Chinese call the shots

Austrian Werner Schlager reacts after winning the men's singles title. — Pic. AP-

THE Palais Omnisports at Bercy in Paris was virtually bathed in red as the Chinese, with Wang Nan in the lead, expectedly called the shots in the 47th Liebherr-World table tennis championships.

THE Palais Omnisports at Bercy in Paris was virtually bathed in red as the Chinese, with Wang Nan in the lead, expectedly called the shots in the 47th Liebherr-World table tennis championships. Yet, quite ironically, the hero of the week-long event (held from May 19 to 25) was none from among the all-conquering Chinese squad but a hitherto unsung Austrian, Werner Schlager, who took the men's singles title at the expense of a fairly unknown Joo Se-Hyuk of South Korea.

By becoming the first Austrian to lay hands on the Saint-Bride Vase in 66 years — after Richard Bergmann in 1937 — the 30-year-old Schlager was impressive as he charted out an unexpected course to the top prize. But all the same, it was indeed a surprise development which left the principal actor of the astonishing drama dumbfounded, so much so that Schlager was himself forced to remark that the successful culmination of his campaign was an ``unbelievable'' affair.

The Chinese, on the other hand, had every reason to fret and fume. And to be left behind red-faced in the end as it was for the first time since 1997 that they did not have even one finalist in the men's singles. True, that the event was filled with surprises including the early ouster of firm favourite Timo Boll of Germany. But that none from China was to figure in the final was an even more shocking factor than the sensational 3-11, 7-11, 11-7, 14-12, 11-9, 12-10 win that Qiu Yike earned over the top-seeded German in the second round.

In the event, Schlager's ultimate success is certain to remain an amazing feat. Particularly, as it was Boll and the continental champion, Vladimir Samsonov (Belarus), who were expected to principally lead the European challenge against the Chinese in the tournament. The Austrian, though ranked No. 6, was only to be a member of the supporting cast and the most expected from him being a quarterfinal berth as he was expected to run into the reigning Chinese World champion Wang Liqin in the last eight. This despite the good show that the Austrian had come up with in the ITTF Pro-Tour Brazilian Open, weeks prior to the mega show at the French capital.

But in contrast to the earlier calculations it was Schlager who kept the European challenge going as Boll and Samsonov (beaten in the pre-quarterfinals) faded out of the race almost in the same conditions with which the great Jan-Ove Waldner had met disaster in the first round. Still, as he advanced with wins over Segun Toriola (Nigeria), Koji Matsushita (Japan), Slobodan Grujic (Yugoslavia) and Kim Taek-Soo (South Korea), it is only true that the arc lights were by then firmly trained on Liqin, who after the exit of Boll and Samsonov was expected to sail through easily to a second World title.

Liqin as he made progress was quite lethal against Arai Shu (Japan), Wang Jianfeng (Norway), Jean-Michel Saive (Belgium) and Chiang Peng-Lung (Chinese Taipei) before he ran into an inspired Schlager. And the quarterfinal between the two was indeed a joy to behold as the Austrian came through a brilliant winner. Wang started strongly winning two of the first three games. In the fourth game, Schlager had three set points at deuce but failed to hold on as Wang built up a seemingly unassailable 3-1 lead. The Austrian won a close fifth game but fireworks from his opponent saw Wang ahead at 10-6 in the sixth. It seemed all was lost for Schlager, who, however, responded with six points to take the set at 13-11. That destroyed Wang and the Chinese was never in the picture as Schlager completed the upset at 5-11, 11-5, 8-11, 13-15, 11-9, 13-11, 11-5.

The tide was now completely in favour of Schlager who thereafter was to lay low the aspirations of double Olympic champion Kong Linghui in the semis. It once again was a sensational match as Linghui, who was the lone Chinese to figure at that stage after wins over Sebastian Jover (France), Johnny Huang (Canada), Ntaniel Tsiokas (Greece) Oh Sang-Eun (South Korea) and compatriot Qiu Yike, fought hard to stop the Austrian who by now was wearing the cloak of invincibility.

The Austrian, in fact, looked to have an easy time as he took the first set, lost the second and then came back strongly to win the third and fourth sets. Kong replied well by taking the fifth and sixth sets and the decider was another tremendous affair as Schlager went 5-1 ahead before the Chinese levelled the scores at 8-all. The lead, thereafter, was to change hands twice before Kong having saved a match point at 10-9 was to enjoy for himself a chance to go through to the final. But then, his luck was to run out once Schlager retrieved himself with a forehand flick. At 12-all, Kong put his second serve to the net and then conceded another point with a backhand crosscourt going out.

If Schlager's progress to the final by itself made up the plot of an engaging drama, equally intriguing was the passage of the 61-ranked Joo Se-Hyuk into the title-round from the bottom half of the draw. With several big names out of the way by the end of the third round, the South Korean had a stumbling block in the form of Ma Lin, the 2002 Asian Games winner, but once he chopped his way over the Chinese in the quarters it was not too difficult for Joo to put it across Kalinikos Kreanga of Greece in the semifinals.

Having given an unexpected twist to the proceedings with his defensive tactics, Joo, however, was unable to stop an attacking Schlager in the final. Especially as he failed to hold to the early leads that he held in the first, second and fourth sets and crumbled badly when Schlager put the ball through his weak backhand. The first two sets went in favour of the Austrian before Joo attacked more effectively to take the third. In the fourth, Joo looked to be in command but from 8-10 down Schlager was to stage a big comeback winning four straight points. The fifth set went to the defender but in the sixth, he was finally to be conquered by Schlager who converted his second match point to win the title at 11-9, 11-6, 6-11, 12-10, 11-8, 12-10.

