Three days of table tennis magic in AntibesPhoto: Courtesy ITTF
The review of the 2017 ITTF Europe Top 16 Cup
The 2017 ITTF Europe Top 16 Cup competition, hosted in the town of Antibes on the French Riviera, took place over the weekend beginning Friday 3rd and ending Sunday 5th February as some of Europe’s strongest table tennis players went head-to-head at the Azur Arena.
16 male and 16 female players were invited to the event, with each player aiming to guarantee an invitation for the respective LIEBHERR 2016 Men’s World Cup and 2016 Women’s World Cup, a feat that would be achieved for the top three finishing positions in both the Men’s and Women’s Singles competitions.
Before the 2017 Europe Top 16 had even seen any action there were two withdrawals from the Women’s Singles event: Romania’s Elizabeta SAMARA cancelled her trip to Antibes early due to a knee injury which required surgery, while Kristin SILBEREISEN of Germany also withdrew due to illness. Drafted in as replacements were Bernadette SZOCS and Barbora BALAZOVA.
SZOCS headed into the 2017 tournament having made appearances at previous Europe Top 16 competitions but having never before managed to progress beyond the group stage. In Antibes, however, SZOCS not only managed to move through her group but also went on to finish in sixth position overall.
While SZOCS made the headlines for all the right reasons, there was one high profile name who will leave Antibes disappointed with her finish and that is Turkey’s HU Melek.
Crowned Women’s Singles champion at the LIEBHERR 2016 European Championships in Budapest, Hungary’s HU Melek went into the 2017 Europe Top 16 event as one of the favourites for the title and as the top seed. However, defeats to Hungary’s Georgina POTA and Austria’s Sofia POLCANOVA saw HU fail to advance from her group.
One of the standout players in the group stage of the Men’s Singles competition was Ukraine’s KOU Lei who was making his debut at the tournament.
KOU, who was seeded 14th for the Men’s Singles category, lost his opening match in Group B to Tiago APOLONIA but went on to claim victories over Emmanuel LEBESSON and the no.2 seed Vladimir SAMSONOV to progress to the last eight.
SAMSONOV left Antibes without a single win to his name and rather shockingly finished fourth in the group. There were also unexpected group stage exits for the fourth seed Marcos FREITAS and the runner up of the 2016 competition in Gondomar, Portugal Joao MONTEIRO in Groups D and A respectively.
With the group stages concluded, day two of the tournament focused on deciding which four players in both the Men’s and Women’s events would progress to the semi-finals and three players in particular surprised the spectators in Antibes: Simon GAUZY, Alexander SHIBAEV and Sabine WINTER.
Germany’s WINTER left the no.5 seed Georgina POTA frustrated after the Hungarian lost out in seven games (11-9, 8-11, 11-2, 6-11, 11-5, 7-11, 11-8) to move into the Women’s Singles last four.
GAUZY of France stunned the five time Men’s champion Timo BOLL across six games (11-8, 3-11, 4-11, 11-7, 11-8, 11-7) to set up a tie with Russia’s Alexander SHIBAEV in the last four, following his seventh game success against Tiago APOLONIA (11-5, 5-11, 9-11, 11-8, 11-7, 10-12, 11-5).
Much to the disappointment of the home fans, GAUZY missed out on reaching the final on the last day of action after he was subject to a 2-4 defeat to SHIBAEV (7-11, 9-11, 11-8, 10-12, 11-8, 9-11) - but the Frenchman finished in third position overall and ultimately ended his campaign with a smile on his face.
“I am really happy to have performed quite well in Antibes and it means a lot to me to play in front of my family, my friends and in front of this great crowd so I’m really happy that I could do this here. This performance here gives me a lot of confidence and I’m really looking forward to the World Championships in Dusseldorf”, Simon GAUZY.
Comeback victories are always very special moments in sport: the determination and the commitment required of the players in pulling off a recovery always make for an exciting match.
LI Jie of the Netherlands was very much the queen of comebacks in Antibes after she managed to survive her group campaign with an important recovery win from two games down against LI Qian. LI Jie then went on to work her magic again in the next round when she fell 0-2 behind to Sweden’s Matilda EKHOLM before going on to triumph 4-2 (7-11, 11-13, 11-5, 11-7, 11-8, 11-9).
Many would argue that it was rather fitting that the Dutch representative LI would go on to achieve the ultimate goal, as she went on to claim the title. The final saw LI take on SOLJA for the crown, but rather disappointingly, the match was cut short with SOLJA withdrawing after four games due to injury problems (11-7, 7-11, 11-3, 11-6).
After picking up the trophy at the Azur Arena, LI Jie said that she was happy to have won the title for the first time, but that she isn’t thinking too far ahead and wants time to reflect on her achievement in Antibes.
“I’m very happy, but I’m also very sorry for SOLJA. This was my third time in the final and finally I’ve won so I’m very happy. For my career and my future the title is important for self-confidence… I don’t think so fast about future tournaments. I want to first enjoy this title and then I will concentrate on future tournaments”, LI Jie.
With the Women’s Singles tournament closed, there was just one more match to play out, as the no.1 seed Dimitrij OVTCHAROV faced the no.14 seed Alexander SHIBAEV in the Men’s Singles final.
OVTCHAROV entered the match having won the title on the two previous occasions at the tournament and on paper he was expected to make it three titles in a row. SHIBAEV, however, who had surpassed many people’s expectations at last year’s event in Gondomar where he finished third, was in inspired form in Antibes and was hoping to spoil the show for OVTCHAROV and claim his first Europe Top 16 trophy.
The final made for a highly entertaining match of table tennis - both players gave it their all and by about the halfway stage, the tie all was sitting square at two games apiece. But then OVTCHAROV found another level in his performance and, with his capture of the following two games, title no.4 was in the German competitor’s hands (11-8, 12-14, 11-5, 11-13, 11-8, 11-8).
Indeed, the competition in Antibes did help serve as good preparation for the LIEBHERR 2017 World Team Championships which will be hosted in Dusseldorf between Monday 29th May and Monday 5th June. 28-year-old OVTCHAROV believes that he played some of his best table tennis at the 2017 ITTF Europe Top 16 Cup.
“I am happy to win the Europe Top 16, for me it was the first tournament in 2017. It gives some good confidence for next month towards the World Championships in Düsseldorf. Apart from that, it was also one of my best performances for several months; for me it had a good outcome. I practised in January for several weeks in a row at home in Düsseldorf, that was important. In the final I could have played better in the second, fourth and sixth games; so I am not fully satisfied with the performance. In general I am pleased”, Dimitrij OVTCHAROV.
Three days of world class table tennis action, and we now know six players who will receive invitations to the 2017 World Cups: Dimitrij OVTCHAROV, Alexander SHIBAEV and Simon GAUZY can expect an invitation to participate in Liege, Belgium later in the year for the LIEBHERR 2017 Men’s World Cup while the top three place finishes for LI Jie, Petrissa SOLJA and Sabine WINTER secure their invitations to the 2017 Women’s World Cup in Markham, Canada also taking place in October.
The end of the tournament has arrived: the players and officials have left the arena, the tables have been packed away and the fans who travelled to the venue for the event are left with plenty of dramatic moments to process from across the weekend.
Antibes bids farewell to the 2017 ITTF Europe Top 16 Cup competition and will be remembered as the tournament where history was made.