At the ITTF’s Annual General Meeting, which I attended with USTTA CEO Mike Cavanaugh, there were representatives from 136 countries, the large majority of which fielded players. So what a great opportunity, especially for the young and relatively inexperienced, to get a first-hand glimpse of the large world around them and their small but expanded part in it.
The Men’s Singles began with the highest-ranked 96 players (that is, those below a World #130 ranking) waiting in the wings. Since the Main Draw proper would consist of a field of 128, preliminary play was necessary to bring up 32 more players. So, to start whittling down the 308 potential qualifiers, 102 round robins were set up, out of which would come 102 winners who would advance to single elimination play. Since the first round of such play would exempt the 26 highest-ranked players (#130-#201), the remaining 76 would play 38 matches to see who’d continue on. Then, in the second knock-out round, the 38 who’d survived would be joined by the 26 who didn’t have to play the first round. That made 64 players still alive to play 32 matches—and the winners of these would enter the Main Draw proper.
Of these qualifiers, some were of more interest to me than others. The player who’d just missed sitting out the preliminaries, ranked #130, Pavel Sirucek from the Czech Republic, went on in the first round to upset Russia’s Fedor Kuzmin (#49). Another first-round advancer was Italy’s (Italy’s?) Niagol Stoyanov (#273). In the pre-lims he’d eliminated Egypt’s Omar Assar (#161), then really did a job on Hong Kong’s #36 Li Ching, 14-12 in the sixth. Liam Pitchford (#260), whom one fellow I presumed in the know told me was England’s best hope, downed Poland’s Jaroslav Tomicki (#171), then threatened, with a 2-1 lead in games, to upset Japan’s Koki Niwa (#74). Also, the Slovak Republic’s Michal Bardon (#196) surprised France’s Emmanuel Lebesson (#69) with a first-round k.o., 13-11 in the sixth.
Nigeria’s Segun Toriola (#131), whom U.S. readers may remember as the 2008 $3,500 winner of Mike Babuin’s Cary Cup, was knocked out in his first single elimination match by Romania’s Adrian Dodean (#308), 12-10 in the seventh. And England’s Darius Knight (#238) was beaten early by Morocco’s Mounaim Tirselt (#461)—only Knight was up 3-1 and at 10-all in the fifth before darkness descended. Neither Brazil’s Cazuo Matsumoto or Greece’s Konstantinos Papageorgiou advanced to the first round, but that left Matsumoto to win the Men’s Consolation from Papageorgiou. One upset advancer, over the Ukraine’s Ivan Katkov (#201), I took particular note of was Scotland’s Gavin Rumgay (#251). I wanted to see what he’d do against Belgium’s Jean-Michel Saive, once ranked World #1, but now, at 41, #41. Rumgay lost in six, but Saive was more the winner because with his attendance here he set an “Iron Man” record of participating in 20 World Championships, one more than Victor Barna’s 19 (also he’s played in all the Olympics since 1988).
Other first-round matches I want to mention—first, in the top half of the draw:
Denmark’s Allan Bentssen, who was gonna retire before he was 40 (too late now—he’s 42), upset Portugal’s Tiago Apolonia, 11-9 in the sixth, 11-8 in the seventh (A, leading 3-2 and 8-3, was said to give B “time to play” and that’s how B got ahead of A). Hong Kong’s Cheung Yuk, whom someone described as ”a street-fighter,” was left standing after a 16-14-in-the-seventh brawl with Chinese Tapei lefty Huang Sheng-Sheng (so punch-drunk he was repeating his own name?). However, India’s July-Aug., 2010 USA Table Tennis “Cover Boy,” Sharath Namal Achanta, our 2010 U.S. Open winner, went down, 11-9 in the fifth, to Huang’s teammate, Chen Chien-An. Aussie Henzell got by our Fan Yiyong (see my article on U.S. players) but couldn’t prevail in the 11-9 seventh against France’s Adrien Mattenet. Romanian “Bad Boy” Adrian Crisan—you recall he was once defaulted from the U.S. Open for illegally trying to switch the racket he was playing with for another—stayed out of trouble long enough to win out over Croatia’s Roko Tosic, 13-11 in the seventh. In the next round, though, way down in his last game against Germany’s Zoltan Fejer-Konnerth, he’d get a kick or two out of splintering a barrier into pieces before being (what the hell—I was gonna lose anyway) disqualified (one of three players by mid-week to face that misconduct penalty).
