Down 10-6 in the deciding fifth game, Fan Zhendong needed a huge break to come back and defeat Ma Long in the men’s team final at the China National Games. He received exactly that as he won four net balls in the last eight points of the match and saved five match points, taking the game 13-11 and the match 11-7, 8-11, 7-11, 12-10, 13-11. Combined with a missed step-around forehand kill while up 10-9 and 2-1 in games, Ma ended up failing to convert on all six of his match points.
The quality of play appeared to be quite low during the first couple games, but both players seemed to take safer shots in the last game and a half, resulting in several longer exciting rallies. Having just peaked for the Olympics and then undergone a strict quarantine upon returning to China, neither player may have been in top shape, and Ma went as far as to pull out of the men’s singles event due to injury maintenance. Additionally, all players at the tournament appeared to struggle adapting to the increased elevation of more than 1000 meters in Shanxi.
Fan’s 3-2 victory over Ma sealed Fan’s Team Guangdong a 3-1 victory over Ma’s Team Beijing 3-1 in the gold medal match of the team event at the China National Games. In the first match of the team match-up, Fan first defeated Beijing’s Wang Chuqin 3-0. Ma Long leveled the score to 1-1 with a 3-0 victory over Guangdong’s Zhou Qihao, but Guandong took a 2-1 lead as Guandong’s Lin Gaoyuan defeated Beijing’s Yan An 3-1. Fan’s 3-2 win against Ma gave Guandong the win and the gold medal.
Given that Ma will not play in the men’s singles event, table tennis fans will need to wait until the World Championships in November to see the next chapter of the Ma Long vs Fan Zhendong rivalry.
The match started out with two missed short flicks from Ma followed by a missed short flick by Fan. Fan then hit several winners while Ma’s backhand appeared to be a bit off as one backhand roll hit the edge of his paddle and another roll dribbled straight down into his side of the table, giving a Fan an early 7-3. Ma was able to narrow the lead down to 9-7 with several big forehands, but he then pushed a serve return into the net, giving Fan a 10-7 lead. Fan then won another backhand-backhand rally to take the first game 11-7.
The relatively low quality of play continued into game 2. Fan built an early 5-2 lead, with both of Ma’s points coming from errors from Fan, including another strange point where the ball appeared to dribble off Fan’s backhand straight into his side the table. Fan’s backhand then appeared to completely abandon him as he missed a combinations of backhand blocks, counters, pushes, and openings to allow Ma to go on a 9-3 run and win the second game 11-8.
Fan’s backhand continued to fail him in game 3. He lost a backhand-backhand rally and missed a long backhand opening to dig himself into an early 4-1 hole. Ma was able to extend the lead to 6-2 thanks to a pretty chop block and another high push from Fan. Fan was able to level the score to 7-7, but two of the five points he scored in his comeback were due to pretty fast counters, and the remaining three were due to errors from Ma as Fan’s signature backhand roll continued to be non-existent.
Fan then missed a short backhand opening, missed a backhand block, lost a backhand-backhand battle, and then missed another backhand opening to drop four straight points to give Ma the third game 11-7.
The fourth game opened with more errors as Ma and Fan each missed two backhand openings in the first eight points. However, despite the errors, Fan’s backhand seemed to be in slightly better form compared to earlier as he was able to land just enough openings and counters to build an early 5-4 lead. Ma then landed two big forehand kills to take a 6-5 lead, prompting Fan to call time-out.
Fan tied it up at 6-6 with a fast down-the-line backhand block after Ma stepped around, but he again yielded the lead with a missed backhand opening against a long serve. Fan was able to get in a small rhythm as he won three straight points off of two pretty rallies and a quality down-the-line backhand opening to go up 9-7.
Ma responded with a run of his own as he landed a big forehand kill and won a very long backhand-backhand rally to level it at 9-9. Ma then landed an ambitious chop block to take match point at 10-9. Fan pushed the ball slightly high but wide to Ma’s backhand on the next point, and Ma’s attempt at a step around kill sailed long to level it at 10-10.
Fan then landed another quality down-the-line backhand opening against the serve to go up 11-10, and in the next point the ball dribbled straight down off Ma’s racquet in the middle of a rally again as Fan took the fourth game 12-10.
Both players appeared to be completely in rhythm as game five treated the audience to a series of long rallies. Ma won four straight points early in the game thanks to a series of ambitious step-around forehand kills to take a 7-2 lead. Fan responded with a couple of nice points of his own, but he made several pushing errors as Ma was able to maintain a 10-6 lead for quadruple match point.
With the match almost out of sight, Fan started taking some extremely ambitious shots that all landed as he came leveled the score to 10-10. Fan missed an opening to give Ma his sixth match point at 11-10, but Fan won an ensuing pretty backhand rally to level the score at 11-11 before taking the match at 13-11.
However, arguably the biggest key to Fan’s comeback was his extremely lucky break: Fan caught four net balls in the last eight points of the match. Coupled with a couple risky shots from Fan that panned out, Ma has to be shaking his head at how this match ended.
Check out video hilights below. Footage courtesy of Malong Fanmade Channel: