01 May 2020

A legendary player like no no other, an ardent talent for being the first to achieve targets often thought next to impossible.

China's Wang Nan led the sport for over two decades.

by Kabir Nagpal

In the twilight of autumn 1978, Wang Nan was born in Fushan, Liaoning to a Chinese household with no prior athletic endeavours, her affiliation to ‘firsts’ started early in her career.

Fast starts

At the age of seven, Wang was introduced to the sport of table tennis; an age for starting that is most common today. Wang proved an inspiration; she started  in  an era when the sport was becoming more and more professionalized across all genders and more countries. 

Quickly developing into a left handed attacking top spin player, a notable difference being the speed of her play, Wang attracted the attention.

In 1994, required to qualify, Wang secured her first international women’s singles title when she succeeded at the Scandinavian Open. The success propelled her to work towards making her World Championships debut in 1997 in Manchester. She was defeated in the final by colleague, Deng Yaping (12-21, 21-8, 21-11, 21-10), it was a debut that lives long in the memory. 

Shortly afterwards, she took this defeat and converted it into a method of making sure her wins would flow like water. She won the Women’s World Cup twice in 1997 and 1998 – before later winning it twice more in 2003 and 2007 – she found her performances being rewarded at the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok, where she won a full house of gold medals – women’s singles, women’s doubles, mixed doubles and women’s teams events.

By the time the 1999 World Championships rolled along, the young apprentice from Fushan was now the world no.1 and would stay there till the end of November 2002.

Wang Nan made her World Championships debut in 1997 in Manchester (Photo: John Wood)


The first and lasting style

The beginning of her reign as World champion came in 1999 Eindhoven. Wang won the women’s singles title.

However, this did not come easily. In the fourth round she faced Japan’s Chire Koyama who made sure the top seed was not given an easy day at the office. Wang lost the first game and found herself trailing 13-17 in the second. Koyama, formerly representing China and known as He Zhili, had previously won the women’s singles title at the 1987 World Championships.

It did not phase Wang who managed to recover and win the match (18-21, 22-20, 21-5, 21-18). A slight hiccup, her performances improved as she beat her compatriot Cheng Hongxia, a right handed defender (21-17, 21-15, 21-12), in the quarter-final.

Next, she overcame Korea Republic’s Ryu Jihae (22-24, 21-9, 21-15, 16-21, 21-16) to book her place in the final, this was again a moment where she had to perform a recovery. In the vital fifth game she trailed 1-6.

The final itself was no different facing her three years younger colleague, Zhang Yining, once again it was fightback time. She lost the first two games before winning the next three. The fans were biting their nails throughout (15-21, 14-21, 21-15, 21-12, 21-11).

“I changed my game, I got closer to the table, became more aggressive and most important of all changed my serve and that carried the day” Wang Nan

Later, the pattern was seen again when Wang won at the 2001 World Championships in Osaka, beating China’s Lin Ling in the final (14-21, 21-12, 21-12, 21-19). Two years later she won for the third consecutive time when she succeeded at the 2003 World Championships in Paris. She overcame Zhang Yining to secure gold (11-7, 11-8, 11-4, 5-11, 6-11, 8-11, 11-5).

Wang Nan on her way to gold in 2001 in Osaka (Photo: Gennaro Bozza)


Extra meaning

All three victories came with an extra meaning. In addition to Eindhoven being the first time when only individual events were held, Osaka was the last time both team and individual events were staged.  In Paris, it was the first World Championships when games were played to 11 points.

Add to that, by winning in Paris, Wang became the first woman to win three straight titles since the six-time winner Angelica Rozeanu of Romania in the 1950s. The bigger difference being Wang remains the only player to win the World Championships in two separate centuries.

Impressively her collection of gold medals actually spans across six consecutive occasions in the team events – 1997 in Manchester, 2000 in Kuala Lumpur, 2001 in Osaka, 2004 in Doha, 2006 in Bremen and 2008 in Guangzhou. They are complemented with her other event gold medals such as the women’s doubles titles with Li Ju in 1999 at Eindhoven and 2001 in Osaka, followed later again with Zhang Yining in 2005 at Shanghai, as well as in 2007 at Zagreb. She also won the mixed doubles in 2003 with Ma Lin.

No one else can claim of such a glorious list. 

Wang Nan enjoyed outstanding success at the Asian Games (Photo: Monthly World Table Tennis)


Olympic Games

Also add, her exploits at the mecca of sport are even more enlightening about her legendary status. At the 2000 Olympic Games held in Sydney, Wang won women’s singles and also the women’s doubles with Li Ju. She then secured an Olympic gold again in 2004 at Athens, winning the women’s doubles with Zhang Yining. 

Both these victories involved significant stages where it would have been totally possible to see her exit. In the second round of the women’s singles event in Sydney, she beat Singapore’s Li Jiawei but only after recovering in the fourth game, where was down at 16-20 (8–21, 21–18, 19–21, 23–21, 21–16)!

Four years later in Athens, Li Jiawei extracted revenge, she beat Wang Nan in the quarter-finals (11-7, 11-7, 11-13, 11-8, 11-9), preventing her from winning consecutive women’s singles’ Olympic medals.

In 2008 at Beijing, Wang found herself up against her own doubles’ partner. She lost to Zhang Yining in the women’s singles final. It was a bitter sweet Olympic Games for her as she, alongside Zhang Yining and Guo Yue, had earlier won women’s team gold.

In 1999 Wang Nan won the women’s singles title at the 1999 ITTF World Tour German Open (Photo: Guido Schiefer)


Staying first, even post-retirement

In between her active years when she was collecting the firsts of all trophies in World Championships and Olympic Games, Wang was also quite active on the ITTF World Tour. She secured 16 women’s singles titles from 1997 to 2006, her most famous wins also include the women’s singles title at the ITTF World Tour Grand Finals in 1998 at Paris and 2001 at Hainan. She was the runner up in 1997 in Hong Kong and 1999 in Kobe. 

As she was in her playing days, the former leader of China’s women’s table tennis team has not stopped achieving firsts away from the table. Now the Chinese Athletics Association (CAA) Vice-Director, Wang Nan was recently elected as the first-ever Asian woman council member of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).

“I consider the successful election a recognition from the world athletics family for China. In the future, the CAA will keep fulfilling its obligation and honouring its commitment, better communicate with the world athletics family and raise the level of the sport in China.” Wang Nan

Features Wang Nan