20 Apr 2020

Live in the era and even if you only had a minimal knowledge of table tennis, you knew their names, they traversed the boundaries of their discipline.

However, even though they succeeded at the very highest levels, gained legendary status, all had fierce rivals, encounters against equals that captured the imagination.

by Ian Marshall and Kabir Nagpal 

Victor Barna (Hungary) v Miklos Szabados (Hungary)

In 1926 Victor Barna beat Miklos Szabados in the final of the Hungarian National Junior Championships; at the time they were members of group of 15 years olds that also included Laszlo Bellak and Istvan Kelen. However the policy of the Hungarian Table Tennis Association was that you had to be 18 years old to be considered for World Championships selection.

Pressure mounted, eventually the Hungarian Table Tennis Association relented and let the 17 year olds play at the 1929 World Championships in Budapest. Miklos Szabados to lost England’s Fred Perry in the men’s singles final but with Victor Barna won the men’s doubles. They beat Istvan Kelen and Sandor Glanz in the final. Glanz was six years older and had been their coach!

Victor Barna progressed to win the men’s singles title at the World Championships in 1930 in Berlin, 1931 in Budapest, 1932 in Prague, 1933 in Baden Bei Wein, 1934 in Paris and 1935 in London.

Notably in 1932 and 1935 he beat Miklos Szabados in the final; Miklos Szabados won one occasion. He succeeded in 1931 in Budapest. He accounted for Victor Barna in the final.

Victor Barna beat Miklos Szabados in the men’s singles final in 1932 and 1935 but lost when the met in the same round in 1931 (Photo: courtesy of Table Tennis Legends)


Ichiro Ogimura (Japan) v Toshiaki Tanaka (Japan)

Ichiro Ogimura was born in June 1932, Toshiaki Tanaka in February 1935. In 1953, Ichiro Ogimura beat Toshiaki Tanaka in a senior tournament in Japan; it was a major motivating win.

In 1954, when 21 years of age Ogimura played in the World Championships in London. In the team event he used a one centimetre thick sponge racket, he followed the example of colleague, Hiroji Sato who in 1952 in Bombay, became the first player to be crowned world champion when using a sponge racket. Ogimura was not pleased with his performance; for the men’s singles he changed to a racket of only two millimetres thick; he won the men’s singles title beating Sweden’s Tage Flisberg in the final.

In 1955 in Utrecht, Ogimura suffered a shock last 16 defeat against Hungarian defender, Josef Somogyi; Toshiaki Tanaka won the men’s singles title beating Yugoslavia’s Zarko Dolinar in the final.

One year later in 1956, Ichiro Ogimura beat Toshiaki Tanaka in the men’s singles final in Tokyo; the following year in Stockholm, in the final, Toshiaki Tanaka reversed the decision. The end result two World Championships men’s singles titles each; honours even.

At the 1955 World Championships in Utrecht, Ichiro Ogimura (left) was beaten in the early rounds by Joszef Somogyi, (right) Toshiaki Tanaka won the men’s singles title (Photos: courtesy of Nederlandse Tafeltennisbond at Table Tennis Legends) [/caption


Wang Nan (China) v Zhang Yining (China)

Born in October 1978, Wang Nan very much followed in the footsteps of Deng Yaping as the world’s leading female player, before handing over the mantle to the three years younger, Zhang Yining. Both have the full house of titles.

Wang Nan won women’s singles gold at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games; Zhang Yining in 2004 in Athens and 2008 in Beijing; in Beijing she beat Wang Nan in the final.

At the World Championships, Wang Nan won the women’s singles title in 1999 in Eindhoven, 2001 in Osaka, 2003 in Paris; three times in a row. On each occasion she beat Zhang Yining; in the semi-finals in Osaka, in the final in both Eindhoven and Paris.

Meanwhile in the Women’s World Cup, each won four times. Notably, in 2004 in Hangzhou Zhang Yining beat Wang Nan in the final, in 2007 in Chengdu, Wang Nan reversed the decision to claim the title.

