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The 2015 PartyPoker World Championship of Ping Pong is down to the last 16 player and defending champion Maxim Shmyrev of Russia is on course for his fourth consecutive title, having dropped just one set in his three games to date.
With all matches now taking place in the TV arena at the Alexandra Palace, Shmyrev gets proceedings underway as he faces Luxembourg-based Nigerian Sule Olaleye in a re-run of the 2013 final.
Interestingly all eight of last year’s quarter-finalists are still in the hunt for glory and there are a couple of dark horses there in the shape of transplanted Chinese players Ding Yi (Switzerland) and Hao Mu who is based in Germany.
In the bottom half of the draw, last year’s runner-up Ilija Lupulesku of the USA faces a tough prospect in Germany’s Alexander ‘The Flash’ Flemming, who has looked the part so far. The winner gets to face either lively Scotsman Gavin Rumgay or perennial Dutch contender Martin Groenewold.
Of the last 16 round of 32 matches, only one managed to make three sets although plenty were tight two set affairs. Paul McCreery, backed but a noisy band of Irish fans, got the chants going as he took the first set off dour Russian Dmitri Popov. However his challenge faded as Popov came on for victory.
There was a heart-warming story as 14 year-old Romanian prodigy Vlad Farcas battled out of the group stages and made it through to the centre court. Looking even younger than his years, Vlad had beaten Ferenc Turei of Hungary and then Englishman Joe Kennedy. Watched by his proud father and willed on by the crowd, he couldn’t pull it off as he lost in straight sets to Belgium’s Steve Bovenisty.
All of the Sunday afternoon session is taken up with the last 16 matches, and the remaining eight players compete down to a finish on Sunday evening.
England's Andrew Baggaley outlasted a strong field to claim his first PartyPoker World Championship of Ping Pong title as he got the better of Alexander Flemming (Germany) in a thrilling five setter at the Alexandra Palace in North London.
In front of an atmospheric 1,000-strong crowd Baggaley and Flemming went at it with a blistering pace but in the end the Englishman edged it to claim the $20,000 top prize, gold medal and the magnificent trophy.
Baggaley, a quarter-finalist in 2013 and 2014, showed some outstanding conditioning to survive a final evening that saw him win three matches which all went to the wire. His quarter-final saw him beat fellow Brit Andrew Rushton, after losing the opening set. He then ended Maxim Shmyrev’s three year domination of the event, beating him as the Russian faded in the deciding game.
Flemming, a 27 year-old from Leipzig, had crept into the event, taking the third and final place in the German qualifying event.
He enjoyed an epic last eight battle with fired-up Scotsman Gavin Rumgay, recovering after losing the first game. He then came back under similar circumstances to defeat fancied Lubomir Pistej, the Slovakian ace in the semi-final.
The championship match saw the 31 year-old Baggaley from Milton Keynes shoot into a two-nil lead as the German recovered from his semi-final. Flemming though took the next two to set up the gripping finale.
Baggaley said, “The final had everything. I was 2-0 up and felt in control, even at 2-1, but suddenly it turned around. At 2-2 I had a big chance to win 3-0 and maybe I began to think I would win. I found something in the tank at the end, I just kept telling myself I wouldn’t lose because of physical tiredness; if he beats me, he beats me, but I wouldn’t let it be because I was physically tired.
“I haven’t had many matches like that in my career, in either form of the game. I used to think that spongebat table tennis was more physically demanding than sandpaper, but I have changed my views now.
“After I beat Max, maybe I thought it was my year. I wanted to win it then, even more. I didn’t want to have a great moment and then not win the tournament. It made me more determined.”
For Flemming it was disappointing ended but he wasn’t disheartened; “It is great to be runner up. I watched the final from last year and I didn’t think that this year I would be playing in it. I was seeded second in my group so I did not expect to come this far.
Andrew is a champion. In the semi-final he was the underdog but he destroyed Maxim at times. I had a tactic but it didn’t quite work in the end.
