by Ian Marshall, ITTF Publications Editor
On debut, ten years ago in 2007 in Zagreb, admittedly only 18 years old at the time, immaturity was his downfall; he tried to blast Korea’s Joo Saehyuk out of the water but came unstuck against classic defensive skills.
He experienced the ignominy of being the only Chinese player to lose to an adversary from foreign shores in either the Men’s Singles or Women’s Singles events.
In each of the next three years, 2009 in Yokohama, 2011 in Rotterdam and then 2013 in Paris, he departed at the semi-final stage; on each occasion he was beaten by his Chinese national team colleague, Wang Hao.
Now, one fourth round appearance followed by three semi-finals, losing to only two players; that is a quite outstanding performance. Had that level of success been achieved by any other player, it would have been lauded to the hilt.
However, from the young man who was crowned World Junior champion in 2004 in Kobe we expected more.
Losing three times to Wang Hao was no disgrace but in each of those contests, he was well below his best; in Suzhou he performed, he was at his best.
Now since that time, Ma Long has gone from strength to strength; the win in Suzhou gave an injection of self-belief, it was a watershed moment in his career. Later in 2015 he won the Liebherr Men’s World Cup and the ITTF World Tour Grand Finals before the following year securing gold in the Men’s Singles event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Furthermore, there has been a consistency to his efforts; since winning the title in Suzhou, in Men’s Singles events on the international scene, there have been only five defeats and only one of those against foreign opposition.
In 2016 on the ITTF World Tour he was beaten by Xu Xin at the semi-final stage in Japan and in the final in Korea; likewise in the final, he lost to Zhang Jike in Kuwait, Fan Zhendong in China.
Results against colleagues are never true measures of status; furthermore, they are the next three players on the World Rankings behind Ma Long!
The only hiccup came earlier this year in what is his most recent contest on the international scene; at the Seamaster 2017 ITTF Asian Championships, he was beaten in the third round of the Men’s Singles event by Korea’s Jeong Sangeun.
It is the only hiccup since winning in Suzhou and for Ma Long he can breathe a sigh of relief; at the Liebherr 2017 World Championships Jeong Sangeun is in the opposite half of the draw.
Now that would be an interesting final!