The Next Tango in Paris: ITTF Names Invitees to the 2018 World Cup
(by Steve Hopkins)
Many sports refer to their most elite event or league as “THE BIG DANCE” (here in the U.S., the NCAA Basketball March Madness tournament is regularly referred to as the big dance, and for pro baseball players, moving from the minor leagues to the major leagues is also advancing to the big dance). It is slang for the achieving admission to the premier event in a sport – and for table tennis, that big dance is the World Cup. This week, the ITTF released their list of the 20 invitees to the World Cup – our sport’s premier event of the world’s most elite players which will be hosted in Paris on October 19-21. Kanak Jha has made the list of invitees and will represent the U.S. in Paris.
This is not Jha’s first World Cup. He also qualified in 2014. Jha did not win any matches that year, but these last four years have included numerous accomplishments and accolades, and he is a much-improved player. Jha will still find himself looking up at nearly everyone on the seeding list, as Jha’s current World Ranking of No. 64 will make him the 19th seed in this elite event.
The event includes 20 players total. The current World Champion qualifies automatically, 17 players qualify through Continental Cup events, one player named from the host country, and the ITTF selects the final player as a “wild card” direct entry. A maximum of two players per country are allowed. The format of play is two stages. In the first stage the bottom 12 seeded players are divided into 4 round-robin groups of three. The top two from each group will advance into the second stage – effectively eliminating four players. The final 16 then play in the second Knock Out stage. Eight players were seeded directly into that stage, and the other qualifiers are then matched up to face them. The tournament then proceeds via single elimination until there is a World Cup champion.
The automatic invite for the World Champion this year goes to Ma Long (China). The 17 qualifying events include ten automatic invitees: the top player from the African Cup and the Oceania Cup, the top two players from the Pan Am Cup, and the top three from the Asian Cup and the Europe Cup. Those 10 automatic invites went to Omar Assar (Egypt), Heming Hu (Australia), Hugo Calderano (Brazil), Gustavo Tsuboi (Brazil), Fan Zhendong (China), Lee Sangsu (Korea), Sangeun Jeong (Korea), Timo Boll (Germany), Dimitrij Ovtcharov (Germany), and Jonathan Groth (Denmark).
The other seven qualifying spaces are based upon a combination of the Continental Cup finishing order and one’s World Ranking. The first three were awarded to Tomakazu Harimoto (Japan), Koki Niwa (Japan), and Chun Ting Wong (Hong Kong) by virtue of their Asian Cup finishing positions and their World Rankings. The fourth went to Quadri Aruna (Nigeria) who finished second in the Africa Cup. The fifth and sixth went to Vladimir Samsonov (Bulgaria) and Mattias Karlsson (Sweden) who both finished in the Top 8 at the Europe Cup and who are both ranked in the top 25. And the seventh spot went to Kanak Jha (USA) who finished third at the Pan Am Cup and who has a World Ranking of No.64. The host nation picked Simon Gauzy (France), and the ITTF wild card invite went to Emmanuel Lebesson (France).
The eight players seeded directly into the knock-out phase all have rankings in the top 10 in the world. The qualifying round-robins will each have a top player with a World Ranking between 11 and 18, and a second player ranked between 20 and 25 in the world. Kanak (and the three other players who will be seeded at the bottom of their respective groups) will need to upset a player ranked in the World Top 25 in order to advance to the knock-out stage. That is a tall-order, but it has already happened once this year – Kanak upset Wong Chun Ting of Hong Kong (at the time ranked No. 8) at the World Team Cup in London.
Just making it to the big dance is an accomplishment. But for Kanak Jha and many others, the goal is larger. They want to pull off an upset in the qualifying round and then make some waves in the knock out phase. It’s already been a year of firsts for Jha – perhaps Paris will be the next epic step for the young American.