But for the heroics of Schlager, the Chinese virtually ruled the roost. And their most impressive performer was none other than the indefatigable Wang Nan who helped herself to a third straight title in the women's singles before taking the women's and mixed doubles titles in the company of Zhang Yining and Ma Lin respectively to complete a grand golden treble. A similar feat to the one achieved by Lin Huqing, also of China, at the 1971 World championships in Nagoya, Japan but not even by the legendary Deng Yaping with whom Wang Nan has been compared repeatedly through the last several years.

However, it was not an easy ride for Wang Nan, who in 2002 had suffered quite a few reverses after being stricken down by an injury and then had missed several events earlier in the year due to her preoccupations as a delegate to the 16th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Also her absence from the circuit had given the top billing to her doubles partner Zhang Yining. But for a player who had contemplated retirement after hitting an unexpected bad patch at the 14th Asian Games in Busan, South Korea, Wang Nan proved once again that she is made of sterner stuff as she took her third straight women's singles title.

Zhang Yining, true to expectations, had not even lost a single set en route to the final. But against the double World champion, she simply gave away too many negative points and then was to turn cautious as Wang Nan attacked with gusto using wide-angled shots from close to the table. The 24-year-old Olympic champion still had to contend with a late rally by her Asian Games conqueror before winning 11-7, 11-8, 11-4, 5-11, 6-11, 8-11, 11-5.

The three doubles finals were all-Chinese affairs as Wang Nan figuring in two of them took her individual gold count to three. In the women's doubles, she along with Zhang Yining was to outlast compatriots Niu Jianfeng and Guo Yue 11-7, 11-7, 7-11, 11-2, 14-12 while in the mixed doubles, it was the turn of Liu Guozheng and Bai Yang to suffer defeat at the hands of Wang Nan and Ma Lin, 11-9, 12-10, 0-11, 7-11, 9-11, 11-5, 8-11. The men's doubles also proved to be some consolation for the vanquished Wang Liqin who in the company of Yan Sen beat Kong Linghui and Wang Hao 11-9, 11-8, 7-11, 11-6, 8-11, 11-5 in the final.

The Chinese had approached the event with hopes of winning three out of the five at stake. And as such their final earnings clearly outmatched their initial expectations. The Chinese cup of joy was however diluted due to their failure to stop the unstoppable Werner Schlager.

The results:

Men's singles (final): Werner Schlager (Aut) bt Joo Se-Hyuk (Kor) 11-9, 11-6, 6-11, 12-10, 8-11, 12-10. Semifinals: Werner Schlager bt Kong Linghui (Chn) 11-9, 7-11, 12-10, 11-8, 8-11, 7-11, 14-12; Joo Se-Hyuk bt Kalinikos Kreanga (Gre) 11-5, 3-11, 11-7, 11-8, 12-10. Quarterfinals: Kong Linghui bt Qiu Yike (Chn) 11-1, 11-9, 4-11, 11-1, 11-8; Werner Schlager bt Wang Liqin (Chn) 5-11, 11-5, 8-11, 13-15, 11-9, 13-11, 11-5; Kalinikos Kreanga bt Chen Weixing (Aut) 12-10, 11-9, 11-8, 11-7; Joo Se-Hyuk bt Ma Lin (Chn) 13-11, 10-12, 8-11, 11-9, 5-11, 11-8, 11-9.

Men's doubles (final): Wang Liqin/Yan Sen (Chn) bt Kong Linghui/Wang Hao (Chn) 11-9, 11-8, 7-11, 11-6, 8-11, 11-5. Semifinals: Wang Liqin/Yan Sen bt Ma Lin/Qin Zhijian (Chn) 10-12, 11-3, 11-9, 11-4, 11-9; Kong Linghui/Wang Hao bt Oh Sang-Eun/Kim Taek-Soo (Kor) 11-9, 5-11, 11-2, 12-10, 11-7.

Women's singles (final): Wang Nan (Chn) bt Zhang Yining (Chn) 11-7, 11-8, 11-4, 5-11, 6-11, 8-11, 11-5. Semifinals: Wang Nan bt Boros Tamara (Cro) 14-12, 11-8, 11-3, 11-4; Zhang Yining bt Li Ju (Chn) 11-8, 17-15, 11-5, 11-8. Quarterfinals: Zhang Yining bt Ai Fukuhara (Jpn) 11-2, 13-11, 11-3, 11-4; Li Ju bt Niu Jianfeng (Chn) 13-11, 9-11, 12-10, 8-11, 10-12, 11-7, 11-2; Boros Tamara bt Chang Jun Gao (U.S.) 9-11, 11-1, 9-11, 13-11, 11-7, 2-11, 11-6; Wang Nan bt Guo Yue (Chn) 8-11, 11-4, 11-8, 11-3, 8-11, 11-2.

Women's doubles (final): Wang Nan/Zhang Yining (Chn) bt Niu Jianfeng/Guo Yue (Chn) 11-7, 11-7, 7-11, 11-2, 14-12. Semifinals: Wang Nan/Zhang Yining bt Suk Eun-Mi/Lee Eun-Sil (Kor) 11-6, 11-5, 11-8, 11-5; Niu Jianfeng/Guo Yue bt Li Jia/Li Ju (Chn) 11-8, 11-5, 8-11, 14-12, 14-12.

Mixed doubles (final): Ma Lin/Wang Nan (Chn) bt Liu Guozheng/Bai Yang (Chn) 9-11, 10-12, 11-0, 11-7, 11-9, 5-11, 11-8. Semifinals: Ma Lin/Wang Nan bt Wang Hao/Li Nan (Chn) 11-4, 6-11, 11-5, 11-5, 9-11, 11-7; Liu Guozheng/Bai Yang bt Qin Zhijian/Niu Jianfeng (Chn) 2-11, 11-5, 11-9, 11-7, 10-12, 11-5.