Ultimate Table Tennis 2017: Shaze Challengers show composure to beat Dabang Smashers, march to final
It all came down to handling the pressure games well and the Challengers showed better composure on the evening as they won several close games that ultimately led to a comfortable-looking scoreline
The Shaze Challengers trounced the Dabang Smashers 14-9 in a gruelling semi-final in the Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT) League to book their place in the final on Sunday. But the path to the final was not an easy one for the Challengers. It was a battle of equals, given the Dabang Smashers' strong contingent, high profile players and admirable performances throughout the tournament.
It all came down to handling the pressure games well and the Challengers showed better composure on the evening as they won several close games that ultimately led to a comfortable-looking scoreline. The tie however was intense throughout, and at one point it looked as if it might go all the way to the last match to decide the winner.
With the Challengers leading 11- 9 in the team score, it was the Mouma Das’s third game win over the Rio Olympic bronze medallist Kim Song-i that paved the way for the Challengers to win the tie. Mouma had lost the first two games by huge margins, with the scoreline reading 4-11 on both occasions. Song-i looked comfortable and set to take the third game against Mouma. Song-i — a defensive player — had Mouma tied up with her spin variations coupled with her occasional strong forehand hits.
It was a one way traffic when Mouma surprised one and all with her forehand flat hits. Playing a high risk game, Mouma came out in the third game hitting flat hits on Song-i’s chops to take a lead of 0-5. Song-i was completely taken unawares with this rampant hitting by Mouma. The North Korean made a comeback tying the game at 7-7 as the high-risk game also led to a lot of errors.
The atmosphere turned tense with both teams egging on their player. This game was imperative for both teams. Challengers coach Elena Timina was also highly involved continuously instructing Mouma and getting her to calm down.
Song-i had a match point at 10-9 when Mouma produced another of her flat hits to take it to Golden Point, in which the former stepped around her backhand to hit a strong forehand top-spin, which Mouma blocked on the vacant forehand to win the game, leading to wild celebrations in the Challengers camp. Mouma was ecstatic and she hugged her teammates and coach while Song-i was reduced to tears — a testament to the spirit and emotion with which this league has been played.
Song-i suffered enormously in this tie as she had also lost to Han Ying on Golden Points earlier in the day. In a close encounter Song-i won the first game against Ying, but the latter fought back brilliantly in the next two games. It was a battle of defenders as the match saw astonishing rallies with both proving their consistency in defence. Song-i had a match point against Ying at 10-9 but she failed to convert it yet again, and allowed the better to get the better of her.
Ying definitely proved her status as the undisputed queen of the league as she by stretching her unbeaten run, winning five of the six games that she played on the day. Ying — the German defender and ninth-ranked globally — has not dropped a single match in the league so far, and she proved her value for her team on Saturday as well. Apart from beating Song-i, she also defeated India’s current national champion Madhurika Patkar by a score of 3-0.
The Challengers had got off to a very good start with Soumyajit Ghosh winning one game against Smashers captain and world No 13 Marcos Freitas. He further continued the good work as he partnered Petrissa Solja to win the mixed doubles round against Anthony Amalraj and Tetyana Bilenko. It looked quite comfortable for the Challengers as they led 5-10 at one stage. But India’s Sathiyan Gnansekaran had other ideas as he displayed his never-give-up attitude to beat world No 42 Li Ping 2-1.
Sathiyan’s backhand blocking against Ping’s top-spins was immaculate. Sathiyan also played a lot of balls on the body of Ping and then tried to open up his forehand wide areas. His counter-hitting was top-notch as he won a number of points in top-spin-vs-top-spin rallies. His victory against Ping was his fifth overall in this tournament, and he remains the only unbeaten male player having defeated five higher-ranked foreign players en route his journey.
Unfortunately the Smashers were not able to keep up with the intensity which Sathiyan brought to the table as Ping later came out to beat Freitas 2-0 as the Challengers accumulated the 14 points that they needed to win the tie and end the second semi-final
The Shaze Challengers will now face a stern test in the final against the Falcons TTC. The latter have been in superb form as they finished top of the league and also thrashed Maharashtra United in the first semi-final. But incidentally it was the Challengers who last beat them in the league stages. It will be a very tightly fought duel as we look forward to the winner of the first edition of the UTT League.
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