If Alexis doesn’t get you, Felix will: The sibling stars taking the table tennis world by storm

Alexis, 20, and Felix, 17, have officially played each other twice on the international circuit with the elder sibling winning every time.

Published : Jan 27, 2024 18:58 IST , MAPUSA - 9 MINS READ

FILE PHOTO: French table tennis players and brothers Alexis (left) and Felix Lebrun (right).
FILE PHOTO: French table tennis players and brothers Alexis (left) and Felix Lebrun (right). | Photo Credit: WTT

FILE PHOTO: French table tennis players and brothers Alexis (left) and Felix Lebrun (right). | Photo Credit: WTT

Aruna Quadri might had felt a sense of deja vu playing the WTT Star Contender in Goa on Saturday. In the afternoon, the World number 13 from Nigeria got the better of France’s World number 22 Alexis Lebrun in a hard fought round of 16 match. He only had a few hours to savour the win though before the favour was repaid to him with a straight games defeat in the quarter finals by a doppelganger with similarly styled blonde hair, black rectangular glasses and the red French jersey with the name Lebrun emblazoned behind it.

If Alexis doesn’t get you it turns out Felix will.

Felix would later say his straight games win was revenge on the Nigerian for a defeat he had suffered last year, but perhaps it was also one for preventing what could have been the latest iteration of a fascinating rivalry – between the two Lebrun brothers -- that many expect will be a talking point of competitive table tennis in the years to come.

Felix would follow up his win over Quadri in the quarterfinals with another over Patrick Franziska in the semifinals and a come from behind triumph over World number 7 Hugo Calderon in the final to claim his first ever WTT Star Contender title. But while he might have gone further in Goa, it’s the 20-year-old Alexis who still holds the bragging rights against his seventeen year old brother in head to head encounters.

Felix Lebrun.
Felix Lebrun. | Photo Credit: WTT

Felix Lebrun. | Photo Credit: WTT

The last time the two played each other was at the European Top 16 competition – played last week between the top 16 of the continent. It was Alexis who came out on top there against Felix, three years his junior. “Top 16 was a very tough match. Very intense. But I’m very happy to win this match because when you are the big brother there are some expectations on you to beat the little brother,” says Alexis.

The duo have officially played each other twice on the international circuit (although by Alexis’ guess, seven times across all competitions) with the elder sibling winning every time.

While it has some while to develop into the kind of contest between Venus and Serena Williams who played 16 Grand Slam matches and nine Grand slam finals between each other, many strongly believe the Lebrun brothers will soon be consistently competing against each other at a high level in the table tennis circuit.

The duo’s rise at the world level has been nothing short of meteoric. The two were ranked outside the top 750 in the world just a couple of years ago but are now firmly placed inside the top 25 with Felix the higher placed at World number 8 compared to his elder brother who is 22nd in the world rankings.

Table tennis family

From left to right: Felix, Stephane and Alexis.
From left to right: Felix, Stephane and Alexis. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

From left to right: Felix, Stephane and Alexis. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A career in table tennis was perhaps inevitable for the two. Their father, Stephane, was a former French national champion in men’s doubles while their uncle Cristophe is a former world number 14 and a three time Olympian. Stephane later opened a table club in Montpellier where both brothers were initiated into the sport . “Our family is what you call a table tennis family. I joined the club when I was still little but when I was born, I think I had a bat in my hand,” says Alexis.

While they both got an early start in the sport, both are obsessed about the game.

“I enjoy table tennis because the sport is very complete. Even the number 1 in the world can improve in many ways. There are many spins in the world. I like that. I like the competition between opponents. The table is quite small so we are very close to each other. I like that. It’s not like boxing. We aren’t touching each other of course. But we are right on top of each other. It’s a really creative game,” says Felix.

While his mother and sister also work at the club, Alexis says it’s he, his brother and father who are constantly thinking about the game. “I think we talk about table tennis all the time. It seems normal to me. If we are having dinner, then we are just going to talk about it. And my sister and mother will speak about other things but the three of us don’t really know what they are talking about since we aren’t usually going to listen!,” he says.

Apart from a common passion for table tennis the two brothers are strikingly similar in appearance. From a distance, you could confuse the two in their identical red jerseys. Still in his teens, Félix’s build is less developed and his voice a little thinner but the two have the same blond hair and black rectangular frames.

But that’s where the similarities end.

