The 9th National Games Table Tennis competition started on October 11, in the southern city of Shantao, in Guangdong province. Like the Olympics, the National Games are held once every 4 years, and the athletes play for their provinces (like Heilongjiang, Jiangsu, etc.) or municipalities (like Shanghai and Beijing). There are also the men's and women's teams representing the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Winning the National Games is probably harder than winning the Olympics, because there are so many good players in China, and the well-known ones are at an disadvantage since their opponents know so them so well. In order to compete, a player has to be a member of a Super League club or a A-League club. The level of play is very high, as we can see from the numerous upsets and the very close, exciting contests. The 21-point format is used, and for teams, the Swaythling Cup format is adopted.
The men's team competition fields 18 teams, divided into 2 groups, with the top 2 teams in each group advancing to the finals round. In group A, the top teams are:
Shanghai (Wang Liqin, Feng Zhe, Xi Minjie, Guo Jinhao, etc.),
PLA (Liu Guoliang, Wang Tao, Wang Hao, etc.),
Sichuan (Chen Jian, Chen Junji, Jin Enhua, etc), and
Beijing (Hou Yingchao, Liu Heng, Tang Peng, etc).
In group B, the top teams are:
Heilongjiang (Kong Linghui, Wang Fei, Zhang Peng, etc),
Guangdong (Ma Lin, Liu Guozheng, Zhang Chao, etc),
Jiangsu (Qin Zhijian, Yan Sen, Zhang Yong, etc.), and
Hong Kong (Li Jing, Cheung Yuk, Leung Chu-Yan).
The Guangdong team, with Ma Lin and Liu Guozheng on its roster, was the favorite to win it all. And it failed to advance to the finals round. The biggest shock of the tournament is the poor play of Liu Guozheng. He lost to Hong Kong's Cheung Yuk, in a tie that the Guangdong team won 3-2. Cheung and Liu both grew up at Shantao's table-tennis school (together with Ma Lin and Tan Ruiwu, among others), and it was apparent that Cheung knew Liu's game very well. After that loss, Cai Zhenhua had a long talk with Liu, apparently to no avail, since Liu then lost 2 points (-20, 5 and -14 to Yan Sen, and -13, -9 to Zhang Yong) to Jiangsu, resulting to the tie loss and ultimately Guangdong's failure to advance. Liu was booed by the partisan crowd, a rare and sobering experience for the Worlds hero, no doubt.
After the round robin, Shanghai emerged as the winner of group A, with a score of 7-1, its only loss coming from PLA. Wang Liqin has been perfect throughout the tournament. Beijing, PLA and Sichuan all ended up with 6-2 records, and PLA advanced because of the better game scores. There was an ugly incident in the Sichuan-Shanghai tie, when Chen Junji, playing against Feng Zhe in the 5th match and leading 1-0 in games, was faulted twice, and an errant return by Feng was negated due to a late service let call. Chen and his coach were extremely critical of the calls and threatened to walk out. In the end, the match resumed, and Chen lost the next 2 games to give Shanghai the tie, and ending its own hopes of advancing.
In group B, Heilongjiang, Jiangsu and Guangdong ended up with identical 7-1 records, Guangdong was kept out of the medal rounds because of its game record. Ma Lin, like Wang, also has won all his matches, but can only hope to medal in the individuals.
In the final round, the top teams from each group play each other, with the winner advancing to the finals. The loser of that match then plays the winner of the match between the two 2nd-place teams, with the winner advancing to the finals. In the Heilongjiang vs Shanghai match, Wang Liqin easily defeated Kong and Wang Fei, with 2-0 scores, and Feng Zhe picked up a point against Shen Yang to seal the 3-1 victory. Against Jiangsu, the PLA team had a surprisingly easy time, winning 3-0. Liu Guoliang defeated Zhang Yong 2-0 to open, Wang Hao then came from behind to beat Qin 2-1, and finally veteran Wang Tao took a 2-0 victory over Yan Sen.
In the ensuing PLA-Heilongjiang contest, Wang Hao defeated Wang Fei 2-0, Liu GL lost to Kong 0-2, Wang Tao beat Zhang Peng 2-0 and Wang Hao then upset Kong 2-1(20, -18, 14) to advance to the finals.
