8 Players, 4 Matches, 2 Countries, 1 Goal: ITTF-Europe Top 16 & Pan American Cups end on a high
Separated by the Atlantic Ocean, 2 top-class ITTF events were played out in front of packed venues over the weekend. The China Construction Bank 2019 ITTF-Europe Top 16 Cup held in Montreux, Switzerland, and the Universal 2019 ITTF-Pan America Cup held in Guaynabo City, Puerto Rico, saw a total of 4 gold medals up for grabs. Fans were treated to plenty of heart-stopping moments on the final day of action (3 February 2019) as the players fought for qualification for the Men's and Women's World Cups to be held in Chengdu, China, in October this year.
Having suffered a sub-par 2018 due to a multitude of injuries, this was the first international tournament of 2019 for former world number 1 Dimitrij OVTCHAROV (GER), who came back with a vengeance, claiming the Men's title on an emotional final day. The road to recovery was tough but OVTCHAROV showed that mentally he is rock-solid once again as his physicality also catches up. Twice he found himself in a tight spot, twice he found a way to come up tops. Losing a 3-0 lead against 2018 Europe Cup champion, Timo BOLL (GER), OVTCHAROV managed to pull himself ahead in the 7th game, winning 4-3 to make the final where he faced Belarusian legend, Vladimir SAMSONOV.
The evergreen veteran, 42 years of age, turned back the clock to deliver a vintage performance, leading OVTCHAROV for most parts in a keenly-contested encounter. The German had to play catch up for most of the match and was only one point away from losing the title. SAMSONOV led 10-8 in the 7th game only for the eventual champion to save two match points and convert his own to win 4-3 (6-11, 11-8, 11-3, 14-16, 6-11, 11-7, 12-10).
"The game had so many ups and downs for both of us. I could have finished it 4-1 but I missed the opportunity. Samsonov was always there. He looked for every chance to come back; he covered every angle and every spot on the table. Vladi had the advantage in the 6th game and even more so in the 7th, but no matter how tired I was, I thought he was even more, so I kept pushing. It was a similar match like against Boll, where small points made big differences. I am so happy I came back from injury and a few heavy defeats," said OVTCHAROV.
OVTCHAROV was not the only German to walk away victorious, as Petrissa SOLJA too had her own special moment to savour. Staring at the face of defeat, she produced the fightback of the tournament to steal the crown from last year's champion, Bernadette SZOCS (ROU). SZOCS was in command, taking a 3-0 lead against a familiar opponent. With nothing to lose, SOLJA begun her incredible turnaround in the 4th game, winning it 12-10 to spark the comebacks of all comebacks. She won four consecutive games to power home and win her first European Cup title after missing out in 2013 and 2017. She won 4-3 (9-11, 9-11, 6-11, 12-10, 11-8, 11-8, 11-4) in front of an ecstatic crowd.
"I was very nervous at the beginning. I did not play at my best. Also, Bernadette knows my service game, she can read my spin. After I lost three games, my coach encouraged me to win at least one game, to play with less pressure. Slowly I returned into the match. I was thinking only about the next point. We have played against each other since our Cadet days. Who knows how many matches we played in Juniors and Cadets and mostly in finals. I am happy that we are playing finals as Seniors now and that we both are among the top European players," said Petrissa SOLJA
Timo BOLL and Sofia POLCANOVA (AUT) won their respective bronze medal matches and have also booked their spots at this year's World Cups in Chengdu along with the finalists.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, in a completely different time zone, two frantic finals followed. Carrying the host nation's hopes on her very young shoulders, Adriana DIAZ (PUR) showed that she has what it takes to be an icon for Puerto Rican table tennis. Staged in Guaynabo City, Puerto Rico, DIAZ claimed the Universal 2019 ITTF Pan America Cup gold with the country behind her. Facing off against 2018's winner, she showed maturity beyond her age by limiting ZHANG Mo's (CAN) game to win 4-1 (13-11, 11-8, 6-11, 11-9, 11-9), repeating the same scoreline from their previous meeting.
Meanwhile in the Men's final, current World number 6, Hugo CALDERANO (BRA) once against proved his credentials as one of the globe's greatest at present by claiming the title for the second time in two years. The eagerly anticipated match between two of America's Top talents saw Kanak JHA (USA) push CALDERANO early on in their match. Eventually, experience paid off as CALDERANO halted JHA's momentum in the 3rd game to win 4-1 (11-2, 12-14, 11-3, 11-8, 12-10), preventing an upset. Despite the disappointment for JHA, these are exciting times for Pan American table tennis as the more experienced CALDERANO is only 22 with his opponent four years younger. Both will get a chance to showcase their talents in Chengdu in October 2019 at the ITTF Men's World Cup.
FIRST QUALIFIERS FOR 2019 ITTF WORLD CUPS
The ITTF World Cups are the second most prestigious events on the international table tennis calendar, where only 17 of the top table tennis players who have qualified through their respective Continental Cups, together with the current world champions, one host player and a wildcard, can compete for the prestigious title that counts towards the Grand Slam (Olympic Games, World Championships, World Cup).
China Construction Bank 2019 ITTF-Europe Top 16 Cup: Dimitrij OVTCHAROV (GER), Vladimir SAMSONOV (BLR), Timo BOLL (GER), Petrissa SOLJA (GER), Bernadette SZOCS (ROM), Sofia POLCANOVA (AUT).
Universal 2019 ITTF-Pan American Cup: Hugo CALDERANO (BRA), Kanak JHA (USA), Adriana DIAZ (PUR), ZHANG Mo (CAN).
Up next is the LION 32nd ITTF-ATTU Asian Cup to be staged in Yokohama, Japan (5-7 April) before the 2019 World Table Tennis Championships get underway in Budapest, Hungary (21 – 28 April 2019)