by Kabir Nagpal
There are several signs when you’re having a bad year – things don’t go to plan, you lose out at the crunch moments, pick up injuries and what not. In contrast, there are several other signs when the year you’re having gradually gains a shine with every passing achievement. That’s what Liu Shiwen’s 2019 has been.
The reigning World Champion captured her fifth Women’s World Cup last weekend, setting an all-time record in the process. When you add to that her array of mixed doubles titles achieved alongside Xu Xin – gold at the World Championships, Asian Championships and World Tour – as well as women’s doubles gold at the China and Japan Opens – you start to wonder what is even left for her to achieve this year.
It just so happens that the ZEN-NOH ITTF Team World Cup begins in Tokyo on Wednesday 6th November and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games follow next summer, with Team China the favourites to secure the crown across both tournaments. Should Liu capture the limelight once again and drive home the gold, 2019-20 will be immortalized as the year of Shiwen.
Playing the World, one at a time
As an athlete who spent only six months of the last six years outside the top five world ranking spots, Liu Shiwen is certainly no stranger to the very top end of international table tennis. However, you could argue that the 28-year-old is only starting to truly yield the fruits of her efforts this year. At what might have been her last ever individual World Championships, Liu struck gold at the sixth time of asking in a blockbuster women’s singles final in Budapest against Chen Meng.
She had previously won three bronze and two silver medals in her last five outings at the individual World Table Tennis Championships and arrived in the Hungarian capital under somewhat a cloud, having not won an international title since July 2018 at the ITTF World Tour Australian Open.
“Ever since I became Women’s World Cup Champion at the age of 19, I have always dreamt of winning the World Championships. Since then, I missed out on the opportunity by losing two finals. I found myself doubting my ability to succeed and I even considered giving up. Therefore, I am very grateful to all those who have been supporting me all this while and my team for giving me this chance to win today. I think that I deserve this trophy, even if it has taken time.” Liu Shiwen
This victory came against her compatriot, in-form Chen Meng at the time, who had powered her way to a 1-0 lead in the final. However, it was at that point that Liu started to raise the intensity of her game – a trend we have seen her stick to throughout this year. Her quick feet and clever thinking saw her fight back impressively to win four of the next five games to secure a 4-2 victory (9-11, 11-7, 11-7, 7-11, 11-0, 11-9) and thus celebrate her first ever World Championship title.
If there was a game which really rubber-stamped her extraordinary journey in Budapest, it was when she won the fifth game 11-0, repeating the feat achieved against Ding Ning in the semi-final of the tournament. In table tennis, to win a game by 11-0 in back-to-back rounds of a World Championships was virtually unheard of – until Liu Shiwen.
Out of the shadow, into the light
Parallels have often been drawn between Liu and compatriot Ding Ning, who is one year her senior. Both have attended multiple showpiece events together, such as the Olympic Games, yet Liu was only ever selected for Team events and never the women’s singles event at the sport’s greatest stage of all.
It was always a fear that Liu had been in the shadow of her more decorated teammate Ding, who won a singles silver medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games, before securing gold at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, defeating compatriot Li Xiaoxia in the final. Liu was far from the limelight, as Ding’s stock rose sky-high.
This run of events brought Liu face-to-face with the reality that she would need to change her approach in order to stay relevant at the top of the table tennis tree. For Liu, this would be achieved by reaching the grand stage of the Olympic Games once again.
So, how to convince the selectors that, finally, she would be deserving of a place in the Olympics women’s singles competition?
If two gold medals at the World Championships in April made people sit up and notice, her record-breaking World Cup title last Sunday makes her favourite to lead the line for China next summer in Tokyo.
A Golden Grand Slam Champion in the making?
With this latest win in Chengdu, Liu set an all-time record of winning five Women’s World Cup titles. Once victory in the final had been secured over six enthralling games against compatriot and top seed Zhu Yuling (4-11, 11-8, 11-8, 11-6, 3-11, 11-9), the hard facts were written out as clear as day: Liu had now won the two most prestigious women’s titles of 2019.
Not only does that reinforce her chances of playing women’s singles for the first time at an Olympic Games in Tokyo 2020, but it also opens the door to her being crowned a special table tennis term – a Golden Grand Slam champion – the greatest possible achievement in the sport. She can achieve that by winning women’s singles gold in Tokyo.
At the last Olympic Games in Rio, Liu helped her compatriots secure gold in the team event and attract an outpouring of national pride. However, her targets for next year could not be more specific:
“I was much younger the previous four times that I won the World Cup, so this title is very special to me. Today’s match was really tough and close-fought. I am very happy that I did not give up and still tried my best even when I met some difficulties during the match. There’s still a year to go before the 2020 Olympic Games and I must grab this opportunity. I would sacrifice anything at this stage, just give me the victories!” Liu Shiwen
And while the ‘Golden Grand Slam Champion’ requires her to secure women’s singles gold in Tokyo, there will more than one opportunity at her hand to secure gold, especially after mixed doubles was finally added to the Olympic programme and her partnership with Xu Xin has been nothing short of extraordinary.
For Liu, who was first a World Junior team champion for China when she was just 13 years of age, nothing short of being selected for all three of the women’s singles, mixed doubles and the team events would be satisfactory. After all, what sort of Golden Grand Slam Champion would not want to win it all?