By Kabir Nagpal
Everyday, the planets, stars, moon and sun all rise in the east. As if following a known fact of life, China continues to produce some of the world’s best talent in international table tennis and this is no more evident than the rise of a certain Sun Yingsha.
Birth of the junior Sun-star
Three years ago, 2016 saw Japanese female stars Mima Ito and Miu Hirano burst onto the scene. Questions were being asked whether they could halt China’s domination of the women’s game. Naturally, their strong performances started to steal the headlines, the spotlight very much on them. However, at the same time, China were nurturing their very own Millennial star in the making: the combative, determined and powerful attacker, Sun Yingsha.
Then just 16 years of age, Sun took no more than her debut display on the ITTF World Tour to display her quality to the world. Winning the 2017 Japan Open women’s singles title, the media and everyone associated to the sport started to sit up and take notice.
Her opponent in the final, then world no.5 Chen Meng spoke about what a composed athlete Sun was:
“She has her own style, she plays at pace and is mature with her game. Older players feel pressure when playing someone younger but I prepared well mentally, I managed to give everything I’ve got, but she was the worthy winner.” Chen Meng
From day one, Sun Yingsha’s greatest asset has to be her mental strength – how nothing seems to faze her. No matter who she plays, her ideals remain the same.
Shortly after winning in Japan, Sun was at it again, saving match points against compatriot and fellow Chinese wonder star Wang Manyu to win the 2017 World Junior Championships.
Relentless in her pursuit of glory, she followed up this success by winning the women’s singles gold as well as the mixed team gold with compatriot Wang Chuqin at the Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Olympic Games.
Doing so, she matched China’s Gu Yuting’s record of holding the two major junior titles at the same time. Yuting had previously won the Youth Olympic Games in 2010 in Singapore and the World Junior Championships in Rabat in 2013, but Sun – in her style of being different – did it in consecutive years.
And yet, all this came after a series of setbacks about which she was not about to hide from:
“During my preparations for the 2018 Asian Games, I lost to Kasumi Ishikawa and Yui Hamamoto. I felt very depressed at that time. Our coach Li Sun (Head Coach of China Women’s Team) punished me to run 10,000 meters. As I was running, I finally came around and thought: What does this matter? The stronger players all think it is normal to lose some matches when you are young.” Sun Yingsha
Moving in to the spotlight
Since then, Sun has continued her meteoric rise across seasons and tournaments with sensational performances. For instance, winning the 2019 Japan Open in Sapporo gave her the unique record of being the only player to have won twice on the ITTF World Tour after starting as a qualifier.
Her compact style of play, with over the table and near the net both being assets on the attack, enables Sun to keep breaking and making such records with remarkable consistency. Her speed of thought is matched by quick feet and outstanding positional sense. Indeed, she’s always prepared to step around the backhand to execute her deadly forehands.
While her progress has been well-documented, so has her ability to enhance the rivalry with her Japanese competitors. Last November, Mima Ito had just won the 2018 Swedish Open by beating Chinese elites Liu Shiwen, Ding Ning and Zhu Yuling quite convincingly. With Ito’s reputation the highest in her career to date, people were starting to tip her as a serious challenger at the Liebherr 2019 ITTF World Table Tennis Championships.
In round three, however, she would have to meet no other than Sun Yingsha, who might have been just as determined to win as to avenge her compatriot’s prior defeats. Sun was totally prepared for Ito and executed her tactics to perfection. The return of serve, her skill over the table completely nullified the first three attacking strokes of Ito. Here you can see just how she secured this stunning victory in Budapest:
It is also fascinating to know that her progress has not just been limited to the singles game. Playing doubles with a few select partners, Sun’s last four results in major competition are a sight to behold. She has won gold medals at the World Table Tennis Championships and the 2019 Qatar Open with Wang Manyu. Add to that silver medals at the 2019 Japan Open and Hungarian Open with Wang Manyu and Chen Meng respectively. Sun is very much a team player too.
The might of a robust mind
What remains an extremely interesting aspect of Sun’s rise, is how she has managed to avoid being in the shadow of her immensely successful senior compatriots. Over the last couple of years, Sun has faced all of the highest-ranked opponents at major tournaments, and yet she keeps coming through her battles with flying colours.
At the 2019 Australian Open, she defeated Ding Ning in comprehensive fashion, winning the final 4-0 – and the first game by a crushing 11-1 scoreline. This came at a time where the “Queen of Hearts” was transforming into the “Queen of Comebacks” but against the rising Sun she had no dice.
Speaking at a recent interview, Sun had the following to say when quizzed about the influence of having Liu Shiwen and Ding Ning as her compatriots and opponents.
“I like to watch their interviews sometimes. For sure their experience is a very good material for me to learn from. It is not about if my experience is the same as theirs, but the least I can do is to understand what they say and start thinking like they do. Right now I am only 18 years old. All I need to do is to fight. If I want to become the no.1 player in Team China one day, I believe I will need to have a high level both in terms of my skills and mentality. My plan for the coming years is just to fight with more courage.” Sun Yingsha
It is this kind of statement that one wants when you see a prodigy coming through the ranks. Sun’s senior compatriots are sure to be swelling with pride as they see yet another Chinese woman becoming a force to be reckoned with at the highest levels of international table tennis.
However, sometimes they might not enjoy just how robust she can be – as evidenced here when Liu Shiwen was made to suffer by the immense quality of Sun’s topspin forehands.
This was another example of a match where even though the odds were stacked against the younger Chinese, she did not let that affect her for one second.
The 18-year-old has never been shy to call a spade a spade, as was shown again in this quote from her interview with the Chinese media. She was asked to rate herself out of 100 at the China National Championships:
“95. I cannot give myself 100. I hope I can still make progress and fight to reach my goals. I am satisfied with my performance here. I won all of my matches except in the mixed doubles first round.” Sun Yingsha
With that kind of mental balance, the table tennis fraternity knows that for Sun Yingsha, her destiny is in her hands alone. China’s next big thing is already here and now the world knows it too.