JOOLA ASV Grunwettersbach a Crowd Pleaser on its Road to Title Defense

By Matt Hetherington | Nov. 27, 2018, 7:23 p.m. (ET)

Returning to defend his 2017 title, Ricardo Walther was a class act out on the table in Washington DC over the weekend at the Gaylord National Harbour Convention Center. Along with his German bundesliga team last year he had fought his way to victory at the prestigious team event, and now returned - merging with Team JOOLA, to go for a back to back championship.

Alongside Walther were the regular contender and table tennis legend Joerg Rosskopf, former Top 10 world ranked defender Chen Weixing and Hungary's Tamas Lakatos. Missing from the lineup was Nigeria's Quadri Aruna, who had to make a last minute plan change with his club league matches. 

A host of top US players had formed teams with the likes of east coast giants Liang Jishan, Zhang Kai and Kaden Xu teaming together for Zhi Yu Team LYTTC, and from the west coast the top ranked Tao Wenzhang and Ma Jinbao from Swan Warriors, along with Li Ruini from ICC and Chee Feng Leong from Malaysia - they combined to form Swan Warriors #1.

Joola ASV were a real crowd pleaser across the tournament, with many of the players attracted to the legendary status of the likes of Chen and Rosskopf, who are an engaging and entertaining duo of incredibly high skill level and knowledge. 

This year the tournament had attracted a record 260 teams and again over 1000 players. With 156 table of action buzzing around the clock over the long weekend, it was a true table tennis spectacle. 

Joola ASV reached the semifinal stage and faced off against New York Indoor Sports Club, which put up an admirable fight. Wang Yutian was the player to almost cause the biggest shock, as he took on Chen Weixing in the opener. He led 2-1 and made short work of Chen's defending with some incredible forehands. Chen dug deep and brought his experience to the forefront, making some surprise variations and constantly changing the ball. Wang's rhythm was broken and Chen came thundering back to claim the match. A relief for the former World number 9 and many time European Championship medalist. 

Liu Juan was impressive against Ricardo Walther, claiming one game and showing her 9 years of Chinese Super League experience and skill. Despite her best efforts, the 2018 US National Champion was unable to tame the beast that is Walther and he found comfort half a step back from the table, gently rolling back the ball before picking out his targets for some devastating powerloop combinations.

Shao Yu faced off against Lakatos and also made some ground, causing great discomfort for the Hungarian in the early stages with his short pimple backhand. But the current World number 138 made adjustments into the next game and never looked back. A 3-0 win for Joola ASV Grunwettersbach and they were through to the final to compete for the $15,000 USD first prize. 

Incredible Roller Shot by Chee Feng Leong in the Quarterfinals vs. Tian Ye

Swan Warriors #1 advanced to the final with a 3-1 win over Zhi Yu Team LYTTC. Kaden Xu was the man to upset the rhythm, flying back from 2-0 down against Malaysia's Chee Feng Leong to claim a 3-2 victory. It was an exciting match with the tables clearly turning half way through as Xu found his devastating forehand game and showed no signs of slowing down as he headed for the finish line. Unfortunately for the east coast trio, the Californian team were too strong and Tao Wenzhang was the star as he stepped in with a neck injury to do his bit for the team and claim 2 points against Liang Jishan and Zhang Kai. 

Into the final and the opening match was the one which possibly everyone wanted to see. Tao Wenzhang, currently the highest rated active player in the USA at 2805, taking on Chen Weixing, the feisty and reputable international defender. 

Earlier this year Chen had become World Champion in the Over 45 division at the World Veteran Championships in Las Vegas, but the way he was moving around the court in his matches in Washington was more like a player 20 years his junior!

The spectators settled in, with the stands full and standing room scarce also. A big match was about to go down. 

The match was a lengthy back and forth, with all of the markings of a great attack vs. defense showdown. Tao's steady backhand openings and powerful forehands were a crucial part of executing his strategy, often opening up space on the backhand corner of Chen before launching deadly down the line forehand loops. 

Chen worked hard, changing the rhythm, loading up his chops with heavy spin, and on occasions with no spin at all. Chen had learnt from his previous encounter and knew the importance of utilizing his forehand attack. He hit some screaming third ball pivot forehand attacks down the line to win points outright, also mixing up some tricky wide topspin returns with his forehand and a plethora of difficult defensive strokes. 

The match went down to the wire and both players put everything on the line, but it was Chen Weixing who showed his class in the final moments and the relief showed in his celebration. He threw his hands in the air with elation, a great sign of respect to the challenge presented by Tao. 

Ricardo Walther brought his skill to the show, taking on Ma Jinbao in the second match. The best of 5 match tie format put extra emphasis on each result, the pressure was on. 

Ma pushed close in the first two games, but his expertise in topspin situations was overshadowed by Walther's exceptional power - especially on the backhand loop. With two games under his wing, he lifted his game even further and really locked Ma out. The result was decisive and over in a flash, Walther prevailed.

With a 2-0 deficit it was only Chee Feng Leong standing in the way of team Joola ASV Grunwettersbach. Leong had suffered a tough defeat in the semifinal against Kaden Xu, but his intentions were clear as he stepped up to the table against Tamas Lakatos. Quick over the table and exhibiting lightning speed in the topspin exchanges, Leong looked unstoppable. 

He quickly accelerated to a 2-0 lead against the Hungarian who seemed taken off-guard by the sheer pace of his opposition. Lakatos struck back, loosening up and finding his footing. He snapped back over the ball and showed off some of his brilliant backhand counterloops, setting him up to clean up the points. 

Lakatos was forcing the pressure back on Leong. The speed of Leong began to diminish as his advantage dwindled, Lakatos was now the player on the front foot. Confidence fading, Leong began to slip.

Lakatos leveled the match at 2-2. Would Leong suffer the same fate as his semifinal with Kaden Xu, a 2-0 lead only to be reversed and closed out?

It would not be the case, he mustered all his confidence and flashes of the player who stepped out onto the table soon returned. Picking up the speed he made his case against Lakatos and fought to redeem himself and keep the team hopes alive. His efforts were rewarded and Leong took the win, bringing Swan Warriors #1 back to a 1 point deficit. 

Joola ASV still led 2-1 in the best of 5 showdown, and now Ricardo Walther came back out to try and build on his undefeated tournament. He would face Tao Wenzhang, another superb clash of giants.

Tao was strong on attack and set up well off his serves, but Walther equaled his forehand power, and the backhand became the key factor of difference. Walther's backhand loop game was unrivaled and he soon gained advantage. 

Although Tao gave it his all, it was Walther who raced ahead and sealed out the victory. 

A proud effort by Swan Warriors #1 and a great crowd pleaser of a final showdown.

Congratulations to team JOOLA ASV Grunwettersbach on defending the North American Team Championship title and winning the prize of $15,000USD. An exceptional performance, enjoyed by all. 

You can find the photo gallery for the event here. 

Keep an eye on USA Table Tennis YouTube for highlights.