The ping-pong evolution of TT’s greatest
Why we should not quibble about China’s dominance in table tennis or the mantle of GOAT for the two-time Olympic men’s singles gold medalist, Ma Long
We called it ping-pong back in the day when we brandished clunky wooden paddles with thin layers of pimpled rubbers stuck on them. A rhythmic clackety-clack was a background score at clubs and recreation rooms. What we saw in the table tennis men’s singles final of the Tokyo Olympics was a different ball game. Hitech rubber on bats wielded by the current world No 1, Fan Zhendong, and the reigning Olympic champion, Ma Long, imparted so much speed and spin to the ball that many points were just a blur. Flat topspin shots zipped millimetres over the net, kissing the surface of the table and staying so low that you couldn’t make out if they had landed at all.
Unlike those old club games when two hobbyists would get stuck in long rallies and you watched the ball go back and forth until you fell into a stupor, this was mesmerising in an adrenaline rush sort of way. Here, between well-matched opponents at the highest level of the game, the rally usually involved heavily spun probes near the net until one of them saw an opening and attacked. A rapid-fire exchange would then erupt and end with an error or a winner. The sound effects were more like the rat-a-tat-a-tat of a machine gun in an action thriller than the clip-clop of a horse carriage on a cobbled street in an old movie.
Apart from the wonder at seeing this modern avatar of table tennis (TT), a debate over Ma Long being the GOAT (greatest of all time) in this sport spiced up the encounter. With three back-to-back world championship singles titles in 2015, 2017, and 2019 and two World Cup singles titles in 2012 and 2015, on top of the 2016 Rio Olympics men’s singles gold medal under his belt, he was gunning for a second Olympic singles gold medal. That would take him one up over the Swedish legend, Jan-Ove Waldner, who won the Olympic singles gold in Barcelona in 1992 and the silver medal eight years later in Sydney. Waldner won the world championship twice in 1989 and 1997 and the World Cup in 1990.
The quadrennial Olympics, biennial world championships, and annual World Cups are the three biggest events in table tennis. Bagging all three titles in a career is considered to be a grand slam. Only five players have achieved that in the history of the game, the first being Waldner. All the other four are Chinese: Liu Guoliang, Kong Linghui (who beat Waldner in the Sydney Olympic final), Zhang Jike, and Ma Long. With his latest triumph in the Olympics, Ma Long is the only one with a double grand slam.
It was fitting that in Fan Zhendong across the table in the Tokyo Olympics final, Ma Long had a rival whose style epitomises the modern lightning-fast game. While Fan Zhendong’s main weapons were unerring backhand flicks and lightning counters with sudden switches down the line for winners, it was Ma Long who had the more nuanced, rounded game one associates with the Waldner era. On top of the flick and counter, Ma Long’s backhand chop-block threw Fan Zhedong off his rhythm time and again. It comes back faster than a chop but it’s so much slower than a normal counter that it upsets the opponent’s balance.
As for the forehand, Ma Long is so strong that he wins most rallies on that side. But even there, his loopier topspin variation had so much side spin that it often stretched Fan Zhendong out of position. And although just an inch taller than his Chinese compatriot, the 5-foot-8-inch champion was able to hook forehand winners from balls seemingly out of reach. This versatility allowed him to take a step back from the table from time to time to give himself more space to mix things up. He was also comfortable in allowing his younger opponent to initiate the attack, knowing that he could stay in the point long enough to work his way on the counterattack.
Fan Zhendong is the archetype of the modern player, who gets on the attack pronto, staying low and close to the table, strong quads powering flat topspin shots on both flanks. He beat his national captain in backhand rallies, more often than not winning points with down-the-line switches when Ma Long crept to his left to cover his backhand — well, at least until the champ started to anticipate the switch hits better.
There were no secrets between the two top guns who often practise together for the Chinese national team. But at 32, Ma Long’s speed and reflexes were perhaps a touch slower compared to his 24-year-old opponent who was in peak form, gaining the world No 1 rank last year. When a ball flies at 100 kmph across a playing surface the size of a dining table, even a slight disadvantage in reflexes can matter a lot.
Ma Long took time off after knee surgery in 2019 and dropped to No 3 in the world rankings. Cancelled tournaments in the Covid year didn’t help his comeback. This makes winning the Olympic gold medal last week with his 4-2 win over Fan Zhendong the crowning mental and physical feat that establishes him as the GOAT of table tennis for most watchers. Self-belief and tactical acumen played a part as much as all-round skills. When two Chinese players clash in tournaments, there are no coaches at hand, presumably because that would appear unpatriotic. Then it’s left to the two players to make strategic moves, and Ma Long clearly had an edge there. His timeouts, for example, were perfectly placed to disrupt his opponent when he was on a roll or gather himself for a final push to win a game. He knew instinctively when to slow down the game or press harder.
