Iran's 'Backhand Man' keeps opponents in a spin
Before Sunday few people would associate Iran with being a table tennis powerhouse, but the nation's paddlers have won a lot of praise in Hangzhou after an emphatic 3-0 victory over their Japanese counterpart.
Although they failed to reach the finals after their 3-0 semifinal loss to the Republic of Korea on Monday, the Iranian team has made history, winning the nation's first team table tennis medal at the Asian Games in 65 years.
The spotlight has shone most brightly on the ace of the Iranian team, Noshad Alamiyan Darounkolaei. The story behind his moniker "The Backhand Man", has resonated with the wider public.
"I have a problem with the nerves in my left hand," he said. "It happens to about one in 1,000 people. I can only play backhand, because when I hold the paddle, I cannot feel my forehand," he said.
The disorder developed about seven years ago, forcing him to change his game. But that did not stop him from taking the bronze medal at the last Asian Games, Iran's first table tennis medal at the Asiad in 52 years.
The 31-year-old has been making history for Iranian table tennis. Born into a family of paddlers, his father was once also a member of the Iranian table tennis team, and was his first coach. Noshad started practicing table tennis at the age of 6 with his younger brother Nima, who is also a professional table tennis player competing in Hangzhou.
In 2008, the 16-year-old Noshad won the title of best athlete at the World Youth Championship. In the men's singles quarterfinals of the 2012 Asian Cup, Noshad defeated China's Olympic champion Wang Liqin. In 2013, he became the first Iranian player to appear in the Men's Table Tennis World Cup.
To counter Noshad's issue, coach Jamil Lotfollah Nasabi created a bespoke training regimen. It targets ways to help the player cover angles and defend as much of the table as possible. Speed and footwork are paramount, and Noshad will occasionally surprise opponents by switching his paddling hand.
While Noshad has honed a formidable backhand, the speed of the sport means he remains highly exposed at the table.
"Of course, it's a frustrating situation," he said. "Covering the table with just my backhand means, I'm limited. But I'm able to apply some special spin to the ball, so I know where the ball is going to land."
This was how he upset higher-ranked players at the Jakarta Games in 2018. Even without his forehand, Noshad remains at the top of his game. He continues to claim big wins, such as beating China's world No 7 Lin Gaoyuan at the 2022 Asian Cup.
"My world ranking is No 53," Noshad said. "It's a ranking that is not accessible for most players in the world. It shows that I can still do the job. To me, this is not a handicap. I have adapted, and I'm enjoying my game."
Alongside Noshad, his younger brother Nima has also grown into a prominent player. It was Nima, currently ranked 208 in the world, who, on Sunday, defeated Tomokazu Harimoto in the first match of their quarterfinal. After that stunning result, the Iranians were unstoppable and eventually won 3-0.
In the semifinal against the Republic of Korea on Monday afternoon, Nima, who took the lead again, challenged Lim Jong-hoon head-on. The two sides fought until the last minute of the decisive game. Noshad's wrestle with Jang Woo-jin, which lasted five games, wasn't any less intense. Despite the loss, the team was happy about what they have achieved.
"We are so happy that, after 65 years, we have achieved this (men's team) bronze medal," Noshad said.