For those who witnessed the final of the 2019 Joola North American Team Championships, some are still scratching their heads wondering how the final conclusion manifested itself. Like a child leaving an illusionists show trying to figure out just how the magician escaped a perilous situation, onlookers and fans departed the convention center at National Harbor with a feeling of awe and thrill at what had been witnessed in perhaps the greatest final to be played on US soil.
The Joola Grunwettersbach team of Wang Xi, Lubomir Pistej, Chen Weixing and Rajko Gommers emerged victorious after a match that truly went down to the wire, so just how did the team pull off this Houdini moment on center court?
It all started very slowly. Digital Multitools Inc. were the opposition, having overcome Nison's Table Tennis Club in the semifinal stage. The quartet of Eugene Wang, Fang Yin Chi, Kaden Xu and Jeremy Hazin were ready to take on the host team from Joola. Eugene Wang was first to take to the table.
Wang's slow playing strategy and masterful touch was the silent assassin as the match got underway. Pistej of Slovakia was shackled and bound as the Canadian, Wang, brought his heavy spin and tactful execution to the table. Before you knew it the score was 2-0 and, in the best of 5 team tie, Digital Multitools were looking to take the first point.
That's what anyone watching would have thought anyway.
Pistej had other ideas and when we came back to the table he brought a tidal wave of momentum with him. All of a sudden it was point after point of flawless play from Pistej, confidence erupted from the man as he swung the tables on Wang.
With backhand variation almost always setting the right pace and hitting the perfect marks on the table, Pistej also utilized expert wrist control to send forehands curling wide or swinging inside-out. Fist pumps and arms in the air, Pistej was unstoppable.
Wang had no option but to find passive responses, and couldn't put enough pressure on his opponent to stop the bleeding as points continued to tally to the Slovak's cause.
The comeback completed in unbelievable style, 3-2 for Pistej, Team Joola stole the lead.
It was up to Fang Yin Chi to level the score and keep Digital Multitools, Inc. alive. The second Chinese National Team player brought his exceptional technical game and Super League experience to the match as he took on defender Wang Xi.
Wang had already suffered two losses in the tournament, and the former top German league player was having his moments. Fang was dominant against the long pips defense of Wang and, while unsettled at times by the forehand countering of Wang, it was Fang who powered home the points.
Combining devastating forehand attacks with the balance needed to overcome the heavy chop of Wang, Fang leveled the scoreline for his team with a 3-1 victory.
The next match could easily have been described as the balance point of the tie, a point here had the most potential to swing the match to either team given the order of play.
The experienced 47 year old veteran defender Chen Weixing was set to take on one of the USA's top active players, Kaden Xu.
Chen started with heavy defense on the backhand, and worked his magic on the step-around forehand to pierce through Xu with deathly precision. Targeting down the line, into the body and inside-out wide to the backhand, Chen never missed his mark as he imposed his years of career experience upon his younger opponent.
Xu went back to the bench after a troubling first game, but his class forehand was about to make an appearance in the match.
Combining a great number of long fast serves to Chen's backhand with blistering forehand third ball attacks, Kaden Xu quickly revived his chances in the match. The young New Jersey based player, an under-21 finalist at last year's US Open, was relentless as he continued to shatter Chen's defensive game with his overwhelming forehand offense.
Xu clutched close games to hold a 2-1 lead. The pressure was on for Chen Weixing and for Team Joola, this point was critical for both teams.
Chen had to work to neutralize his passive returns of the long fast serves, which almost always found their way back to Xu's waiting step-around forehand killshot. He also had to up the offensive again and to knuckle down on a strategy for bringing back Kaden's powerful forehand.
Xu was growing in confidence, but Chen started to shift up the rhythm, changing placements and depth. The long fast serve found its way back to Xu's forehand side on more occasions, and Chen took more offensive options. He stole away game 4.
The whole team final balanced on a thread as the benches waited nervously for the conclusion of the third match.
