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WORLD TEAM CUP 2018 Recap:China Again, Germany Reloading and more

WORLD TEAM CUP 2018 Recap: China Again, Germany Reloading, Flashes from Team England, a Marathon Win by Japan, and Kanak’s Signature Win

(By Steve Hopkins)
WORLD TEAM CUP 2018 Recap:China Again, Germany Reloading and more

There were a couple interesting stories this week in England at the World Team Cup.
China dominated both the Men’s and Women’s events.  That could not have been more apparent than on the Men’s side where the Chinese Team won every match, cruising through the draw with wins over Germany, England and Japan.  This format favors the deep Chinese team – and that advantage was exacerbated by absences of Boll (Germany) and Mizutani (Japan) weakening their biggest competitors.
Germany’s successes may have been the biggest story in the sport in 2017.  But Germany had a disappointing tournament.  German players benefited not just from great results but also from the new world ranking system – currently with Dima Ovtcharov at No.1 and Timo Boll at No.3.  But Boll was unable to compete (he is not 100% physically, but does plan to play in the World Championships in two months), so they were not able to field a team with their one-two punch of No.1 and No.3 in the World Rankings. In the absence of Boll, Germany entered the event seeded third behind China and Japan, but in the group stage they lost to South Korea. They still advanced, but were forced to face China in the Quarterfinals – where they lost 3-0. If there is a silver lining, Ovtcharov was undefeated in the group stages so his World No.1 ranking should remain intact.  He did not play against China – citing back pain.  Germany is banking that a healthy Ovtcharov and Boll will bring different results for the World Championships in Halmsted in late April.
Of the four initial groups, only one finished without any upsets (Group B: Japan/England/Egypt finished 1/2/3 per their seeding).  In Group A, China won easily, but France upset Sweden to advance.  In Group C, Korea defeated Germany to take the top position (both advanced).  And in Group D, Brazil upset Hong Kong to take the top position (both advanced).
The host, England, finished second in their group and then defeated Brazil in the draw.  They lost to China in the Semifinals, but for an eighth seed to advance to the Top 4 was an impressive result and a delight to the home crowd.  Liam Pitchford won the first five points against Fan Zhendong and took the first game in one of the best matches of the Semifinals.  However, Fan regrouped and won the next three games.  The exciting points and athletic play of Pitchford may be a good sign for England’s future.  (Pitchford v. Fan full match)
While the top half of the draw had some great individual stories, the story of the bottom half was how evenly matched each of the teams were.  Korea defeated France 3-2 and Japan defeated Hong Kong 3-2.  Japan then defeated Korea 3-2 to advance to the Final against China. 
The most important match of the tournament was probably the final match of Korea v. Japan.  And, in fact, the best highlight may be the last 10 points of the final game between Japan’s Ueda Jin and Korea’s Jeong Sangeun.  After a hard-fought match, Jeong won two points in a row to take a commanding 10-6 lead in the deciding fifth game.  But at that point, the momentum totally changed.  Ueda won a point with a big forehand. He followed that up with a tricky serve for a winner.  Ueda then attacked a serve with a backhand flip for a winner. And then Jeong missed a forehand and it was all tied at 10 each.  But it didn’t end there – the players each missed a serve return (11-11). Then two furious rallies followed with attacks from both wings from both players – Ueda taking the lead when Jeong missed into the net, and then Jeong using his forehand to overpower Ueda’s backhand to even the match again (12-12).  Ueda took the lead again with a Jeong miss on a service return.  And Jeong again evened the match with a strong forehand that overpowered Ueda’s backhand (13-13).  Jeong reached 14 first with a strong cross-court forehand block just out of Ueda’s reach, but Ueda was able to use his aggressive backhand flip to attack the next serve for a winner down the line (14-14).  Ueda then played a wide-angled serve that fell off Jeong’s backhand side – resulting in a smash by Ueda and the lead.  And the final point was a topspin rally with a backhand winner by Ueda to win the deciding game of the deciding match by a score of 16-14, putting Japan into the Finals.
(Jeong v. Ueda full match)
 Perhaps the biggest individual match of the entire tournament was Team USA’s Kanak Jha‘s 3-0 win over Wong Chun Ting.  Wong is currently World No. 7 (Tied with Ma Long) and while this was not Wong’s best tournament (he also lost to Brazil’s Hugo Calderon), he is an elite player who has beaten some of the World’s best.  
Kanak was aggressive from the beginning.  He moved to return serves with his backhand flip, sometimes moving well across the middle into his forehand side choosing to be out of position in order to use his best return option.  He served mostly into Wong’s backhand, but he seemed to make a concerted effort to play most balls into the middle of the table.  Kanak was careful with many loops playing them in a very controlled way to the center of the table – shallow enough that many were almost the very center of his opponent’s side.  Wong on the other hand attacked at heavy angles often flat deep shots with strong pace and he played to the middle only when he was not pressing the pace.
Kanak jumped to an early lead in the first game, but Wong fought back to tie the score at 8-8. Kanak then regrouped to score the next three to win the first game.  
In the second game, the players traded points early until Wong was able to distance himself with a lead of 9-5.  Kanak then won two before missing long and finding himself down 7-10.  But Kanak then rattled off 5 in a row to take the second game.  Kanak’s second game was aided by some lucky bounces – a netball at 7-10 and again when he was up 11-10 helped with the momentum and Kanak walked from the table apologizing for his good fortune – but up 2-0 and in the driver’s seat.  In the third game, they traded points until 3-3.  Kanak then ran off three in a row.  Wong called time-out and after the break he won three points of his own to even the game.  Up one point at 9-8, Wong stepped around his backhand corner for a big shot down the line and Kanak executed a reaction block cross-court for a winner.  He finished the match off on the next point.  Kanak Jha over World No. 7 Wong Chun Ting (-8, -10, -8).  
This isn’t the first time that Kanak Jha’s play has provided some real hope for the future of USA Table Tennis.  He has won National Championships, his No.90 World Ranking is the highest by an American man in twenty years, he was the youngest American athlete in the 2016 Olympics, and most recently he won the Gold Medal at the 2017 ITTF Junior Circuit Finals.  But this win, against a No. 7 World Ranked player is the best by any US men’s player in recent history (it may be the best win in an ITTF event by an American in 50 years).  Kanak Jha has already transitioned from being a promising junior to being a promising player.  We hope this is the next step of a promising career – and the first of many wins over elite players at the top of the World Rankings.   

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