Top spins, side spins and ping-pong diplomacy


Ma Long. — AP
Ma Long. — AP

Ma Long symbolises a new China that believes its moment has arrived on the global scene


Allan Jacob

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Published: Thu 5 Aug 2021, 11:25 PM

If Ma Long is sheer perfection, Ma Lin was the magician across the table. And how could one forget the Swedish maestro Jan-Ove Waldner, or the ‘Mozart of TT’ as he was known at his peak in the late 80s and early 90s!

Waldner, for me, remains the greatest non-Chinese player ever, not because of his talent but for his admirable and forceful ability to break through the Chinese great wall in table tennis. Chinese players of the time called him the Guerilla Foreman. He was the Ivan Lendl of table tennis, I would say — so close yet so far to all-time greatness. He was the real deal even as the pact was sealed by Chinese talent in the sport.

I’ve seen more of Lin and Waldi, but I wonder how a man, a mere mortal, could play table tennis the way Ma Long does.

He seems to do everything right, though I suspect his backhand is not as strong as it should be — a backhanded compliment after he recently quelled the challenge of world No 1 and compatriot Fan Zhendong in Tokyo. Ma Long’s got all-round game. I’ll give it to him. He anticipates exceptionally well, moves like a panther, and wears down his rivals.

Ma Lin, however, was artistry, starting with his pen-hold grip that didn’t distinguish the backhand from the forehand. His rivals never knew what was coming when he topped it with spin and deception. A quick roll of the wrists would do the trick.

He would then unleash the loop to catch his rivals stranded and have him under his spell. For the record, Lin’s the only male TT player to win Olympic gold in singles, doubles and team, and was world champ four times. He also lost thrice in the finals of the championship.

Waldi, on the other hand, was a tactician who was the better plotter of the three. The Swede’s game inspired me as I was getting into my ping-pong stride in the late 80s and 90s. He chopped with style and played the waiting game and let them make mistakes. He blocked well too and caught his foes by surprise. Placement was his forte and he made history for me.

So I took up the sport semi-seriously and was told I had a lethal forehand as I grappled with a backhand that never found its sweet spot, though I managed to smash my way out of corners with some topspin thrown in.

I was club class, though I had potential. I tried to raise my game during my college years but was shown my place by paddlers who had the talent to reach national level.

I tried again during my PG years only to be bamboozled by the underspin and cross-court strikes of a female batchmate who made four of us guys look like pretty boys all in a row.

For me, Waldner’s rise was the coming of age for table tennis, when it turned more global and you could strike deals across the table. The Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union was dismantled. There was fresh revolution in the air after the heady days of ping-pong diplomacy of the early 70s when China came in from the cold.

The start of the Chinese-American rapprochement was sparked off by a hippie American TT player named Glenn Cowan, who hopped on to a bus with Chinese players during the world championships in 1971. He shook hands with Zhuang Zedong, China’s best player back then. The gesture was appreciated by Chairman Mao of China, and US President Richard Nixon saw an opportunity to mend fences with the dragon.

But that didn’t produce an American champ (Waldner was a European phenomenon) and China’s supremacy in table tennis continues to this day under Ma Long.

The dragon is now viewed as a superpower and is squaring off with the US from the South China Sea to the Atlantic. And Ma Long symbolises a new China that believes its moment has arrived on the global scene. Perhaps it’s time for ping-pong diplomacy 2.0.

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