Pitchford almost enters Promised Land
Fan Zhendong and Chen Meng crowned champions of the 2020 ITTF World Tour Platinum Qatar Open
China's Fan Zhendong and Chen Meng won the respective men's singles and women's singles titles at the 2020 ITTF World Tour Platinum Qatar Open in Doha on Sunday 8th March, both players underlining their star quality that sees them occupy the world no.1 positions.
On the penultimate day of action, Ma Long and Xu Xin had combined to win the men's doubles event, while the women's doubles title went to another Chinese duo, Wang Manyu and Zhu Yuling. However, there would be no clean sweep as Japan's Jun Mizutani and Mima Ito secured mixed doubles gold.
One month after suffering an unexpected quarter-final exit at the hands of Dimitrij Ovtcharov at the German Open, Fan Zhendong capitalized on his first opportunity since then to return to winning ways, clinching the men's singles title in Qatar. The world no.1 defeated England's Liam Pitchford over six epic games in the final (11-9, 11-7, 8-11, 11-4, 6-11, 11-7).
Fan survived a scare in the first round in Doha, when he was taken to seven games by Sweden's Anton Kallberg (7-11, 11-6, 11-13, 11-5, 7-11, 11-8, 11-3), but his title charge intensified after seeing off Sweden's Jon Persson (11-9, 11-9, 11-7, 6-11, 12-10) in the quarter-final before winning yet another tight battle against China's most promising teenage talent Wang Chuqin, the no.9 seed (7-11, 8-11, 11-6, 14-12, 11-7, 11-9). Wang had caught the attentions of the table tennis world when in the second round he overcame the reigning Olympic and World champion Ma Long, the no.3 seed (13-15, 14-12, 4-11, 11-8, 3-11, 13-11, 11-6).
By overcoming Pitchford in the final, Fan regained his Qatar Open crown, having previously won in Doha in 2018, and also sealed his 14th career title on the ITTF World Tour.
"Today in the first game I was down 6-9 and then 0-4 in the second, but I was prepared for such a situation before the match. He (Pitchford) has been in good form over the past few matches, so I made sure to do my homework on him. I expected him to perform. His improvement and growth are there for the entire table tennis world to see. He is definitely an opponent to respect and be wary of," said Fan Zhendong.
The 2020 Qatar Open will forever be remembered as the tournament in which Liam Pitchford put himself within touching distance of a first ever ITTF World Tour men's singles title. The no.15 seed became the first ever Englishman to reach the men's singles final at an ITTF World Tour Platinum tournament by completing a stunning victory over China's Xu Xin, the no.2 seed (3-11, 11-7, 11-9, 6-11, 15-13, 11-9), with what Pitchford later described as the "best win of my life." The 26 year old from Chesterfield would then put on another show in the final against Fan Zhendong.
"It's never nice to lose a final or even a match, but I can reflect positively on the tournament. I think I played well in the final. There were a few chances here and there that I didn't take and you can't afford to do that, especially against Fan Zhendong, but overall I think I played well. I tried to play positively with my backhand to his backhand, knowing that in the forehand to forehand exchanges he was slightly favoured, so I had to switch up my strategy. I think I did that and made him up his game. These are positive steps for the future." – Liam Pitchford
Earlier in Doha, Pitchford had overcome two of the most experienced players in the sport: in the second round he accounted for Vladimir Samsonov of Belarus (11-7, 11-7, 6-11, 12-10, 8-11, 18-16), the opening round winner against China's no.4 seed Lin Gaoyuan. Then in the quarter-final, Pitchford ousted Chinese Taipei's Chuang Chih-Yuan (14-12, 11-8, 11-5, 11-7). Another play in form, Chuang had eliminated Japan's Tomokazu Harimoto, the no.5 seed, in the opening round.
Despite defeat in the final against Fan Zhendong, this had truly been a tournament to remember for Pitchford, who on the previous day also sealed a silver medal in the men's doubles alongside Paul Drinkhall. The pair achieved the feat against all the odds, having been required to qualify for the main draw.
They were beaten in Saturday's final by the might of Ma Long and Xu Xin (11-8, 8-11, 11-1, 11-6) who thus secured their 14th ITTF World Tour men's doubles title as pair, 11 years after their first ever success together, at the 2009 Qatar Open.
More history for Pitchford and Drinkhall: they became the first English pair ever to reach the final of a men's doubles event on either the ITTF World Tour or at an ITTF Challenge Series tournament.
World no.1 for a reason, Chen Meng has now won 17 out of 21 women's singles finals on the ITTF World Tour after she defeated Japan's Mima Ito, the no.3 seed, in Sunday's showpiece (3-11, 11-7, 11-9, 11-7, 11-7).
"I think I am still not getting into the match fast enough. The focus I showed from the second game onwards, I simply did not have in that first game I lost. There will always be nerves at the start of the match and I was not relaxed enough. She (Ito) has a great ability to read the game and is regularly reaching finals and semi-finals. She still has that desire to put up a fight against us (Chinese women's players) without fear." – Chen Meng
The top seed maintained her renowned mental strength throughout the later rounds, beating China's Wang Yidi, the no.11 seed (11-5, 11-8, 13-15, 11-6, 11-6), and another teammate Wang Manyu, the no.4 seed and defending champion (10-12, 11-7, 11-9, 11-13, 11-5, 11-4), before overcoming Ito to take the title.
This was Ito's second ITTF World Tour women's singles final within two weeks after winning the Hungarian Open. In Doha, she continued her fine form: in the semi-final she defeated the reigning Olympic champion and no.6 seed, Ding Ning, in straight games (11-6, 14-12, 11-0, 11-5).
A silver medal in the women's singles, Ito had got her hands on gold the previous day in the mixed doubles, alongside Jun Mizutani. In the final, the top seeds defeated China's Wang Chuqin and Sun Yingsha, the Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Olympic Games mixed team gold medallists (11-8, 7-11, 11-4, 15-13).
This was an eighth ITTF World Tour mixed doubles final for Ito and Mizutani since they joined forces in early July last year, but only their second title. In 2019 they won in Bulgaria, before being the runners up in Czech Republic, Austria, Sweden, Germany and at the Grand Finals. Earlier this year they were again beaten finalists at the German Open in Magdeburg.
A second success side by side, in the women's doubles it was the same for Wang Manyu and Zhu Yuling, the no.2 seeds securing the crown at the expense of Japanese teenagers Miyuu Kihara and Miyu Nagasaki, the top seeds (11-4, 7-11, 11-8, 11-9).
Previously in 2018, Wang and Zhu had been runners up in Korea Republic and in 2019 in China, before later winning in the German city of Bremen.
Meanwhile for Kihara and Nagasaki, their impressive run came to an end. Between November and December 2019, they triumphed at the World Junior Championships, the Austrian Open and the Grand Finals. Defeat in Doha represented their first reverse as a doubles pair since early October in Sweden.