19 Mar 2020

By winning gold at the London 2012 Olympic Games, China’s Zhang Jike became the first male table tennis player to hold simultaneously the three most prestigious titles that the sport has to offer: Olympics, World Championships and World Cup.

But before he became arguably the most popular table tennis player ever, Jike began like everyone else - even if he was changing the sport forever in his own unique way and influencing arguably the greatest of all time, Ma Long.

by Ian Marshall, Editor 

First signs of stardom

For a man long considered the flag-bearer for tradition in table tennis, Zhang Jike was all about creating something new. For every fan who knew – and adored him – in 2012, the real story of his trendsetting days start about ten years earlier.

In 2011 in Rotterdam he had won the men’s singles event at the World Championships, before later in the year in Paris emerging successful at the Men’s World Cup. Four years later in Rio de Janeiro, he added to his Olympic collection, but few could deny that his gold medal in the English capital city marked the very pinnacle of his career.

The Olympic Games success in London came a decade after we first set eyes on Zhang Jike. At the 2002 ITTF World Cadet Challenge, held from Monday 11th to Sunday 15th June in the Hungarian town of Tiszaujvaros, the first ever staging of the event, he was voted the most valuable player.

A shining light in the successful Chinese boys’ team, Zhang joined forces with Li Hu and Jiang Tianyi – both of whom had achieved a modicum of international success but nothing when compared with Zhang Jike. Later Li moved to Singapore, as Jiang Tianyi flew to Hong Kong.

But before that, Zhang secured gold in the boys’ team event and then in the boys’ singles – beating colleague Li Hu in the final.

Impressing The Dragon

Just over a year later, on Sunday 28th September in Wellington, he won the junior boys’ singles title at the 2003 New Zealand Open. It was yet another win over Li Hu but the player who he accounted for while getting to the final was one to note. At the semi-final stage, a certain Ma Long found himself face-to-face with the trendsetter.

The win over then-baby-Dragon, Ma Long and the comment from New Zealand was a portent for the future.

“Zhang Jike, 15 years old, is already close to the complete package, he has excellent vision, fast techniques and good footwork; in addition he is full of confidence both on and off court.”

It is a major question to ask, if did Zhang Jike set the ball rolling for Ma Long with an example to follow, of both strength and confidence – something that the now-legendary Ma inculcated into his playing style as a teenager. How much of a part did Zhang play in the success of the Dragon?

A meeting in Santiago

Three months later, both Ma Long and Zhang Jike were on duty at the first ever World Junior Championships in the Chilean capital city of Santiago. This time however, it was not all sunshine and rainbows for the young duo who were growing in popularity with every passing tournament.

Zhang Jike at the 2003 World Junior Championships (Photo: Mariann Domonkos)

 

Notably, Ma Long was not selected for the boys’ team final; Zhang Jike lined up alongside Li Hu and Zheng Changgong. China recovered from a two matches to nil deficit to beat the Chinese Taipei trio comprising Wu Chih-Chi, Chou Tung-Yu and Sun We-Wei. Zhang Jike lost Chou Tung-Yu in the second match of the fixture but redeemed himself in the fourth, he accounted for Wu Chih-Chi.

Later in the proceedings at the quarter-final stage of the boys’ singles event, Zhang Jike lost to a familiar foe in Li Hu – the eventual winner of the Championships – in a full distance seven games thriller. And fate was such that, Ma Long departed in a similar closely fought contest against Korea Republic’s Lim Jaehyun in the same round.

The silver lining – or bronze in this case – arrived when Zhang Jike partnered Zhang Changgong, to secure boys’ doubles bronze, losing out at the semi-final stage to Portugal’s Tiago Apolonia and the mini ‘Freight Train’, Marcos Freitas.

Patience before perfection in Linz

Despite being impressive in 2003, fans had to wait until 2009 to see Zhang Jike again, this time in Linz, Austria. By joined forces with players who became familiar allies, China looked for a trio that could succeed the Beijing Olympic Games men’s team gold medallists – Ma Lin, Wang Hao and Wang Liqin. The dream team composed of Zhang Jike, Ma Long and Xu Xin!

The team of 2009 struck gold in 2016 (Photo: Rémy Gros)

 

It is almost historically poetic to think that such a side ever existed in the same time period and competing in the same tournament all together. No wonder the place in the final was a matter of formality.

In the final itself, hungry to prove himself after a rather long break; against Korea Republic, in the opening match Zhang tore Oh Sangeun apart. There was little to for his opponent to muster as he set the example for his teammates, who duly obliged.

Ma Long first followed suit by beating Joo Saehyuk, before he and Xu Xin then overcame Oh Sangeun and Ryu Seungmin to seal a comprehensive victory.

A celebration to remember

What followed from that performance in 2009 was a clear message sent across the table tennis realm. At the 2011 World Championships in Rotterdam, he won the men’s singles title with aplomb.

Immediately after winning the final point we saw the confidence suggested in 2003 in Wellington displayed in full. He tore his shirt apart in celebration and then like a hundred metre sprinter ran headlong up the tiered seating to thank Xiao Zhan, his personal coach.

The response was totally unprecedented, the action immediately won a million fans, no Chinese player – no other player for that matter – had ever celebrated in such a manner. Suddenly he was adored by the Japanese female teeny bopper generation.

Significantly, Xiao Zhan had been given the choice of whom he preferred to coach, Zhang Jike or Ma Long – a choice most coaches dream to have. Xiao chose Zhang Jike because of his co-ordination and timing of the ball, and the results followed.

High jump in Paris

Two years later he went on to retain the title in Paris before securing men’s singles gold in London. Again the celebration when he leapt over the surrounds to kiss the top step of the podium brought him another million fans.

He did something different, set a trend of sorts when he showed his feelings; but is that something peculiar to his birthday? Zhang shares the same birthday as tennis legend, John McEnroe. At the same age as Zhang Jike, nobody showed his feelings more than the American! Also, it happens to be the same date as Sweden’s Truls Moregard – and does he also not make his feelings known to the crowd?

Zhang Jike en route to gold at the Paris 2013 World Championships (Photo: Rémy Gros)

 

Unlike his predecessors, Zhang Jike was notably strong from the backhand and one of the early shake-hand grip players to employ the backhand so-called “banana” return of service (forearm vertical wrist relaxed, racket circumnavigating the ball). It made him different. It made him very, very confident.

Now a generation later, do we not see the same style being extolled by Brazil’s Hugo Calderano – the “banana” expert and the backhand lethal?

Following suit

All this time though, while Zhang Jike was setting the trend for table tennis to come, he was also setting the standard for Ma Long.

At the London 2012 Olympic Games, Ma Long only played in the team event. In 2015 in Suzhou he won the first of his three men’s singles titles at a World Championships, and then in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro he was crowned Olympic champion.

Significantly when Ma Long won in the Brazilian city, he became only the second player ever to hold the Olympic, World Championships and World Cup titles at the same time. The other of course was the one who lit the path for him. Zhang Jike, the trendsetter.

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