“To play in a final like that, I think you can be satisfied with that even after a loss. I am delighted to have been a part of that and I have nice memories to keep, to watch again and to show my children. It has been one of the best days of my life.
“I was 1-0 down even in the last 16 and that all added up to the emotional exhaustion but it is special and I am proud of this.”
The PartyPoker.net World Championship of Ping Pong featured 64 players from over 25 countries competing over two days for a $100,000 prize fund including a $20,000 top prize. All players had won through following successful qualifiers staged around the world.
Ahead of this year's partypoker World Championship of Ping Pong, we caught up with Sky Sports' commentator Colin Wilson to get the lowdown on what is set to be the best WCPP yet.
Ping Pong or Table Tennis? Is There A Difference?
“Lots of things are the same between Ping Pong and Table Tennis, but there are three crucial differences that make all the difference. The things that are the same include the table, the net, the ball, the flooring, the lighting and the court size (in terms of international table tennis competition standards). So non-players often ask why it is so different? Here are my top 3 reasons:
So why Ping Pong? Well the games are very different both for the players and for the spectators, and I believe in both formats of the game for very different reasons. The impact of the modern rubbers has been a) to speed up the rallies, b) to shorten the rallies in many (but not all) cases, and c) to make it harder for the spectator to see what the players are actually doing in all their skill. It becomes partly a covert operation – as Barry says, “A battle between scientist and scientist”, as well as a battle of skill.
In Ping Pong however, the friction between bat and ball is very low . I think Fred (our star Ping Pong competition organiser and one of our ‘low-friction founding fathers’, Fred Dove), quotes the video analysis from Ping Pong spin being about only 2% of high-friction Table Tennis spin. This virtually zero-spin environment of Ping Pong means the players have a very different challenge. They cannot easily deceive the opponent with their spin (though they will certainly try to do so with direction and change of pace!), and they will have to work much more carefully to prevent their hard shots going off the end of the table. So self-control, ball control, table control and opponent control all have to be deployed in very different ways in order to plan and execute a winning strategy in Pong Pong.
So for the spectators, Ping Pong is an amazing and different treat. The rallies will on average be much longer than in table tennis, with more cat-and-mouse strategy to notice and enjoy. Perceptually, it is easier for spectators to see the skill applied by the players, and there are more defensive players, rallies and shots from away from the table, which is great to watch as the ball is controlled from afar and floated carefully and low to a tricky corner of the table. The reduction in spin (and hence speed) also means that mentally, the spectators can ‘get inside the heads’ of the players more easily, understand what they are doing, what they are planning, and can judge the players’ judgement and execution more readily during rallies. It all makes for a great event and so much fun to play and to watch!
How easy is it for a top Table Tennis player to succeed at Ping Pong?
“I’ve been asked this question a lot, and experience has taught me not to be too sure of myself here in this new sport, as the world level of Ping Pong evolves! I think there is a balance between sheer athletic and sporting class on the one hand – which shows that a great table tennis player is not just a function of their bat but their eye and skill is likely to make them fantastic at Ping Pong too. It certainly surprised some traditional aficionados how good some of the younger kids were able to adapt to this format of the game so quickly. So I think it’s true to say that ‘the cream rises to the top’ whether it’s Table Tennis or Ping Pong – but these days that’s only true if you familiarise yourself with the bats and the change in style properly. Gone are the days when good TT players could simply pick up a sandpaper bat from scratch and think they could win a big Ping Pong tournament!
