Tournaments

29 Apr 2020

A big screen located at the corner of the sports hall for the benefit of collective viewing, displayed images of great champions; it was the precedent for the final of the men's singles event at the Liebherr 2019 World Championships in Budapest on Sunday 28th August.

It was to prove the day when China's Ma Long etched his name even more indelibly into the history books of sport; he proudly held the St Bride's Vase for the third consecutive time.

by Massimo Costantini, ITTF High Performance Elite Coach

However, it was a final with a difference, in both Suzhou in 2015 and two years later in Düsseldorf, he had beaten colleagues in the final. In the former city he had overcome Fang Bo, in the latter Fan Zhendong.

Now in Budapest, the opponent was from foreign shores and a surprise name; the no.11 seed, he confronted Sweden’s Mattias Falck, the no.16 seed. Just as in the previous finals, he responded.

  • Final: Ma Long beat Mattias Falck 11-5, 11-7, 7-11, 11-9, 11-5
A full house in Budapest (Photo: Rémy Gros)

 

Full house

Spectators filled the 6,000 seats at the Hungexpo. The VIP stand was so full that security was double checking credentials before allowing entry to watch a match that wasn’t just a men’s singles final but was history unfolding around a table tennis table.

Lights were bouncing left and right over the vault full of coils of cables and loudspeakers, the music was a counter point, a tense music, rhythmic with deep bass as if to justify a tribal ritual; at the same time, in perfect sync with the images, evoking celebratory feats of the stars of the world.

The two athletes in the call area had finished checking each other’s equipment: rackets fine, rubbers fine.
“Colour of your shirt?”, the umpire asked.

“Black, here it is,” replied Ma Long; the colour chosen on purpose, sacrificing the Chinese favourite, the red of the Chinese flag, the colour representing vigour and power. For the black it aroused fear in his opponent. It is the colour of the killer, of the one who does not forgive, the colour that every opponent sees during the match, like a tunnel and then materialises as the black defeat, a new shade among the billions of colours.

“And for you?”, the umpire asked by turning to the other athlete. “Blue”, replied the other, cold as a Viking, looking down at the umpire from top to bottom. The Swedish giant wouldn’t stop moving, leaping over himself, waving his hips and ankles as if he were warming up incompletely. Today he had a special responsibility, trying to honour his fellow compatriots of the past, champions of yesteryear but whose memory of their deeds was alive and well for the entire world.

Welcome

Today, someone would make history. The music faded and the speaker announced what everyone was eagerly awaiting. “Please, welcome…Maaaaaaaaa Loooooong”

The roar in the stands was heard and his China was with him, all with him, united more than ever. A corridor of children accompanied him to the playing area, the number one, the “champion of champions”. It was no ordinary run to an ordinary final, it was the run to ultimate glory; those children admired him as you admire a masterpiece of art, they applauded him, and who knows what emotions stirred in those children when the number one player ran next to them,  “The Dictator”, or “The Dragon”.

Meanwhile; “Please, welcome… Mattiaaaaas Faaaaalllck”.

Powerful, sure, the long stride crossed the few metres towards the magic rectangle. Many things distinguished him from the Chinese champion: the game, the characteristics of the racket, the philosophy of play but he had something in common with Ma Long: to enter into history.

World watched

On live television, the world watched, as you would watch the messiah coming to change an era, to end the Chinese hegemony that often and willingly does not even give us the illusion of a potential victory.

In the far east, on the other side of the world, China was wondering about a match that had the taste of a remote past. Now, 22 years earlier, in 1987, two great champions faced each other: Jiang Jialiang from China and Jan-Ove Waldner from Sweden. At the end of that match, played in New Delhi, the Chinese flag rose on the highest pole while the notes of the volunteers’ march resounded.

The draw

It was time for the draw. Ma Long stood to the right of the umpire. He placed the plastic disc in perfect balance between the fingertip of his index finger and the finger nail of his thumb. It was that with the skill of a magician, he gave a thumb flip and the two-colour disc flew upwards like crazy, turning on himself.

Shortly before, Ma Long had no doubts in choosing red. After a few turns, the disc landed on the palm of the umpire’s hand, the very same colour Ma Long had chosen; the official turned towards him as a sign of congratulations and so he had the option to make a choice.

The Chinese champion didn’t think twice and left the privilege to the Swede. He was aware that he could have a minimum disadvantage just in the beginning of the match, but then, in the case of 9-all in the odd games, the service would have been more than useful. He would take all possible advantages.

Now the umpire then turned to the tall Scandinavian asking if he had an option on choosing the end of the table where he would start the contest. The Swede was inclined to take the end that had his back to his coach who was sitting on his left, while the Chinese coach was on the right and would be in front of his champion.

Ready to start

After shaking hands with the assistant umpire as well, like two boxers, the two finalists headed off to the two corners where the coaches had prepared the necessary supplies: towels, water, energy drinks and, if necessary, food – protein bars, candies, chocolates, bananas, perhaps the Swedes’ favourite fruit.

Notably, the faces of the four protagonists became more and more tense, nobody smiled, the moment was too delicate. All this, while around them the noise of the fans intensified and the choirs “Ma Long jia you, jia you Ma Long” began. Like a counter attack, the yellow-blue chants sang the same thing “Kom Igen, Kom Igen, Mattias”.

In the meantime, the rackets were placed on the table waiting to be grabbed by the two finalists; they had previously been subject to strict controls and had received the green light for the competition. The rules for the illegal use of materials left no room for interpretation, especially the rubbers had to fall within the parameters indicated by the regulations.

The umpire in charge made sure that each side of the racket was no more than four millimetres thick, that the surfaces of the rubbers were flat and finally the density of the pimples per two centimetres should not be less than 10 and could not exceed 30, this was the case of Mattias forehand rubber.

Qin Zhijian

In the right corner, Qin Zhijian appeared worried, his face slightly sunken. He knew what was at stake, he too would perhaps enter eternal Olympus today. A leading man of the new Chinese Table Tennis Association, appointed head coach, today he had to prove that the choice was right and tell everyone,

“Hey there, I am the greatest coach in China. In his career he had never reached exceptional heights. Of course he had boundless knowledge of technique but he had not achieved the terrific results of his teammates. He could not compare with the slightly younger Kong Linghui, perhaps the greatest of all time in terms of technique, or even with his peer, 1996 Olympic Champion Liu Guoliang with whom he had played doubles.

Subsequently, other partners followed after Liu Guoliang, so he had to be satisfied, so to speak, with a doubles partner like Wang Liqin, perhaps the greatest of all time but his career didn’t stop with Wang Liqin. In fact, even Ma Lin crossed paths with Qin Zhijian, winning a bronze medal at the 2003 World Championships.

Yes, it was precisely this quality as a doubles player that made him famous; like many others, as a left-handed penholder, Qin Zhijian held a fair advantage by being in the right corner of the table and having his opening forehand or backhand ready, thus taking the initiative. He gave the go-ahead to his partner. So it was that the gold medal in mixed doubles at the World Championships came to be in 2001, in Osaka, Japan; his doubles partner was Yang Ying.

Quiet preparation

Ma Long prepared, wrapped his towel while his coach, not dispensing breaks, continued to gesticulate, mimicking playing with his own backhand on the Swede’s backhand and while Ma Long bent down to tie his shoes and adjust his socks, he too bent down to continue the conversation, a river in flood. At times, Ma Long seemed almost distracted by his coach.

He needed that moment of peace to find the explosive boost at a time when one could not be distracted and even less hesitate in doing one’s duty. In those cases, it sounds absurd but you also need inner peace.

The moments are so heavy, the waiting is so filled with nervous tension that you don’t realise the time that passes; on the contrary you would like that time to be prolonged, to have a dilated life, as if travelling through time, hopefully that moment is infinite.

A mixture of inner enjoyment for being there and the fear that the near future will be the greatest disappointment. However the moments couldn’t be prolonged, the time available for the preparation was exhausted, a few metres away from umpires were waiting like two executioners for the condemned.

A legend

On the other side, in the adjacent corner, sat a legend, an icon of table tennis, Jörgen Persson, a planetary institution; what better guide could Mattias have in this path that until now had guided him winning six rounds all masterfully played. It is in those moments that you understand that adrenaline increases, you feel it in the words, in the veins, in the skin, something so infinitesimal that you could touch it.

It was in that moment Jörgen adjusted his shorts with his shirt diligently inside the narrow elastic band, thought about his career and how many times he had crossed that corner. Also taking a sip of water, he had adjusted his shorts, socks, in order to prepare himself at the table and to destroy his opponents regardless of their nationality with incredible backhands of pure power.

