11 Apr 2020

One of the European continent's biggest stars, Sweden's Matilda Ekholm has decided to bring her time as a professional athlete to a halt.

A leading figure for Sweden on the biggest of stages, Matilda has grown into a well respected competitor on the international scene and very graciously agreed to an in-depth interview reflecting on her eventful career, what she enjoys doing in her free time and her decision to retire.

by Simon Daish

Two iconic players from yesteryear, Åsa Svensson and Marie Svensson are two names that carry significant importance in Swedish table tennis. Åsa holds the astonishing and exclusive record of being the only European player to claim victory over Chinese legend Deng Yaping while Marie was crowned European champion in 1994. Matilda Ekholm is arguably the most successful player to hail from Sweden since!

Four European Championships medals to her name, seven-time singles champion of Sweden and a personal best world rank of 20th, Matilda certainly knows her way around the table. So, what makes her tick?

Origins, career highlights and… animal crossing?

SD: Matilda, you’ve enjoyed a long and successful career in the sport, but how were you originally introduced to table tennis?

ME: I grew up in a small village called Vikingstad and there were only two sports you could play there with a coach so I did both, and they were table tennis and soccer. I turned out to be better at tt so that became my priority when I had to choose. My brother also played tt and we were both inspired by the success of the Swedish players of the late 80’s era.

SD: Your style of play is very distinctive, utilising half distance top spin to great effect. Did this come to you naturally or was it something you picked up in coaching?

ME: 100% natural. It always felt more natural for me to hit the ball at a later stage and also I was never fast enough to keep up with the tempo closer to the table, so I had to find my own solution to that. My style was also formed by always practicing with boys during my teenage years and early 20’s. My game is uncomfortable for many women as they aren’t used to that style.

SD: What are your interests off the table, do you have any hobbies that you enjoy in particular?

ME: My hobbies off the table vary but throughout my life video games has been the biggest constant. I mostly play Nintendo games and right now I’m spending time social distancing by socialising with my friends in Animal Crossing.

SD: From your perspective looking back was there breakthrough moment which you felt really helped you establish yourself as a top player?

ME: It’s hard to say because I was always improving and slowly going from top 200 to top 20 during a period of almost 15 years. But, in 2005 I beat a top player for the first time:  Jiang Huajun from Hong Kong, and that made me realise I can actually play at a high level.

SD: Following on from the previous question, is there any tournament outing in particular that really standouts out for you?

ME: Last 16 at the World Championships in 2015 was maybe my best result, but the performance in my home country, Halmstad 2018, was probably my favourite and most memorable. I won all my matches in the group stage, beating Feng Tianwei among others!

Competing on home soil at the 2018 World Team Championships was a special moment for Ekholm (Photo: Rémy Gros)
Olympic Games roller coaster, her biggest adversary and partnership with Georgina Pota

SD: You qualified for the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympic Games but unfortunately your entry wasn’t endorsed by the Swedish NOC. How difficult was it to deal with the situation? But also, how much for a delight was it for you when you were finally endorsed to play at Rio 2016?

ME: 2008 was hard for me because I was 26 and my NOC told me I was too old to be a future prospect. At that time, I still felt like I was at the beginning of my career, so it was especially hard. I was really bummed out and lost both my self-esteem and confidence. But my coach was supporting me and made me believe I could come back. In 2012, I was mostly surprised and angry as I was ranked among the best 18 of the players qualified for the Olympics, and had been constantly improving since 2008. But, the support I received from my federation and the table tennis community was mind-blowing and I was even invited by ITTF to come see the Games. Getting that support was crucial for me to continue holding my head up high. Playing at Rio 2016 was great, but maybe most of all it was proof that I had done a great job not giving up and it made me feel very proud of myself.

SD: You’ve played against the world’s finest players. Who did you find in particular proved the most difficult to play against?

ME: Chen Meng. I played her a few times and I think I never won more than 6 points in any set! She is just a perfect player. There are more players who have destroyed me throughout the years, but she is the first one who comes to mind. I also lost to Mima Ito when she was 12 years old which is funny now but wasn’t at the time.

SD: Not only have you been a world class singles player but you formed quite the formidable doubles partnership with Georgina Pota. What was the secret to your success as a pair?

