SINGAPORE - China's world champion and world No. 1 Fan Zhendong cemented his position as the new top dog of his sport as he beat his legendary compatriot Ma Long 4-3 (11-6, 11-6, 5-11, 9-11, 8-11, 11-8, 11-7) on Sunday (March 20) to be crowned the first World Table Tennis (WTT) Grand Smash men's singles champion.
In an enthralling finale to the inaugural US$2 million (S$2.71 million) event watched by almost 2,000 fans at a packed OCBC Arena Hall 1, the finalists held nothing back despite it being all-China affairs on Sunday night.
In a rematch of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics final, 25-year-old Fan made a mockery of his inferior 5-16 head-to-head record against Ma, bursting out of the traps to take a 2-0 lead with vicious backhand flicks that the world No. 2 had no answer to.
But two-time Olympic singles champion Ma demonstrated just why he is regarded as table tennis' Greatest of All Time, as he figured out a way to impose his fearsome forehand topspin and take the next three games.
The 33-year-old looked odds-on to win the match as he led 6-1 in the sixth game, only for Fan to storm back and take 10 out of the next 12 points to force a decider.
Fan's ability to drag opponents, even one as formidable as Ma, out of position was key as he was always in control in the decider to seal his place in the tournament's history and pocket the US$100,000 winner's cheque.
About taking over the mantle from Ma, a modest Fan, who also won the men's doubles with Wang Chuqin, said: "If people are comparing me to Ma Long, Zhang Jike and other outstanding athletes, then I must be doing something right.
"In competitive sport, people always like to compare, but I think to athletes, it is more meaningful to surpass ourselves. I would be very happy if I can do that.
"I wasn't able to accomplish what I wanted to at the Olympics, but I'm happy to overcome a difficult situation and win today.
"I also won the WTT Cup Finals here last year so this is a happy hunting ground for me. I felt the boost from the passionate crowd today again and look forward to competing here again soon."
A gracious Ma paid tribute to Fan and said that it was natural for younger players to emerge and take over.
"Fan Zhendong is very all-rounded and stable at the moment. All indications point to him being the best player now. I also have things which I can learn from him in order to challenge him," he said.
Earlier in the evening, it was also an epic duel in the women's singles final as Olympic champion Chen Meng survived a wobble to beat world champion Wang Manyu 4-3 (11-9, 8-11, 11-9, 11-9, 6-11, 9-11, 11-8) in 85 minutes and leapfrog Sun Yingsha as world No. 1.
Like in her semi-final win, she let slip a 3-1 lead before getting the job done. It was not without drama in the decider, as Wang came back from 9-4 down to within a point at 9-8, but her forehands found the net at the end.
Chen acknowledged that her more traditional style of play that emphasises on counterattacking from rallies is not as advanced or aggressive as the younger generation of players like Wang and Sun.
But her experience helped her win her first WTT event and extend her winning record over Wang to 13-5. The 28-year-old said: "In the semi-final, I was a bit spent physically and mentally, but I learnt from that and consumed an energy drink, chocolate, and a banana before the final.
"Manyu and Shasha (Sun) are playing very advanced table tennis on a very high level. Every time we play one another, it's a duel of the mind, technique and tactics, so I feel we all level up each time we play one another.
"Maybe I was more decisive at the end, but we gave it our all and displayed our best table tennis, so Manyu deserves credit too."
Wang, the women's doubles champion with Sun, returned the compliment and felt Chen's patience was crucial.
The 23-year-old said: "As it became more intense and the rallies got longer, I felt breathless.
"It was a waste I could not build on the momentum to win. I didn't play badly, there wasn't much problem in terms of mentality and execution, but I was just not as precise. I will learn from this match and come back stronger."