He was vividly reminded of the two finals with his lifelong friend, the legend of legends Jan-Ove Waldner. He remembered how bitter was the 1989 defeat and how sweet the 1991 victory when he won his world title in Chiba. At that time, Europe dominated the global table tennis scene, a time when the sport was painted yellow blue, the colours of Sweden. From the stands, thousands of fans waved flags and plastic bananas.

The players shake hands, ready to start  (Photo: Rémy Gros)

 

Burden of hope

Yes, just that 1991, a total of 28 years before Mattias was born. Jörgen thought, as if overwhelmed by a truckload of memories, about his career, sometimes his teammates threw him high to catch him at the end of an epic final, in all those memories. Today he felt the burden of hope and believed in coincidences, today maybe life could give him an unforgettable day.

“How are you feeling?” Jörgen asked. “I’m fine!”, Mattias replied, towering over his coach by several inches. Jörgen remained silent for a few moments, gently searching for eye-contact with his athlete and waiting for Mattias to say something and to be ready for the right answer, an invocation of trust, of simple but direct sentences all aimed at putting Mattias in full confidence to face Ma Long.

Mattias continued his monologue. “I have to be active, I have to play without fear, if I play passive, Ma Long will crush me”, he said in a convincing voice. Saying this, he did not stop jumping for a moment, and that non-stop movement already revealed the first signs, some drops of sweat came down from his temples.

Encouragement

Jörgen didn’t miss the opportunity to fire-up his player and also to be a family man. “Du fixar det!” you can do it.”

“Look, everyone here is cheering you on. Be calm, you’ll see that you’ll play a great match, you win when you play well and you’ll play well today, today you have all the cards to win, come on, let’s do it. I recommend that you keep your nerve and don’t lose the chance to make him feel your desire to win, always try to keep up your determination. Try to vary the first forehand attack, a soft opening, you’ll see that Ma Long won’t be so confident to play against your pimples, so expect his aggressiveness on your backhand”.

Mattias took a deep breath, as if from one moment to the next he had to make an exceptional effort but he only had to cross the few metres that separated him from the table to start the canonical two minute warm-up.

Across diagonal

The first rally of the warm-up at the table began with straight forehand strokes in the diagonal of the forehand.

Ma Long’s attitude became immediately aggressive, from the flat hit he went to performing a series of top spins in succession, as if to say, here I am, I introduce myself, I am Ma Long. Mattias made the classic straight forehand drive stroke, a forced forehand played with the short pimples; on first glance looked like he was playing a top spin.

However, a careful observer would have immediately understood that that movement was necessary if he wanted to send the ball back to the other side of the table and thus prevent it from going into the net.

Undoubtedly, the stroke deceives all players who conventionally are believed to generate a great deal of topspin. Pimpled rubber and accordingly the lack of brush of the ball creates an almost neutral attitude. Most of the time the opponent sends the ball back into the net thinking it has a great deal of top spin, It has not. It was the most salient prerogative of Mattias, an action that combined with a smash to finish the point had made the difference for him during the entire event.

Change to backhand

After a few seconds, the rally moved to the diametrically opposite side, on the backhand. The two athletes sent the ball travelling quite fast with their speedy backhands, Ma Long always keeping the attitude of spinning the ball by brushing the ball on the top of the sphere, while the Swede controlled the speed without generating too much power.

Indeed he used his opponent’s speed to produce his own speed. The experts call that action “borrow the speed”.

Two minutes passed quickly, the umpire indicated the start of the match.

“First game, Falck to serve, love all.” The match official uttered the fateful phrase.

Matters commence; Mattias Falck (furthest from camera) serves (Photo: Rémy Gros)

 

Play begins

Mattias started with his typical ritual of cleaning the rubber of the racket, breathing on it and thus removing the dust with the palm of his hand, as an impurity would have given rise to a “dirty” effort, compromising the control of the ball.

He adopted a stance at the corner of the backhand, a position that could give him a forehand pendulum service and so it did. At first, Ma Long seemed to want to open the game with the traditional banana flick but then he reconsidered and leaned for a straight long push on the central part of the table. The Swede waited for the ball on the backhand and was surprised for a moment. However, with a half-twist of his body he was there in time to prepare and open the game with the forehand.

Ma Long blocked that ball with a backhand, again, in the same place; Mattias was surprised because he would have expected the ball to his own backhand, thus he had to adjust for a second time to play a straight forehand towards his opponent’s middle. To react, Ma Long had to make a half twist to attack straight, again in the same area; the Swede tried the fastest attack on the opponent’s forehand but the contact angle was too low and the ball inevitably went long.

“Cholé” was Ma Long’s scream, followed by a short run in a circle; from the left corner in front of him, his coach echoed. Mattias, undaunted, continued his jumping on site, not at all intimidated.

Fine start

Ma Long made a “Formula One” start, securing three points with energy and aggressiveness. Each point won, the expert coach stood up from his bench, applauding and cheering his player forward, showing him his fists as a sign of strength. Mattias was eager to score the first point to make Ma Long understand that this was not going to be an easy match, quite the opposite.

The first point came with an exemplary play, a straight forehand flick, a backhand acceleration and a straight smash to conclude the rally. Trailing 1-3 gave him a strong inner charge, what he had shown had already been memorised by Ma Long as a potential threat to the points to come.

Mattias started running in a circle; now, after unlocking himself, he felt stronger. The feeling of not making a point and staying at zero while an opponent scores 11 represents an atavistic fear. Every player has the terror to face the absolute shame of demonstrating their inferiority. A 0-3 beginning is certainly of little significance but a bad start always suggests a bad ending.

Made change

After losing two consecutive points with the forehand pendulum service, he decided to change. He still held himself in the same corner but this time he performed the reverse, short, on Ma Long’s forehand.

It was a winning ploy. Ma Long could do nothing but simply push the ball and the Swede immediately took the initiative with a very low attack difficult to counter attack. Ma Long did not lose heart and tried to close with a counter attack, the ball stretched down, touched the net and came out.

From the Swedish corner you could hear a dry “Kom Igen”, Jörgen Persson made his voice heard for his champion. It was an important moment. Ma Long could have started to have a sense of insecurity, of distrust and despite the pathos of the moment, the Swedish coach was always impassive, granitic.

Confidence is like a swing, it goes up and down in a constant of coming and going. If that feeling of distrust lasts longer than it should, then you can’t recover, you lose the game and time remains only for tears and recriminations.

The position lowered in receiving his opponent’s service, however, Ma Long found a way to better the service. So it was Mattias once again trusted the forehand pendulum service and for the third consecutive time Ma Long won the point. Like an alligator that suddenly comes out of the water, he immediately jumped towards the net to catch his prey. He performed a powerful forehand played on the Swede’s forehand who did what he could to send the ball back into the field.

Exceptional work

Ma Long was immediately ready. On the second and final stroke, with a forehand that displayed exceptional work in rotating at the shoulder, the ball was directed in a perfect way for placement on the opposite side. Mattias just managed to touch the ball before it went out. It looked like the classic one-two of the boxer, first a powerful hit to unbalance the opponent and then an even more powerful one to knock him out.

Now Ma Long’s face had loosened, he didn’t seem to be too bothered, helped also by his coach who threw him the usual repeated “jia you”.

Things immediately became complicated for the good giant of Karlskrona. Down 4-2 and with Ma Long at the serve, the situation could already become compromising. After the first six points were played, he tried to focus on the game using the towelling break. He dried his forehead and arms several times. He continued to remove the dust from the red rubber of the backhand while at the same time jumping, throwing a precise message to his opponent: a message of struggle, no surrender.

Once Ma Long finds a forehand rhythm he is unstoppable (Photo: Rémy Gros)

 

Resumption

The resumption of the game was immediately in favour of the Chinese. The speed of Ma Long’s legs made the difference. He was more agile, more ready both on the long ball and, above all, in the short one. He gave the impression of controlling the game and, in fact, alternating accelerations of forehand and backhand, practically a steamroller; at that moment Mattias felt incapable of countering but he had a mission and remembered Jorgen’s words – du fixar det!

He tried again, repeating the previous action and was rewarded in the exact same way, a soft attack on Ma Long’s forehand, which on other occasions could represent suicide but which in this case, with very little spin, turned out to be a winner and made him understand that if he was to have a chance to beat the champion he must use that stroke much more often and as soon as possible.

On this occasion, Mattias felt sure he had something to count on and repeated to himself: “I have to force the backhand, scare him with the forehand smash and make soft openings on his forehand”. It seemed to him an excellent plan with several winning variables, supported by the ideological support of his coach.