ME: Gina and I play great together because we are both good doubles players and we practice together as well as play many matches. Gina is extremely clever and uses her wrist in ways I could only imagine. This makes her a very strategic player and she plays the ball in the direction that is suitable for me. I’m a good doubles player because I have a good serve and as a lefty I’m comfortable receiving them too. The combination of our styles make us hard to beat.

Ekholm and Georgina Pota struck a formidable doubles partnership on the international stage (Photo: Ireneusz Kanabrodzkl)

SD: Are there any other players that you have struck good friendships with over the years?

ME: Almost each and every person in my life I have met through TT and I’m so grateful for all of them. This sport has given me so many opportunities to see the world and learn about other cultures. I cannot imagine what my life would have been had I not become a professional player!

SD: What would you say has been the biggest challenge in your career?

ME: My biggest challenge in my career is probably that I have so often felt that the men’s game is more important than the women’s. In later years this situation has become much better and for that I am happy. I hope and believe the young female players of today don’t have to feel as inferior like me and my friends did. Although, there is still more to do in this area and I hope in the future I can contribute with something in this process. We need more education!

Future stars, retirement and next steps

SD: Did you have any role models growing up and do you see yourself as a role model for young up-and-coming Swedish players?

ME: I hope to be a role model but it’s not something I think about. I try to be the best I can be as a player and as a person and sometimes people send me messages saying they, or their kids, look up to me and that is always very humbling. My own biggest role models were always my parents, and they still are. They taught me to be kind first and foremost, and results within sports or anything else was always secondary.

SD: Speaking of young emerging talents, what is your personal view on the state of Swedish table tennis? Are there any players, especially in the women’s team, that excite you for the years ahead?

ME: I think we have an interesting women’s team right now. They are all young, they train really hard and they all got the mindset you need to become a top player. They just need patience and to keep training with clear goals and intention and we will see how far they can reach. With that being said, table tennis is as we all know an extremely competitive sport and there are skilled players from all over the world nowadays. I hope I can support them somehow to keep pursuing their dreams.

Future is bright, Ekholm pictured alongside Swedish up-and-comer Christina Källberg (Photo: Rémy Gros)

SD: Staying with that topic for a moment, what advice would you give to young players looking to make the successful jump to the professional circuit?

ME: In general I think the biggest difference between a top 50-player and a top 200-player is how concentrated they actually are in the training. Many players practice many hours but their mind is somewhere else. You need to be focused all the time when you try to improve something and you have to know why you want to improve it. If you have no more focus by the end of the training I think it’s better to rest and get a fresh mind. For anyone who comes from a country where you have to go to school on a regular schedule, you will fall behind in terms of training hours compared to some countries that are more flexible in this matter. You don’t have time to waste on training without focus. You need to practice with quality and a plan and accept that other younger players may have trained more than you and you may need a longer time to reach that level. But with patience and persistence it is obviously possible with the right kind of support.

SD: Obviously making the decision to retire from sport is a huge step in one’s life. Was there a moment that sticks out to you that told you the time was right or has this choice been been a long time in the making?

ME: I’m not sure because the feeling has come gradually. I think the first step for me was the change of the ball because my style benefits from more spin, and the plastic ball has less. Just like everyone else from the older generation, in order to keep up with the top players I had to make some adjustments which takes a lot of training and my body is getting a lot more tired nowadays. It’s only natural that the sport is evolving and that’s not something I am against per se. However, I started to feel that there are other ways for me to contribute to the sport than as a player. I think I have had a good career reaching further than I could ever imagine when I started playing as a kid.

SD: Finally, what are your plans for the future? Anything exciting to share?

ME: I’m planning to move to New York City after the summer, given it’s possible under these circumstances with COVID-19. My partner lives there, so I’m excited to be closer to her and I’m looking into what options I have to work within the table tennis community, nationally or internationally. I have a lot of experience in this sport and it has been my life for more than 30 years; I have no plans on leaving that behind. I also look forward to finishing the sports science degree that I have started at Halmstad University, it’s a flexible program that allows you to work full-time. I welcome any and all job opportunities, help and advice!

Farewell Matilda

So Matilda is bidding her farewell to her life as a professional player on the international stage and just like with every athlete who decides to pack away the raquet for the final time it will be sad to see her go. Swedish table tennis will be losing a true gem from its ranks!

The ITTF would like to place on record its thanks to Matilda Ekholm and wish her the best of fortunes in her future endeavours.

Features Matilda Ekholm