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China weathers challenges in title defense at historic Busan table tennis team worlds

Xinhua | Updated: 2024-02-26 10:09
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BUSAN, South Korea -- China's title defense at the ITTF World Team Table Tennis Championships Finals, which concluded in Busan on Sunday, came as no surprise to many people, but it was not all plain sailing.

On the women's side, China faced huge challenges from the very beginning, as the reigning champions survived a full-set thriller in their first group match against India, whose players boast distinctive styles of play.

World No. 1 Sun Yingsha suffered her first defeat in a team event against 155th-ranked Ayhika Mukherjee, who has a paddle equipped with anti-spin rubber on her backhand, meaning she can chop-block and neutralize opponents' spin.

China regained their supremacy from there, reaching the final without dropping a set, but were on the brink of defeat again in their last match against arch-rivals Japan, who had already fallen to China on four consecutive occasions at the final hurdle before the Busan event.

Amid an electric atmosphere in a packed Busan Exhibition and Convention Center, China weathered the storm with Sun's second win of the night and Chen's redemption in the deciding match against 15-year-old prodigy Miwa Harimoto.

"It will be the most memorable one for me except for the Olympic Games," said Chen with huge relief.

The title showdown was also an opportunity for China to observe their biggest rivals at the Paris Olympic Games, as the three Japanese paddlers stepping on the court, Harimoto, Hina Hayata and Miu Hirano, will compete in the women's team event in Paris.

Ma Lin, head coach of China's women's team, said, "We have defended the title while discovering some problems at the right time for us to make improvements ahead of the Paris Olympic Games."

For China's men's team, the biggest challenge occurred in the semifinal against hosts South Korea, as the defending champions came from behind twice for a hard-fought win.

Without conceding a set before their semifinal action, China were pushed to the limit, with Fan Zhendong scoring two points to save his team from the brink of defeat, and Wang Chuqin making amends for his earlier loss with a straight-game victory in the fifth set.

"The nail-biting semifinal against South Korea was a memorable one, and we haven't felt that kind of pressure for so many years," said Wang Hao, head coach of China's men.

"This title is a huge recognition for us, and will boost our confidence in our preparations for the Paris Olympic Games," he added.

China's 11th straight and 23rd Swaythling Cup arrived at an emotional moment as table tennis legend Ma Long said it would be his final World Championships appearance.

"I think this can be considered the last event of my World Championships journey. It's a perfect end to conclude this journey with this victory. Every World Championships is memorable to me, but this one is especially unforgettable," said the reigning Olympic champion.

Apart from China's double titles, several sides ended their long wait to return to the podium in the tournament.

With 17-year-old penholder Felix Lebrun showing stunning form, France made the men's final for the first time since 1997, while the country's women took their first medal in 33 years. Combining experience and vitality, Chinese Taipei saw off previous runners-up Germany to take their first medal in a decade.

While eight group leaders took up the quarterfinal spots in the women's event, Denmark emerged as surprise quarterfinalists after dispatching a Slovenia side led by Darko Jorgic.

The Busan event also served as a qualifier for the Paris Olympic Games, as five women's and six men's teams secured their Olympic berths.

This was the first time that South Korea has hosted the World Table Tennis Championships, coinciding with the centenary of table tennis' introduction to the country.

"This event has the power to inspire. It is more than just a competition; it symbolizes unity and the collective celebration of our shared love for table tennis," ITTF president Petra Sorling stated.

The organizers added their hopes the table tennis team worlds would leave a lasting legacy in Busan.

"With the activation program with the event ongoing, there will be a legacy after this event and everybody will dream and think about table tennis after having seen this around the city but also here in the venue," Sorling remarked.

For Ryu Seung-min, co-chair of the event's organizing committee, Busan is a very passionate table tennis city.

"After this World Championships, we will host some various international events in the future. We also have some investing for the development of the youth here as well as its local infrastructure," added the South Korean table tennis legend.

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