Options

Many players don’t have so many options. They might rely on the main stroke, hope for the opponent’s trivial mistake, try to improvise as much as they can. Against Ma Long, you can neither improvise nor hope for an easy mistake. You truly have to emulate superman to win against him.

The players understand in their own skin that if there is one mistake not to be made against Ma Long, it is to perform a short serve that is not so short. It is a fine morsel delicious for the Chinese champion.

Punctually, he turns and rushes to the table to perform a very powerful forehand using the shoulder as a rotating engine to place the ball in the most difficult corner for his opponent. Mattias made that mistake, again giving a four point lead to his opponent and with the service of the Chinese, an unbridgeable advantage.

Resignation is not part of this sport. If you have this feeling, then it is better to dedicate yourself to something else; this Mattias knew it very well. He managed to cancel the two services available for Ma Long with two extraordinary rallies. It was a bad sign for the Chinese and above all an unprecedented aspect to see Ma Long lose two consecutive points and on his service. It is like thinking seeing a penguin at the equator.

Continued encouragement

Despite the two points lost, Qin Zhijian persevered in his work of encouragement, continuously clapping his hands and telling his athlete not to let his guard down. In a duel, you can’t be distracted. It could cost you too much to experience even a simple drop in concentration, as it brings with it a risk of blowing an entire season and maybe an entire career.

The Swede basked in those two really unexpected points, wandering around his playing area. At 7-5 Ma Long calmed down and using the second break for towelling reordered his ideas. He had to be aggressive and at the same time control his opponent’s attacks. Calmed down and with his position regained once again his face was relaxed and reassured, heralding only determination.

Notably, the next four points were of total domination, the last one was the winning one; Ma Long materialised the formula “determination and control” to take home the game playing a very aggressive forehand stroke on the Swede’s forehand. He promptly counter attacked with another forehand. Soon after Ma Long, keeping the formula, tamed the ball with soft control giving the victory of the first set to the Chinese.

Ingredients

Aggression and wisdom were the ingredients that gave him an 11-5 advantage and put himself in a situation of having the odds in his favour.

It reflected the previous head-to-head results, where Ma Long had remained dominant three times out of three without ever losing a game. Even in this match, the situation could be repeated. The public was expecting this result. However, in a final, the epilogue might not be the most awaited, the match was still long and many surprises would be revealed in a short time.

The camera operator did not lose sight of Ma Long, who moved from right to left and vice versa to draw a semi-circle. He seemed in a state of controlled agitation. On the other side, Mattias reached the corner as usual in a hurry. Jörgen didn’t say a word, he waited for a first comment from his player. He handed him the water

“I know I can do it but I have to be more focused with my serve and I can’t afford to lose too many points”. Jörgen nodded and added: “Remember what bothers Ma Long the most. You have to try to exploit the use of the pips of your forehand; that soft opening on his forehand is crucial, you have to make this happen more often”. Mattias nodded: “well noted, coach’.

Mattias Falck listens intently to advice from Jörgen Persson

 

Sailing Away

The minute flew away in a flash, the Hungarian umpire called the two athletes back to the table for the start of the second set with a peremptory: “time”.

Understandably, the spectators did not stop encouraging the two finalists until the referee said: “second game, Ma long to serve. love all”. The second game began in a sparkling mode, with a series of top notch rallies. Ma Long’s first fast long serve on Mattias’ backhand forced him to open the rally cautiously between the backhand and the center of the table.

It is a point that has many different names: elbow, right pocket, for right handers, body in short, an area geographically far from the so-called two-wings game, backhand and forehand where the arm can be stretched naturally in order to reach the white sphere. The return was an excellent invitation for the Chinese, who in fact first attacked on the backhand, then on the body, then again on the backhand and finally, the ultimate attack on Mattias’ forehand where, with an attempt to counter attack, the Swede sent the ball out.

Coach support

From that long trajectory, followed by a closed fist gesture with Ma Long’s left hand, Qin Zhijian emphasised that moment. He jumped up and almost simultaneously screamed: “cholé”, the classic exclamation when you celebrate after scoring a point.

To win the first point of a game is to give oneself a positive boost; with that attitude, a player wants to intimidate the opponent so that they experience a sense of frustration which persists throughout the next rallies. Thus it gives a considerable advantage to the one who won that first point. The expressionless face of Mattias said enough. He kept jumping on the spot, demonstrating confidence throughout.

Although Ma Long was in control of the situation, he still gave the impression of suffering from the short ball on his own forehand. The position at the table was a little off to be able to better attack a possible long ball but on the short one he felt forced to push for many times and be passive.

All played into the hands of the tall man coming from the cold, with his soft attack which capitalised on Ma Long’s mistakes in the best way and put psychological pressure on the Chinese champion.

Gained confidence

Mattias became more swaggering as a confidence rose in him that could have taken him far away, so he tried to force the rallies, making his opponent to play long ones. Ma Long was not impressed; indeed, it seemed that he felt at ease.

During the rallies he proved to be more comfortable and more precise exactly when both went on the consistency pace. After some actions of backhand to backhand played at sidereal speeds, fatally, the too low setting of the Swede’s arm determined a ball which went long over the table. Ma Long thought he had added another tactical piece in that war of nerves where the mind travels at the speed of light and where ideas transform the body into movements and those movements into winning actions.

If something doesn’t work in that mechanism, one as complicated as it is fascinating, then you lose the point and it is not really important if you have previously played incredible strokes, the one that counts is the one that ends the rally, the one that determines whether you win or lose the point.

Champions are like tightrope walkers, trapeze artists: whether in training or in the match, they must observe the highest discipline and sacrifice. They know that they must act on the edge of a concept of correct and incorrect action, of right and wrong, in a sort of imperfect balance.

Searching for solutions

To look for new solutions, Mattias had also changed the geography of his serve, notoriously positioned from the corner of the backhand, so he went back to the past, performing backhand serves on the almost forehand side, with a single goal, forcing Ma Long to push with his forehand and consequently having the chance to attack first with the usual short pimples soft opening to the Olympic Champion’s forehand. Undoubtedly, the Swede and his coach knew that this was the only chance to bring home the world title.

The backhand service was well known by the whole Swedish team. In the past they had made extensive use of it by improving their playing technique that saw them very often set the game in the middle of the table, unlike the Asians who had developed the forehand attack model from every side of the table since the 1970s, also because of the pen grip that emphasized the footwork movement compromising their backhand, almost non-existent.

Brilliant intuition changed the face of the second game; the choice had paid off and combined with a more precise and effective forehand brought the Swede into the lead for the first time, creating a serious problem for Ma Long and behind him Qin Zhijian, whose look was getting darker and darker, as if predicting a storm coming.

The Mattias Falck forehand, the side of the racket on which he uses short pimpled rubber, caused Ma Long problems (Photo: Rémy Gros)

 

More tactical weapons

However, the Liaoning Province Dragon raised in Anshan had other tactical weapons to field. He levelled with a flat backhanded flick that hadn’t been seen since the games were played to 21 points. At that time, it was a shot delicately reserved for the Europeans. Some of the champions of the past would have rejoiced that one day that shot would be applied during a world title final and radically overturn the game.

It was a crucial point. It gave him the opportunity to face the second towelling of the game with more serenity. From the left corner his coach couldn’t stop cheering him on as if he was carrying too much weight. He would tell him how and where to play to avoid those forbidden shots from the Swede. Jörgen meanwhile began to see an unexpected light at the end of the tunnel and more than once he left his typical cool behind.

The nature of a table tennis player is so varied and manifests itself in a thousand ways, perhaps the most universal, common way being body language.

On several occasions, the athlete in this sport has been defined as being able to sprint 100 metres and at the same time play chess. I would like to add another feature, the poker face, which is an emotionless attitude when you are hit, that show of confidence as if having a royal flush in your hand, or sometimes a show of confidence when you do not even have a pair. It’s a unique universe of small, big details.

Confident on short serve

Alas, the thrill of the lead lasted a few seconds and in the following points Ma Long looked confident in playing a short serve.

It would have been a shortcut to the second step of the podium. Cold bloodedness allowed him to serve long, forcing the Swede to open and then bring him into the field congenial to him.

Mattias had to adapt. Ma Long was able to impose his game often in the middle, so to avoid that the long levers of the Swede could create more quality to the ball. In fact on several occasions Mattias succeeded with the intent, and the concern was evident in Ma Long’s eyes, nevertheless the champion, just in those difficult moments, proved himself.

It was impressive to see the technical ability of his gestures, the best millimetre position suitable to create the space around him to win the point.

