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WTTC 2012 USA Women's Team Selection Questions

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Photo of Gao Jun

Should Gao Jun be playing more matches at the 2012 WTTC?

Photo by Rémy Gros, by courtesy of the ITTF
At the time of writing, the 2012 World Table Tennis Teams Championships is under way at Dortmund, Germany, from the 25th March to 1st April. The USA Women's team is about to play against France to determine whether they play off for positions 21-22 or 23-24. The team selections made by the coach, Teador "Doru" Gheorghe have sparked quite a lot of speculation and a fair share of criticism in the About.com table tennis forum, and has led me to put fingers to keyboard with a few questions of my own about the situation.

The Selection Scenario

In essence, the situation revolves around the selection (or non-selection) of the team's #1 player, Gao Jun, who was selected to play in only one of the five first round stage matches, against the Ukraine, in which she won both matches in the 2-3 defeat. Gao has been the #1 USA women's player for some time, and proved that she was still another level above her USA rivals at the recent USA Olympic Qualifying event, where she was once again undefeated.

The USA Women's Team, consisting of Gao Jun, Ariel Hsing, Lily Zhang, Erica Wu and Judy Hugh, were included in the Championship Division of the Women's Teams competition, which is the top 24 nations. The USA were seeded in position 23 of 24, in a first round group (Group A) consisting of China, Romania, Hungary, Belarus, Ukraine, and the USA.

In the opening round group, the USA lost all 5 of the round robin matches, which is not necessarily something to criticize - the competition are all high level players. What USA table tennis fans are questioning is why was Gao Jun left out of 4 of the 5 matches?

The Team Selections

First Stage - Group A Matches

Match 1 - USA (1) vs Romania (3) - the USA team consisted of Ariel Hsing, Lily Zhang, and Erica Wu. Ariel was unlucky to lose 13-15 in the fifth game of the fourth match against Daniela Dodean, a win here would have forced a deciding 5th match. Lily Zhang had an excellent win over Daniela Dodean in the second match of the tie.

Match 2 - USA (1) vs Belarus (3) - the USA team was Ariel Hsing, Lily Zhang, and Judy Hugh. Again, Lily Zhang managed a good win over Alexandra Privalova.

Match 3 - USA (2) vs Ukraine (3) - the USA team was Gao Jun, Ariel Hsing, and Erica Wu. Gao won her two matches against Ganna Gaponova and Margaryta Pesotska.

Match 4 - USA (0) vs Hungary (3) - the USA team was Ariel Hsing, Lily Zhang, and Judy Hugh. Lily had a tough 2-3 loss to Georgina Pota.

Match 5 - USA (0) vs China (3) - the USA team consisted of Ariel Hsing, Lily Zhang, and Erica Wu.

Second Stage - Playoffs for Positions 13-24

Match 1 - USA (1) vs Croatia (3) - the USA team consisted of Gao Jun, Lily Zhang, and Ariel Hsing. Ariel, playing in the #3 position, was the sole winner for the USA, defeating Yuan Tian. Gao Jun lost 2-3 to Tamara Boros. Interestingly, the USA team order was such that Gao Jun was listed to play in the final match, not the second last match, and so Gao Jun only played one match in the tie.

This match was the deciding factor in determining whether the USA Women's Team would play for positions 13-20 or 21-24. With the loss, the USA can now finish no higher than position 21.

Match 2 - USA vs France - yet to be played. A win will put the USA into a playoff match for positions 21-22, and a loss will mean the USA play off for positions 23-24.

Interesting Background - History Repeating Itself?

As About.com forum member CarlDanner pointed out, team coach Doru Gheorghe actually employed a similar strategy for team selections in the ITTF 2010 World Team Championships, once again only selecting Gao Jun (again, the team's #1 player by a large margin) for one match out of five in the first stage group matches, resulting in the USA losing all five group stage matches.

Doru then picked Gao Jun to play in the second stage 13-24 playoff match against England (USA won 3-2, with Gao winning both her matches), and Italy (USA won 3-2, with Gao winning both her matches), which cemented a 13-16 place finish. He then rested Gao for the remaining two matches against Russia and Spain, resulting in a position 16 final result.

A Few Questions

As an Australian, I don't have any personal interest in the team selections for the USA, but since this site has a predominantly USA readership, I think it's fair enough for me to pose a few questions on behalf of my readers, who might be scratching their heads at the teams selections at this point. Bear in mind that I'm certainly not an international level coach, and I don't have any inside information regarding the selections, so I'm just putting these questions out there as if I was an ordinary USA table tennis player and fan.
  • Is Gao Jun not selected in the first stage matches because she is sick, injured, or tired?
  • Is Gao Jun being rested so that she is fresh for the second stage matches, playing off for positions 13-24?
  • Why was Gao Jun placed in position #1 in the Croatia match, so that she did not receive the chance to play a second game? Don't you normally pick a team order where your best player finishes first?
  • Did Gao want to play in any of these matches, or did she request not to play?
  • What were the goals for the USA Women's Team going into the championship? What was considered to be a good result? Was there a plan in place to meet these goals?
  • If goals were set, who sets them? And who monitors them to see if they are met? What happens if they aren't?
  • Are the young players being given opportunities to gain experience at the expense of losing possibly winnable matches? Is this part of an overall long term plan for USA women's development?
  • If there are goals for team performance, are the players informed of these goals before agreeing to play in the team? Do players have a say in the setting of these goals, or the planning on how to achieve them?
  • Does the coach have to explain his actions to anybody in the USATT? If so, is there a mechanism in place to handle the situation where the coach makes decisions that are considered to be in contradiction to the overall plan?
  • Do the USATT grassroots members have a right to ask these questions, and have these questions answered? Should the coach (who presumably understands the game at a higher level than the rest of us) have to explain his actions to grassroots members, who lack his expertise?

Conclusion

As you can see, there are a number of questions that have been sparked in my mind by the debate on the 2012 WTTC USA Women's Team selections that is occurring in the About.com table tennis forum. I certainly don't pretend to have the answers to these questions, or even the ability to have an informed guess, but I think that the ordinary USATT member might want to know what the official USATT responses are. And spare a thought for the coach, Doru Gheorghe, who is no doubt doing his very best throughout all of this situation, regardless of the criticism he is receiving.

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