The Asian Games in Guangzhou demonstrated, once again, the crushing superiority of China in global table tennis. China took all seven gold medals, a clean sweep that is becoming a familiar feature in international competitions, the opposition blown away in imperious, almost dismissive fashion.
Ma Long took gold in the men’s singles with an impressive victory over reigning world champion Wang Hao. Ma, a shakehand player, is the world number one but with his performance has proved that he has genuine star quality. He makes very few unforced errors, is tactically judicious, but he is also capable of playing with ferocious power on both wings.
The semi-final victories for Ma and Wang were instructive. Ma destroyed the excellent Korean defensive player Joo Se Hyuk 4-0, looking untroubled throughout, while Wang took down Jun Mizutani of Japan with similar ease. China’s dominance on the men’s side is total, and it shows no sign of ending.
On the women’s side the story was the same: China, China and more China. Li Xiaoxia took the women’s singles by defeating compatriot and room-mate Guo Yue. Some of the rallies were, as they often are when contested by superlative female players, fast, furious, strategic and pulsating. Li, in particular, has a fluency and elegance that is rather striking. China also took gold in the women’s doubles and team events.
There was a time when China were so far ahead of the field that the other nations were there merely to make up the numbers and, of course, to battle for second place. In the 1960s, Zhuang Zedong was capable of defeating top Europeans in single figures (in the days when games were played to 21); only his compatriot Li Furong was capable of offering a serious challenge.
To some extent, this kind of dominance returned after the hiatus of the Cultural Revolution with Guo Yuehua dominating proceedings in the early 1980s, and then Jiang Jialiang towards the end of that decade. When I played my first World Championships in 1987 there was a default assumption that China would sweep the board in the men’s singles and team events.
That assumption was, of course, challenged early on when Alan Cooke created the greatest upset of the championships with victory over Chen Xinhua in the team event (although England went on to lose to China 5-1) and was then obliterated by Jan-Ove Waldner with victories over Chen Longcan and Teng Yi in the singles. Although Waldner lost to Jiang in the final, this was the moment when China’s ascendency was put into temporary abeyance.
Much has been written of Sweden’s 5-0 demolition of China in Dortmund in 1989, perhaps the most remarkable team contest in the history of the sport, but in retrospect the blossoming of Sweden can be seen as an aberration. Waldner, Jorgen Persson, Mikael Appelgren, Eric Lindh, Peter Karlsson, Ulf Carlsson, Ulf Bengtsson: the line-up was almost miraculous in strength and depth, but they were not replaced by youngsters coming through, and now Sweden, like the rest of Europe, languishes.
In many ways, the late 80s and 90s can be seen as a golden age. We would arrive at major competitions full of anticipation and expectation. Would Waldner triumph, or would China (in the form of Ma Wenge, Wang Tao, Chen Zhibin and the like) prevail? What about Grubba, Gatien, Saive, Rosskopf, Primorac, Kim Taek Soo and other potential challengers? And what of the other Swedes, always ready and willing to usurp their more illustrious team-mate?
Today, there is no such uncertainty, other than the question of which Chinese player will triumph. The possibilities for Timo Boll and Vladimir Samsonov, the leading Europeans, are minimal, despite their obvious capabilities. The Koreans are decent, but not threatening. The Hungarians have almost disappeared from view. The English are valiant, but have no realistic chance against the might of the East. And it is difficult to see when things will change.
Of course, all credit must go to China for their remarkable strength in depth and sustained appetite for success. The coaches are magnificent, their facilities without peer, and their players so fast and furious that they are eons ahead of the rest. Table tennis still means a great deal to a nation that is westernising at breakneck speed.
But, in other ways, this scenario is deeply troubling. For the plaudits earned by China are not healthy for the global pretentions of the sport. Television schedulers are beginning to ignore table tennis. Even hardcore fans are getting concerned about the monotony. If we ever needed another Waldner, a new man to inject some excitement and unpredictability into the sport, now is the time.
But will we ever see his like again?
By Matthew Syed