Ma Long collected precious points thanks also to a lucky ball on the net that gave the Chinese the sweet opportunity to explode his forehand, as usual, directed at the body of Mattias Falck. He extended his advantage and went on to 10-7; three game points. The point of the game again came with a long serve by Ma Long, and a clumsy opening by the Swede sent the ball too long out of the table.
“11-7. Game Ma Long, Two Love.”, the umpire’s imperious voice intoned.

The Chase

It so happened that the expert Hungarian umpire who directed the match was called Attila, the name of a great barbarian leader, Attila the Hun. Depending on the point of view he was considered a hero but also a destroyer, often nicknamed The Scourge of God. The legend reports this character as a destructive fury; where he passed the grass of the ground would never grow again.

A name certainly evocative, capable of awakening the primordial instincts of all the protagonists of that day. At that solitary table tennis table immersed in the forces of nature, descendants of conquerors and explorers of the earth, they all had a mission to reach the top of the world.

The 2-0 advantage of the son of the glorious Eastern dynasties could give rise to what happened on other occasions: it was 4-0 without chances for the descendant of the Viking daredevils. Ma Long felt at 2-0 as if he had half a world title in his pocket and many thoughts overlapped.

Perhaps he would stretch his arms to the sky, he would hold his coach with a powerful embrace, the podium, the return home, the glory of the third consecutive title, of becoming the greatest of all time.
Possibly, the feeling played tricks on him. He had to chase that away with a whirlwind of thoughts, he could not even for a moment think he had won the match, a lesson he had had to learn on other occasions, in his youth; now there was only time and space for wisdom.

Right track

Mattias felt that he was on the right track. He saw positive glimmers with that tactic to which he clung point after point. Jörgen repeated it to him over and over again. Paradoxically, behind that strong conviction, the physical thrust had faded: that way of always jumping in every situation had disappeared.

Perhaps he had found his peace, that mystical sense of inner turmoil and outer calm.

The assistant umpire raised his left arm with the double purpose of indicating to the umpire that the minute for coaching was over and of making the two athletes understand that it was time to resume their position: “time” the hall resonated with the Hun’s impetuous voice.

Moments before the resumption of the third game were characterised by the usual rituals: dusting the table, a small adjustment to the equipment, resuming the physical relationship with the racket and lighten their thoughts to convince themselves of what to do.  “Third game, Falck to serve. love all.”

Ma Long (serving) won the opening two games (Photo: Rémy Gros)

 

Opening point

The first point was in favour of Mattias who, strengthened by the experience of the first game, secured the momentary advantage with a fast serve, as aggressive as the stroke he wanted to execute in succession.

Ma Long did not give him this privilege. The second ball attack came out clearly, making Jörgen jump from the chair. He saw the point as a threat of a crack that could collapse the building. For the second time the Swede found himself in the lead, his supporters cheering: “Mat-ti-as, Mat-ti-as, Mat-ti-as: Kom Igen”. The scream became more pronounced as if he was anticipating success. “love two”

The umpire indicated with his right arm outstretched and open palm that the serve was Ma Long’s and that love-two meant Ma Long was down by two points, which was very unusual. The point won by Mattias was significant for two reasons: one, the incredible destructive capacity of his forehand smash, a capacity perhaps derived from his ancestors and two, the vulnerability of Ma Long who, for the second time, had had to leave the position near the table to attempt an improbable lob defense.

Losing focus

Notably, Ma Long was losing focus. Even the slightest disturbance from the grandstand was cause for complaint. A sense of instability was growing.

A player’s strength is to completely isolate themselves from their surroundings, a kind of dream like trance, where you hear and see but you don’t really listen or observe. At that moment the Chinese seemed to listen and observe. It was an obvious sign of struggle.

Ma Long revealed other signs of weakness, the clearest of which was waiting for the opponent’s mistake. An extremely popular attitude amongst table tennis people, a sort of avoidance of taking responsibility, like saying to the opponent: here’s the ball, I hope to win the point without having to do anything, a sort of “serve and hope”.

He had this attitude twice in a row. On the first occasion he was petrified to perform a backhand that had neither head nor tail; on the next occasion he was luckier, for the second time of the match Mattias tried a straight forehand flick with a half fake action that shattered in the middle of the net.

Lightning bolt

It was a way of facing the third game gave which gave the Swede the opportunity to rattle off his best returns. Ma Long looked like a statue and Mattias like a lightning bolt; such was the difference between the two players. In no time, the Swede was leading 5-1 and Jörgen, nodding, did nothing but agree ideologically with his player’s choices.

They were well understood during the break and the results were tangible. Ma Long considered that moment as a pause, as if to indicate “I can also afford to relax after a good lead”. Nothing could be more wrong. The players would like to win all their matches 4-0 and with an 11-0 margin, all convinced that a distraction could compromise the final outcome.  Ma Long had to be very careful.

In his backhanded position and the insecurity of stepping around to play the forehand were the ingredients of an announced defeat. From the very first bars of the symphony, the Swede collected points in every possible musical way, thanks to a Ma Long who had decided that perhaps a game loss would not be the end of the world.

Different view

Significantly, his coach didn’t see it the same way and showed signs of nervousness. Every point seemed the point of his life and that losing it could be the beginning of the end. As in a musical counter point, Jörgen Persson continued to improve his calm on the bench and move his head from top to bottom, making his athlete understand that this was the right way to play.

For the umpteenth time, Ma Long sent the ball into the net, deceived by a stroke that was projected upwards by virtue of a topspin effect that wasn’t there, or if it was there it was irrelevant. The Chinese had not yet understood this fact; if he had understood it he had not yet found the right counter measure.

In fact, he knew very well what to do, take the initiative, avoid opening the game to the Swede, attack the ball as a predator attacks his victim. At that moment, he had given up. Maybe he needed a rest, maybe that rocket start and the 2-0 lead had told him, “Ma Long take a breath, relax for a few moments”, maybe that was what was going in his head.

Now he had closed all channels of communication with his coach, even the eye contact did not work as before. Maybe he was preparing for the fourth game.

Ma Long endured nervous moments (Photo: Rémy Gros)

 

Favoured reverse service

The two-time world champion and Olympic champion also gave up his usual pendulum service in favour of a reverse. It was a clear sign that he wanted to finish his agony as soon as possible.

Like in the ring, you realise when your opponent has no mercy. If he could knock you out he would do it with enormous enjoyment. Mattias did nothing wrong. The backhand and forehand combinations were by the book. The footwork movement was the most precise and effective for his very physical game and his racket responded poetically.

From the right corner, China’s Head Coach seemed to agree with Ma Long; in scoring the third point, once again due to a mistake by the Swede, he didn’t even shudder, he remained motionless, ethereal, in a sort of spiritual trance.

Sometimes the situation leads the player to do something entirely unexpected. In that physical and mental stupor, Ma Long scored two incredible counter-attacks on two points that on many occasions were the winning battle horses for the Swede, giving the faint hope of recovery.

Responsibility

The score 9-3 and then 9-5 charged Mattias with a serious responsibility. He desperately needed a point and so with his usual jumping around, he took a few more moments as if he was becoming stronger and repeating to himself not to be afraid to win.

Mattias played a series of excellent backhands; his opponent, in an attempt to increase the spin, sent the ball too long to be played in the middle of the table. Perhaps if it had been played diagonally, the result could have been different. The Swede followed that sweet and gentle trajectory towards the floor as a sign of extreme relief. The point had come.

The next point was the most spectacular of the entire match and sent the whole crowd into raptures. For the first time, the two were able to play nine returns each, a record if we think that table tennis is the fastest sport in the world, where the ball remains in play for 1.5 seconds on average. The winner of the point was Ma Long who saved one of the 5 game balls.

Ma Long made his choice to play aggressively, Mattias tried to control the ball but doing that, he lost his position, being forced to move back. Ma Long decided for a drop-shot so as to make the Swede come close and recover the ball almost under the surface of the table; then Ma Long hammered him with a series of fast top spins until Mattias wasn’t able to return the ball on Ma Long’s end.

A question of a break

The Swede returned to having that feeling of pressure and anxiety of winning that first game of his career against Ma Long. The anxiety became even more evident when the Chinese performed a beautiful forehand flick by displacing his opponent. Jörgen Persson’s bench overheated and the thought of a time-out made its way through that hurricane of sensations.

A “time-out” can be a deadly tool but if it’s called at the wrong time, it means losing part of the fundamental strategy. The two Swedes aligned themselves with the idea of not using a “time-out”, at least not at that moment.

The logic of “time-out” is always a matter of debate. There are those who demand it to make a u-turn when things are not going well. There are those who claim it to give precise indications on what to do in the very near future, maybe at game or match point. There are those who claim it to calm their player who, in a moment of total disorientation, is unable to find the line of play. Others call it in situations of wide advantage so that they feel the pressure and incite the sense of defeat for the opponent.

