14 Dec 2019

Self-belief crucial, after falling short at the Chengdu Airlines 2019 ITTF Men’s World Cup, for the first time in seven appearances in the prestigious tournament no place on the medal podium, China's Ma Long needed a boost of confidence. Just under two weeks later at the ITTF Star Awards evening, he received the injection.

He was voted “Male Star”; on Saturday 14th December at the Agricultural Bank of China 2019 ITTF World Tour Grand Finals, at the semi-final stage of the men’s singles event, he underlined the reasons was he was the recipient of the meritorious honour.

by Ian Marshall, Editor

Determined, focused from the start, the no.4 seed, he beat colleague, Xu Xin, the top seed, in six games (11-7, 16-14, 11-7, 4-11, 4-11, 11-6).

Think of any great player in any sport, it happens to them all, they lose but then they regroup and return stronger. It was exactly the scenario that applied to Ma Long, as he reserved his place in an ITTF World Tour Grand Finals men’s singles gold medal contest for the seventh time in his career.

In fact of those seven times, he has only ever lost once in the final; he was beaten by Xu Xin in Dubai at the 2013 Grand Finals.

There was to be no repeat in Zhengzhou but for his faithful “Marvelous Long” supporters club there were some concerns at the end of the fifth game; however, the nerves of the adoring were soon laid to rest.

Key factor

Serve and receive was the key factor in the opening game as each settled to the task in hand, both well aware of each other’s strengths, there are just strengths no weaknesses.

Both are renowned for their powerful forehands but name players who have better backhands and you will not need the fingers and thumb of more than one hand. Ma Long is safe and secure from the backhand, Xu Xin when opening from the backhand imparts a cacophony of sidespin and topspin which makes judging the return guesswork.

Directing the return of service time and again into the body of Xu Xin, imparting backspin with a strong push stroke, arguably the basis of all in table tennis and maybe the first stroke you learn, Ma Long established a 10-5 lead, Xu Xin saved two game points but no more.

Crucial game

An early advantage for Ma Long, another boost for his confidence, vital in the context of the engagement but with the wonderful benefit of hindsight, the second game was the most important, the most vital in building belief.

Ma Long went ahead 5-3, Xu Xin served, quick thinking Ma Long playing a backhand over the table, the so called “banana” return with forearm approaching the vertical and wrist circumnavigating the ball, instead of directing the return to the body of Xu Xin, he returned to the forehand and left his adversary stranded.

Equally, Ma Long was finding a rhythm to his play, timing the ball early as is he trademark, the forehand approaching perpetual motion, he established a 10-7 lead. It was at that stage great credit must go to Xu Xin, he remained calm, he levelled at 10-all before Ma Long won the next point in what must have been the “rally of the day” superb top spin play, supreme athleticism but it was just one point.

The match point was saved, at 12-11 Ma Long led again, he elected for “time out”; Xu Xin levelled again before twice holding game point. Neither converted, at his fifth attempt Ma Long prevailed.

Mental boost

Another mental boost for Ma Long; again in the third game he went ahead 10-7; this time no charity.

A three games to nil lead but then anxious moments for the Ma Long faithful. Xu Xin, moving well, doing nothing extravagant, playing consistently established an 8-4 lead in the fourth game, he did not lose another point. In the fifth game it was similar, he went 8-3 and then 10-3 ahead, securing the game at his second attempt.

Now was the big test for Ma Long, he was the wounded dragon. It was at this phase in the match, the sixth game, he gave a masterclass. He won the first three points, Xu Xin called “time out”. The break worked but in favour of Ma Long, he established a 6-2 lead, at 10-6 he held four match points, no charity, he succeeded at the first time of asking.

The place in the final booked, success, now the player with whom Xu Xin won the “Star Point” award at the gala evening awaits: colleague Fan Zhendong! Mouth watering!

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Day 4 - Agricultural Bank of China 2019 ITTF World Tour Grand Finals