Table tennis: Era of Fan, Sun as China’s world No. 1s win S’pore Smash men’s and women’s singles titles

Fan Zhendong (left) and Sun Yingsha with their trophies. ST PHOTOS: DESMOND FOO

SINGAPORE – Despite his sincere and humble assertions that Chinese table tennis legend Ma Long will never be surpassed, there is no doubt it is the Fan Zhendong dynasty now.

Even at 34, two-time Olympic men’s singles champion Ma does not usually struggle for solutions, dropping just one game en route to the Singapore Smash men’s singles final. Except when the opponent across the table is compatriot and men’s singles world No. 1 Fan, who retained his crown with a sterling 4-1 (11-5, 13-11, 8-11, 11-9, 11-9) victory over Ma on Sunday in a repeat of the 2022 final.

This may be just his seventh win against world No. 2 Ma in 23 encounters, but Fan has now recorded back-to-back successes against his illustrious teammate for only the second time in his career.

Fan, 26, who also won the men’s doubles with Wang Chuqin, said: “There is no debate. Ma Long is the greatest of all time, and we can only learn from him and improve. I don’t think age has slowed him down. In fact, I feel he is getting stronger.

“It’s not just his results, but his achievements and behaviour on and off the table. I’m privileged to be his teammate, and through conversations as well as observations, I can see how detailed he is while preparing for a match, and how passionate he is about the sport.

“Nobody can replace him and I don’t see myself as his successor. I just want to be myself, and to that end, I will not take things easy or slow down even after this win.”

In front of a sold-out crowd of 2,400 spectators at the OCBC Arena, Fan began strongly and won the first two games. He lost the third and had to overcome a three-point deficit to snatch the fourth game.

Fan, who uncharacteristically launched into a series of fist pumps after the final point, explained: “I started well, but a player of Ma Long’s calibre can switch things up quickly, which caused me problems in the second game.

“I was down 8-4 and facing two game points, but I didn’t give up and managed to do well on my serve and find ways to turn things around. I stood up to the test and that set the tone for the rest of the match.

“The first win in 2022 was a breakthrough, while defending the title is a different kind of stress. As much as I want to play well and win, I also worry I cannot live up to the expectations. But as the tournament wore on, I managed to get into the winning groove.

“The challenge has been huge, but the lessons learnt are also plentiful. Things did not go smoothly at the start of this tournament and there were times I was so uncomfortable on court as I had some issues with my physical condition and level of play. But things improved, and I learnt how to handle such situations along the way.”

Fan Zhendong (above) retained his crown with a sterling 4-1 (11-5, 13-11, 8-11, 11-9, 11-9) win over Ma Long on Sunday in a repeat of the 2022 final. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

Top-ranked Sun Yingsha is also looking to establish her era after beating teammate and 22nd-ranked Qian Tianyi 4-1 (11-7, 10-12, 13-11, 11-6, 11-7) to create history by adding the singles crown to her women’s and mixed doubles titles.

Initially restricted by 23-year-old southpaw Qian’s resolute defence and piercing returns and at one game apiece, the turning point came in the third game when Sun saved a game point.

Sun, 22, said: “Tianyi and I are from the same age range and we came through the second team together, so we know each other very well. She has been in great form here and kept things close early on.

“I was forced into making some changes in my play in the fourth game to adapt, and after that things were pretty much in my control.”

Sun Yingsha is also looking to establish her era. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

Fans in Singapore would have witnessed Sun’s rise after winning the women’s singles events at the 2019 T2 Diamond and 2021 World Table Tennis Cup Finals here, before going 14 matches unbeaten at the 2023 Singapore Smash.

Besides honing her punishing forehands, Sun has worked hard on the quality of her backhand returns and is known for great mental strength in sticky situations, as she demonstrated in the women’s singles quarter-final and women’s doubles final that both went to a decider.

Looking back, she said: “I feel I have upgraded in terms of my mentality and technique. Strength and conditioning are also key aspects, and I feel I’m in good shape to do well in all three events.

“I felt like as we went deeper into this tournament, I got more excited, and I’m happy to record this unique hat-trick for the first time in my career.”

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