After Japan’s Kazuhiro Chan (a lefty, of Chinese extraction, who beat Ma Long in last October’s World Cup) won that 13-11 sixth game from Hungary’s Daniel Kosiba, the seventh was 11-3 easy. Hong Kong’s Leung Chu Lan 11-9 in the sixth stopped French veteran Christophe Legout who, needing only one more game from J-M Saive to be our 1988 U.S. Open Champion, came up 24-26 short. Leung (#95), a righty penholder, would then post a big win over Chinese Taipei’s Chuang Chih-Yuan (#14)—streaking to the finish line from 5-all in the seventh. Hello, here’s a former retiree, Sweden’s 45-year-old Jorgen Persson. You remember he was World Champion in 1991, and then 17 years later, after a stint as the Qatar Coach, he turned up as a semifinalist in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Who can say how long he’ll continue to be part of major Championships (“I have to play faster,” he said), but in the first round here he did defeat Chinese Taipei’s Wu Chin-Chi, 4-2, taking the two close 12-10 games. That, though, would be the last singles victory in Rotterdam for Persson—after 17-years of World Championships, through 46 Singles matches, he would succumb in six to Greece’s Panagiotis Gionis.
Now in the bottom half of the draw:
Perhaps the biggest upset in early-round play was North Korean Jang Song Man’s over 2010 German National Champion Christian Seuss. Christian was said to be having a bad year, and his 11-8 loss in the seventh to Jang didn’t help matters. The Ukraine’s Yevhen Pryshchepa (#286) fell to Germany’s Patrick Baum (#21) and, never mind their respective rankings, it was the Ukranian who was upset—he lost three games 14-12, 12-10, and 16-14. Our three-time U.S. Open Champion from Serbia, Aleksander Karakasevic (#89), now a little overweight but still blessed with his “golden hands” touch, wasn’t too happy either—up 3-1 against South Korea’s World Top Ten Joo Se Hyuk,and primed for a huge upset, he lost the last three games, 5, 4, and 6. Brazil’s Gustavo Tsubol (#128) brought fine to Sweden’s Jens Lundqvist (#52), winning the 6th game 15-13 and the seventh 13-11. Meanwhile, however, Jens’s teammate Robert Svensson rose or at least stretched to partially save the day for Sweden with a seven-game win over Japanese hope, the World Junior Champion at Cairo, Kenta Matsudaira (#32). But Japan’s Seiya Kishikawa rallied in the sixth and seventh to oust North Korea’s Kim Hyok Bong. You’ll note that so many of these matches not involving the seven Chinese (they get two extra entries because they have players in the World’s Top Ten) could go either way and so make for appreciative audience viewing.
Alright, we’re moving toward the last 32. Next to fall is Kirill Skachkov. He plays in a French league, and though a powerful player was not selected for the Russian team at last year’s Moscow World’s. Up 2-0, he lost to South Korea’s formidable teenager Kim Min Seok, 11-2 in the seventh. Hong Kong tough, Cheung Yuk, battling from two apiece with South Korea’s 2004 Olympic and Killerspin U.S. Open Champion Ryu Seung Min, -17,- 9, finally went down for the count. In a two-Koreas clash, the South’s Cho Eun Rae won in seven over the North’s Jang. 2009 U.S. Open winner Thomas Keinath, formerly from Germany, now of the Slovak Republic, fell 4-2 to South Korean defensive star Joo Se Hyuk. But Hong Kong’s Jiang Tianyi stayed in contention by 4-3 outlasting Sweden’s Par Gerell.
