by Kabir Nagpal
A year of glory
Ma Long is to this very day a master of his art – on his route to securing gold in both the men’s singles and men’s team events in Rio, he gave a series of performances that were simply breathtaking.
Coming into the 2016 Olympic Games, Ma Long had already been crowned World champion and Men’s World Cup winner, glory reserved for the best player in the world at any given time.
However, it was the final frontier in Brazil which would crown Ma as undisputed no.1 in more than one respect. After all, what is the best way to assert your dominance in a sport? The answer: by beating the very best there is.
“I am very happy as this is my first Olympic finals. It was a difficult match particularly in the last three games. Making the finals is extremely meaningful to me as this is the dream for all athletes… I’m looking forward to it. My opponent will be the strongest in the world, and I don’t want go into the match with any pressure.” Ma Long
On the 11th August, 2016 the table tennis fraternity was treated to a match long awaited. Two of the sport’s biggest names were set to collide in splendid fashion as Ma Long faced defending Olympic champion Zhang Jike in a thrilling all-China affair.
Zhang was pitted against a man who was quickly becoming his biggest threat in the game, as the top two seeded entries faced one another in the final of the men’s singles tournament in Rio. The stakes could not be higher as Olympic champion Zhang clashed heads with the World champion Ma!
The final of champions
The final, like many before it, featured a score-line which didn’t reflect the full story. Despite Ma Long being the favourite for the crown in Rio, Zhang Jike was back on the stage where, four years prior in London, he had proved himself very much at home.
Featuring arguably the best backhand in the world against the best forehand, each player also proved most adept at what could be described as their weaker wing, which happens to be just as equal if not even greater than the rest of the field.
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
A day to remember
The result was special for multiple reasons, not least of which was Ma Long becoming a Grand Slam winner, joining the likes of Zhang Jike and Jan-Ove Waldner in the exclusive list.
Victory also meant it was success for the fifth time for China while Ma became the fifth player to claim gold – no player has ever won the title more than once! Liu Guoliang was the first to secure gold when he won in Atlanta 20 years prior in 1996, he was followed in 2000 in Sydney by Kong Linghui, before more recently Ma Lin succeeded in Beijing in 2008 and Zhang Jike was anointed at London 2012.
“The crucial part of the match lies in the first game; I was still slow in my reacting and weaker in rallies with my backhand. If I had won the first game, the whole match might have turned a different way. Ma Long’s skills are better than mine, no matter is it in his first three strokes, or changing between attacking and blocking. Congratulations to him.” Zhang Jike