But I think it’s also true to say, as in any sport, that particular conditions suit different players differently. Just like some golfers are links specialists, or footballers are strikers or defenders or good in a particular formation, a particular change in the rules or style will suit some more than others. I think Ping Pong is well suited to world-class defenders, like many of the Phillipino sandpaper specialists (Richard Gonzales is a joy to watch around the back of the court, for example), and at the very highest level I think physical conditioning, especially speed endurance (as opposed to the explosive power of table tennis), plays a significant role in shifting the odds between table tennis and Ping Pong. That’s one reason I think Max has been so strong. I also think it’s hard for the players who excel in table tennis by using more subtle variations of spin to dominate in Ping Pong – this ‘spin-subtlety’ has less effect with sandpaper bats, while the risks of this complicated type of shot execution (making a tiny error that takes the ball just off the edge of the table) are just as great. So Ping Pong shifts the risk-reward ratios of the game in a number of subtle ways.”
What have been your impressions of the first two years of the WCPP?
“I’ve absolutely loved it. I still uncover and coach some talented juniors in ‘modern’ table tennis mode, and it’s a great sport. But then Fred (Dove) got me into a ‘hard bat’ competition (similar to sandpaper) where I met up with lots of my old TT tournament circuit friends and adversaries, and we had a great time – competitive but not debilitating serious! And ping pong is not so hard on the body in terms of explosive twisting, so I can protect my old injuries from too much exposure!
I’ve played in several English competitions since that are similar to this Ping Pong event, but I’m struggling to keep up with the keen, fit and (increasingly) younger up-and-coming Ping Pong enthusiasts, so I’d struggle to qualify for this event. I’m more a local quarter-final kind of guy these days! I’m just very, very impressed by the sheer class of the qualifiers who are vying for the medals and the prize money, by the way they approach it professionally, and the way they still, by and large, keep a little tongue-in-cheek about the entertainment aspect of the whole event, despite the intensity of competition and the prize-fighting.
But what is clear is that the standard is rising quickly at the moment, more players are training specifically for this event, the game is evolving quickly, and so I think we’re due for some surprises and a lot of fireworks this year!”
Can anybody stop Magic Max?
“Well I mentioned the two-time and unbeaten Champion earlier. Max is an amazing athlete, so intense, quick and consistent, and if you look back over 2013 and 2014, he was so good at maintaining his form in the latter stages when some players were beginning to fade or the inspiration occasionally eluded them. Max is tall but he’s not large or carrying weight (not accordin to his latest Facebook picture anyway!), and his physique is fantastic for a guy his age, relative to many of his peers and in fact, even relative to lots of the younger players. My prediction is that he will not dominate in the same way this year, as he’s a year older, and some younger players have been gunning for him in training. And no-one wins forever.
But while the standard will be higher, and the matches closer, I still reckon he’ll come out on top again, as his experience, approach and attitude are just supreme. But from hard experience from my own playing days, I have learned that my predictions in these types of international events always need to be qualified by the thought that there is always one country that can bring out a new, sometimes internationally unknown player who is just amazing. And this year, Magic Max has to face the qualifiers from, yes…the mighty People’s Republic of China.”
How do the conditions differ between the big arena of Ally Pally, with its TV lighting, and the sports halls these players practice in?
“The conditions at Ally Pally are brilliant – perfect for the sport. Spectators can mill around the back courts and rub shoulders with the players, the coaches and the physios, seeing what goes on and what’s involved in preparing for a match in this World Championships. We also have a large and beautiful show court, fantastically lit, with lots of colour and entertainment for the spectators. When I was training full time in my early 20’s trying to work my way up into the England team, we had to train in a filled-in indoor swimming pool and had to run behind the pillars that held the roof up in between shots! These days many international table tennis players are used to training in large, well built sports halls, but you cannot easily replicate the intensity of this arena – the noise, the colour, the sheer scale of the welcome the players receive from appreciative crowds and the expectation felt on their shoulders, the intensity of the TV lighting that really puts them under the spotlight, plus we screen it live on TV – so it’s all seen and felt right there in the moment by the players. It’s like taking a penalty in the last minute of a World Cup final – you can train and prepare all you want, but when that moment arrives it’s very different to training and it’s just a raw engagement in an exciting, knife-edge, and thrilling activity. And you want to control your emotions, express your best game at the right moments, and win….!”