The Men’s World Cup 2016 in Saarbrücken was played without established superstars such as Zhang Jike, Ma Long, Timo Boll or Jun Mizutani. This however made for interesting matches and gave valuable insight into the state of the game.
The players are still smiling, but all are competing for the one trophy. During the cause of the next days, the field of competitors will thin down to one man standing. Who will take home the trophy? Who will create upsets?
..and the trophy goes to: Fan Zhendong (CHN)
In absence of the olympic, world cup and world champion (all in one person) Ma Long, Butterfly stars Jun Mizutani and Timo Boll the field of potential winners was all of a sudden wide open. Despite the levelled field, both chineses starters made it to the finals: Xu Xin and Fan Zhendong. The latter has already been appointed successor to Ma Long, who is far away from retirement, but is at least considered crown prince (according to Butterfly coach Richard Prause). As such, his performance in Saarbrücken was dominant to say the least. He marched on through the bracket: 4-0 vs Gao Ning, 4-1 vs Jeoung Youngsik, 4-1 vs Karlsson, and the exciting 4-1 vs. Xu Xin in the finals. That particular match was played on a high level and the 19-year old Fan Zhendong demonstrated enormous mental strength as Richard Prause remembers:
“..it was 10-6 in the third game. Fan was serving and Xu Xin played two excessively aggressive serve returns from his forehand side with backhand (as penhold-player!), scoring two direct points. Fan does, what only an experienced player does: calls for time out. In the next rally, Xu once again takes the initiative, flicks his forehand across the table, but this time Fan is ready with a lighthning-fast counter topspin to score the game. 3-0! He kept dominating the match, was incredibly lucid and stable, even in tense situations he was always able to raise his level at will.”
Watch the highlights from the finals match here:
Fan Zhendong was became World Cup champion for the first time, Xu Xin placed runner-up. In the match for the bronze medal, played between Butterfly players Wong Chun-Ting and Kristian Karlsson – the player from Hongkong prevailed. This comes as a big success to Wong, who has well-established himself as a firm part of the Top 10 players in the world. Also a big success for the young Swedish player, who has gained attention with his recent good results and underlined his positive development:
Kristian Karlsson: The Breakthrough
Kristian Karlsson caused more than just a few upsets at the World Cup and gave a testiment of his full potential. As number 29 in the world ranking he surely was not favorited to win the title. In fact, in order to compete he first had to navigate the qualification stage. More so, in the first round he had to play against Dimitrij Ovtcharov, number 6 in the world. Karlsson won, 4-1 even, to his own amazement and surprise of many experts and table tennis fans.
Richard Prause states:
Kristian really played a fantastic tournament in Saarbrücken. His unique technique is very effective – he can rely on a solid serve/receive game and rarely steps away from the table. On both wings, he can play very agressively, hitting the ball early on the bounce with quick acceleration. While his play is quite risky, he can put pressure on any player in the world – which he demonstrated against Ovtcharov and Fan Zhendong. Against Dima, Kristians backhand was exceptionally good – he hit the ball straight on, creating less spin, but tremendous speed. Ovtcharov usually likes to go for “backhand vs. backhand”, but against Kristian, he could barely score that way. Also, Kristian is very adept at switching from passive to active shots, very difficult for the opponent to guess when the attack comes.
After victory over Ovtcharov, Karlsson faced France’s Simon Gauzy, who managed to narrowly defeat Bastian Steger in the previous round. The match was played on equal terms and with 12-10 in the seventh, the swede prevailed. In doing so, the player from qualification round now entered the semi finals of the World Cup after defeating the World’s number 6 and 19.
There Karlsson had to face Fan Zhendong, who proved to be beyond reach for Kristian, with a final score of 4-1 to the chinese. However, with his special technique, Karlsson was able to hold his ground, even putting considerable pressure on Fan, surprising him on more than a few occasions.
The match for third place and the bronze medal started off well for Karlsson. But during the cause of the match, his grip on Hongkong’s Wong Chun-Ting loosened and his opponent was able to establish himself. Such is the price for the high-risk game Karlsson plays. With 4-1, Wong prevailed, but it was nonetheless a great overall result for Karlsson, who underlined his positive development and general good results in recent matches. We will surely be seeing alot more of him in the future..
There is one more thing..
At the World Cup, we could see the sport of table tennis constantly developing. The popular, yet quite newly invented technique of “chiquita” – aka the backhand flick – has now completely taken over the receive game. But we also saw that technique evolving: Where it was formerly used to build pressure and attack the serve of the opponent, in Saarbrücken it was also used as preparation for attacking shots. When the backhand flick is played slowly, the player steps back from the table to wait on the attack to immediately counter-attack. The flick has become an elaborate trap, a set-up to invite attacks that will be countered.
We have also seen a feint flick, where the movement is changed at the last second and becomes a short push. When players expect an attacking flick, they are now forced to step back to the table, reacting to the push. The receive game keeps on changing, what will be next?
Richard Prause summarizes:
We can still feel the aftershocks of the Olympic games in Rop. Some athletes did not have time to fully regenerate after the long and exhausting preparation and the competition. Players like Jun Mizutani, Zhang Jike and Ma Long were not competing for these reasons while Dimitrij Ovtcharov competed, but seemed not completely restored physically. The World Cup has always been an important tournament in table tennis, but we saw players skipping it to cope with the overflowing calendar in professional table tennis. 2016 has been an Olympic year with everything and everyone focussing on Rio – so it seemed quite difficult for players to keep up the level throughout the year..