4 years ago
By Matt Solt
With the 2019 World Table Tennis Championships now fading into history, we have the opportunity to take stock of all that happened over the eight days in Budapest. Between official announcements at the AGM, surprise results in the draw, and new heights for one of Australia’s finest, it has been a roller-coaster ride for all involved, and there is plenty more excitement to come!
Australian representative Heming Hu proved himself on the international stage, reaching the last 128 before bowing out to Vladimir Samsonov, a player who made his debut at the World Championship in 1993 and has no shortage of experience competing among the elite of the sport. By breaking new ground this year Heming Hu was able to elevate his world ranking to 100th position, a personal best and it brings Hu into an exclusive club. He joins Tommy Danielsson and William Henzell as the only Australian men to rank among the top 100 players in the world. Danielsson achieved 70th place in June 1987, when ranking lists ended at 130 players and were not yet computerised. William Henzell’s personal best was 90th place in October 2012, following a successful Olympic Games in London. This might signal a rise in the level of Australia and indeed the whole of Oceania, coming into the new World Championships format.
In 2021 and 2022 there will be a brand new format introduced for the individual and team competition, with continental qualification and inter-continental qualification events to narrow the field down to 128 players in singles, 64 in doubles, and 32 teams on display at the finals. This will streamline the process and give viewers wider coverage over the best matches. The 2021 Championships were allocated to Houston, in the United States of America, while the team event in 2022 will take place in Chengdu, China. The two nations put forward a joint bid, as 2021 will be the 50th anniversary of Ping Pong Diplomacy. Another interesting development was the proposal and approval of additional colours to be permitted on the rubber surface. While this change will not be put into action before the 2020 Olympic Games, it is on its way. The specific colours are yet to be confirmed, and black may still be mandatory on one side.
Looking at results there is a treat for readers, with plenty of upsets and surprise finalists. At the end of the day China proved unstoppable in all five disciplines for the first time since 2011, and ninth time in history, however four of these finals were against players from around the globe. Japan has invested heavily in doubles with mixed doubles making its debut in Tokyo 2020, the golden duo from 2017 Kasumi Ishikawa and Maharu Yoshimura appeared in their third final in a row. They were beaten by Liu Shiwen and Xu Xin, the latter of whom has won the title previously in 2015 with Korea Republic’s Yang Haeun. Mixed nation doubles has only recently been reintroduced at the World Championships, and it has proven to bring athletes closer together while attracting an audience that single nation pairs sometimes cannot. Ovidiu Ionescu and Alvaro Robles from Romania and Spain showed this in an impressive run to the final, where they were beaten by Ma Long and 18 year old Wang Chuqin from China. Ionescu and Robles confessed in an interview they had hoped for a quarterfinal finish at best. The last time an international pair reached a men’s doubles final was in 1995, with Vladimir Samsonov and Zoran Primorac joining forces. The silver medal marked the first time Spain had appeared on the podium at a World Championships, similarly Portugal’s semi-finalists Joao Monteiro and Tiago Monteiro earned their country’s first medal.
A controversial moment took place in the women’s doubles final, with Japan’s Mima Ito and Hina Hayata losing a 2-0 lead to opponents Sun Yingsha and Wang Manyu, of China’s up and coming generation of players. At 9-9 in the fifth game the Japanese serve was declared a let, and despite video replay indicating otherwise, it remains the umpire’s decision in such matters. Having felt robbed of the point, which had ended in Japan’s favour before the call was made, the momentum of the match shifted further towards China. Social media continues to discuss the merits of video analysis and motion sensors in Table Tennis, but this is yet to become a reality. Nevertheless, it is a milestone for Japan, as they reached a women’s doubles final for the first time since 1971.
In an all Chinese affair, Liu Shiwen took the women’s singles title over compatriot Chen Meng in what was an upset according to head-to-head results in recent years. Liu also redeemed herself against world number one and former World Champion Ding Ning in the semi-final, the two had faced off in the 2015 final, a match that was not lacking in drama. In Budapest Liu Shiwen won 11-0 in both her semi-final and final match, demonstrating a relentless drive to earn the long awaited trophy.