Nevertheless, the question remains: when to call the time-out and how long will it last? When it is your own serve? Between the first and second? When it is the opponent’s serve? Even here, between the first and second?

Many people are convinced that calling the “time-out” at crucial moments between the first and second service of the opponent can create an advantage, that is, when the game resumes, after a one minute pause, psychological pressure, the resulting service loses its effectiveness. Many times this strategy has borne fruit. There have been situations in which, on resumption of the game, the opponent fails the service. It happened and will happen again.

Free navigation

Determined as never before, the two Vikings opted for free navigation into the unknown.

Mattias remembered perfectly the point he made in the beginning of the game. He had played a long and fast winning serve to Ma Long’s forehand that banally sent the ball out not before touching the white ribbon of the net, a ribbon sometimes a friend and sometimes a foe. The choice fell for the same serve and this time the ribbon immediately said no to the world champion; the Swede’s stare met his coach’s for shared joy.

In table tennis, there are two memories, long and short, that make you relive positive but also negative moments. Mattias decided to use the short one, the one of a few minutes earlier of those three game-points; the goal to relive that positive moment and give psychological pressure to his opponent evoking that negative experience that happened in the initial game.

Thus, he won his very first game against the number one in the world by signing the 11th point as he had signed the first point: a fast long serve and the mistake of Ma Long. Now he really felt able to take the sceptre away from the Chinese. He had started out as the number 16 seed, a perfect underdog in front of the top dog.

There were tense moments for Qin Zhijian (Photo: Rémy Gros)
Reaction

The question that both Ma Long and his coach asked themselves was: what did it mean to have lost that game? What kind of reaction would it produce? Had it been an accident or an omen of something more nefarious?

A minute he spent with Qin Zhijian seemed to last only a few seconds, Ma Long needed more time, he couldn’t even understand the meaning of his coach’s words. Despite his long career with his coach, that feeling was completely new to him.

There are few, very few players destined only to win and many, many others relegated to defeat; there is a habit to everything, paradoxically even to losing. Ma Long was not only part of the first category, i.e. the winners, but he was just not used to losing, Ma Long knew only the verb ‘win’; this was a reason for disorientation, he hadn’t felt that emotion, except in very rare cases, certainly in less delicate moments than what he was experiencing.

New situation

It was a completely new emotion and like all new emotions, it was destabilising. It could become a real threat: that state of mind could last for the rest of the match if he did not try to find other ways to solve that problem of the short pimpled rubber. It was like the tongue beats where the tooth hurts.

Once again, the two gladiators found themselves to have something in common, a new emotion. Mattias seemed to reconsider but how do you train a new emotion? Hours and hours at the table, smashes full-court, backhand topspin from close and far from the table, flick, footwork, run to the limit, pull muscles until they were almost detached from the body, take the body to the extreme: everything can be prepared in training but not new emotions.

The blood boils inside your veins, your heart rhythm grows, you feel as if you no longer control yourself. You wanted that moment so much that now you’re terrified. The mega screen came to his mind, when it had displayed “do you think it’s just ping pong?”. No, it wasn’t just ping pong, it was a roller coaster ride, a dizziness that made you feel unique, where there wasn’t a copy of yourself, a lonely universe unexplored. Where no one could feel what he was feeling.

Back to earth

Jörgen had a hard time bringing him back to the earthly world, the one where he had a task to accomplish: winning the next game, balancing the result to 2-2, knocking his opponent out and then giving him the final blow.

He did it with all the energy at his disposal, while he continued to give tactical advice, Mattias nodded, he knew what to do, but he felt happy and fulfilled to hear it repeated.

Athletes, even the most experienced ones, always need reassurance. Things can be said dozens and dozens of times and you never become tired of listening to them or even repeating them. It was a liturgy.

At a certain point in the celebration of the match, one proceeds to those soft words and phrases. Even the tone of voice has to be measured. All of these considerations a coach has to take into account in that short minute they get with their player. If you don’t live it, you don’t know it.

Take it or leave

“Time”, the umpire decreed. Both reached their respective ends of the table with a certain speed, perhaps eager to come to terms with history. On one side, Mattias, on the wave of enthusiasm, aimed to inflict more low blows on his opponent, on the other side, Ma Long, wounded, had to prove that the low blow he had previously received had not affected him at all.

For the fourth time, Mattias took his red towel with the big white Stiga writing and started to dust the table. It didn’t take him long to reach the net and remove even the smallest particles. Ma Long went directly to the assistant umpire to deposit his anonymous white towel in the designated container.

In the event of the World Championships, the use of own equipment that has a certain evident presence of inscriptions, various logos for the benefit of sponsors, an opportunity to reach the eyes of millions of viewers is allowed but in the case of the Olympics, the regulation is strict. Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter leaves no interpretation: “no form of advertising will be authorized”, so even the towel has to fall within that parameter. In fact, in Rio in 2016, towels were distributed to athletes within the Call Area that were entirely white.

Some may have speculated that the towel used by the Chinese was the same one used in Brazil where he graduated to Olympic Champion. Athletes are not immune to superstitions; on the contrary, judging by all the rituals they exhibit, they are susceptible to them.

Mattias Falck, the backhand is his strength (Photo: Rémy Gros)

 

Calm

Ma Long felt relatively calm, supported by a growing scream from his fans who had not stopped for a moment in pronouncing the fateful “Ma Long jiayou, jiayou Ma Long”.

The resumption of the match saw him serving first and he thought he would immediately take the initial advantage and in doing so create an uphill start for the Swede. The screams became so insistent that he didn’t immediately find the right concentration to serve and he stopped to draw the attention of the crowd to be silent. The gesture didn’t go unnoticed and suddenly the quiet returned to the central court, the quiet before the storm.

Now Ma Long made a trivial mistake to serve softly in the centre giving the Swede the opportunity to lean lightly into the centre, returning a ball which was not short but not even long. The champion, in the eagerness to end the rally on the third ball and perhaps expecting a longer ball, stayed with his body slightly backwards, thus losing that nanoscopic moment to hit the ball in all possible balance.

The result of that clumsy approach was to reach the ball with bad co-ordination and inevitably the ball touched the floor without having touched the table, giving the first and important point to the Swede who threw himself into a sound “cholé”.

Change service

It wasn’t a good sign for Ma Long. Serving short had not been a wise choice. Immediately afterwards, he served fast long on the extreme side of the backhand.

Mattias made a backhand opening and Ma Long could count on the most classic of the footwork movements: the step around from the backhand position to play a counter attack directly to the centre of the Swede’s body who couldn’t counteract that very difficult play.

Qin Zhijian jumped up from the bench to support his player as he had never done before. Normally, Ma Long’s matches don’t produce great tension. He’s a fast winner, who doesn’t give time to breathe, almost a freediving game; hence, his coach wasn’t used to being so nervous from the bench and having his blood boiling inside.

Mattias managed to keep the advantage of his two services to a 3-1 lead, showing exceptional clarity of ideas and technical gestures. The last one was brilliant, after a couple of backhands he turned around to end the rally with a powerful smash that made us recall the 1970s, when one of his most illustrious countrymen, the late Kjell Johansson was the undisputed specialist of the smash performed a short distance from the table, a technical gesture that still maintains a unique elegance.

Lack of lucidity

Once again Ma Long paid for his lack of lucidity in playing his favourite attack without proper balance.

He found himself for the second time in less than a minute hitting the ball without the help of his body, only with his arm, the ball promptly flew out, a nightmare that seemed to have no end.

Thoughts multiplied, he desperately needed Mattias to help him win that third world title but the Swede had no intention of giving him a hand. “Sorry, Ma Long”, Mattias would have told him, if he had had the opportunity.

For the second time in a row, Ma Long was unable to take home the two service points at his disposal. Again, he repeated one of the mistakes he had made during the previous games. Perhaps at that time, the Chinese could not recall that famous short memory, in fact he found himself suffering under those short pimples, which continually put him out of time forcing him to hesitate in making the right choice.

Applied pressure

Mattias began to rampage, like fury he applied pressure with his backhand and then once again turned around and ended with a smash by the book. In other conditions, that ball received by Ma Long could be manageable but those pimples, those short pimples, which he might have dreamed of for the months ahead, were making him lose the plot.

They didn’t allow him to find the right approach, time, position, spin; they were confusing him.

He saw a faint light in that scenario of screams, lights, sounds: a trivial mistake made by Mattias, perhaps due to overconfidence, perhaps a mistake that may have cost him. Another equally trivial one followed.

Mattias absolutely had to keep the ball in play, it was his only hope, He could not give simple points to Ma Long without him having earned them with the proper strokes and not for his own demerit. Ma Long was lucky to have a “friend” on the other side of the table who could help him in difficult times.

Ma Long changed from the pendulum to the reverse service (Photo: Rémy Gros)

 

Shared feeling

However, the games weren’t finished, quite the opposite. Both of them again shared the same feeling: hope. On the one hand, Mattias’ hope of being able to count on that uncomfortable style for his opponent and Ma Long, despite the clear difficulty he was experiencing, hoped for those unforced errors from the Swede.

They came in at 7-5 in favour of the Swede in the same way: in the open rally, Mattias had the superiority, he was in total domination, the Chinese could not digest being stuck right in the middle of the rally.

One of the best qualities of a table tennis player is the ability not to stop, to have an action that follows another, like a perpetuum mobile, a movement that connects to the next one, without confusion, without hesitation, all prepared and predetermined. It was Ma Long’s strength and this could also be his weakness.

Mattias had only to exploit the propitious moment but for the third time in a row, he made the same mistake again. He didn’t reach the open rally and after serving, he sent the third ball directly to the net after a short push well performed by the Chinese; that wouldn’t have been so difficult to manage; Mattias’ hand and racket suddenly became heavy, like a stone, as if the Swede was carrying a huge boulder, the one of victory.

Coach support

The two coaches incited their athletes relentlessly. It was the most delicate moment of the whole match, they knew that the next points to play were crucial. The two challengers returned to their positions after the second towelling. Mattias did it in his usual way, the graceful run, while Ma Long, at pace, tried to tidy up his ideas for the umpteenth time. “5-7”. You could hear it from the centre of the field.

Ma Long strongly hoped to level; the balance that would then allow him to aspire to win the fourth game.

Notably, the first serve was deadly, he threw the ball so that it rose above his head, with his torso bending forward creating a kind of protection of the ball and with a sudden action, his racket seemed to come out of the bowels of his body, hitting the ball at the edge of its final trajectory. He ran a great risk because the ball could hit the edge of the table, a daring action whose result was a very fast serve placed between the centre of the table and the corner of the backhand.

It was a total surprise for Mattias who, caught off-tempo, could do nothing but push almost half-volley, sending the ball too long beyond the white line of the table. It was 7-all.

Trusted short serve

Now Ma Long still trusted his short serve. The Swede was relieved; in fact he played a long push to the forehand, Ma Long performed a strong attack cross court but found Mattias very well positioned to play a great diagonal smash that landed in the first 30 centimetres beyond the net.

It was an incredible return, never seen before, worthy of a men’s singles final. Ma Long, disconsolate, watched the ball move away and recriminated that silly choice of a service he should never have made.

Qin Zhijian closed his eyes as a sign of discouragement. He too had imagined a possible 7-7 but instead the result came back 8-6 with the advantage of the service for the Swede. After that excellent smash, Jörgen continued nodding his head, a grand gesture, very familiar to the players, heartening.

The attitude is very similar to when you have to deal with small children: to give confidence, you always tend to nod to them, to make them convinced that things are going well and will be alright, even in the case of a mistake, a gesture to increase self-confidence but at that precise moment Mattias was not doing anything wrong, he was following the manual of the potential World Champion in a perfect way.

Time to think

Ma Long needed to dilute the time, he felt he had to think more and better. Mattias gave him a significant help: the first short sidespin serve touched the net ribbon, Ma Long had immediately rushed the ball for an early push, however, this allowed him to have more precious seconds. “let”, shouted the Hungarian.

After the let service, inexplicably, Mattias changed his mind. Instead of insisting on a bumpy terrain like the short ball, he opted for a long serve that, however sudden, found Ma Long at ease and gave him a one-two backhand to forehand in response to which Mattias could do nothing.

Once again, the Swede was perhaps paying the price for being too nervous, super tense and lacking in experience. It led him to think not in the best way. In table tennis, tactics are fundamental, even the walls know it.

Having a strong discipline of tactics means to evaluate every time in a precise way not so much the most congenial solution to your game but the solution less congenial to the opponent’s game. The two antithetical situations can sometimes coincide but sometimes they can’t; maybe Mattias thought that after a short serve, a long one to surprise could be a winner.

Maybe he thought he could manage that situation anyway, maybe he had an excess of confidence or maybe, simply, that serve was dictated by the fear of winning and therefore hoped for an involuntary mistake of the Chinese.

Mattias Falck, one warning but the service action met the regulations (Photo: Rémy Gros)

 

Warning

At 8-7 the umpire found an irregularity in Mattias’s serve, the ball was not thrown high enough, so he received a warning.

In other conditions, if the service is considered illegal, the player could lose the point directly. Mattias nodded to the umpire that he had received the warning. A minor setback did not help, Ma Long was counting on the psychological advantage of the previous point so brilliantly won. Instead it was useful to the Swede who had more time to dispose of that badly played point; in fact he thought not to repeat that mistake.

The service that followed was impeccable, forcing Ma Long to push which, although it was long in the centre, allowed Mattias to play the usual short pimpled opening, so hated by the Chinese who blocked without so much conviction.

Now he had chosen to control the play as he had done in the first two games. The control was effective but not to such an extent. Mattias doubled the speed with a quick backhand, in anticipation, almost above the table, played again on the backhand and this time Ma Long had to risk looking for a topspin block.

Significantly, the position of the racket was too low compared to the height of the ball. In fact he hit it in the frontal area going upwards, the ball fatally went long out of the table; that ball had to be definitely hit thinking on the spin produced by the opponent but the racket’s trajectory should have been more parallel to the table. “7-9”, marked the Hungarian.

Still a gap

Ma Long still found himself with this two points gap; the distance to the world title became more and more relevant.

Frequently there are situations where in the final of a match even a two points gap is not considered so much a disadvantage because having the service means tactically counting on a dominating position. The trend of that game, which maybe Ma Long will remember for a long time, had not made him confident; if there was a constant in the Chinese player’s matches and more specifically in his style, it was exactly the incredible ability to take home the two points with his service.

What was going to happen next?

The surrounding thunder grew more and more, the tension was palpable, a result of 2-2 could definitely open the window for the Swede to win the title; vice versa, the disadvantage of 1-3 could determine the yield; such was perceived by the audience.

Ma Long had no doubts about what to do, strong from the previous points played, where serving short would have been a great advantage for the Swede and serving long would have been the least risky option, he made his call.

No hesitation

The superstar from China did not hesitate and performed a service similar to the one at 5-7. Only this time he played much more angled, Mattias made a half-twist and attacked with his forehand to the Chinese player’s forehand who struggled to provide spin and power to a bifid ball. It was an excellent opportunity for Mattias to play his best stroke, again a flat action, the classic smash always on the forehand.

Significantly, the ball had a kind of shudder and accumulated multiple features: first the vehement topspin of the Chinese then the extreme smash of the Swede with a tense trajectory and a slight backspin.

Ma Long found himself in front of a masterpiece of technique: with the unbalanced body towards the back, he managed to hit the ball with fine anticipation generating much rotation on the sphere. Thus, as a result, Mattias arrived on the ball with a delay of a nanosecond sending it out. It was a liberation for Ma Long who had finally won the point on the most fertile ground of the Swede; it represented emotional destabilization.

As soon as Mattias lost the point, almost at the same time, his eyes crossed with Jörgen, and both agreed to something.

Different impression

There are impulse players who rush towards the bench for the “time-out”, as if it were a gesture of anger, sometimes without even announcing it, as if to confuse the umpire, a behaviour at the limit of acceptable. There are others who like to give the impression of not being at all affected by that point just lost and give the appearance of returning to the game.

Although Mattias was aware of the importance of that point, he continued to give the impression of resuming the game, placed himself at the usual backhand angle, bent over and in the meantime Ma Long started his setting for the second serve, suddenly changed his mind and decided for the “time-out”, exactly as agreed with Jörgen.

Mattias approached his coach with a sprint, a little more energetic than his usual pace. He needed anything to help him win that vital survival game. Ma Long on the other hand walked; Qin Zhijian was waiting for him on his feet.

Mattias Falck gave heart and soul (Photo: Rémy Gros)

 

Advice

Jörgen repeated for the umpteenth time: “Mattias, you should take the initiative of the rally with your soft forehand, you have to find out all possible ways to do it”. The situation that would bring him a triple advantage: technical, tactical and psychological, and then he continued: “If you want to win, you have to do that”.

From the other corner, the Chinese coach became agitated while his player moved in a semi-circle in front of him. He said: “Ma Long, remember to play a fast long serve on his backhand and be very careful to counter attack that ball played with short pimples and remember to lift the action upwards more energetically than you have”. Ma Long replied with a very calm tone: “I know, I know”.

“Time”, resounded the umpire’s voice but it didn’t seem to have any effect, the noise was even more accentuated given the topical moment. “Mat-ti-as, Mat-ti-as, Mat-ti-as, Mat-ti-as,” “Maaa Long jia you, jia you Maa Long, Maaa Long jia you, jiayou Maa Long,” The support for the idols was fused, the screams were so loud that the umpire had to repeat himself: “Time”.

Discipline

Mattias had never stopped running, while Ma Long proceeded at a slightly uncertain pace. Ma Long alternated between looking at the ball and his opponent as if he was capturing a moment of weakness.

Discipline is one of the most important qualities of sport, a discipline that is not intended to have the awareness of executing an order that comes from a higher authority, the higher authority is the player himself. You must realise how strong you are inwardly, when the moment is so important that you cannot and should not hesitate or hope for some godsend. You must act as if scientifically observing the most effective tactic; this can only happen if you have a strong inner discipline.

So it was that Ma Long gave even more strength to the fast-long service, just as he had agreed with his coach. The result was a sudden service where the Swede made the same mistake as a few minutes earlier, making that slight step forward and then finding the ball on him. He played an imprecise backhand that came out long, because of the speed of the ball. Mattias even hit it towards the edge of the racket, giving it an unusual trajectory.

Recover from crisis

It took 18 points to recover from the crisis and again see the score line level, a 9-all, raised hope to win that game and achieve three-one.

The third towel came right after the “time-out”, an avalanche of thoughts was invading Mattias’ head. He had the chance to think twice, thrice on what to do before returning to the table.

Now, the Swede didn’t feel comfortable to perform the first fast long service placed down-the-line as he had done in the third game. He remembered that winning service very well, it had given him the first and last points of the third game.

Nevertheless, he decided for a reverse pendulum played in the centre. Ma Long didn’t find it very difficult to push place the ball towards the centre of the table. The mistake of the Swede, if you want to emphasise the fact was to move slightly to the left to give space to his own forehand. He would have liked to take the initiative as indicated by his coach but seemed to misread the length of the ball and with a certain anticipation he, yes, hit it with forehand but this time by pushing.

Delighted

Ma Long was super happy about it, he made the sudden usual leap to the left moving his body inside the table and let explode a super-fast full arm forehand placed exactly at his opponent’s right elbow. The ball arrived violently, Mattias tried to block but the ball catapulted off the table.

Impressively, Ma Long remained cold, no gestures, his face relaxed, he said nothing. His coach and the thousands of fans in the chorus shouted “cholé”. Internally, Ma Long knew that that point gave him incredible satisfaction, but he wanted to contain his joy because he still felt the pressure and the threat coming from the North. “9-10”, shouted the referee in a more sustained voice.

After about two games, Ma Long found himself again in the lead; that was the feeling that the Chinese preferred, always gloomy in the face he was preparing for the game point.

Now things were becoming really complicated for the Swede. He had played almost two games against a great champion, showing the world of what he was capable. He who with a short pimpled rubber, that for many a note out of tune in the symphony played by all the greatest players, from Calderano to Samsonov, from Fan Zhendong to Timo Boll to pass from Lin Gaoyuan to Dima Ovtcharov, in short, a player out of the chorus we can say. “9-10”, some could hear from that chaos of sound.

A strong mental attitude was necessary in the fourth game  (Photo: Rémy Gros)

 

Chance to level

Mattias had his chance to level the score with a regular pendulum service. Ma Long was aggressive in pushing long and again. It was for the second time that the tall man failed to open the rally with his forehand pimples. On the contrary, he pushed with his backhand and yet it had been well agreed and planned.

A “time-out” had been claimed for that very reason. Ma Long did not miss the opportunity to place once again a topspin with the highest level of rotation to the opponent’s body. Once more time the Swede had to rely on the counter attack. He went out, giving the fourth game to the Chinese Champion who turned his body to his bench and closed his eyes in sign of great relief while his coach was standing, applauding him.

The counter attack is perhaps the most difficult action in table tennis. It is a misleading action. Many players believe they can win games or matches with the counterattack especially with the third or fifth ball, it’s a pure illusion. The statistics speak for themselves, a winning counter attack can be followed by losing counter attacks but that beautiful action is like a mermaid: it can draw you down into the depths of the abyss to stun and make you lose the lucidity, so that it fatally pushes you in the wrong direction.

Title sweet title

If the of competing and winning this final against the sacred monster of table tennis was extremely hard for Mattias, now, at that 1-3, things took on the character of mission impossible.

A huge gap to be bridged, especially because he felt emptied of the potential he had so far put into the field and which had made the Chinese champion so vulnerable. On top of that, another element started coming up to the surface: a sense of happiness, a feeling of self-realisation after that long surf of endless emotions.

On the other hand, Ma Long was super motivated in two ways: the first because he found himself leading 3-1 in a situation that might have been 2-2. Secondly, he now saw the glitter of that cup after winning that fateful fourth game played more in the shadow than in light. It was a prize he would take over as soon as he won the 11th point that would crown him champion for the third time in a row.

The impression from the stands was clear: the Swedish cheering was strong but not as before, while the Chinese was more thunderous than ever. Furthermore, the Swede walked towards the bench. It was the first time that Mattias lost that sparkling attitude, the conviction that he could do it; that jumping, that head always miming a yes, that body language aimed at making him comfortable as well as his coach, and the fans and the whole of Sweden.

Hit hard

He was a Mattias hit hard, stunned, hit by one of those blows that you will feel for the rest of your life and the memories of which will become like spikes that constantly poke your heart.

Ma Long looked like a sentinel. He went three steps forward and backward while his coach spoke for a minute in a row; that index finger waving in front of him was both advice and reproach. Ma Long now had a confident attitude, he felt confident, he knew he was playing against a knocked player and when you are knocked hardly you are able to think clearly. All he had to do was to give the final blow, the ultimate blow.

“Time, time, time, time”, the umpire announced the resumption of the match three times. Jörgen Persson’s advice was not yet exhausted. If he could have, he would have taken another 10 minutes. He wanted to make the ultimate encouragement: he didn’t want to send his athlete into that lion’s den where, waiting for him, there was one who had a great hunger for victory.

However, Mattias had to leave his coach and he approached the table with his usual run, a semblance of normality. The behaviour of waiting, of length did not go unnoticed by the inflexible referee who didn’t even think about it for a moment and pulled out the yellow card for Mattias who phlegmatically replied,

“I didn’t hear you”, and he did it always jumping and flaunting self-confidence.

“Fifth game. Falck to serve. love all.”, the umpire said shortly.

Hesitation

A hesitation from the Swede gave the first point to Ma Long who immediately changed his competitive attitude just from this initial rally. In fact he expressed an immediate “cholé”, almost in unison with his coach.

Theoretically, 10 winning points separated him from history, while for the Swede it would have taken 33, an infinite gap. In table tennis, the sense of hesitation can mean many things: over confidence; loss of confidence; initial disorientation, a bit like the boxer who received a devastating punch and struggled to regain lucidity; the mind takes you to a place that’s not the one you’re living in, the mind is imprisoned in that 9-7 of the previous game.

Any serve that drifted long from Mattias Falck, Ma Long pounced (Photo: Rémy Gros)

 

Keeping hopes alive

The game was fundamental to keeping his and the hope of all his Swedish fans alive. The mind was still brooding over the brutal experience he’d just had of how that game vanished from his hands like a handful of sand hit by a wave of water. It wasn’t only losing that game, it was the consequences that would have resulted; Mattias wouldn’t have forgotten that 9-7 so easily.

Ma Long decided to keep him company in that endless ballet, so he began to wander around his playing area clenching his left fist as a sign of energy. It was as if he had shaken off a garment soaked in heavy tension; that tension had magically disappeared with that first winning point and he felt relieved like a feather dancing in the lightness of the wind.

The situation was reversed in the next point played by the two champions when, perhaps because of an excess of confidence, Ma Long hesitated and returned the point in a similar way, it was a simple push sent directly into the net. A fact so rare for these champions to imagine making such trivial mistakes that it is not always easy for the general spectator to understand the origin.

Qin Zhijian wasn’t happy after having seen that bad push. He wanted the 2-0 immediately, and maybe for his athlete to go to 4-0 with the next round of services. Another point would have been enough to expect the surrender of his challenger.

Exerted pressure

Ma Long’s pressure became more and more insistent, Mattias felt he had to risk something more, something he hadn’t done before and this was a huge advantage for the Chinese for two reasons.