Moving now to reach the last 16, here are some significant matches:
Back and forth they go— Ryu Seung Min (#13) and the surging Russian, Igor Rubstov (#71)…until finally, bet on it, the rankings prove accurate, Ryu’s the winner, though in seven games. “Betting,” says ITTF Executive V-P Thomas Weikert, “belongs to sport and thus has to be accepted.” But the ITTF will fight illegal betting and “particularly the wide-spread or at least possible manipulation of matches.” Manipulation of matches? Uh, from who, and how often, do such things occur? The Europeans are hangin’ in there. Much improved Frenchman Adrien Mattenet takes a 16-14 pivotal fourth game from Singapore’s Gao Ning (#16) and closes him out in five. Germany’s 2010 Seoul Open runner-up Bastian Steger—he’d like to replace Seuss as the #3 man on the German team—shows lots of spirit, and many in the crowd are applauding him as he emerges victorious after struggling into the seventh with Leung. Steger’s sweeping backhand helps him to sustain an offense from mid or back court, and ultimately his attack is a little more effective than Leung’s. Steger’s teammate Patrick Baum, 2010 European Singles runner-up, takes two from Joo but no more, and is out of the Singles like Seuss. However, Germany’s #1 Timo Boll (#2)and Germany’s #2 Dimitrij “Dimi” Oftcharov (#15), slated to meet in the eighth’s, each won 4-0—Boll over Sweden’s Svensson (#82), and Oftcharov over Japan’s Kishikawa (#34) who’d beaten Boll in the 2008 English Open, and, before the terrible devastation wrought Sendai , had attended the special t.t. high school there.
We’re now down to the last 16. Yes, the seven Chinese are still in—it’s just that we haven’t heard from them because they haven’t been much challenged. Maybe now? In one instance, definitely, for three-time World Champion and 2000 U.S. Open winner Wang Liqin (#9) has to play teammate Xu Xin (#6). Is it a surprise Wang beats him in straight games? Or more of a surprise that two-time Olympic runner-up and 2009 Defending World Champion Wang Hao (#1) is 3-2 down to Ryu (#13) before finishing him off 3 and 6? As play progresses, Ryu has to be careful about moving too early to his backhand side to take the forehand offensive, for Wang can backhand returns into the open table. Once Wang gets used to Ryu’s penhold movements, he’s so good at finding open spaces at the table and scoring with perfect placements.
As for three of the other four Chinese advancing, ”Why waste time and energy?” seems their m.o. for the day. It’s Ma Long (#5), who took the Nov., 2010 Asian Games from Wang Hao, over South Korea’s 2005 U.S. Open Champion Oh Sang Eun (#11); Ma Lin (#4), 2008 Olympic Champion, three-time World Singles runner-up, and 2002 U.S. Open winner over Steger (#23); and Zhang Jike (#3) over Joo (#10)—all in straight games. Of these, by far the most enjoyable to watch was the stubborn play, the admirable athleticism of seemingly indefatigable looper Zhang against seemingly indefatigable defender Joo. Zhang won the first 13-11 and, with both players never faltering in spirit, won the last 14-12. One fun moment for the spectators: Zhang, weirdly up 10-0 in the second, gratuitously dumps a point into the net; whereupon Joo (Don’t patronize me!) promptly responds in kind. Also, more than a little irritated, I’d heard, was China’s Men’s Head Coach Liu Guoliang. He’d been so upset with Zhang, word was, that he’d given him at least one stern 20-minute talking to, though I don’t know why.
Chen Qi, the sixth Chinese advancing, winner of this year’s English Open, has no easy time with Belarus’s Vladimir Samsonov (#8). Their first two games are split uneventfully, but then Samsonov, down 9-3, is out of the third—or, wait, though he doesn’t look any more energized than usual, he comes back to lose 11-9. In the fourth, at 11-all, Chen starts to serve. Doesn’t. Backs away. Begins again. Now, helped by a net, Vladi gets the ad—only to miss a hanger loop. But two more points and the game is his, the match tied at 2-2. And tied again at 3-3, after they exchange 11-6 games, highlighted by tall Vladi’s tiptoe-into-the-air, balletic cross-court backhand winner. The crowd loved that, and all through the match the great majority of spectators are rooting for him. In the close-mid-game seventh, Samsonov tries to catch Qi on a fast down-the-line serve, but Chen had seen that one before, was ready. The Chinese makes a miraculous counter to go 8-6 up, but then serves and misses his follow, 8-7. Then 9-7 and the crowd is absolutely still. Then bursts of applause—9-8. Then boos, for Chen about to receive, changes his mind, backs away from the table as he did before, then returns. He plays a good point, makes a clean drop for a winner—10-8 double-match-point. Vladi stays alive—wins a forehand exchange, 10-9. But then he makes a finishing error and is a goner—a big let-down for those who’d hoped to see Samsonov in another Chinese match like this one.
