Several walls at the tournament’s Media Center were filled with local newspaper clippings, but, alas, I myself was in dutch there with the god of hybrid reporters because I couldn’t read the language. However, this disadvantage, and my inability, with as usual so many Chinese winners and interviewers, to understand Mandarin (our Judy Hugh is studying it at Rutgers), were in part counter-balanced because for the first time “a live scoring system” was used. That is, each court had screens that would immediately show electronically in large numbers the score of the match being played. Moreover, high up at each end of the Main Arena, flanked by flags of the countries participating, there was a huge screen that not only showed the action, but, in between points, highlighted it with selected re-play. No World Championship before has ever given all its spectators such a satisfactory view.
Of the nearly 200 players carefully positioned according to ranking in the 64 preliminary round robins only 32 would qualify for the 128-entry Main Draw proper. That meant that the 64 winners of these round robins—“rabbits” they used to call them, all with an ITTF world ranking over #163—would play a single elimination round to decide the 32 qualifiers. In only two instances did the third-positioned player in a round robin group advance and that was because neither of them had an established ITTF ranking. One was Chinese Taipei’s Liu Hsing-Yin who as a reward of sorts got to meet China’s Li Xiaoxia, the #1 seed, in the first round. Li of course won in four games—gave up 15 points total. Then she brusquely made the required handshakes with player and umpire without looking at them. Is this supposed to show sportsmanship?
The other, who wins my “Sleeper of the Year” Award, was North Korea’s Ri Mi Gyong. First, she advanced out of her round robin with a win over the first-positioned player, Macao’s Ma Chao In (#445). Then in her qualifying single elimination round she downed Slovenia’s Martina Safran (#186). Then in the first round proper she upset France’s Carole Grundisch (#88) in a strange 3, -2, 2, -3, 9, -7, 5 back and forth match. ( Independent-minded Grundisch distances herself from the other French Team members at their INSEP Center and plays in the French League.) Also, in that same first round, another fast-attacking North Korean pulled an upset—Kim Hye Song (#134) stopped Spain’s Sara Ramirez (#90) in seven. How, someone asked, do North Koreans get so good playing in so few tournaments? They practice in near invisibility with the Chinese?
In other early matches worth noting, the following players (including our Ariel Singh and Lily Zhang, as I show elsewhere) struggled mightily to get out of the preliminaries: France’s Aurore Dessaint (#230) over the Czech Republic’s Hana Matelova (#359), 11-9 in the seventh; Turkey’s Gokcenur Gungor (#597) in an upset seven-game win over Australia’s Vivian Tan Zhenhua (#255); India’s Poulomi Ghatak (#266) over Greece’s Maria Christoforaki (#325), -9, -9, 8, 15, 9, -6, 8; and Switzerland’s Monika Fuhrer (#300) over Venezuela’s Fabiola Ramos (#289), from down 3-0 and at 15-all in the fifth.
Australia’s Lay Jian Fang (#169) advanced to the first round proper, where she scored a big win over Russia’s Anna Tikhomirova (#69). Also in that first round, Malaysia’s Beh Lee Wei (#151) upset Belarus’s Veronika Pavlovich (#75); and, before losing 12-10 in the sixth, the Czech Republic’s Katerina Penkavova (#228) had to have made Romania’s Daniela Dodean (#35) feel very, very uncomfortable. Favorites forced into a seventh game before winning their first round proper were: Hong Kong’s Ng Wing Nam (#96) over India’s (#258) Madhurika Patkar (Patkar’s teammate, #490 Mamata Prabhu, won the Women’s Consolation); Japan’s Yuka Ishigaki (described by someone as “Norio Takashima [1978 U.S. Open Men’s Champion]with female legs”) over England’s Joanna Parker (#161), 15-13 in the seventh! (how disappointing for Parker that must have been); Singapore’s Yu Mengyu (#26) over Croatia’s Tian Yuan (#141), -8, 10, -5, -9, 10, 3, 8 (had Yu not won the second game, she could have lost four straight; had she not won the fifth game at deuce she would have lost in five—a heart-breaker for Tian). South Korea’s Park Mi Young (#17) over Croatia’s Tamara Boros (#112), -8, -4, -9, then 6, 4, 5, 8. Those first three games might have reminded us that years ago Boros was among the World’s Top Five. Why such a falling off? She wanted a half-distance, man-like power game? If so, it often wasn’t working as she’d wanted it to.
