World Cup glory beckons again for dominant China

The Table Tennis World Cup is upon us once again, with a notable absentee in the men’s event and the women’s edition heading to a new frontier, writes Gruffudd Owen

Last week’s China Open in Chengdu marked the end of the regular ITTF Super Series season, but before the world’s top table tennis players head to Qatar for the Grand Finals in December, there is another illustrious prize to play for in both the men’s and the women’s game next month.

First held in 1980, the annual Men’s World Cup takes place in Saarbrücken, Germany this year.

A conspicuous absentee from the tournament will be world no. 1 Ma Long, a two-time champion and the current title-holder following his victory in the Swedish coastal city of Halmstad in 2015.

Citing fatigue and a lack of training, the Olympic champion’s decision not to compete presents his Chinese compatriot Fan Zhendong with an excellent opportunity to win his first World Cup.

The world no. 2 will be full of optimism after thrashing his rival 4-0 in the China Open final, and while it was ironically Ma Long himself who beat the 19-year-old by the same crushing scoreline in Halmstad, Fan Zhendong will have learnt a lot from that bruising defeat. His triumph in Chengdu proved that he is a much more rounded athlete one year on.

The teenager's most realistic challenger in Germany is expected to be fellow countryman and world no. 3 Xu Xin, the 2013 winner. It may be axiomatic that China’s dominance in the Men’s World Cup reflects its decades-long superiority in the sport as a whole – a Chinese player has won every tournament since 2010 – but the gulf in class with the rest of the world is even more pronounced in the women’s contest.

Since its launch in 1996, a Chinese woman has won every single edition of the Women’s World Cup. Although Philadelphia welcomes the event to the United States for the first time in its history this year, a new setting is unlikely to interrupt this state of permanence.

As the reigning champion and the most successful female player in the competition with four victories overall, world no. 1 Liu Shiwen is the undoubted favourite to make it five in the City of Brotherly Love.

The 25-year-old recently made headlines by joining China Table Tennis Super League (CTTSL) side Wuhan for a record fee of US $1 million, a huge sum in table tennis terms that highlights her exalted position in the game.

Looking to stop her will be Ding Ning, herself a two-time winner of the tournament. Despite her inferior ranking, the world no. 2 was chosen as China’s foremost Olympic gold medal hope in the women’s singles this summer – at the expense of Liu Shiwen.

And while Ding Ning justified her selection by reaching the top of the podium in Rio, there may be some scores to settle between the sport’s leading players in Philadelphia next month.

The 2016 Men’s World Cup takes place in Saarbrücken, Germany from 1-3 October, while the 2016 Women’s World Cup is held in Philadelphia, USA from 7-9 October.