Tuesday, August 19, 2008

excitement in early rounds

I saw live Olympic table tennis for the first time last night! Starting at 6pm, I saw women's first and second round matches, and men's first round matches, with many going down to the wire in 7 games. It was funny to watch matches in which two Chinese players played each other, because the crowd couldn't really pick one to root for, as in the match between Xian Yi Fang (FRA) and Xu Jie (POL).

The day didn't begin well for the US, as David Zhuang, the only male player from the US, lost to Segun Toriola of Nigera in 7 (-8, 8, -2, 6, 9, -7, 8). I got a chance to watch Toriola play, beating Joao Montiero of Portugal, also in 7 games (-5, 7, 7, -5, 9, -9, 7).

When I first got to the playing hall, they had just started the last of the women's first round matches: Wenling Tan Monfardini (ITA) vs Tetyana Sorochynska (UKR); Jian Fang Lay (AUS) vs Sandra Paovic (HRV); Veronika Pavlovich (BLR) vs Dana Hadacova (CZE); and Fabiola Ramos (VEN) vs Jong Kim (PRK). The most eventful and exciting match by far was Lay vs Paovic. Lay is a right-handed, penhold, pips player, and Paovic is a right-handed, shakehand, two-winged looper. The match was so exciting because of the long rallies, the come-backs, and also because Paovic didn't really play Lay correctly; Paovic ripped almost every shot (or atleast she tried to) and tried to put every point away in as few shots as possible, but against Lay's type of pips and playing style, the more spin you put on the ball, the better. Well, ripping everything COULD work, but Paovic's shots obviously didn't have enough speed or power (as opposed to, say, Guo Yue) to beat Lay, the next-best option would have been to put crazy spin on every shot so that Lay's pips wouldn't have been able to handle it. However, European players don't really practice those purposely high, spinny shots, so it's understandable that Paovic tried to tough it out the hard way.

(Monfardini in blue vs Sorochynska in red)

(Lay in green & yellow vs Paovic in black)

Next, I saw men's first round matches: William Henzell (AUS) vs Jens Lundqvist (SWE); Song Man Jang (PRK) vs Liu Song (ARG); Peng Zhang [also known as Wilson Zhang] (CAN) vs Seiya Kishikawa (JPN); and Lucjan Blaszczyk (POL) vs Suraju Saka (CGO). The first three matches were pretty exciting for their own reasons. Lundqvist vs Henzell was a crazy match because Henzell, who came out of nowhere and actually almost beat Wang Liqin in the team event, was the major underdog against one of Sweden's top players, and pulled off a 6-game upset. Henzell's serve, which is what gave Wang Liqin so much trouble, is also what brought down Lundqvist; when Wang tried to return the serve short, it didn't go over the net, and when Lundqvist tried to return the serve short, it went off the end and Henzell ripped it back to Lundqvist's backhand for a winner. Henzell continued to play well today, almost taking down Yoon Jae Young (KOR), but losing 4-3. Jang vs Liu was a crowd-pleaser because of long points in which Liu tried to loop-kill everything, but Jang, a chopper, got everything back. The crowd was rooting for Liu, wow-ing every time he tried to put a point away, but ohhhh-ed everytime he ended up ripping his shot into the net. I thought the match was pretty boring, mostly because that's just not the way you're supposed to play a chopper, but as long as people felt they got their money's worth, it's all good... Zhang vs Kishikawa was an interesting match to watch (at least to me) because I've see Wilson play in the US and Canada several times, and he's incredible; however, when pitted against players outside of North America, he looks less impressive. Granted, Zhang had a bit of bad luck, meeting a Japanese player this early on, but it quickly became apparent that pretty much every man on the floor could take him on in counter-looping and offensive points.