The Japanese have one last chance in the person of Jun Mizutani (#7) who won the Dec., 2010 Seoul Open. He comes through—scores a 4-1 win over France’s Mattinet (“”Definitely not an easy match,” said the 21-year-old Japanese—“Mattenet’s backhand is very strong”).
As for the Japanese, so for the Europeans, only one of them will survive. Both Boll and Oftcharov have had good draws, for such notables as Wang Hao, Ma Long, and Ma Lin are in the other half, and these two top Germans haven’t as yet been forced to meet a Chinese but instead have to be more at ease playing against a friend whose game each knows very well. The favorite, Boll, gets off to a bad start, is 5-1 down, but then explodes to an 11-7 win. And goes up 4-0 in the second—a 14-2 run. “All the time,” says a guy next to me, “Boll comes back from nowhere.” Oftcharov has no head, no game to play Boll?
But then, down 2-0 in games, Oftcharov leads 10-8 in the third, only to fall behind 11-10. No, it’s not gonna be a three-game sweep. Oftcharov sails in a backhand winner, fearlessly smacks in Boll’s serve, and wins 13-11. Turns out Oftcharov can oft look both awful and spectacular. In the fourth, Boll’s up 10-8, down 11-10, then momentarily rights himself. At 12-all, he misses a ball to his middle, almost catches it. Then he stretches, scores, and is back to deuce. Only to drop behind again when, though in position, he whiffs a forehand. Again it’s deuce. But this time Oftcharov wallops in a loose ball and Boll can’t come back. M’god, if Boll loses, what a disappointment it’ll be to the crowd. But can they believe what happens next? Oftcharov is down 10-0—and, to hell with it, deliberately dumps the 11th point into the het. Then in the sixth Boll leads all the way and has moved to the quarter’s.
Mizutani had a win over Wang Hao in the 2009 East Asian Games, so he figures he has a chance. But it’s soon apparent he doesn’t. Wang’s controllingly tidy—begins by adjusting the small tight brace under his right knee cap; then, after winning the first game, he doesn’t, like many players, force the umpire to get up often heavily from his chair to pick up the loose ball, but does the job himself and obligingly takes the ball over to the umpire. The players have some good counter points—Mizutani covers a lot of ground, but he has to. Fish for it, he may, but he won’t come up with a medal this tournament.
Both Ma Long and Ma Lin make introductory bows to the packed stands on both sides of the Arena. Ma Lin—he of the vaunted forehand—is from the beginning not carrying the attack and loses the first game 11-5. In the second, he’s down 8-3. If he needs a coach he’s not gonna get one—bad enough the players have to be antagonists, you can’t expect the Team coaches to be. But maybe Ma Lin doesn’t need one—he wins six in a row. Then is stopped when, after a prolonged topspin exchange, Ma Long gets an edge and goes on to win the game. And, up 9-1, the third as well. The audience craves some involvement. So here comes the first hands-up W…A…V…E…in the stands. Ma Lin takes the hint. As he 8-4 mounts a win, cheers prove he’s a popular fella. Still, he’s not playing well enough to be the winning aggressor. Photographers by the dozens, as if drawn to the end-game fifth by the heavy, rising beat of the in-between-points music, crowd outside the court barriers. There! Snap the 11-5 winner! No, says Ma Long scrupulously—Ma Lin’s ball hit, we play on. Alright, no one’s leaving. Ma Long wins 11-7.
