by Ian Marshall, ITTF Publications Editor
Facing China is a momentous task whatever the tournament but the Olympic Games is special, it is the pinnacle; for China especially it is the greatest show on earth.
Furthermore, they possess the majority of the sport’s star names. Somehow you must move from your head the names of your adversaries and remember they are players.
If there is anybody in the world, who followed that principle during his playing career, it is Alan Cooke who represented Great Britain in the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games.
He was the mentor sitting court side advising Great Britain, to him the youth club champion or the world champion were equal adversaries to be overcome.
Officially he is the National Coach for the England Men’s Team, the three players in Rio de Janeiro likewise all being from England.
Now for those confused, the Great Britain Team, or branded as Team GB, basically comprises England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There are other smaller islands and land areas but it is basically athletes from those four countries from which the British Team in Rio de Janeiro.
Notably Andy Murray, the tennis star, is from Scotland; this is where the British are clever or devious. If Andy Murray wins he is British, loses the English press will entitle him Scottish!
“I think we surprised them, I had a plan to follow, I won the first game against Ma Long and then I had 9-7 in the third and fourth but I couldn’t make it count; he responded, that’s why he is Olympic and World champion.” Liam Pitchford
In Rio de Janeiro, Alan Cooke had clearly transmitted the message. Undoubtedly, there is a feel good factor in the British Men’s Team; the bronze medal gained by England at the recent Perfect 2016 World Team Championships in Kuala Lumpur has been a massive boost.
“They have improved a lot and grew strong over the past two years to make the top four at the World Championships. I had a tough match against Pitchford, losing the first game and having to come back from 7-9 in the next; playing first, I wanted too much to win for our team. I was under pressure and I don’t know him well, I was tense throughout the rest of the match. I’m not in form today, so I had to take things slowly in the match and not be impatient.” Ma Long
Liam Pitchford was first in action, he faced Ma Long and I venture to suggest he gave the newly crowned Olympic champion the most severe test of any player to date in Rioentro Pavilion 3. He won the first game before in both the third and fourth games leading 9-7; credit to Ma Long, when crisis loomed he responded the give China the ideal start. He won in four games (6-11, 11-4, 11-9, 11-9).
Equally, Paul Drinkhall gave Xu Xin more than food for thought; likewise he extracted the opening game before experiencing defeat (9-11, 11-6, 11-7, 11-7).
“I think since Japan is 2014 we are all now much more consistent as individuals; we wanted to win, we gave our best, it’s been a great tournament.” Paul Drinkhall
Big Occasion Player
The odds massively in favour of China, Sam Walker, a young man who clearly likes the big stage, entered the arena to partner Paul Drinkhall in the doubles contest.
They faced Xu Xin and Zhang Jike, the reigning World champions; status prevailed, Xu Xin and Zhang Jike emerged successful but again the Brits proved worthy opponents. The outcome as in the previous three matches was a four games outcome (11-4, 11-7, 11-13, 11-4).
“I try to play just the same wherever I play but for sure I really enjoy playing in the really big tournaments, the Olympic Games and the World Championships; here there is so much hype and of course we have had a great deal of preparation. It’s been great.” Sam Walker
Challenge the Best
Defeat for Great Britain but matters must be put into perspective. The three players who, under the Cross of St George, had entered the ZEN-NOH 2014 World Team Championships in Tokyo outside the top 24 nations in the world, proved in Kuala Lumpur and now Rio de Janeiro that they can compete with the best, the very best in the world.
In Rio de Janeiro the British lion roared but it was the Chinese dragon who breathed fire to reach the semi-finals.