The first was that Ma Long felt literally terrified by the idea of having to deal with that placed backhand of the Swede combined with forehand pimpled rubber; the second was that this risk effectively eliminated the possibility for Mattias to make those soft openings that Ma Long feared from the beginning.

It was a phase in which without doing anything, Ma Long found himself recording four points without even playing an attacking stroke. Mattias was helping him in every way. For every single point won, Ma Long’s scream was far greater than the decibels that the fans could generate in the fairground pavilion; a venue where an act that would remain in the history of world was taking place.

The Swede tirelessly kept jumping, bouncing, running and screaming and encouraging and repeating “I can do it, I can do it”, generated an incredible energy, as if two atoms collided frontally and created an unprecedented adrenaline rush.

Perhaps that attitude from the north, united with the initial advantage from the east, that could have given rise to a spread of other points, was the reason for a technical reaction of very high technical value; Mattias played those next three points amazingly.

The mental worm

Ma Long saw the spectre of the previous game reappear. It was a trivial thought, a mental worm that had made its way into the traffic jams of his brain synapses, a worm that felt comfortable inside his brain. Ma Long, point after point, desperately searched the thread that would bring the worm out of its maze.

Qin Zhijian tried from the start to help him rid that worm out of his head and his phrase: no problem at all, had to be repeated again and again but he did more, he leaned his body forwards, with his head inside of the playing area so that, in the general uproar, his athlete could hear his reassuring scream.

Throughout the match, Jörgen had maintained an emotional distance from the pitch in an excellent way, he rarely showed any signs of disappointment and sometimes he was, so to speak, unleashed in blatant applause. Experience as a player had taught him to contain his emotions until the end and then they would either be unleashed in the most frenzied joy or he would have to lick his wounds after a burning defeat.

Extreme confidence

Although the score was 4-4 after losing three consecutive points, Ma Long’s attitude seemed to indicate extreme confidence.

He seemed to have touched the top of the mountain. Now he was preparing to go down in a steep slope that could take him straight into the valley of victory, a descent during which the only things he would have to check was that he stayed on track.

For no apparent reason, in no time at all, the score reached 9-4 for the Chinese, his accomplice once again the Swede who failed to be disciplined in converging his thoughts into a single game module, the soft opening.

On the contrary, he exaggerated in trying to close the point as soon as possible, all for the benefit of Ma Long who in the meantime had resumed running in a circle in front of his half of the table.

Gradually Qin Zhijian smiled (Photo: Rémy Gros)

 

Media ready

The photographers understood what would happen in a few moments; in a slow, anomalous movement, with their numbered beige bibs, they looked like a group of guerrilla trained soldiers, batteries in the side pockets, camera on the shoulder, the heavy backpack, the tripod that seemed to be a high-precision rifle, the one used by the snipers.

In a way they were like snipers ready to hit in that one precise moment. In fact, it was like a guerrilla on a special mission, it was vital to be the first to grab the best position, to capture the champion with the most beautiful shot, the shot of glory, the shot that would go around the world at the same time that the shutter had welcomed that small fragment of light called image.

They moved stealthily, crouching along the line of the barriers, exchanging gentle nudges. In a few minutes, there would be an explosion of the final cry of victory. They were disappointed!

Difficult to understand

Imperious, the Chinese coach caught the umpire’s attention and by placing his left index finger under the palm of his right hand he ratified his legitimate request for “time-out”.

It was one of those cases difficult to interpret. Good observers tried to give an explanation for this kind of “time-out”, so, many people did not understand that gesture and wondered. How is it possible to request a “time-out”, thinking of a player like Ma Long, not the last of the class, leading 3-1 and 9-5 who had won everything and more? Was it for tactical, technical, mental reasons, or for all three? What?

Possibly the explanation lies in the fact that this specific men’s singles final was of an unprecedented exceptionality, or rather, unmatched in exceptionality for many, many years A new situation for Ma Long too, a situation that could have unexpected, unpredictable and no matter how stable and granitic his athlete might be, Qin Zhijian’s choice was to leave nothing to chance.

It wasn’t an excess of prudence, it was common sense. Obviously, no one can be proven wrong and no one can say that Ma Long would have won that World Championship anyway; we will never know. What we know is what happened after that.

The walk towards the bench did not add any particular elements. He had done the same during breaks at the end of each game, so it did not seem to differ from his usual routine. On the other end, Mattias reached Jörgen with his ritual run.

Tension

Ma Long moved in a semi-circle while his coach didn’t skimp on words, didn’t even skimp on gestures.

It was clear that the Chinese had to insist on the backhand to be more aggressive in the middle; this was corroborated by the fact that during the last game, Mattias sometimes found himself caught just right in the middle, in that elbow where in less than a fraction of a second you have to decide whether to play with backhand or with forehand; an imperceptible delay could have cost the point. So, the coach kept repeating to attack the first ball towards the body and elbow.

In the other corner, Jörgen always remained calm, leaving the initiative to Mattias to express his first reactions. They both knew that it was not a desperate situation but it was seriously compromised. It needed a miracle but a real one; however, Jörgen urged him to hold on and tried to regenerate that confidence that in this fifth game had been in alternating phases.

They returned to the table with the roar of the fans, a sweet sound for the athletes that was becoming louder and louder to foreshadow the moment of apotheosis.

Called to order

“Ma Long to serve; 9-5”, the Hungarian said as if it were a sentence.

Ma Long stood for the umpteenth time, always in the same way, from the left corner, the backhand corner, with the body stretched out and the back curved forward, the handle of the racket that was almost kissed by his mouth, while his eyes were fixed on the ball.

He projected the ball up impeccably, moved his body towards the back and, releasing the grip, he hit the ball sideways with a light topspin, the ball was not fast, on the contrary, it seemed short but that narrow diagonal made it come out between the corner of the backhand and the upright of the net.

It was a serve that Ma Long had previously twice executed and punctually he won the point. Mattias was forced to make an unclean move, he opened the rally by sending the ball back to the same place where it came from but he didn’t notice Ma Long’s speed to move completely towards the referee’s position and played an attack halfway between the forehand corner and the centre of the table.

Mattias sensed the trajectory but the speed of the ball was such that he could only touch the ball and it went clearly out. 10-5”, proclaimed the umpire. It was five match points for the current World Champion.

Arms aloft, once again Ma Long the champion (Photo: Rémy Gros)

 

Belief

Now Ma Long felt the title in his pocket. Again he ran in a circle, this time wider as if he was receiving all the warmth of China; Qin Zhijian’s face expressed satisfaction and confidence, standing, applauding his pupil, his eyes shining. He felt the adrenaline flow through his veins; now only one point separated them from glory, the most important one, the eternal honour.

Jörgen remained impassive, while his athlete hadn’t lost an ounce of his proud powerful attitude by continuing to jump and clean the racket.

Ma Long set himself again in the same way as the previous point. Only this time, he had other plans: he served short to the middle of the table, a backspin side serve. Mattias tried an aggressive push on the forehand. The Chinese at first prepared for the fast attack but then he realised that the ball was not so deep, perhaps because of those pimples.

He had to make up for it by stretching his right leg towards the table, waiting for the ball to fall below it and played a heavy topspin, Mattias didn’t even think about it for a nanosecond and followed his nature, he vigorously smashed the ball that broke into the soft net that divided the table.

Mental speed

Table tennis players have an exceptional mental speed, that’s why that scream, the last “Cholé” clearly stood out in that endless bedlam. Not an instant passed, the crowd went into a frenzy with a chorus of flashes, shouts, uncontrollable joy of having witnessed an extraordinary event, a victory that at that moment the whole planet was seeing celebrated.

Ma Long dropped his racket as if emptied of all muscular energy, and projected his arms to the sky, with his coach enjoying the historic moment. Mattias had closed his eyes as a sign of surrender, he was mirrored by his coach Jörgen Persson, while Attila, amid the general roar, pronounced the fateful: “11-5. game, match, Ma Long.”

Epilogue

After Suzhou and Düsseldorf in Budapest, again, Ma Long was about to stand on the highest step of the podium for the third consecutive time, waiting to clasp in his hands on the world champion’s cup, the St. Bride Vase, which 90 years before was lifted by England’s Fred Perry in Budapest itself.

The ultimate achievement was the go ahead, the obligatory passage to join the club of all-time greats, like Waldner, Wang Liqin and now him; but something told us that he wasn’t one of many, he was the best, he was Ma Long, the greatest.

The top step for Ma Long, Mattias Falck the gallant runner up, bronze for Liang Jingkun and An Jaehyun (Photo: Rémy Gros)
In Depth Liebherr 2019 ITTF World Table Tennis Championships ma long Mattias Falck
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Day 8 - 2019 World Table Tennis Championships

Match Highlights