In their first game, Zhang Jike, up 7-3 against Wang Liqin, looks to be too fast, the winning ball out of the long reach of the multi-time World Champion. That is, until Wang, having drawn to 9-all, then 10-9 down, positions himself so as to take the right forehand shot, but misses it. However, Wang squares the match, running out the second from 7-all. Zhang, playing poorly, loses the third, 11-8. But then, whoa…what happens in the fourth? Wang begins by serving off. Then, down 9-8, he misserves again. And down 10-8 puts his serve return into the net. Who could believe this so experienced Champion could be so careless, so tight, as to make such egregious errors. But, as they say, stuff happens.
In the fifth, down 5-4, Wang fails to return serve. Down 7-5, he fails to return serve. Down 8-5, he fails to return serve. Down 9-5, he serves and follows into the net. Down 10-5 he makes an absolutely wild return. How he’s slipped from what he used to do so well—maybe Coach Liu needs to give him a good talking to too. In the sixth, after netting a ball, Wang’s down 8-7, says that’s enough of this, calls Time on himself—comes back to lose 9-7, 10-7, 11-7.
Boy, these matches have gone fast. Now, though, expectations are high. It’s Europe vs. Asia—Timo Boll vs. Chen Qi—“TI-MO!’ vs. “CHIN-a!’ In the first, Boll’s up 9-3, wins. In the second, Boll’s down 7-0, loses. In the third, there’s again more of their occasional good counter play as Timo moves from 5-2 to 9-4 up. Then, after Chen socks in a beautiful curling forehand, Timo’s an 11-6 winner and is rewarded with horn toots from somewhere up in the ringed-round audience. Timo’s ahead 2-1 in games, and during the course of a point in the fourth is flat on his back, startling the audience by almost getting the ball back. More horn hoots as he wins this game, 11-7. The fifth goes to Boll too, 11-3. “TI-MO!” puts clenched fist and paddle up, and, smiling as people cheer him, turns to all four corners of the world.
In the first semi’s between Wang Hao and Ma Long, Wang opens as if he plans a rout. When he aces a serve return through Long, he’s up 7-1. As the Defending Champion proceeds to win this game 11-7, there’s not much applause…as perhaps you’d expect. In the second, as if in deference to spectators’ claps which I translate as “Let’s have some action, please!” Ma Long moves from 4-all to 7-4 up, but then it’s 7-all tied again. The players have nervous mannerisms—Ma blows on his racket; Wang Hao before serving sometimes cups the ball and, enclosing it, brings it toward his lips. Up 8-7, Ma smacks in Wang’s serve. Wang retaliates with a winning forehand and closes to 9-all. But, up 10-9, Ma wins the game on an edge. One each. On into the third, Ma’s the aggressor. Suddenly there’s a lone shout from the audience. Followed by the echo of what seems to me a child’s voice. Who’s being cheered? Ma, with a 7-3 lead, goes 2-1 up.
The crowd’s increased considerably—the next semi’s is the one most people have come to see. The pace of play between Wang and Ma seems to have increased too. There’s more counter play now. At 9-all, Wang misses a forehand, holds his finish (as if to say, “I didn’t miss that, did I?”). Then, taking advantage of an edge ball that brings him to 10-all, he socks in an 11-10 forehand, follows by winning an eye-catching side-table counter-exchange. Two apiece.
In the fifth, Wang, up 5-4, misses a forehand, slaps his thigh. But now he gets a net and that seems to catapult his psychic energy, for suddenly he’s up 10-6. On winning 11-7, he lets out a yell of triumph as if the match had already ended. His yells continue in contrast to Ma’s relative silence. It’s great to see the play out on the somewhat distant Arena court while meanwhile alternately looking up to follow the close-up replays on the giant screen. But suddenly in mid-game I’m looking up at screened shots of an empty table, then trying to see what was happening out there on court. I soon find out play had stopped because Wang was being bothered by a flying insect of some kind. This was brushed away, then terminated… it had been the now smiling umpire’s turn to clap. After play continues, Hao wins an exchange and, up 8-6, jumps excitedly. How different is each player’s body language. On going down 10-7 triple match point, Ma spins his racket up, as an umpire does his questioning coin. Catch is, though, Ma is still fighting—finally falls 11-9. Red flags and banners—“CHIN-a!...CHIN-a!”—sprout up among the now thousands of spectators.