In the round of 64 there weren’t many surprises. Chinese Taipei’s Cheng I-Ching (#62) began with a 2-up, 12-all-in-the-third rush against Singapore’s Li Jiawei (#23), but though you wouldn’t say she collapsed, she lost those last four, 12, 4, 9, 10. This match was played in a hall away from the Arena where, though there were two rows of down-the-line tables, each with seats for spectators, the organizers apparently wanted to give the illusion that there were more people watching than there were, so they played all matches on just one row of tables and crowded in the spectators, forcing many to stand behind others. You’re trying to see what’s happening on the various tables, Tim? Good luck to you.
In this round there were two notable upsets. Austria’s Li Qiangbing’s father had been a coach with the Chinese National Team but had come to Austria with his daughter and now was coaching at the Werner Schlager Academy outside Vienna (where before this Rotterdam tournament the Chinese had trained). In her exhilarating win, Li QiangBINGO! (#91) held off Japan’s U-21 Pro Tour Grand Final winner Ishigaki (#29), -6, 7, -6, 9, -6, 7, 9. Another happy winner was Serbia’s Gabriela Feher (#87) who totteringly advanced after just eking out a -7, 13, 10, 9, -6, -7, 12 ferocious bat-fight over Chinese Taipei’s Huang Yi-Hua (#22).
In both the round of 32 and the round of 16, mostly predictable results occurred. In the 16th’s, nine matches were won either 4-0 or 4-1. Two of the 2010 Singapore Women’s World Championship Team were forced to play one another—with Feng Tianwei blanking Yu Mingyu. Wang Yuegu, another Singapore star (she won a key match from China’s Liu Shiwen in last year’s Team final), could take only two games from Hong Kong’s Jiang Huajun whose backhand short pips won the day. Jiang’s teammate Tie Yana, recently married to China’s Tang Peng and living in Hong Kong, downed Turkey’s Hu in six games. Japan’s Ishikawa got by South Korea’s Yang Ha Eun, 4-2, as did her countrywoman Sayaka Hirano over longtime Hungarian star Krisztina Toth (#36). Krisztina was one of the players from five countries who as a gesture of sympathy could be seen wearing a special shirt that said “Wasurenai 3.11”—which meant “We will never forget March 11,” the day Japan was hit with that horrendous earthquake and tsunami.
Three Europeans got to the last 16, though none would make the quarter’s. Germany’s Wu (“Du-Du”) Jiaduo (#16) won 4-2 over Austria’s Li Qiangbing (#91) who’d stretched others’ if not her own expectations. The Netherlands’ Li Jiao (#13) was beaten convincingly by Spain’s Shen Yanfei (#19)—said she was nervous, had some small pains. But Li’s teammate Lie Jie prevailed 12-10 in the sixth over Japan’s Hiroko Fujii. And current European Champion Viktoria Pavlovich (#28), a player I love to watch, provided a double dose of excitement. After surviving South Korea’s Kim Kyung Ah (#9), 4, -9, -8, 9, 6, -7, 7, Pavlovich met something of a mirror-image player—a defender waiting to pick—in China’s Wu Yang (#8). Pavlovich had a strong 6, -13, 7 start (had she won that second game…), but that was it—she couldn’t continue to make a match of it. Aside from this 4-2 win by China, six of the eighth’s matches resulted in three 4-0 wins and three 4-1 wins. There were thus 7 Chinese in the quarter’s. The remaining match, a spectacular one, went to Singapore’s star of last year’s World’s Women’s Team matches, Feng Tianwei (China-trained of course) over Hong Kong’s Ti Yana, 15-13 in the seventh.
