by Ian Marshall, ITTF Publications Editor
Each deals with the situation in a different way.
Zhang Jike, the defending champion, is the enigma; he is the player who might just have the odd hiccup on the ITTF World Tour but on the biggest stage of all, the World Championships or the Olympic Games, there are no major blips. It is his scene.
Is he not the modern day Jan-Ove Waldner? Interview male players of international status in the era of the late 1980s through to the first decade of this century and ask them to name their best win. Over 80 per cent will answer “Jan-Ove Waldner”; then compare their records with the maestro on the big stage and there is no comparison.
Perhaps Jan-Ove Waldner and Zhang Jike should adopt Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” as their signature tune?
Needed to Prove Himself
The situation with Ma Long is somewhat different; he has had to prove himself in the big time. Three World Championships in succession he was beaten by colleague, Wang Hao at the semi-final stage of the Men’s Singles event.
First it was Yokohama in 2009, followed by Rotterdam in 2011 and then Paris in 2013; in the latter two year period, Zhang Jike had been crowned both World and Olympic champion.
He had to fight himself, he had to prove he could compete on the grand platform. Did the success of Zhang Jike provide the spur, the extra ingredient Ma Long needed? In 2015 it was a very single minded and determined Ma Long who won the Men’s Singles titles at the World Championships, the Men’s World Cup and the ITTF World Tour Grand Finals.
Similar for Li Xiaoxia
It was somewhat the same situation for Li Xiaoxia, runner up in the Women’s Singles event at the World Championships in 2007 in Zagreb and four years later in Rotterdam, the “Miss No.2” tag was dispelled.
At the London 2012 Olympic Games and the Liebherr 2013 World Championships, the style of play that had taken colleague Zhang Yining to the top step of the Olympic and World podium was in evidence. The backhand block like a brick wall; the top spin from both side consistent, unerring a more powerful as confidence grew.
Was the vital factor not to be regarded as the greatest runner up of all time a key factor?
Defeat Hurts, Severe Pain
Reacting to defeat and returning stronger but if anyone possesses that trait, it is Ding Ning.
You see a smiling, cheery face but inside there is a steely determination to win. It is that factor above all else that enables Ding Ning to cope with pressure.
Nowhere was that more exemplified that in the final of the Women’s Singles event at the Qoros 2015 World Championships in Suzhou, when in the seventh game she suffered an ankle injury and with restricted in movement, secured victory. Mental strength, few are her equal in that department, none are better.
The Norm, Not Unusual
In Rio de Janeiro, the Chinese quartet is under pressure but that is nothing unusual.
At the Liebherr 2004 World Championships in Doha, Wang Nan was quite clear. “As a member of the Chinese Team you are always under pressure!”
Simply, it is the norm. It is a fact supported by history; it is now 12 years since a Chinese player experienced defeat against an adversary from foreign shores at an Olympic Games.
In Athens in 2004, Jan-Ove Waldner underlined the fact that, even though he was in his twilight years of his career, he was still a player of note. Additionally, undoubtedly pressure told.
Contrary to expectations, Jan-Ove Waldner beat Ma Lin in the fourth round of the Men’s Singles event; partnering Jörgen Persson in the Men’s Doubles, in the third round the duo ousted Kong Linghui and Wang Hao.
Occasion Too Great
Later, in the final of the Men’s Singles event, did the occasion and the expectation prove too much for a 21 year old Wang Hao? He lost to Korea’s Ryu Seungmin, a player he had beaten on all three previous occasions when they had met on the international scene.
Furthermore, the surprises were not restricted just to the men.
In the Women’s Singles event, Niu Jianfeng experienced a fourth round defeat at the hands of DPR Korea’s Kim Hyang Mi, the eventual silver medallist; one round later at the quarter-final stage, Wang Nan departed at the hands of Singapore’s Li Jiawei.
Place Your Bets, Not Your House
Will Rio 2016 witness the surprises of 2004; or will the Chinese dominance of the past two Olympic Games continue?
Place your bets but don’t put your house on Athens.