China's Fan Zhendong seals third-consecutive Table Tennis World Cup title
Former Youth Olympic Games champion beats compatriot Ma Long in seven-set men’s final at Weihai Nanhai Olympic Sport Centre to claim first major event since COVID cancellations
Zhendong, nine years Ma’s junior, went into the first men's final of the #RESTART Series as the favourite to retain his crown.
But it was Ma, aka The Dragon, who roared into an early lead, winning the first set 11-9.
That jolted Fan into life, and the 23-year-old claimed the second 11-8, and the third 11-3 with some aggressive shots that forced Ma onto the defensive.
Having seemingly found his rhythm, world No. 1 Fan exploited his rival’s faltering backhand to take the fourth set 11-6 and a 3-1 lead in the match, which looked as good as over.
But Ma had other ideas, producing a string of superlative parallel shots to win the fifth set 11-7 and show why he is the reigning world champion.
Buoyed by the momentum change, Ma dictated some of the best rallies of the tournament, and displayed a much-improved backhand game to take a 10-1 lead in the all-important sixth set, before Fan responded to make it 10-6. Ma held his nerve to close the game at 11-7, and take the match to a deciding seventh set.
At 5-5, the two men couldn’t be separated, until Fan took a key time out, which allowed him to rally and close the final set out 11-9, and secure the trophy with an 9-11, 11-8, 11-3, 11-6, 7-11, 7-11, 11-9 victory.
Fan’s route to the final went as planned in the first global event since tournament cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He had a dominant 4-0 win over Korea’s Jang Woojin in their semi-final.
However, things were less simple for Ma in the final four match, who this time was on the right side of a 4-3 win over Japan’s Tomokazu Harimoto, who finished as runner-up in 2019.
In the third-place playoff, Tomokazu rallied from two sets down to seal a 7-11, 7-11, 11-9, 11-6, 14-12, 6-11, 11-5 victory over Jang.
“There is a huge difference in performance level from the afternoon match," Tomokazu told the ITTF website after claiming bronze.
"I made a lot more errors. In the afternoon I played really well against Ma Long and after losing I was quite disappointed. Against Woojin I was still a bit nervous, I think I am still lacking in some areas. Being able to win a medal is still a good achievement, it was not easy winning a single match here but it was still a real pity losing the afternoon match.”