(by Steve Hopkins)
Only the Finals remain at the 2022 ITTF World Team Championships Finals in Chengdu. China and Germany are the final two teams – a result that most would have expected a few months ago. That said, when Germany decided to send a team that didn’t include many of their biggest stars, and when Koki Niwa was unable to play for Japan, and when Lin Yun-Ju did not appear on the Taipei roster – many of the teams expected to push China seemed weakened. But after today’s matches, most of those lingering questions were answered. Germany is still a dominant team with Dang Qiu as its Captain (and with Duda and Stumper winning key matches), and China was pushed to the brink today as Tomokazu Harimoto scored won both of his matches. Just one Men’s match remains – China versus Germany on Sunday afternoon.
In the early Semifinal, Germany’s Benedikt Duda upset Korea’s top player, Jang Woojin. It was a 3-1 win with the one loss at 10-12, followed by three dominant wins for Duda. At this point, it looked like it could be an easy win for Germany – as Germany’s top player, Dang Qiu stepped into the ring against An Jaehyun. But Jaehyun played careful and smart – and managed to pull away again and again at key points late in the match. A 3-1 win for Korea left the match scored. Cho Seungmin then topped Germany’s 19 year old phenom Kay Stumper 3-2. The Cho/Stumper match was exciting at times and sloppy at times – perhaps how you would expect a match with a very talented ball striker on this big stage for the first time – Stumper and Cho had some amazing shots, mixed with lots of easy misses. Dang Qiu then stepped up to defeat Jang Woojin 3-1 (in the battle of their top seeds), and in the final match-up, Duda was again dominant in his win over An Jaehyun. Germany moves forward to the Final.
Fan Zhendong started things off against Japan with an easy 3-0 win over Shunsuke Togami. There was one close game in the middle, but the other two games were at 5 and 4 as Togami was overmatched by the World No. 1. The second match was between Tomokazu Harimoto and Wang Chuqin, and Chuqin started strong with a win in the opening game. However, Harimoto ran off three straight to even the match score. Mizuki Oikawa won the first game against Ma Long, but then absolutely ran out of gas – Ma Long won at 5, 5, and 2 in the final three games. That set the stage for the premiere matchup of the whole tournament as World No. 1 Fan Zhendong faced off against the top ranked non-Chinese player (World No. 4) Harimoto. Harimoto pulled away late in the first game to take the lead with an emotional win. Fan then dominated two games in a row, winning at 6 and then 3. But the final two games each went down to the wire and Harimoto won both at 11-9. Harimoto wins and Chin and Japan move into the final match tied 2-2. The final match was between Wang Chuqin and Shunsuke Togami, and like Togami’s first match, there was one close loss and two non-competitive games. So while China was pushed to the final match, the Chinese squad is too strong with Chuqin (World No. 11) playing as their third. Japan needed one more won to rise to Harimoto’s heroics, and they fell short.
While China and Germany will move forward to make headlines tomorrow – today belongs to Tomokazu Harimoto. Japan’s best player logged two wins (over World No. 1 and World No. 11) in consecutive matches in a losing effort. In fact, he carried his Japanese squad finishing with an 11-1 record. The rest of the Japanese team were a combined 9-7, yet Harimoto brought the team all the way to the Quarterfinals (and within one upset away from an historic Finals appearance).
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