Honours even at the Women’s World Cup, at the ITTF World Tour Grand Finals, Wang Nan succeeded on two occasions, Zhang Yining four times. Significantly, in 1999 in Kobe, Zhang Yining beat Wang Nan in the final.

On the ITTF World Tour Zhang Yining holds the record 29 women’s singles titles; Wang Nan won 16 times; they met in five finals, Zhang Yining won four times, the one win for Wang Nan was in 2002 in Qatar.

Zhang Yining (left) and (right) Wang Nan shake hands at the conclusion of the women’s singles final at the Liebherr 2003 World Championships in Paris (Photo: Rémy Gros)


Jean-Michel Saive (Belgium) v Jan-Ove Waldner (Sweden)

Olympic Games gold medallist, World champion, World Cup winner, all titles which Jan-Ove Waldner won but eluded Jean-Michel Saive; however, when they met on the international scene, the Belgian star possessed a most creditable record.

In 1990 in Chiba at the Men’s World Cup, in the group stage, Saive beat Waldner in the group phase; both advanced to the main draw. Saive lost to Ma Wenge in the quarters, Waldner overcame Ma Wenge to win the title for the one and only time in his career, for Saive, the top prize always proved elusive.

Later, the second round of the men’s singles event at the Sydney 2000 Olympic (play having commenced with the top 16 players gaining a direct entry to the main draw, the remaining names competing in 16 groups to gain a place in the main draw of 32), Jan-Ove Waldner beat Jean-Michel Saive. Later, in 2004, Saive reversed the decision in the third round of the ITTF World Tour German Open.

A notable win but for Saive but the most notable victories were in 1993 in Gothenburg and the following year in Birmingham. In the former, at the World Championships, Saive beat Waldner in the semi-final before narrowly losing to Jean-Philippe Gatien in the final.

In Birmingham at the European Championships, Saive reached the final. At the time he was listed at no.1 on the world rankings, next in line was Jan-Ove Waldner who had beaten Zoran Primorac in the semi-final. The popular view was that Saive would have preferred Primorac in the final, also Jan-Ove Waldner was universally seen as the player who should hold the top spot.

Saive’s coach, Wang Dayong had a different view, he wanted Waldner in the final; beat Waldner and you prove you are the true no.1, worthy of that position. Saive, playing forehands at every conceivable opportunity prevailed; he proved himself.

The ITTF Legends Tour, somewhat less intense Jan-Ove Waldner faces Jean-Michel Saive (Photo: Christian Neuville)


 Chen Jing (Chinese Taipei) v Deng Yaping (China)

Chen Jing was nine years older than Deng Yaping, an outstanding talent, left handed, supreme hand skills; she ticked every box. Rather, differently, Deng Yaping was refused a place in the Chinese national team because she was only 4 feet, 11 inches tall!

In 1986 playing alongside He Wei and Li Qi for Henan Province in the final of the women’s team event at the Chinese National Championships against Hubei, Deng Yaping beat both Qiao Hong and most notably Chen Jing who at the time was the leading member of the Chinese national team. Deng Yaping was only 13 years old at the time! The win catapulted Deng Yang Yaping to national recognition and a place in the Chinese team.

At the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games, the first occasion when table tennis had been staged in the multi-sport event, Chen Jing had won women’s singles gold; four years later in Barcelona, Deng Yaping won. In 1996 in Atlanta, the two Olympic champions met in the final. It was crunch time and there was an added ingredient; Chen Jing had changed allegiance, she was representing Chinese Taipei.

The contest went the full five games distance, the deciding fifth game underlined the incredible mental strength of Deng Yaping, she won 21-5!

Deng Yaping en route to victory in Atlanta against Chen Jing (Monthly World Table Tennis)
Features Jean-Michel Saive Jan-Ove Waldner zhang yining Wang Nan Deng Yaping Chen Jing Victor Barna Ichiro Ogimura Toshiaki Tanaka Miklos Szabados