(By Steve Hopkins/Photo courtesy of ITTF)
The Liebherr 2019 ITTF World Table Tennis Championships is in Budapest, Hungary this week (April 21-28). Events include Singles (Men’s, Women’s) and Doubles (Men’s, Women’s, Mixed). The tournament began a week ago with a hundred of the world’s best players and has now been narrowed down to just two: Ma Long and Mattias Falck.
Ma Long had a streak of over two years where he was the best player in the world. He once won five tour events in a row, a streak that included 35 straight match wins against the best players in the world. Many thought his time had passed, as he lost the top spot in the rankings and then injuries caused him to fall further. But his comeback is complete. Over the last few months, he has had as much success as any other player – and he just won the Asian Cup, the last tour event that he entered. He is back just in time to defend this title – in fact, Ma Long has won this tournament twice in a row and will be going for a threepeat on Sunday. This is one of the best players ever to play the game, and he’s playing well. It will be a real challenge to face him in the final.
In the match today, Ma Long and Liang Jingkun traded wins to 1-1. Then, just as he has in every other match that he has played this tournament, Ma Long won the final three games to seal the victory. He has found himself tied 1-1 in four of his six matches at the World Championships this year. He has not lost a second game in any match thus far. The scores today were very close (winning each of the final three games by the minimum 2 points), but he found a way to pull out each win. Perhaps that is the benefit of having been here before and knowing exactly what it takes to win. Sunday will be the third time in a row that he will have played in the final match at the World Championships. Ma Long hopes the result this time will be the same as 2015 and 2017.
Mattias Falck has had success in his career. He has won medals in the European Championships, and was a part of a Bronze winning Swedish team at the World Team Championships. But his highest world ranking has been No. 12 and he has never won a world tour event. His success here is something new, and at just 27 years of age, perhaps something that can be repeated.
Mattias Falck is not a typical player. He is 6’2” and many of his shots and close to his body so he does not use his large frame to be overpowering. He uses short pips on his forehand and inverted on his backhand. He plays an aggressive topspin from the backhand side, with his flips and loops looking like other modern professional players. But his forehand side is completely different, with his “flips” often flat hits against short serves or an inside out soft played ball to the center of the table. His winners from his forehand side are often flat blocks or flat smashes and he mixes in soft balls drop quickly without the heavy topspin that has become the norm. Neither of the aggressive shots from his forehand side are common on the tour in this era – both a throwback to the era of Asian penholders who attacked with flat hard shots. Falck has adapted to use his inverted side on his forehand for serves, switching quickly to return the pips to his forehand for the point.
In the match today, Korea’s Jaehyun An won the first game and the third game. Mattias responded twice by winning games two and four. Game five may have decided the match, however. Jaehyun dominated early and at 7-2, it looked like he had put the game out of reach. But Mattias buckled down and fought back, returning a tough net ball and holding on for 7-3, then hitting a great backhand down the line for 7-4, and winning a point directly off serve for 7-5. Jaehyun then won a long point to end the run (8-5) before Falck stepped around his backhand side to hit a flat forehand smash for a direct winner (8-6). They traded points on Mattias serve to make it 9-7. Mattias returned serve with an aggressive backhand loop and then after receiving the block to the same spot ripped a backhand winner down the line (9-8). Jaehyun then felt the pressure and made an ill-advised forehand attack that caught the net and carried long (9-9). Mattias then served his way to a win, playing high-spin serves to the middle and then hitting aggressive backhand loops for a pair of winners.
Jaehyun dominated the next game, winning 11-2. But Mattias regained his composure, falling behind early, but then pulling ahead and staying ahead. Mattias Falck won the last game 11-5. The first Swede to make the finals since Waldner in 1997. Sweden has a history of success at the World Championships, with Jan-Ove Waldner and Jorgen Persson winning titles in the 90s. But it has been two decades since a Swedish player advanced this far. For some irony, it was the two-wing topspin styles of the Swedish players that changed the game in the late 1980s. Before that time, it was not uncommon to see top players using pips and a flatter style that did not rely on spin. Mattias’ style in some ways is not unlike the style of play prevalent before the Swedes changed the game. Mattias Falck has already had a great tournament, but he is one win away from something truly historic.
While the stories on the Men’s side have focused on unexpected results, upsets and comebacks, the Women’s Singles event has offered few surprises. The top four women each advanced to the Final 8, and each of those top seeds won their match. The final four, all Chinese, were Ding Ning, Chen Meng, Wang Manyu, and Liu Shiwen. Liu Shiwen, the fourth seed, provided the only drama of the final two days. She upset World No. 1 Ding Ning to advance to the final. And she dispensed with second seeded Chen Meng to win the tournament.
Check in with ButterflyOnline.com for updates throughout the weekend.