North American Open Recap
(by Steve Hopkins)
With tour events in recent weeks in Europe and Asia, and with the Grand Tour Finals starting in just 5 days, many top players did not make it to Markham this week. That didn’t stop the 2019 ITTF Challenge Plus Benemax-Virgo North American Open from featuring a strong slate of players that started with Emmanuel Lebesson (World No. 31) and included 17 players in the ITTF Top 100.
Host Canada had nine entrants, including their top two players by ranking: Eugene Wang and Jeremy Hazin. Puerto Rico sent their top two players, Brian Afanador and Daniel Gonzalez. With TeamUSA coming off of appearances in Europe and with the US Open quickly approaching, the US had only three entrants: Yijun Feng, Kai Zhang, and Mishel Levinski.
China sent fourteen players – mostly young and rising players or those on the precipice of National Team level who have not had sufficient international exposure to rise in the rankings. Because many of these are great players who are underrated, this created an unknown element to the even seeding. This may have been the main story of the early rounds as thirteen made the knockout rounds and 11 of the 13 won their opening match. This became more pronounced as the tournament progressed, with 8 players advancing to the final 16, 4 to the final 8, and 2 semifinalists.
Top seeded Emmanuel Lebesson fell to China’s Yuan Licen in the Round of 64. Second seed Sharath Kamal Achanta didn’t fare much better as he fell in the Round of 32 4-1 to China’s Cao Wei. None of the American players advanced to the main draw. Brian Afanador of Puerto Rico fell in the Round of 64 to China’s Ren Hao. Puerto Rico’s Daniel Gonzalez won his opening round, but then fell to France’s Can Akkuzu. England’s Paul Drinkhall fell to China’s Zhou Kai in the Round of 64. Mexico’s Marcos Madrid also advanced one round before falling to India’s Manav Thakkar.
Most of Canada’s contingent lost early – with Jeremy Hazin, Marko Medjugorac, and Chen Hongtao each reaching the Main Draw only to fall in their opening match. Eugene Wang managed to create a great home team story, however. Wang won his opening match 4-2 over Italy’s Daniele Pinto and then defeated Korea’s Sanghyun Yang 4-1. Wang then scored a narrow 4-3 victory over Cao Wei in the Round of 16 before falling to Darko Jorgic 4-2 in the Quarters.
Can Akkuzu, a 22-year-old French player currently ranked No. 77, surprised the field with a run to the Finals. Along the way, he beat three of the young Chinese players and Puerto Rico’s Daniel Gonzalez. Xiang Peng emerged from the other half of the draw, after wins over Darko Jorgic, Manav Thakkar, Liu Yebo, Xu Yingbin, and Paul Drinkhall. In the Final, Akkuzu jumped out to the early lead with a Game 1 win, but Peng won four of the next five for the 4-2 victory. Expect to hear the name again – the 16-year-old Xiang Peng is the top ranked U18 player in the World but clearly China is not waiting for him to leave the junior ranks before providing some international experience. Interestingly, Peng withdrew from the U21 event in Markham after advancing to the Semifinals in order to conserve energy for the Open. This is a player on pace to be an elite player – and despite being just sixteen, that may happen sooner rather than later.
Jennifer Wu lead an American contingent that also included Liu Juan and Wang Chen. Jennifer won her opening match but fell in the Round of 32 to China’s Wang Xiaotong. Both Wang Chen and Liu Juan fell to Japan’s Hitomi Sato (Wang in the Round of 64 and then Juan in the Round of 32).
Five Japanese players and five Chinese players made it through to the Round of 16. The Quarterfinals were all Japanese and Chinese players except for Germany’s Nina Mittleham. The Semifinals were an all-Japan affair with all four China v. Japan matches in the Round of 16 and Quarters going to the Japanese player. Kasumi Ishikawa defeated Miyu Kato 4-1 to advance to the Final and Miu Hirano reached the final after defeating Hitomi Sato 4-2. Ishikawa secured the title with a 3-2 win.
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