by Simon Daish
Consistency and frustration
Ma Long’s previous experience on the World Championships stage painted quite the consistent picture, although is was this very same consistency that ultimately contributed to his frustration with the prestigious event.
Reaching the round of 16 on his debut at Zagreb 2007, Ma would progress to post a much-improved result two years later in Yokohama beating Danish legend Michael Maze on his way to a commendable semi-final finish. If Ma was left disappointed with another semi-final exit in Rotterdam in 2011 then his repeat performance at Paris 2013 must have hurt even more.
For three World Championships in a row Ma had done well to take his place in the penultimate round, but fell short of the final on all three occasions. Now, with the biggest stage the sport has to offer heading to his home country of China in 2015, the pressure was on!
Ruthless display sees Ma break the curse
Suzhou was the destination for the 2015 World Championships and expectations were sky-high in the Team China camp. Xu Xin, Fan Zhendong and reigning World and Olympic champion Zhang Jike were all present in the men’s singles race and were all hot favourites for glory. Seeded first for the draw all eyes were on Ma Long – could he finally take the next step in his career and achieve the ultimate dream on home soil?
Opening his account with fixtures against Iran’s Noshad Alamian, France’s Emmanuel Lebesson and Greek defender Panagiotis Gionis, Ma then met another defensive expert and a very familiar face in Joo Saehyuk. Reigniting a much-revered rivalry but again Ma came through relatively untroubled, dropping just the one game to the Korean player (11-4, 11-3, 11-9, 10-12, 11-6).
An impressive start from Ma and the man from Anshan was just as imperious at the quarter-finals hurdle, powering past Hong Kong’s Tang Peng in straight games (11-7, 11-9, 11-6, 11-1) to claim his ticket to yet another World Championships semi-final.
Ma’s name was on the fixture list for the final day of play in Suzhou where the chance to reach a first men’s singles final presented itself, but first a tricky penultimate round meeting with 18-year-old sensation Fan Zhendong awaited him. Power, pace and world class rallies from every direction, the two played out a cracking contest in Suzhou – on this occasion the plaudits went to Ma (11-1, 11-7, 11-8, 11-13, 11-4).
Finally, at the fourth time of asking Ma Long had sealed his passage to the men’s singles final! However, the man standing between him and the trophy wasn’t two-time World champion Zhang Jike as many had anticipated but instead no.13 seed Fang Bo. Responsible for Xu Xin and Zhang Jike’s exits on his way to the final, Fang Bo now had his sights set on Ma Long and with it one of the most unlikely of success stories in the history of the sport.
Euphoric moment finally arrives
The stands were packed with fans from all corners of the globe excited to see history in the making. Both appearing in their first singles final at the tournament, regardless of the final outcome a new World champion would be crowned. Would it be top seed Ma Long or the supposed outsider Fang Bo?
Pulsating action from the off, the quality of both players was clear to see right from the very first point of the final as Fang unleashed a powerful forehand down the line from the backhand side only for Ma to counter with a cross-court beauty. The spectators loved it and there were plenty more outstanding moments to come. At the halfway stage of game one it was Fang who looked the more settled with a 2-6 lead, but that soon changed as Ma won nine of the following 10 points to claim the early lead.
Fang produced a better showing in game two, levelling the scores quickly to put any early nerves behind him. However, the momentum soon swung back in Ma’s favour with the world no.1 upping the anti in games three and four to put clear distance between himself and his opponent at 3-1 ahead.
Just one more game separated Ma and the title and although game five was tight he had his chances, failing to convert an 8-5 lead and then a championship point at 11-10! Fang successfully navigated his way through the game to keep the tie alive but his time on court was about to conclude. Showing his unforgiving side Ma ruthlessly executed a near-perfect attacking performance in game six, overwhelming Fang with unrelenting force. By the close of the sixth, the match was over (11-7, 7-11, 11-4, 11-8, 11-13, 11-4).
Leaping atop table in sheer delight, and a sense of relief, Ma Long had done it – he was finally men’s singles champion of the world!
“It is like a dream come true. Having lost in the semi-finals at the three previous World Championships, honestly, I felt a lot of pressure to earn this title. At the end of the day I think it was worth it.” Ma Long
An all-time great
Victory in Suzhou appeared to lift a huge burden from Ma’s shoulders and has since gone on to become one of the greatest in the sport’s history. Adding two more World Championships singles titles to his collection, Ma also went on to become Olympic champion in 2016, lifted the Men’s World Cup for a second time and reached the top step of an ITTF World Tour men’s singles podium for a record 28th time!
Now a member of the exclusive Grand Slam club alongside Jan-Ove Waldner, Liu Guoliang, Kong Linghui and Zhang Jike, Ma Long’s name will forever be remembered as an all-time great and I’m sure the date 3rd April 2015 will live long in the memory for the Chinese superstar.