by Simon Daish
The Rio 2016 Men’s Singles final has all the potential to entertain, as the 1st and 2nd seeds face each other with the weight of the world on their shoulders.
Ma Long was left out of the London 2012 singles squad with Liu Guoliang (China’s Head Coach) opting to give the places to Zhang Jike and Wang Hao instead. Now four years on, Ma will be looking to prove himself in the final of the Men’s Singles.
Zhang Jike enters the tie as the defending Olympic champion, but his selection for Rio 2016 was surrounded in controversy following a lack of consistency in his game since winning the gold medal. He heads into the final, aiming to silence his critics once and for all.
Clash of the Titans
The tie has all the makings of an epic: Ma Long vs Zhang Jike, world champion vs Olympic champion, world number one vs former Grand Slam winner. But head-to-head, one player has enjoyed more success than the other, with Ma claiming 11 victories from 16 matches against Zhang on the Table Tennis world circuit (seniors).
Prior to the London 2012 Games, Ma had beaten Zhang in all five of their meetings beyond the junior categories including the final of the 2011 ITTF Grand Finals competition. However, in 2014 Zhang picked up arguably his most important victory over Ma to date, sealing the Men’s World Cup in a seven game thriller before losing the prize money for damaging the boards surrounding the court.
2015 saw the two stars go up against each other twice, with Ma winning 4-3 (final) and then 4-2 (semi-final) against Zhang at the German Open and ITTF Grand Finals events. Ma and Zhang have played each other on three occasions this year, with two of those matches being on the ITTF World Tour. The last four of the 2016 German Open witnessed Ma beating Zhang in straight games, while the 2016 Kuwait Open proved to be a happy hunting ground for Zhang who knocked Ma down to the runners-up prize with a 4-1 victory.
Their most recent encounter was at the 2016 Asian Olympic Qualification tournament, where Ma won in six ends.
Road to the Olympic Final
Ma Long got his Rio 2016 journey underway with a resounding 4-0 win over Jonathan Groth (Denmark) before his exit scare in the last 16, where he was forced to come back from 0-2 down against Jeoung Youngsik (Korea Republic) to win 4-2. Then he took on the surprise package of the Men’s Singles competition Quadri Aruna (Nigeria), whom he ousted 4-0, and his semi-finals encounter with Jun Mizutani (Japan) ended in a six games win for the top seed.
“I am very happy as this is my first Olympic finals. It was a difficult match particularly in the last 3 games. Making the finals is extremely meaningful to me as this is the dream for all athletes… I’m looking forward to it. My opponent will be the strongest in the world, and I don’t want go into the match with any pressure.” – Ma Long.
Zhang Jike made a great start to the bottom half of the draw by eliminating both Chen Chien-An (Chinese Taipei) and Adrian Cirsan (Romania) without losing an end. Next up was Japan’s Koki Niwa who took the opening game against Zhang, but the Chinese player prevailed 4-1. The semi-finals match between Zhang Jike and Vladimir Samsonov was a tightly fought contest, but Zhang earned another 4-1 victory to book his place in the final.
“I think I played pretty well in the semi finals. It was a close match, but I think I’m faster and had an advantage. Tonight I hope that I can play better and win. One more match! The previous matches are fought for my country, the Final will be for myself.” – Zhang Jike.
Watch the Men’s Singles final between Ma Long and Zhang Jike live at 21:30 (GMT-3) HERE.