To some, it’s a downer to see Chinese players on both sides of the table in so many world tournament finals. That has been the case in five of the last seven Olympics in men’s singles. Chinese women have been even more dominant, winning all nine singles gold medals since table tennis became an Olympic sport in 1988.
Some of the charm is lost when you see players similar in size, style, and attitude donned in the same colours facing off. Although it must be said that the Ma Long versus Fan Zhendong clash was breathtaking in its speed and intensity, with the added twist of an older, experienced hand taming a testosterone-driven upstart, Ma Long’s ding-dong semi-final battle with the equally experienced German challenger, Dmitri Ovtcharov, offered a more varied spectacle.
The pendulum serve (where the ball is tossed high and the arm swings into it like a pendulum or a drive in cricket) is favoured by most Chinese players because it can be the hardest to read, as subtle changes in the wrist can give it so much variation between topspin, backspin, and sidespin as well as in length and direction. Ovtcharov’s backhand chop serve with heavy backspin and sidespin interspersed with a tomahawk serve (where the bat and serving arm are pointed upwards as the player bends low to connect with a tossed-up ball next to his ear) were welcome diversions. He also looped topspins from below the level of the table — a feature of the game that went out of fashion when superspeed rubbers made it more advantageous to take the ball on the rise and give the opponent no time to get back into position.
Ma Long’s match with Ovtcharov went the distance for an intriguing hour and a half before the Chinese dragon prevailed 4-3. Long means dragon in Chinese, so his name translates to ‘horse dragon’. He’s also known as The Dictator because of his dominance in the sport over the last decade, captaining the Chinese national team from 2014.
It was Mao Zedong who first made table tennis a national sport, committing state support to build up the game in the country and produce world champions. It paid political dividends when China first hosted the world championships in 1961 in a grand stadium and swept the gold medals, diverting attention from the millions of starvation deaths during Mao’s Great Leap Forward of collectivisation and industrialisation. He then used a China tour of the US table tennis team to pave the way for American President Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972 as a counterpoint to Russia. Although projected at the time as a spontaneous sporting connection, it later became known as ping pong diplomacy when the state’s orchestration behind the scenes came to light. A meeting between the leaders of communist China and capitalist America, after all the acrimonious rhetoric between them, wouldn’t have gone down well in public perception without all the table tennis played up earlier.
China didn’t win a single medal in the world championships, going all the way back to its institution in 1926, until Rong Guotuan won the gold in Dortmund in 1959. Then came the turn of Beijing where Zhuang Zedong and Li Furong got gold and silver, which they replicated in the following two world championships in Prague and Ljubljana. Thereafter, the Japanese, Swedes, and Hungarians returned to the limelight until another surge by China in the eighties, leading up to the admission of table tennis in the Olympic Games.
Jan-Ove Waldner was the main challenger to the Chinese in the nineties, earning him the nickname of Lao Wa (Old Waldner) in China. He later became the first living foreigner to feature on a Chinese postage stamp and even owns a restaurant in Beijing serving Swedish meatballs.
Apart from the state’s push, which extends to recruiting young paddlers for sports training schools, rubber technology played a big part in China’s ascendance in this millennium. The faster the game got, the less tenable defensive play became. This reduced variation in the game and raised the advantage of those who trained from an early age to rally robot-like. Boosters added another element which began to make the equipment more of a factor than a player’s skill. Rubbers slapped on to a bat with speed-glue hours before a match would expand and produce extra speed. The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) banned the use of speed-glue after the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Earlier, the size of the ball was increased from a diameter of 38mm to 40mm. This reduced spin on the ball, which would ostensibly lengthen rallies and enhance spectator engagement. But European players like Waldner criticised the move which they felt gave a boost to robot-like players while making it harder for those who relied on variation and tactics to succeed.
Evolution of the game is inevitable. We can’t grudge China doing whatever it took to rise to the top legitimately. That would be like cribbing about how astroturf dethroned Indian hockey or ended the serve-volley era in tennis.
To see just how much the game has changed, you can mosey over to YouTube for a clip of the Hungarian five-time world champion in the early thirties, Viktor Barna. That’s more like the ping-pong played in clubs with wooden paddles and thin rubbers at a comforting clackety-clack beat.
What Ma Long and Fan Zhendong served up on July 30 in the men’s singles final at the Tokyo Olympics was a techno-marvel version which has only a remote likeness to the game Barna played. But there can be no denying the fact that if anybody can be considered a GOAT in a sport, it is the Chinese captain.
Perhaps the game will become more mechanical as years go by, as Waldner predicted, which will make somebody like Fan Zhendong unbeatable. Until then, it’s just as well that the more nuanced Ma Long is ruling the roost. The way he has adapted to shifts in the game in the last decade and a half, from the time he won a world title in 2006 when he was just 17, makes him a true GOAT of TT, the greatest of all time.
(Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru, India. Write to him at email@example.com.)