Ma Long wins third straight World Championships title as eight-day epic ends in Budapest
A dramatic final day, befitting of the last eight: Sunday saw more history made at the Liebherr 2019 ITTF World Table Tennis Championships in Budapest, Hungary, as both Men's Singles and Women's Doubles titles were decided.
Only in February, MA Long's World Championships participation was in serious doubt. The 30-year-old had been out with a persistent knee injury for over six months. Even attending the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games seemed a distant dream. Winning the ITTF World Tour Qatar Open in March then made the world sit back up and pay attention. 'The Dragon' was on the rise again.
Wind the clock forwards just a couple of months and MA now has his hands on the most coveted Men's Singles prize in the annual international table tennis calendar for a third time in a row.
His sensational achievement was confirmed on Sunday, as he saw off the spirited challenge of Mattias FALCK (SWE), posting a 4-1 victory (11-5, 11-7, 7-11, 11-9, 11-5) in a gripping final in front of a raucous capacity crowd at the HUNGEXPO Budapest.
The scoreline really only told half the story of an enthralling contest, which saw FALCK threaten to fight back from 2-0 down. After winning the third game, the Swede also led 8-6 in the fourth. It was at this moment that MA utilised his timeout, clearly sensing the need to turn the tide. It proved a very intelligent move, as he stormed back onto court to go 3-1 up and take full control of the match.
When victory was confirmed in the fifth game, he let out an enormous roar, in tune with the deafening cheers of the thousands of supporters who have travelled from China and the world over to the Hungarian capital, hoping to see 'The Dragon' create another piece of history.
That is exactly what he did, by becoming only the third player of all time to win three consecutive Men's Singles titles, following in the footsteps of Victor BARNA (who won four in a row between 1932-1935) and ZHUANG Zedong (1961, 1963, 1965).
"This is a very special victory for me and I just want to enjoy the moment for now. I want to thank my Chinese supporters and also foreign fans for cheering me on. I am not only interested in winning this title, but I also want to gain the respect of the people." MA Long
As for FALCK, his remarkable journey ended here. The 27-year-old played an integral role during the event and became the first Swede since Jan-Ove Waldner in 22 years to reach the Men's Singles final of a World Championships.
How the world no. 16 has taken his game to the next level in the Spring of 2019 has impressed the world of table tennis and MA Long himself, who expects the Swede to be China's main adversary in the future.
"He (FALCK) has improved his game a lot. I played against him last year in Halmstad and it was far from what he showed here." MA Long
FALCK too confirmed that he had played the best table tennis in his career here in Budapest:
"Just give me one more year. I will be closer. I improved my tactics and I made a big step forward. Today I also learnt that not only tactics and skills work in MA's favour. He is a very clever player, who can adjust to all situations." Mattias FALCK
SUN Yingsha and WANG Manyu (CHN) are sitting on top of the world after winning Women's Doubles gold in their first ever appearance as a pair at a World Championships.
The dynamic duo and 2nd seeds staged a remarkable comeback to take the title from the grasp of Hina HAYATA and Mima ITO (JPN), who had led by two games to nil and were seemingly on course for first world titles of their own.
However, the top-ranked pair in Budapest could not withstand an exceptional fightback from SUN and WANG, who surged to win the next four games for a 4-2 victory (8-11, 3-11, 11-8, 11-3, 12-10, 11-8).
"When we were trailing in the match, we just tried our best because our opponents are very strong and competitive. We just told ourselves not to give up, but focus fully on the task at hand." WANG Manyu
The first Japanese Women's Doubles pair since 1971 to reach a World Championships final, there would be no happy ending to the journey of HAYATA and ITO, as China once again confirmed its historical supremacy at the event. This was the 22nd time that a Chinese pair had won the Women's Doubles competition at an individual World Championships.
The Liebherr 2019 ITTF World Championships will go down as one of the greatest of all time, not least in terms of all the drama, shocks and raw emotions it provided.
From the moment that Men's World no. 1 FAN Zhendong (CHN) was eliminated in the round of 16, quickly followed by that of no. 2 XU Xin (CHN), no. 4 Tomokazu HARIMOTO (JPN) and the sad withdrawal through illness of no. 5 Timo BOLL (GER), this was a tournament where so-called underdogs rose to the challenge and put themselves forward for the sport's most prestigious silverware, playing some exhilarating table tennis along the way.
In this light, special mentions go to Men's Singles silver medallist, Mattias FALCK (SWE) and bronze medallists LIANG Jingkun (CHN) and AN Jaehyun (KOR), ranked 16th, 9th and 157th respectively, proving the impressive depth in quality now on show in the sport.
The Women's Singles event provided its own rollercoaster ride of emotions, not least for LIU Shiwen (CHN), who brought an end to her 10-year wait for gold at the World Championships, defeating compatriots DING Ning (world no. 1) and CHEN Meng (no. 3) in the semi-finals and final respectively.
Budapest indeed brought the best out of LIU also in the Mixed Doubles, which she won alongside XU Xin on Friday, while MA Long too made it two titles in the Hungarian capital by winning the Men's Doubles alongside WANG Chuqin, seeing off the challenge of Alvaro ROBLES (ESP) and Ovidiu IONESCU (ROU) who, like FALCK, provided plenty of cheer for the many local and European followers, excited to see young players from the Old Continent asking bigger questions than ever before of their esteemed Asian opponents and taking home medals in the process.
In many ways, Budapest was different to before, but also a sign of how table tennis has the potential to be more internationally competitive across the entire globe. Bright times are ahead!