Despite suffering from an arm injury, top seed in the Girls' Singles event at the Australian Junior Open, Croatia's eighteen year old Sanja Paukovic, emerged as the champion on Saturday 8th July 2006.
A member of the Croatian Women's Team at the Liebherr World Team Championships earlier in the year, Sanja Paukovic attacked strongly from both backhand and forehand wings to beat Japan's Hiroe Udo in the final.
Sanja Paukovic won 11-6, 11-7, 11-9, 13-11.
It was the only singles match that Hiroe Udo lost in the whole tournament and for the Croatian it was sweet revenge. The only singles match she had lost was in the semi-finals of the Girls' Team event when beaten by Hiroe Udo in four games, matches in the team event being best of five games.
"I felt good today, there were no special tactics, just simply I played well", explained Sanja Paukovic. "My arm hurts a little but I'm sure it's not a big problem and that I'll be fine for the European Youth Championships in Sarajevo."
Sanja Paukovic is undoubtedly a major contender for honours in the prestigious annual tournament and is one of the few players to have caused the all conquering Romanians problems in 2006. At the ITTF World Junior Circuit tournament in Algeria in March she beat Daniela Dodean in the semi-finals before losing to the latter's Romanian colleague Elizabeta Samara, in the final.
"Certainly it will be tough in Sarajevo, so many good players, it depends on the draw", said Sanja Paukovic. "The Romanians of course are very strong, Daniela Dodean and Elizabeta Samara have been outstanding this year but Natalia Partyka and Gabriela Feher are tough opponents, everyone is hard; sometimes I win against them, sometimes I lose, we'll just have to wait and see."
However, Sanja Paukovic has prepared thoroughly and the win in Geelong must be a boost to her confidence.
"Yes, we've been training in Harbin, China for two weeks as part of our preparations for the European Youth Championships; it's the first time we've been to China to train, so it was a new experience", said Nikica Vukelja, the Croatian coach on duty at the Australian Junior Open. "Now, I think the players are a little tired but it's been a very good experience, the training was excellent, so many practice partners and so many different styles to practise again."
Vukelja highlights a major reason why China has done so well over the years, their players are comfortable against any style of play, the preparation and planning is thorough, very thorough. "They train for seven hours a day, that's not possible with school in Europe!" explained Vukelja. "The most you can expect in Europe is a maximum of four or five hours a day."
It was a different world for the Croatians and much different to Oceania where the key word is `Development' and Vukelja saw great merit in an ITTF World Junior Circuit event being held in a continent that has many newly formed table tennis associations. "It's a really good way to improve table tennis", he said. "It really helps the sport grow in developing countries."
The visit to China and Australia had proved successful, Croatia could boast a worthy champion, one who had displayed not only a high level of athletic and technical skills but also had been required to show strong mental character; especially in her penultimate round duel against Gwak Su Min of Korea.
Sanja Paukovic lost the opening game, won the second and led 5-3 in the third; at that stage Gwak Su Min was faulted on her service, the Koreans objected vehemently and appeared to have every intention of withdrawing their players from the tournament.
A long pause ensued with Raul Calin, the ITTF Competition Manager in Geelong, using his diplomatic skills to good effect to persuade the Koreans to return. The Croatians sportingly agreed to resume the contest. Sanja Paukovic won the third game 11-9, lost the fourth 2-11 before winning the fifth and sixth games to ensure success.
"Sanja played in classic style against a penholder", explained Glenn Tepper, ITTF Development Manager. "Good consistent topspins to the backhand, lots of patience and a fast forehand to her opponent's forehand, in both the fifth and sixth games she took an early lead and never let the advantage slip."
Most certainly the semi-final was a tough hurdle to overcome. "I knew she'd return to play, I made sure I was totally focused", said Sanja Paukovic. "I realised her backhand was not that strong, I played better as the match progressed, in the first game I returned her services really badly."
Meanwhile, in the counterpart semi-final, Hiroe Udo beat Arisa Kato in four straight games, the two players having been members of the Japan `C' team who had clinched the Girls' Team title earlier in the week. A bronze medal for Arisa Kato but there was to be success.
Titles for Japan
In the Girls' Doubles there she won gold in an all Japanese final. At the penultimate stage Arisa Kato and Ai Kawamura beat the top seeds, Croatia's Mirela Djuarak and Sanja Paukovic, whilst Nana Abe and Airi Moringa accounted for the Koreans, Gwak Su Min and Park Young Shin.
The final proved a thriller, it went to full seven games distance with Arisa Kato and Ai Kawamura winning 13-11, 4-11, 11-9, 4-11, 11-8, 9-11, 13-11 to clinch the title. Success, they were the Girls' Doubles champions, Australian Junior Open 2006.
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