Fan Zhendong lifts the trophy after winning the men's singles title at the ITTF Asian Championships in Wuxi on April 16. [Photo/Xinhua]
Reports of the death of Chinese table tennis have been greatly exaggerated, or so it seemed on the final day of the ITTF Asian Championships in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, on April 16, as China's ping-pong stars crushed any opponents unfortunate enough to cross their path.
Team China had been taken down a peg or two during the first few days of play at the Wuxi Sports Center as a string of top players suffered shock losses to Korean and Japanese opponents, including world number ones Ma Long and Ding Ning.
And after 17-year-old Japanese wunderkind Miu Hirano stormed to an unexpected triumph in the women's singles on Saturday, there remained the possibility as play started on Sunday that China may lose out on both the men's and women's singles titles for the first time since 1974.
But China's paddlers seemed determined to put their upstart challengers in their place, sweeping to gold in the two remaining events—the men's singles and women's doubles—in superb style.
The action got started with the women's doubles semifinals, which by a twist of fate had served up two China-Japan clashes.
The emergence of an exciting young Ja'anese team had been the story of the tournament so far, and China's first pair of semifinalists—Zhu Yuling and Chen Meng—both had first-hand experience of the potential of Japan's rising stars, as both had lost to Miu in the singles.
However, Chen and Zhu appeared determined to seize their shot at redemption, unleashing a relentless barrage of attacking shots on their Japanese rivals Hitomi Sato and Honoka Hashimoto.
After winning a tight first game 11-9, Chen and Zhu stepped it up a gear in the second, blasting away their opponents to take the game with a comfortable 11-5 score line.
Sato and Hashimoto's tricky serves caused some problems for the Chinese pair at the start of the third game, but Sato and Hashimoto simply could not cope with the sheer ferocity of the Chinese pair's play, often finding themselves forced back almost into the press box as Zhu and Chen saw out the match with little fuss (11-9, 11-5, 11-8).
China also prevailed in straight games in the second semifinal, as Wang Manyu and Chen Ke outclassed Hina Hayata and Mima Ito.
The Chinese pair comfortably closed out the first game 11-7 and raced into a 5-1 lead at the start of the second, but Ito and Hayata showed great character and lightning hand speed to pull the game back to 9-8.
The game had turned into a thrilling toe-to-toe brawl as the four players traded rapid-fire shots, but then Chen stepped up in spectacular fashion to break the deadlock.
After an incredible five-smash shootout Chen pulled out a barely believable forehand at full stretch to win China a precious 10-9 lead, and another huge hit allowed China to take the second game 11-9.
Ito and Hayata battled bravely on, but a series of errors undermined their challenge, allowing Chen and Wang to claim the match (11-7, 11-9, 11-8) and set up an all-China final, which Chen and Zhu went on to win in four games (11-8, 6-11, 11-7, 11-9).
A similar story unfolded in the men's singles, as world number two Fan Zhendong quickly extinguished any thoughts of another upset by crushing his Korean opponent Jeong Sangeun 3-0.
Despite not having competed internationally for more than a year and arriving at the championships without a world ranking, Jeong represented a dangerous opponent for the 20-year-old defending champion.
The unseeded Korean's run to the final had been the stuff of fairytales, dumping table tennis legend Ma Long out of the competition in the third round before pulling off a barely believable comeback in the semifinal against fifth seed Koki Niwa, bludgeoning his way back from 2-0 down to win an epic final game 13-11.
Fan Zhendong plays with South Korea's Jeong Sageun in the final of the men's singles at the ITTF Asian Championships in Wuxi on April 16. [Photo/ chinadaily.com.cn]
But if Fan felt the weight of the screaming fans in Wuxi and the millions watching on CCTV5 on his shoulders, he did not show any sign of it.
Perhaps the arrival of Fan's Chinese teammate and semifinal opponent Zhang Jike in the stands at the start of the match helped relieve the pressure on him, as the two finalists out the opening points almost unnoticed by a large section of the crowd that was too busy straining to snap a photo of the handsome star.
Jeong started the match in exactly the same style that had served him so well throughout the tournament: Throwing caution to the wind and trying to hit winners on almost every single shot.
But in Fan, the world number two, Jeong had finally met an opponent with even more rapid reflexes and aggression than himself, and Fan got the better of the early pinball-like exchanges to win the first game 11-5.
Jeong's wild play had begun to undermine him as he smashed a string of balls long or into the net, enabling Fan to take the second game by the same scoreline.
But Jeong rallied once more as the third game got underway, and the match turned into a thrilling shoot-out as both players refused to retreat from the table.
The ball was often rocketing across the table so fast it was almost impossible to keep track of until a mishit sent it pinging into the press box.
At 9-8 it felt the game could go either way, but then Fan showed his class by pulling out an unbelievable shot to take a crucial 10-8 lead, bending back almost horizontal like Neo in the Matrix to reach a vicious Jeong missile before somehow sending a forehand beyond his Korean opponent.
Fan didn't have to wait long to clinch the match, Jeong fittingly whipping another wild forehand into the net to hand Fan the match (11-5, 11-5, 11-8) and the championship.
The deafening cheers of the packed Wuxi Sports Center spoke of joy at yet another Chinese victory, the sixth in seven events at the championships, but also of relief that the unthinkable had been averted.
Team China will now head to the World Championships in Germany in May chastened, but perhaps even more focused than before.
After Wuxi, nobody in the Chinese team can be complacent about the challenge they face from resurgent Japanese and Korean teams.