19 Dec 2019

Tradition runs deep in sport; when table tennis is the subject of discussion, if there is one country in the world where tradition runs the deepest of all, it is China.

The rest of the world, with minimal exceptions, may have dispensed with the pen-hold grip; not China. In 2019 very much the name to note from their ranks was Zhao Zhihao, maintaining the art.

by Ian Marshall, Editor

In mid-November 2018, at the ITTF Challenge Belgosstrakh Belarus Open, he won the under 21 men’s singles event; then immediately followed the next day by claiming the men’s singles title.

One year later in mid-November 2019, he appeared at no.13 on the ITTF World Tour men’s singles standings; such was the progress. A place had been booked in the Agricultural Bank of China 2019 ITTF World Tour Grand Finals in Zhengzhou.

Short straw

A debut in the prestigious end of year tournament but he drew the short straw; in the first round of the men’s singles event he faced colleague, Xu Xin, the top seed. He experienced defeat but it was a most creditable performance.

He left the arena with honour, he was beaten in six games by the master pen-holder; since Rong Guotan became the first Chinese world champion in 1959 in Dortmund, there has never been a player with such incredible sideways movement and a mighty forehand as that exploded by Xu Xin. He is one of a kind.


The other leading pen-holders of the modern era from China tend to follow a pattern. After, the success in the same city 30 years later at the 1989 World Championships, gained by the Swedish men’s team, followed by Jan-Ove Waldner and Jörgen Persson contesting the men’s singles final, it was time for China to change.

Advances in technology meant the pen-hold style of Jiang Jialiang and his illustrious predecessors, short pimples, using one side of the racket only, remaining close to the table and attacking with ferocity was outdated.

Maintaining the pen-hold grip, a new style was developed, one that used both sides of the racket, top spin strokes from the backhand with smooth reversed rubber. First came Liu Guoliang using short pimpled rubber on the forehand; then Ma Lin with reversed rubber on both sides but blocking in the traditional manner. Next was Wang Hao, pen-hold but playing just like a shake-hands grip player.

Results not impressive

All achieved the greatest of heights. Is Zhao Zhihao, similar to Wang Hao, next in dynasty? Arguably the 22 year old could lay claim to being the most improved player in the past year.

Xu Xin apart, fellow pen-holders in the Chinese national team cannot this year match the efforts of Zhao Zihao.

Zheng Peifeng won in 2018 in the Czech Republic; Xue Fei was crowned world junior champion in 2017, he was succeeded the following year by Xu Haidong. Notably, Xu Haidong reached the semi-finals at the 2019 ITTF Challenge Polish Open but no member of the trio progressed beyond the opening round at a 2019 ITTF World Tour tournament.

Positive end to year

Now compare those performances with Zhao Zhihao. In 2019 there has been notable progress, not without hiccups but with a discernable trend.

In the first six months of the year, on the ITTF World Tour he played in Hungary, China and Japan, he never progressed beyond the opening round. In August he reached the semi-finals in Bulgaria but the following week in the Czech Republic he did not advance beyond the qualification stage.

Later in the year it was the same in October, a quarter-final finish in Sweden, failure to qualify in Germany. However, he could hardly have wished for a better finish to the ITTF World Tour schedule; in Austria he was the runner up.

Now could that be the springboard to greater things in 2020? Pen the name Zhao Zihao.

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