Chen brought everything to the table, fighting back from a deficit in game 5. He began to time his defense and positioning better and the effect of simply returning one of Kaden's booming forehands was priceless for the veteran. Xu was unable to trigger a second shot in most of the situations and Chen was doing everything in his power to make it happen.
Showing athleticism of a player half his age, Chen's agility, determination and grit paid off as he closed 11-9 in the fifth. The marathon was over for Chen who was elated with the win. Disappointment for Kaden Xu who had held victory in his grasp, only to have it vanish and land in the hands of his opponent. The magic continued for Team Joola.
It was up to Fang Yin Chi to keep Digital Multitools alive in the final.
Against Lubomir Pistej he exerted his prowess and skill. The games were unbelievably close, with Pistej narrowly managing to clutch the first in deuce.
It was Fang who upped the stakes in the next three games, locking up Pistej in his backhand corner and - as in previous matches, utilizing his dazzling forehand to win point after point.
Fang held the pressure of his team on his shoulders as they trailed 2-1 overall. A win over Pistej would setup the favorable matchup of Eugene Wang against Wang Xi, with the Canadian excelling at playing against defense.
Fang knew the stakes and brought his best to ensure the result, in four games he claimed it and forced a tiebreaker.
It had warmed up to be one of the most exciting finals ever. The team final was tied 2-2, it was time for the decider, Wang Xi vs. Eugene Wang.
It was a smooth start for Eugene as he utilized his incredible leg strength to loop forehand with ease against the defense of Wang Xi. Pace variation was key, and Eugene had the measure of his opponent. Ball by ball he compounded with his forehand, starting slow and spinny and working towards finishing power to win points.
Eugene was a new man, changing from his usual passive style to play the role of the aggressor, it was thrilling to witness as he pushed the offensive.
The bench of Xu, Fang and Hazin were on their feet as points mounted on their teammates' side. Team Joola looked concerned as Eugene Wang closed out the second game to take a 2-0 lead.
As game three began there was a moment of assertiveness from the bench as Chen Weixing firmly pointed across, emphasizing the need of Wang Xi to take the ball across to Eugene Wang's forehand more.
The task of Eugene to cover the table with his forehand became more difficult, as Team Joola's Wang chopped the ball from forehand to backhand corner and forced Eugene to cover more of the table. The physical exertion required was beginning to show, as Eugene found himself resorting to using more backhand. Xi capitalized on that and pulled himself into action with more forehand offense.
Eugene Wang looked depleted as Wang Xi steam-rolled through the next two games. It was 2-2 for the third time in the Team Final. Was Team Joola going to pull the win against the odds?
Eugene Wang knew that he had to put it all on the line, there was no room for fatigue, and his team needed him to get control of the match again.
Coming back to his strong forehand game, he pushed himself to get around the table and get back into the mode that had won him the first two games. Xi found perfect opportunities to counterattack, but Wang anticipated and on three occasions left Xi deflated upon dismissing his attempts to play the attack.
Eugene Wang was on a roll, his team were loud and confident on the bench, standing on every point. It was 10-7, three championship points for Digital Multitools, Inc.
For Team Joola the next points were the epitomy of what can only be described as a Houdini move. Wang went for broke. He opted to attack earlier in the points instead of settling into defense. He caught Eugene Wang off guard.
One forehand found its way past. Another. Another. It was 10-10. Three championship points saved.
Wang had already done the impossible, what happened next was the final blow. Two points were all it took, and Wang Xi made it five in a row.
He had escaped an impossible situation, with the pressure of everything on the line. Like an illusionist under deep water releasing themselves from locked chains, Wang Xi had showcased the ultimate finale.
He threw himself back on the floor and his teammates came flying into the court, piling on top of him. They were as shocked as the crowd.
What was witnessed that evening in the Gaylord Convention Center at National Harbor will be recalled as one of the greatest, if not the best ever, team final on US soil.
Congratulations to Team Joola, if you missed it, be sure to relive it all below!