The Chinese quarter’s matches, with one exception, were quickly over with. Li Xiaoxia dropped one (12-10) game to 19-year-old Wu Yang, World Junior Champ in 2009, participating now in her first World’s. Fan Ying, primarily a defender like Wu, but with a better serve and follow, forced Guo Yue to the limit. More like a defensive male player, Fan plays only 65% defense. “Today’s men’s technique,” the saying went, “is tomorrow’s women’s technique.” Ding Ning, World Junior Champ back in 2005 (the result of having moved to Beijing for better coaching, training), finished off Feng Tianwei in straight games. Liu Shiwen had lost to 2005 World Singles runner-up Guo Yan the last four times they’d played. (Guo had started playing table tennis seriously, she said, because “I wanted to be famous.”) Liu, however, didn’t lose to Guo this time, didn’t lose a game. Consensus was: Liu’s speed (she’s 19) allowed her to outplay Guo’s power (she’s 29—and, trying not to slow down, could be seen doing frog jumps in the practice hall).
The official Program says that fifteen months or so ago, the 2007 World Champion Guo Yue, only 22, “underwent an operation, and the technical staff now questions her mental strength.” Some teaser that is. Of course we’d like to know more (I’d read elsewhere that Guo “periodically wore leg weights during multi-ball training”—is that a hint?).This high-level reservation about her prepares us—does it?—for Guo’s 4-0 loss to Li Xiaoxia (LI X. X. reads the back of her shirt), her winning Doubles partner last year. Except, though Guo’s down 9-5 in the fourth, she’s got enough mental strength to win a great counter-exchange, then, down 10-8 double-match-point, she gets to deuce before a final mishit ends it for her. I must say, though, Li’s not exactly ecstatic over making the final—fist up, a winner, she goes chasing the loose ball that’s gone out of the court then comes back to shake hands. In the other semi, Ding Ning 4-2 takes down last year’s hyped Liu Shiwen, seen earlier here on a practice court for 20 minutes playing receiver to Head Coach Liu Guoliang’s varied serves. Of course as a winning player moves to the Mixed Zone where the interviews are conducted those in the media are alert. Once I saw a photographer, who looked like he’d had Olympic experience, hurdle a court barrier to pass the outgoing player so as to get a frontal shot of her exit. It wasn’t every day he could position himself so for a Chinese winner.
Four Men’s Singles matches had just been played, so many in the crowd had left the Arena before the Women’s final. Most of the people who remained didn’t have a favorite, one or the other of the Chinese women would win, and for those of us who’d regularly attended major championships hadn’t we seen it all before. Play began almost as if Ding and Li, both up at the table, were gonna set a Don’t Miss endurance record, each robotically backhanding the ball down the center line—6-all, 7-all, 8-all, 9-all—until, up 10-9 with a sudden forehand/backhand exchange, Ding went for a winner, missed. She flicked the ball away a little in irritation, but wasn’t carded. Then she won the next two points anyway. In the second, with Li leading 8-4, Ding tried for the first time a squat serve, but it didn’t have any effect on Li at all. Play continued backhand to backhand down the center line until abruptly either Li or Ding sent a ball to the side hoping it would provide an opportunity for one or the other of them to quickly attack. Up 10-7, Li looked in control, but then lost four in a row before getting in an 11-all forehand. However, helped by a serve and follow, Ding won this game too.
In the third, Ding’s up 5-4…9-4 and letting out little squeals as she wins points. But from 10-5 the squeals stop—6, 7, 8, 9—until, o.k., c’mon, just one more: Ding wins 11-9 and looks surprised that Li has erred. Ding (3)—Li (0). Heretofore, all the games have been end-game close. But In the fourth, Ding’s up 7-1, and the game looks to soon be over. Aside from a couple of drawn-out points, it will be. Final score: 11-8. Deng (3)—Li (1). That’s right—surprise, this game went to Li—relentlessly aggressive, she won nine straight points! In the fifth, Ding’s up 4-0…7-2. Final score: 11-8. Don’t tell me…Yep, it’s Li’s game again—this time, from 8-4 down she won seven in a row. Ding (3)—Li (2).
Better for Ding if she starts off poorly? Right. In the sixth game, she’s down 5-0 (has lost 12 straight points)—and, with Li leading 6-1, this crazy match could go into the seventh game and down to the wire. Only…now it’s Ding’s turn to play catch up. Behind 5-7, she makes a great stretch-get and with the whole table open Li misses the winner. From 6-7, 7-7 Ding continues her incredible reverse…8-7, 9-7, 10-7, and finally, as Li mishits the last ball, 11-7. Ding, after losing nine in a row, then seven in a row, finishes with a 10-1 run. I’d never seen such repetitive reversals….Am I apt to again?