makes six misses in a row as Harimoto goes cold at just the wrong time. Ma Long pulls from behind to win 4-3.
At least by world ranking, the second Semifinal matchup should be one-sided. Fan Zhendong is at the top of the rankings, and his opponent, Jang Woojin, had to fight through a group qualifier and execute two upset wins just to make it this far. The two players were tentative early on and there was no real separation until two misses gave Fan Zhendong an 8-5 lead. Fan went on to win the first game 11-5. The second game started with more urgency, and more pace from both players. A number of strong attacks gave Jang a two-point lead, but then some sloppy misses saw Fan score 4 in a row. At 6-6, Jang went all out with a big forehand down the line, and Fan returned it cross court for a clear winner. Fan followed up with a big attack to end the next rally – going up 8-6. That exchange was the difference as the lead held up to give Fan the second game 11-8. Fan leads in games 2-0. Jang scored the first 5 points of the third game – playing with extra energy and taking the ball as early as possible. The lead narrowed to 8-6, and then 8-7 before Jang called a time out to regroup. A quick move around his backhand corner gave Jang the next point – but the same move was thwarted in the next point and Fan directed a block down the line for a winner. The best rally of the match followed – and when Fan’s last forehand caused an error the score was tied 9-9. The game was close, but in the end, it was Fan again – pulling out a 13-11 win for the commanding 3-0 lead. Fan established a small lead at 6-4 in the fourth game and from there he coasted to at 11-8 win. A 4-0 ticket to the Finals for Fan Zhendong.
ITTF TV is following the matches via livestream. The Final is scheduled for 7:45p local time (6:45a Eastern Time).
Check in at ButterflyOnline.com starting Thursday for updates on the progress of this event and other events.