Well, things seemed to be going more or less according to script for the first few days in London. There was fast-paced play, incredible volleys, exciting matches, and no real upsets to speak of. Now, that’s not to say that the lower seed never won. A few higher seeds were knocked out on Sunday, but no real upsets could occur in the first round anyway because the top 16 seeds receive byes until the Round of 32.
But when the Round of 32 hit, we were in for some incredible matches. First we had American teenager Ariel Hsing take on #2 seed Li Xioaxia. Hsing is an incredible kid, well-liked by all who have spoken about it, and is friends with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. In fact, Gates was at this match. Hsing started off slowly but fought to the end, winning two games off of Li and keeping the 5th and 6th very close. She won the hearts of America on Sunday night (Sunday afternoon in the States) and looks like she has the talent to be the first American to win a medal in table tennis, possibly even at the next Olympics in 2016.
And while that was the most exciting match of the round, we did get 1 upset in the women’s Round of 32. #7 seed Tie Yana of Hong Kong fell to Elizabeta Samara of Romania. Other than that, though, it was fairly smooth sailing for the women’s top seeds. And it was all chalk in the Round of 16, though Fukuhara Ai of Japan and Wang Yuegu of Singapore were both pushed to 7 games. The quarterfinals look to be exciting though, with both Chinese players still looking to be the favorites. At this point, there isn’t even really anyone else I can point out to watch for as a challenge to them. Anything can always happen though and a player can always just have a poor day mentally. And don’t underestimate Li Xiaoxia for letting Hsing stay so close. Hsing was playing inspired table tennis and would have troubled every single player in the field with the way she played on Sunday.
On the men’s side, we saw a little more parity in the field. In the Round of 32, North Korean Hyok Bong upset #6 seed Joo Saehyuk of South Korea in 6 games. #14 seed Adrien Mattenet of France was absolutely dominated by Austrian Weixing Chen, being swept 4-0. To be fair, Chen was the #18 seed and it was a tough draw from Mattenet. But it was quite an impressive performance by Chen. Unfortunately for Chen, he in turn was dominated by Dimitrij Ovtcharov in the next round. That was it for the upsets in that round, though, and it looked like the tournament might follow chalk the way the women’s did.
But then the Round of 16 started off with a bang. Vladimir Samsonov was pitted against World #1, reigning World Champion, and overall favorite Zhang Jike. And he came out to prove that he belonged and that he wanted to win this competition. He dominated Zhang in the first game and Zhang actually looked a bit flustered. Zhang came back strong though against a tough opponent whose ability to change the direction of the ball clearly bothered him. The pair alternated games until they reached the deciding 7th. Zhang was too solid and managed to win a few long, momentum-changing volleys to avoid the monumental upset and move on.
Zhang survived, but several others could not say the same as the round progressed. #3 seed Jun Mizutani and #7 seed Oh Sanguen were both upset by very good players playing very good table tennis. Michael Maze and Seiya Kishikawa, who pulled off those two upsets (respectively), are definitely two players to keep an eye on as we go deeper in this tournament. In fact, the winner of Maze against Ovtcharov will have a very good chance of knocking off Zhang in the semifinals. Of course, that’s assuming Zhang gets that far. He will first have to face Tianyi Jiang, who barely survived in 7 games against the aforementioned Kim Hyok Bong.
But the biggest upset of either tournament so far did not come until the final match on Monday. It pitted German Timo Boll against Adrien Crisan of France. Boll was hyped to be Europe’s great hope at breaking China’s stranglehold on the medals in this sport. He has the talent and the attitude to accomplish just about anything. But with a level of play and mental fortitude that was nothing short of shockingly impressive, Crisan defeated Boll in 5 games. In hindsight, though, this might not be such a huge upset. Because if Crisan can play the way he played that match for the rest of this tournament, he can beat just about anyone in the world. And while the women’s field looks like we won’t see very many upsets through the end, the men’s tournament here looks wide open.
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EDIT: Crisan is from Romania, not France. I apologize for the error.