by Kabir Nagpal
2000 Sydney: Kong Linghui v Jan-Ove Waldner
Long considered one of the most complete players of all time, China’s Kong Linghui brought the Australian crowd to its feet in a momentous final played in Sydney two decades ago, when he faced legendary Swede Jan-Ove Waldner.
Kong Linghui displayed an arsenal of all-round attacking table tennis, a style that would not only regularly trouble his opponents, but also inspire future generations to adopt.
Facing his idol Waldner, there was further evidence of Kong’s desire to showcase his full array of talents at the table. Kong used his shake-hand expertise to secure an impressive 3-1 (21–12, 13–21, 21–16, 21–13) win against the 1992 Olympic champion. The result meant Kong became only the third male player ever to complete a career Grand Slam, having won all of the sport’s most prestigious trophies over the prior twelve months.
2004 Athens: Ryu Seung-min v Wang Hao
Athens, the birthplace of the Olympic Games, has a long history of warriors rising up against the difficulties they face to achieve the unachievable. At the same location in 2004, Korea Republic’s Ryu Seungmin was inspired by that very same history and repeated the feat with some style.
Playing as the underdog against the rising Chinese superstar Wang Hao – an expert of the Reverse Penhold Backhand – Ryu not only shocked his opponent, but also the world with his determination to win. Recording a jaw-dropping 4-2 (11-3, 9-11, 11-9, 11-9, 11-13, 11-9) victory, it was the manner of his recovery after being 1-2 down that caused his extensive celebrations in the stadium after the match. Ryu’s gold meant he became the first player from Korea Republic to win the title since Yoo Namkyu in 1988, when the sport was included at the Olympic Games for the first time.
2012 London: Zhang Jike v Wang Hao
A man who took table tennis popularity to new heights like few others before him, the grand occasion of the Olympic Games was always a platform for Zhang Jike to leave his mark with metaphorical guns ablaze. Competing in an all-China final, then ‘young prodigy’ Zhang Jike was out to nail down his place in history as one of the all-time greats. Up against Wang Hao, an experienced head of two Olympic men’s singles finals, it was not a match to be taken lightly by the very talented Zhang. Added to that, the tang of potentially becoming only the fourth man to ever complete the Grand Slam was at stake.
22-year-old Zhang left nothing to chance, winning the first game in dramatic fashion, before speeding through the next two and establishing a 3-0 lead. Wang restored a glimmer of hope by winning the fourth, but it was to be in vain as Zhang cleared the table to became the youngest-ever athlete to achieve the feat (18-16, 11-5, 11-5, 10-12, 13-11).
2016 Rio: Zhang Jike v Ma Long
Four years later we were all treated to a match everyone in the table tennis fraternity had been waiting for – two of the sport’s biggest names collided in splendid fashion as Ma Long took on defending champion Zhang Jike at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Now a fully established figure, Zhang Jike was pitted against the man who was quickly becoming his biggest threat in the game, Ma Long. The top two seeded entries facing one another in the final of the men’s singles tournament, the stakes could not be higher – it was the reigning Olympic champion versus the World champion!
Much like any other final with two juggernauts of the game, it was one for which the scoreline didn’t tell the full story. Ma reigned supreme with a 4-0 (14-12, 11-5, 11-4, 11-4) victory, however, Zhang pushed his compatriot to his limit. There were plenty of nervous moments and the rallies were kept to a minimum length. Ma’s forehand gained first blood in the match – setting the tone. Consistent errors were forced on Zhang’s part, who fought hard to find his way back into the contest, but to no avail. Zhang was by no means playing far below his level, it was simply that Ma was producing table tennis on that day which no mortal could match.
“I played well throughout the match; the title is only possible with that high level of play. We both know each other very well, so it’s not a competition of skills but more of mentality and psychology. For me, I’m not defending any title here, so I have less pressure on court. After winning, I’m still feeling calm. I think I have improved.” Ma Long