Alexis holds his bat in the conventional handshake grip while Felix uses the Chinese-style penhold grip – after becoming dazzled by it when he saw a Chinese player use that style at their father’s club in Montpellier. The two brothers are fans of different players both in table tennis and other sports. If Alexis is a fan of Rafael Nadal’s gruelling duels on clay, Felix says he likes the elegance of Roger Federer.

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This translates into their style of play as well. “Alexis’ game is very different from mine. He has a lot of variety in his game and he plays with a lot of power. He plays a little further off the table. I, on the other hand, like to finish points quickly. I think I use more speed to push opponents. In that way, we are very different on the table,” says Felix.

Both styles have enjoyed plenty of success at the world level. It was Alexis, the older who made the first breakthrough. His breakout moment came at the 2022 WTT Contender in Tunis where he beat 2016 European champion Emmanuel Lebesson, Tomokazu Harimoto, world no 4 and 2019 worlds silver medallist Mattias Falck. He’s also one of the few to get the better of China’s best, beating the world number 1 Fan Zhendong at the WTT Macau. Felix though is now advancing through the ranks as well. Last year he won gold at the European Games – a tournament where his Alexis took bronze. He also beat six-time Olympic medallist Dmitrij Ovtcharov to win the WTT Contender in Antalaya.

France’s big hopes

With the Olympics being played in Paris in six months time, there are plenty of expectations on the two. While they will be part of the men’s team and most likely be the two to take part in the men’s singles category, there’s one event where the two brothers will be competing for just a single place – in the mixed doubles category. While the partnership of Felix and fellow teenager Prithika Pavade is the higher ranked (WR 40) French pair, the combination of Alexis and Jia Nan Yuan has gone further in the WTT Goa.

“We just want the best person to compete in singles and the best pair in mixed doubles. In the team hopefully, we will play together. We just want to have the best French team. If Felix and Prithika are the mixed team in Paris, then I will be their best supporter and if it’s me and Jia Nan who are the mixed pair then I will try to make a good result and Felix will surely be our biggest supporter,” says Alexis.

Alexis Lebrun.
Alexis Lebrun. | Photo Credit: WTT

Alexis Lebrun. | Photo Credit: WTT

Indeed Felix and Alexis say there’s plenty they gain from their rivalry. “When we train together, Alexis helps me a lot in my preparation for doubles. And even when we play against each other we are also training each other. We both are trying to improve. We both give each other advice. When we play a match in training or competition then we are both very serious about winning because then we can joke to the other. It’s a good situation because both try to improve so we can beat the other but we both try to make the other improve to be the best as possible,” says Felix.

They share trade secrets as well. After his loss to Qadri earlier in the day, Alexis came out to practise with his younger brother before his match against the Nigerian and then cheered loudly for him from the stands. “Both of us know about Aruna’s great forehand but Alexis told me to watch out for his serve also. It’s not something that’s easy to pick up unless you are across the table. I know it’s never easy to lose. I want to thank Alexis for warming up with me and to cheer for me from the stands,” Felix says.

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There’s one trick Felix hasn’t yet learned from his brother though – how to beat him. Which is why although Felix was hoping his brother beat Qadri, he was also somewhat relieved he had the Nigerian as his opponent. “Of course I wanted Alexis to win against Aruna but I also know that I don’t play that well against him (Alexis) . When I play him I do play with full intensity, but I never seem to win. I don’t know why. Maybe he knows my game too well,” he laughs.

And while Alexis has a perfect record against his younger sibling, he admits it’s a record that’s getting tougher to maintain. “For now, I haven’t lost but it’s getting harder and harder,” Alexis says. “When we were smaller, I still had the advantage of age and body, but now, he’s playing better and better so it’s going to be more and more complicated,” he says.

Brothers forever

For now, Felix will have to be satisfied with the smaller wins like a higher ranking. But he’s hungry for more. “I’ve never beaten him ‘officially’ in matches. Last week I lost 4-2 (in the European 16s) but now I am ranked a little bit higher for the first time in my life. I’m of course a little bit happy about this but I want to become stronger and stronger to beat everyone, not just Alexis. I want to do well in the big competitions like the World championships and the Olympics,” he says.

As much as he hopes to win the big titles, Felix admits getting a first win over his brother will be a pleasing moment as well. “I will try to win one time at least. He is a good competition,” he says. Until then he says he’ll have to find a way to deal with his brother having the bragging rights. “It’s not a problem if I lose to Alexis 4-2. I’ll have to of course spend 30 minutes without him but then It will be like before. It’s good team spirit. We know each other perfectly. In the end we are brothers and will always be close,” says Felix.

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