Ma Long, has been the most dominant player on the Chinese national team as far back as ITTF has head to head records. And by that standard, the most dominant player in the world. Despite winning nearly 2 out of every 3 official ITTF matches that he has played against Zhang Jike, the debate has continued and might still continue long after their careers are done.
The two players, playing in the gold medal match for men’s singles in table tennis in Rio were the two that the world expected to see in the final. It was what the world was waiting for and had been talking about for years… even before they had earned the spots to PLAY in Rio. The rivalry is the most talked about rivalry in modern table tennis.
If Zhang Jike were to win the gold medal in Rio, many would call him the best table tennis player ever. He would’ve been the only man to complete a DOUBLE Grand Slam. No other man has won 2 Olympic Singles Gold Medals. Through his amazing and unpredictable career, through being sent down from the national team for insubordination and behaviour, to being criticized and penalized for his outpours of emotion and shocking celebrations…. from tearing off the Chinese national jersey to going on a rampage and kicking through barriers… the stamps he left on his victories stayed in our minds… but ask any table tennis fan who is better… Ma Long or Zhang Jike and if they couldn’t tell you they would say “well, Ma Long wins more, but when it really counts and Zhang Jike is motivated, he wins.” This has been the story of their careers.
Despite Ma Long’s dominance in the sport, it wasn’t until 2015 that he finally became the Men’s Singles World Champion. In 2015 Ma Long took pretty much EVERYTHING. Before then, many would say that Ma Long had all the tools but was missing the confidence that Zhang Jike had. Well, in 2015, he found that confidence and it showed. Only losing ONE ITTF match in all of 2015 he seemed unstoppable. I thought “If Ma Long comes to the gold medal match with confidence, it’s his.” But shortly after the new year started, Ma Long lost a match… and to whom? Zhang Jike. Right before coming to the Olympics, he lost TWO MORE TIMES! Both to Xu Xin. Could this put a dent in his confidence?
After all of this drama and being the most unbeaten player on the planet, Ma Long DESERVED the gold medal. But as Clint Eastwood said in Unforgiven “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” All the preparation, all of the sacrifice and all of the WANT you can possibly have… if your opponent outplays you in this one match, he gets the gold.
While the final didn’t go to the 7th and deciding game as many hoped it would, game 1 was the heart* of the final for me. It was the tipping point. Game 1 was a box with the confidence locked inside it and whoever was able to open game 1, would take that confidence and run. Would Zhang Jike have won the match if he took game 1?? Who knows. I think it still would’ve been very difficult… but it might’ve been the only thing to stunt Ma Long’s post 2014 confidence.
Some say Zhang Jike gave up after game 1. I don’t know… but Zhang Jike has wanted this title more than anything since 2014. From the two question marks on the back of his shoe along side the 4 stars, to the “PERSISTENCE” tattoo across his back… as world ranked #4, being selected ahead of WR#2 and WR#3, “giving up” didn’t seem to be in store. What if Ma Long just became that much more confident and free after taking game 1.
The part of this that was sweetest to me, was not simply that Ma Long won the gold and it felt like justice… honestly, part of me wanted Ma Long to win because I like him so much and he’s been too dominant NOT to take it, and part of me wanted to see Zhang Jike rise from the physical struggles he’s suffered over the past several years… to be the living legend who shows up and pulls off the unthinkable performances and FEEDS off of the pressure when it’s at its thickest. And while the world was curious what Zhang Jike would do to express himself if he won, Ma Long, the fighter, often called a beast, a MACHINE by the masses… took his biggest moment and with the power of knowing the world was watching him…and gave love.
That’s what he wanted to give to the world in his moment. There was nothing else. He held his heart in his hands for nearly 10 second straight as he walked around the table like there was nothing else he COULD do. No “who’s #1!!!”, no huge fist pumping sequence, no jumping on the table… but he clearly had one thing on his mind. And to take it one step further, he showed his love.
From the moment he received the Chinese flag to hold with pride, he IMMEDIATELY shared it with Zhang Jike. Instead of holding it up first as the champion, he made sure that they would raise the flag together as equal partners… as two rivals, two teammates, two legends and two of the greatest of all time. Two friends.
A machine? Yes. A robot (he admitted it) A BEAST? We’ve all witnessed that. A class act? No doubt. A lover AND a fighter. Congratulations, Ma Long.