(Henzell in green & yellow, Lundqvist in black & yellow)

(Liu in red, Jang in blue)

(Wilson in red, Kishikawa in yellow)

Next came the last of the women's first round matches: Eva Odorova (SVK) vs Petra Lovas (HUN); Xu Jie (POL) vs Xian Yi Fang (FRA); and Huang I-Hwa (TPE) vs Andrea Bakula (HRV) [the last first round match went to Stephanie Xu Sang of Australia by default). I paid attention to the Odorova/Lovas match because the winner moved on to play Gao Jun. However, from the few points that I saw, I wasn't all that impressed and had no doubts that Gao Jun would win; they both had strong backhands, and both hit and blocked more than looped. From what I saw, neither of them really had a weapon she could use against Gao (Odorova ended up losing to Gao earlier today, 4-2). The only real excitement in the match came when Lovas almost made a comeback. Xu vs Xian was sort of a fun match to watch; fun because there were some long points because Xian is a chopper, and not so fun because it was long and got kind of old toward the end. Huang vs Bakula was an interesting yet awkward match to watch, because Huang is from Taiwan; everyone insists that politics and sports are separate, but we all know otherwise... there were people in the crowd that cheered for her directly, others that cheered for Taipei (NOT Taiwan), and still others that cheered for China. In any case, Huang's game is pretty typical of Taiwanese girls: no killer, put-away shots, but very steady, high-quality shots that make their opponents very uncomfortable, and a very calm, almost casual or nonchalant demeanor. Unfortunately, Huang lost in her next round match against Ni Xia Lian (LUX).

(Odorova in black, Lovas in pink)

(Xian in red, Xu in black)

(Huang in blue, Bakula in black)

The rest of the men's matches were pretty uneventful, except for two: Segun Toriola (NGR) vs Joao Montiero (POR) and Damien Eloi (FRA) vs Ahmed Ali Saleh (EGY). Toriola vs Montiero was exciting because it went all the way to the seventh game, and was nothing short of thrilling; the two men went at it counter-looping from beginning to end, with the crowd on Toriola's side. Toriola continued his hot streak today, beating Jean-Michel Saive (BEL) 4-2, a huge, huge upset. Eloi vs Ali was cool to watch because Eloi uses a custom-made racket that's shaped like an hour-glass. Plus, it was a tight match that went down to the 7th game, after Ali was up 3-1.
(Toriola in blue, Montiero in red)

(Eloi in red, Ali in blue)

Finally came the first of the women's second round matches (but I didn't see all of them): Zhu Fang (ESP) vs Li Jie (NED); Melek Hu (TUR) vs Elke Schall (GER); Dang Ye Seo (KOR) vs Miao Miao (AUS); and Elizabeta Samara (ROU) vs Viktoria Pavlovich (BLR). I didn't see all of Zhu vs Fang, and didn't see any of Hu vs Schall, but what I did see wasn't very exciting. I didn't think Dang vs Miao would be a good match from the get-go, because Dang is a whole level above Miao, and just too much better. The excitement came when the crowd got really into the match, with Australian fans and Korean fans shouting their lungs out. In the end, though, it was obvious that Miao was no match for Dang. In the Samara/Pavlovich match, I admit I was thoroughly rooting for Liza, because I've met her and think she's a really nice person, and I really like watching her play, but I didn't think she'd win; Liza's game is suited for topspin rallies, not for playing against choppers, so I figured she might have issues with Pavlovich. Liza won the first game by a lot, but Pavlovich pulled herself together and won the next four pretty easily.

(Zhu in red, Li in blue)

(Dang in black, Miao in yellow & green)

(Samara in blue, Pavlovich in black)

Today, the women played the rest of their second round matches, and started playing their round-of-32 matches, in which seeded players like Zhang Yining and Wang Chen played their first matches of the event. All three Chinese players, Zhang Yining, Guo Yue, and Wang Nan, breezed through their matches 4-0, and both US women, Gao Jun and Wang Chen won their matches relatively easily, 4-1 (Gao over Sayaka Hirano of Japan, and Wang over Krisztina Toth of Hungary). Play continues today, 8/21/08, at 10am (Beijing time) with the round of 16. Gao Jun will play Wu Xue (DOM), and Wang Chen will play Kim Kyung Ah (KOR). I think both Gao and Wang could win their matches because Wu doesn't really have a power anything that can get past Gao, and Wang is relatively comfortable against choppers, and will also have revenge on her mind after losing to her in the team event 3-1. Most of the matches in the next round are sort of predictable, but should be a treat to watch simply because of the elevated level and quality of play (and I'm psyched because I'm going to get to see the quarter-finals tomorrow :D). We'll see what happens and if anyone is able to pull off an upset!
For live scoring and to see scores from previous matches, go to ittf.com and click the appropriate links on the right-hand side.