The finals match between favorite Shanghai and the surprise team PLA was a exciting 3.5 hour contest. All 5 matches went the full 3 games. In the first, Wang Hao beat Feng Zhe 2-1. Feng won the first game and was ahead 12-5 in the second, and then apparently lost his concentration. Then Wang evened things by beating Liu GL 2-1 (8, -15, 19) in a thriller.. In the critical 3rd, Wang Tao overcame Xi Minjie 2-1 (23-21 in the 3rd game) to give PLA hopes. Wang disposed of Wang Hao in another 2-1 thriller (-20, 17, 19) to tie things up. In the 5th, Liu GL played up to his level and took a 2-1 win over Feng Zhe, completing a sweet upset. Worth noting is that Feng won the first game against Liu 21-15, and was ahead 10-5 in the second, when Liu caught up to 10-all, largely because of his excellent serves. Liu narrowly won that second game 21-19. In the 3rd game, Liu finally put Feng away with a 21-16 win.
Here are some photos of the PLA team. The top player is penholder Wang Hao, who has moved into the number 1 singles position, ahead of Liu Guoliang and Wang Tao. Wang obviously has put on weight, but his vast experience, especially in tight situations, has helped him overcome his physical shortcomings.
The 18 women's teams are divided into 2 groups of nine, with the top two teams from each group advancing to the final rounds. Here are the top teams in group A:
Jiangsu (Li Ju, Zhang Yingying, Yang Ying, etc.), and
Hebei (Niu Jianfeng, Bai Yang, Wang Tingting, etc).
Jiangsu, the defending champion, was the favorite because of its 3 national team members, but Hebei was also expected to do very well.
And the top teams in group B are:
Liaoning (Wang Nan, Zhang Rui, etc), and
Beijing (Zhang Yining, Guo Yan, etc.)
The biggest surprise of the tournament is the unheralded Guangdong women's team making it to the finals round. It upset the aging Jiangsu 3-1, and that was the critical match since it ended up with same 6-2 standings as Jiangsu. Hebei was the winner of group A with a 7-1 record. In group B, Liaoning, led by the best player in the world Wang Nan, won all its matches. Second place was Beijing, with a 7-1 record.
In the finals round, Hebei played a tight over-3-hour match against Liaoning. Niu Jianfeng beat Li Jia 2-1, followed by Bai Yang upsetting Wang Nan 2-0. Then Liaoning won the next 2 matches to tie the score. In the deciding 5th match, Bai Yang beat Li Jia to advance to the finals.
The match between the dark-horse Guangdong team and Beijing was yet another 5 match thriller. Guangdong, with no national team member on its roster, lost the first 2 matches, but pulled even by winning the next two. Unheralded Cao beat World Cup champion Zhang Yining -14, 9 and 9 to score the major upset in the 4th. In the 5th, Guo Yan came from behind, after down 1 game and trailing 10-17 in second to score the tie victory to advance.
Beijing then met Liaoning in the penultimate match. Surprisingly, Wang Nan lost both her matches, 0-2 to Guo Yan and 1-2 to Zhang Yining. Zhang also had a match win over Li Jia, and the final score was 3-1, Beijing advancing to meet Hebei.
The finals between Hebei and Beijing started out with Bai Yang
beating Guo Yan 2-0. Then Zhang Yining evened the score by
winning over Niu Jianfeng 2-0. Beijing then won the next 2 to
score a 3-1 victory over the strong Hebei team to win the title.
Final 8 in men's singles:
Kong vs Li Jing
Guo Keli vs Ma Lin
Wang Liqin vs Leung Chu-Yan
Ko Lai Chak vs Qin Zhijian
Liu Guoliang got a bye the first round, and was eliminated by Jin Enhua in the 2nd round. Liu Guozheng, who was obviously not in condition, was upset by Tang Peng. Others eliminated early include Wang Tao and Yan Sen. Wang Liqin and Ma Lin are the clear favorites to meet in the finals.
Final 8 in women's singles:
Wang Nan vs Tie Yana
Sun Jin vs Yang Ying
Zhang Yining vs Zhang Rui
Lin Ling vs Li Fun
The surprises were Niu Jianfeng losing to Zhang Rui 0-3, Li Ju losing to Li Fun 0-3 and Bai Yang losing to Tie Yana 0-3. Tie, the Cinderella player of the 21st Universiade, has played almost flawlessly in teams and in singles so far, although Wang Nan would be a huge obstacle for her. Zhang Yining and Wang Nan are the two overwhelming favorites to reach the finals.
Wang Tao/Liu Guoliang and Ma Lin/Liu Guozheng are in the top half of the semifinals.
Updated as of 10/18.
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