New Delhi: The gruelling league stages have concluded and the third season of Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT) is at its business end. The four teams which will be playing in the semi-finals starting Friday are Dabang Delhi TTC, Chennai Lions, U Mumba TT and the Goa Challengers. All had booked their spots in the knockout stages by Wednesday.
Dabang Delhi TTC vs U Mumba TT
Delhi will face table-toppers U Mumba in the first semi-final on Friday. The prospect of playing their second match in two days would have seemed a bit daunting a few days back as Delhi's Bernadette Szocs, ranked 14 in the world, was playing on despite her knee injury.
However, if Thursday's match is any indication, Bernadette is gunning to push past the pain and notch up the points in at least her singles match. She did so against Chennai when her side was trailing 5-7 in the tie before the start of the final match, the reverse women's singles.
Bernadette kept her foot on the pedal then to blank the Indian Madhurika Patkar 3-0, taming her opponent by being aggressive at the outset and handing Delhi a come-from-behind 8-7 victory which would do their confidence a world of good.
For Delhi, their singles players, G Sathiyan and Bernadette Szocs have been in imperious form this season, particularly G Sathiyan who happens to be the highest-ranked Indian at number 24 in the world.
He has so far won all his singles matches this season except against Goa's Alvaro Robles, to whom he lost 1-2. What will also work in Delhi's favour is the fact that they won their match against U Mumba in the group stages 9-6.
However, U Mumba bounced back from that defeat, which remains their only loss this season. The new team has been the most dominant of the lot.
Their line-up features lowly-ranked Indian players who've belittled their world rankings. They've punched above their weight to bring home the points for their team. U Mumba's 19-year-old Manav Thakkar has been a revelation this season as he's anchored his team's wins in two ties by winning both the men's singles and mixed doubles to gain a healthy lead over their opponents.
That lead would later be consolidated by the other U Mumba men's singles player, Kirill Gerassimenko of Kazakhstan who's wowed the crowd with his athleticism and innovative shot-making.
Though one can't predict which player will face who in their tie, both sides' recent history suggests that Delhi's 32-year-old John Persson from Sweden is likely to be slotted against Manav Thakkar. Both players have usually played the first men's singles for their teams. That would leave Kirill Gerassimenko to face Delhi's G Sathiyan.
Both matches sure can't be predicted for a winner. In the women's singles, Delhi will be expecting U Mumba to field world number 12 Doo Hoi Kem for the first women's singles which is also the opening match of the tie.
Hence, Delhi will look to keep Krittwika Sinha Roy out of harm's way. Bernadette Szocs would be a better bet then for the first women's singles, leaving Sinha Roy to play Sutirtha Mukherjee in the reverse singles.
Chennai Lions vs Goa Challengers
The second semi-final will be played between Chennai Lions and Goa Challengers. Their previous meeting in the group stages won't help one in predicting a winner for it was as close as any tie could be. Chennai Lions' had rallied back from their deficit on the back of Sharath Kamal's brilliant play in his two matches, collecting four points and winning the tie 8-7 for his team.
It would be a treat to watch the two Indian table tennis veterans, Achanta Sharath Kamal and Anthony Amalraj battle it out once again. In the last tie, Sharath Kamal had edged past on golden point in the deciding third game.
There will be minimal scope for error as both have played against each other frequently on the Indian circuit. After their last match, Sharath Kamal laid bare his strategy when facing Amalraj, "He's so fast, probably the fastest among all players at UTT, so I have to move away from the table to stand any chance of winning," he said.
If both Sharath Kamal and Amalraj are slotted against each other, then that leaves Tiago Apolonia to face Alvaro Robles. Here too, Chennai had triumphed last time around as Tiago had won 2-1 against Alvaro during their men's singles match.
Keeping their last match against Chennai in mind, Goa might shuffle their line-up and let Amalraj play the first men's singles match.
For the women's singles, Petrissa Solja remains the player to beat. The world number 26 from Germany has blanked her last couple of opponents 3-0 in the women's singles. Chief among them was her win over Kolkata's Matilda Ekholm who's ranked 25 in the world.
Petrissa has mostly played the opening women's singles for her side. Goa Challengers will take heart from the fact that their player Cheng-I-Ching, ranked 9 in the world, had beaten Solja 2-1 in their last encounter.
Both teams are unlikely to pull either Ching or Solja from their respective positions in the line-up which leaves Madhurika Patkar to face Archana Kamath.
U Mumba TT vs Dabang Delhi T.T.C. (Friday)
Chennai Lions vs Goa Challengers (Saturday)
When and Where to watch: The matches will be played in New Delhi's Thyagaraj Stadium and start at 7 PM IST. LIVE broadcast will be available on Star Sports Network and streamed on JioTV and Hotstar.