The men’s draw uncovered a number of astounding results, with six of the top eight ranked players missing at the quarterfinal stage. Ma Long entered proceedings at 11th on the world rankings, due to a lack of appearances in the last nine months, owing to injuries. There were even rumours of his imminent retirement, but Ma Long responded to critics by steamrolling through the opposition to take the title. No player extended Ma beyond the fifth game, begging the question of whether he is the greatest of all time, the GOAT of Table Tennis. The victory in Budapest was Ma Long’s third straight men’s singles title at World Championships, in the post-match interview he stated to the crowd “I am not only interested in winning this title but I also want to gain your respect.”
The lower half of the men’s singles draw was an entirely unexpected state of affairs. Second seed Xu Xin made an early exit in the round of 32 against a spirited Simon Gauzy of France. Household name in Germany, Timo Boll withdrew with a fever in the round of 16, and Japan’s young prodigy Tomokazu Harimoto was knocked out in the same round by largely unknown Korean teenager An Jaehyun. Starting in the qualification stage An Jaehyun played six closely contested matches to reach the semi-final on debut, even fending off a match point from teammate Jang Woojin in the quarterfinal. An’s performance boosted his world ranking from 157 to 73 and put his name firmly on the radar for many. The recently married Mattias Falck (formerly known as Mattias Karlsson) was the man on form who put a stop to An Jaehyun’s run of upsets, as well as the aspirations of Simon Gauzy and several others. While unsuccessful in the final, Falck returned home to Halmstad with coach Jorgen Persson to a hero’s welcome. As an added bonus the Swede achieved his highest ranking to date, sitting at 11th on the May 2019 list.
Standout performances in the doubles and men’s singles events herald a resurgence in the international scene for Table Tennis, which has been dominated by one nation in recent decades. The sport continues to grow and expand it’s audience, with the International Table Tennis Federation announcing plans for the 2021 commercial rights cycle. Professionalism and quality are on the rise, and prize money is set to follow. There is plenty to look forward in the coming years.
-by Matt Solt
About the writer
Matt Solt is a Table Tennis player and enthusiast from New Zealand. Following the sport at an international level from a young age, Matt attended his fair share of competitions before choosing more of a backseat role in the sport. In 2015 Matt travelled to Suzhou for the World Championships in the capacity of statistician for the ITTF. Since this time Matt has attended the event on three further occasions and was tasked with the creation of the new World Ranking system unveiled in 2018. Today Matt lives in Brisbane, Australia, and plays Table Tennis socially. Matt’s online alias is ttGuru, and he can be found on forums and discussion boards. He is always ready for an in-depth conversation about his favourite sport.
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Jerry Leslie Posted 4 years ago
Very interesting and well written article.
David Freedman Posted 4 years ago
I am both a table tennis player and mathematician. I currently work in Credit Risk where I build predictive models to rank risk. I am interested in the way table tennis rankings are constructed. It is pretty obvious that the current ITTF rankings system was constructed in part not as an mathematically accurate predictor of the relative rank of any two given players but also includes other elements such as 1) encouraging the spread of the sport, 2) transparency of the rankings that are generated. One of the consequences of the current ITTF rankings is that the top player from each region of the world tends to get a ranking that it higher then their "true" ranking. Heming Hu is an example of this. It seems to me that if he were to repeatedly play the 10 players ranked 101 to 110, he would probably lose the majority of games. Conversely, there are Chinese players in the Chinese Super League who, given more international competition, would likely be ranked significantly higher. This is a second aspect of the current ranking system that falls short of capturing the "true" ranking of some players.
I note also that the old ITTF rankings system was probably closer to the "true" ranking. I am not suggesting that the current ITTF rankings should be changed (due to the other considerations). I am just wondering if anyone has attempted to construct a more mathematically accurate ranking system? Perhaps betting agencies?
Johnny Mike Posted 4 years ago
You are right about ITTF ranking, it's not accurate.
Jeff Plumb from PingSkills Posted 4 years ago
Interesting thoughts. Did you read an earlier blog post we had on the new ITTF ranking system? You might also find the ratings central website interesting.