China all the way

Ma Long of China who won the men’s singles crown.-PICS: SUBIR ROY

After seven action-packed days of the championship, China completed a sweep of all seven gold medals, including the two that came with the team honours. Rakesh Rao reports.

Asian nations form the creamy layer of world table tennis. No wonder, the continental championship presents world-class fare. For superpowers like China, the Asian meet provides the stage to test the potential of some of its handpicked ‘champions of tomorrow’. And it was no different when Lucknow hosted the 19th edition of the much-awaited competition. After seven action-packed days, China completed a sweep of all seven gold medals, including the two that came with the team championships.

The introduction of water-based glue that replaced the controversial speed-glue also led to more and longer rallies. It was clearly a throwback to the olden days when skill and stamina — and not speed and strength — that caught the eye. Day after day, the awestruck audience were treated to some enthralling exhibition of amazing anticipation, athleticism and aesthetics at the UP Badminton Academy Hall.

The women’s champion Ding Ning of China.-

Though the Chinese men needed some last-minute luck to deny the plucky Japanese the team title, the women retained the title without being threatened by Singapore. Both results were a repeat of the title-clashes seen at the previous edition in 2007.

Ma Long, the world No. 2 who was expected to win his first Asian crown, duly covered the journey to the top with purpose. Runner-up in the previous edition, Ma Long won his fifth title of the year and second in a month by stopping team-mate Zhang Jike, seeded six, in the final. The singles gold was Ma Long’s fourth of the week following his victories in the final of the team championship, men’s doubles and mixed doubles.

Earlier in the women’s final, sixth-seeded Ding Ning turned the tables on her team-mate and top seed Li Xiaoxia in a close match. The left-handed Ding Ning, ranked world No. 9, was also instrumental in China claiming the women’s team title. She won both her matches to shut out Singapore in spite of Li Xiaoxia losing her only singles match to Sun Bei Bei.

Asian champions... the Chinese men’s team and the women’s team (below) savour their moments of glory.-

If one were to pick the match or the moment of the tournament, it will easily be the men’s team final where Japan’s Jun Mizutani held four championship points in the fourth singles against Xu Xin. Japan, searching for a second title since winning the inaugural event in 1972, had never come so close to regaining the men’s team crown as it did this time.

For the final, China chose to rest three-time world champion Wang Liqin, ranked World No. 5, and fielded its spearhead Ma Long as the third singles player. This meant the young Xu Xin and Zhang Jike were the two main singles players against a young and inspired Japanese combination.

Drama began to unfold from the first act itself when Kenta Matsudaira gave Japan the lead at the expense of Xu Xin. Zhang Jike helped China draw level by stopping Jun Mizutani in the second singles. Then came the shocker for China as Seiya Kishikawa stunned Ma Long with surprising ease, winning 11-8, 11-9, 11-7. That left China needing to win the remaining two singles to retain the title for the 17th time.

But Jun Mizutani won the first two games to raise visions of a rare Chinese defeat in 37 years of the championship. But Xu Xin promptly bounced back to level the match. The decider, full of suspense, was also the one that left an indelible mark on the championship.

Xu Xin, facing three championship points at 7-10, drew level with some extraordinary aggression and saved another to make it 11-all. He then converted this third match-point to force the deciding singles. Let out of the spot, China did the needful by riding on Zhang Jike’s straight-game victory over Matsudaira.

China’s narrow escape brought back memories of its much-recalled fight-back against Korea in the World Championship semifinal in April 2001. With the teams tied at 2-2, Lui Guozheng fought off seven championship points and downed Kim Taek Soo 25-23 in a nerve-wracking deciding game.

Following the wake-up call against Japan, China played the open events like a team possessed to prove itself all over again. Four of its men — Ma Long, Xu Xin, Zhang Jike and Wang Liqin — and five women — Li Xiaoxia, Wu Yang, Fan Ying, Ding Ning and Lui Shiwen — reached the pre-quarterfinals. China then went on to monopolise all spots in the singles semifinals after having made it to the final of mixed doubles. The men’s doubles final, too, was an all-Chinese affair.

It was only in the women’s doubles final that China did not grab both spots. Eventually, Ding Ning and Li Xiaoxia joined hands to stop Korea’s Kim Kyung Ah and Park Mi Young.