Though the Chinese are well represented, “TI-MO!...TI-MO!” is the crowd favorite. And the crowd’s opening exhilaration is matched by Boll’s. Going after loose balls or not, if he’s not stroking he’s constantly jogging. He wins the first 11-7. In the second, the mid-game score is about even when Zhang Jike slashes in a vicious cross-court ace. From 6-4 up, he hurries to an 11-5 win. Hurries, but not when it’s his turn to serve. I’m struck by how many players, ready to serve, have ball on outstretched hand, then hover over it, delaying play. Why? See Chuck Hoey’s ITTF Museum films from the old hard rubber days and you’ll be struck by how quickly a player serves after the previous point is over. What’s happening in this match is not what “TI-MO” (now more “ti-mo”) fans want to see. Charged up for a 16-4 run, Zhang bursts through the second and third games to take a 2-1 lead. In the fourth, play’s so far from what was hoped for, it’s embarrassing. Zhang is hot. Banging balls through Boll’s forehand, he zips through the fourth, 11-3. Give Timo credit though—he’s not paralyzed. In the fifth he’s off to a 4-0 lead…then—how is it possible?—he’s down 9-5. Whenever had he, the best player in Europe, winner of 18 ITTF Pro Tour titles, been beaten so badly? Who expected this? And yet what balls Boll has. At the end, he’s desperately attacking, forcing Zhang to call Time, then drawing to 9-all. But he can’t come back, loses 11-9. Zhang thumps his chest vigorously, then raises his hand in victory. Boll must be content—er, no, he can’t be—to receive the Richard Bergmann Fair Play Award.
Match-opening claps and drum-beats greet finalists Wang Hao and Zhang Jike. Defending Champion Wang’s been there, mentally and physically, but Zhang, like a number of those who’ve come to Rotterdam, is playing in his first World’s Singles—only he’s a little different from the others. He’s securely in his element…as he early shows via a fantastic counter-exchange with Wang. “CHIN-a!... CHIN-a!” Red balloon-sticks beat. Zhang’s up 10-9 in the first. But Wang, out of position, balances with a great get to his left, a great get to his right…10-all. Wang can’t win it though—nets a serve return. Can’t win the second either—Zhang has such fast hands. O.K., that’s better—the Champ’s back in it, takes the third. In the fourth, at four-all, Zhang scores sitting down, or, rather, with a powerful squat shot. Yep, not your everyday winner—it’s fun to see. But though Zhang’s up 9-7, he loses four in a row, finishes as Wang did in the first by netting a serve return. Two apiece.
In the first half of the fifth, we see some incredible out-of-position gets and counters from Wang. Still, it’s Zhang who 5-4…11-5 runs away with the game. In the sixth, it’s another runaway game—which, strangely, Wang, down 9-5, seems almost willing to contribute to, for he serves off a long, long, long way from the table edge. So now, with Wang, losing 16 of the last 22 points, down 10-5, five match points, it’s all over….No? You want perhaps a romanticize ending for a match of this stature? A climactic Final Act to this play? Alright, I’ll give you appropriate musical effects (“Do It! Do It!”). And the audience—“CHIN-A!”…”CHIN-A!” –will help. So now, ready? It’s 10-6, 10-7, 10-8, 10-9, 10-10. No, I did NOT make this up. Can’t you, even now, hear the buzz of the crowd? Then Zhang snaps in a backhand to go up another match point. Wang seems to say, “A little late for that, isn’t it?”—and clobbers in a winner: 11-all. But now Wang lofts a very easy return of serve and Zhang of course strikes. Then finally ends it all. Zhang takes off his playing shirt, jogs about bare-chested in triumph. The screen above catches Wang sitting alone. He waves to the camera—doesn’t seem the least disturbed. Zhang of course on leaving the court is pursued by all those who want a prize word or photo of him. Oh, yes, he’s made quite a debut.