by Ian Marshall, ITTF Publications Editor
Mould of Chen Xinhua and Ding Song
Joo Saehyuk attracted the attention because of his style; he was a backspin player in the mould of China’s Chen Xinhua and Ding Song, players who in the late 20th century had changed the defensive art for good.
Consistent backspin play, returning the ball from the far reaches of the court and then unleashing a powerful forehand top spin was not of the nature of players from the Korea Republic.
From the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea we had been royally entertained by the classical defensive skills of Li Gun Sang, who had played in the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympic Games. However, from south of demarcation line, the trend was still to promote the traditional athletic pen-hold grip style of play. Kim Taeksoo, then Ryu Seungmin followed in the footsteps of Yoo Namkyu, the first ever Olympic Games Men’s Singles gold medallist.
Sydney 2000 Olympic Games
Alongside Joo Saehyuk, Oh Sangeun, the classic right hand shake-hands grip player, the Korean version of Vladimir Samsonov, had appeared on the scene, making his debut at the 1995 World Championships in Tianjin.
However, at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, Korea stuck very much to tradition. Kim Taeksoo, Lee Chulseung and Ryu Seungmin, all right handed pen-hold grip attacking players in the traditional Korean mould were the selection for the Men’s Singles event. Oh Sangeun joined forces with Kim Taeksoo for the Men’s Doubles competition.
Notably, it was the first time and the only time that Korea has not won a medal in the table tennis events at an Olympic Games. The nearest in the Australian city was the partnership of Lee Chulseung and Ryu Seungmin; they experienced defeat in the bronze medal Men’s Doubles contest against Frenchmen Patrick Chila and Jean-Philippe Gatien.
Fast forward to Athens in 2004, both Oh Sangeun and Joo Saehyuk, who had been the runner up at the Liebherr 2003 World Championships in Paris, appeared in the Men’s Singles event. Most pertinently, so did Ryu Seungmin who gave the performance of his life to win the Men’s Singles gold medal.
It was an era of great success for Korea, in consecutive years, a silver medal at a World Championships, a gold medal at an Olympic Games had been won; yet in the 12 or more years since that outstanding success, no player from Korea has emerged at international level with the styles of Joo Saehyuk and Ryu Seungmin.
The name Lee Jungwoo may be whispered in my ear but he was prominent before Ryu Seungmin enjoyed his greatest hour.
It is the style of Oh Sangeun that has been perpetuated; Jeoung Youngsik and Lee Sangsu are the players who join Joo Saehyuk in Rio de Janeiro.
Jeoung Youngsik and Lee Sangsu, supremely polite young men, play in the Men’s Singles event; Joo Saehyuk joins them for the Men’s Team.
In both Beijing in 2008 and four years ago in London; Korea won medals in the Men’s Team event, bronze in the former, silver in the latter.
Somewhat against expectations Yoon Jaeyoung gained selection in Beijing in preference to Joo Saehyuk; in London Joo Saehyuk was back on duty.
However, on both occasions, Oh Sangeun and Ryu Seungmin were members of the Korean team; each had considerable Olympic Games experience.
At the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Joo Saehyuk lines up alongside two young men who have considerable international experience but are competing in their first ever Olympic Games.
Both Jeoung Youngsik and Lee Sangsu and right handed shake-hands grip attacking player, although Jeoung Youngsik is somewhat different from Korean culture in that he is stronger from the backhand than the forehand.
In London, the difference in style between Joo Saehyuk, Oh Sangeun and Ryu Seungmin was marked to a greater extent.
Even More Crucial
Experience and styles; those two facts add up to one conclusion; in Rio de Janeiro, the role of Joo Saehyuk is even more crucial than ever in the past.
Jeoung Youngsik and Lee Sangsu are fine players but if Korea is to maintain its Men’s Team record, the onus lies firmly on the shoulders of one man, the broad shoulders of Joo Saehyuk.