Weight off the shoulders, Ma Long wins in Rio de Janeiro
Ask the name of the best player in the world and current discussion would undoubtedly focus on Ma Long and Fan Zhendong; turn the clock back five years to the days and months prior to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the name of Ma Long would also appear, yet but many would propound that of Zhang Jike.
Turn the clock back even further to 2012 in London and the protagonists for the mythical honour may well have been Wang Hao and Zhang Jike?
When the doors closed in London ExCeL arena, Zhang Jike had the clear vote, at the same time he held the three major titles the sport has to offer, he had won the men’s singles title at the GAC World Championships in 2011 in Rotterdam, later in the year in Paris he had secured gold at the Liebherr Men’s World Cup, before in England’s capital city, claiming Olympic gold.
If Ma Long was to dislodge Zhang Jike from his perch; then he had to achieve the same accolade and hold all three titles at the same time, to his great credit, he succeeded.
At three consecutive World Championships, 2009 in Yokohama, two years later in Rotterdam and then in 2013 in Paris, Ma Long had experienced a semi-final men’s singles defeat, on each occasion at the hands of Wang Hao. Moreover, in each of those contests, he had under performed.
Notably in London in 2012, Ma Long had played only in the men’s team event; perhaps he could claim to feel hard done, in previous Olympic Games, a National Olympic Committee gad been permitted three players in the singles events, in the ExCeL Arena it was just two.
In Suzhou at the Qoros 2015 World Championships, the tide turned, Ma Long emerged successful, later in the year in Halmstad, totally focused, he won the Liebherr 2015 Men’s World Cup title. Now did that in the minds of many put him level on points with Zhang Jike?
On Thursday 11th August, the task was completed, he endorsed the fact that he was the best player in the world; in hall three at the Riocentro he secured the men’s singles title, furthermore, the player he beat in the final, Zhang Jike (14-12, 11-5, 11-4, 11-4).
After securing the opening game, Ma Long sailed to victory; it was a most convincing performances, following testing times en route to the title. Round three, the starting point, he beat Denmark’s Jonathan Groth (11-2, 11-3, 11-3, 11-9), clearly stating his case but then he ran into troubled waters. Facing Korea Republic’s in form Jeoung Youngsik, he lost the first two games, prior to mounting a recovery (6-11, 10-12, 11-5, 11-1, 13-11, 13-11).
Perhaps, winning such a close contest gave him the necessary boost of confidence, as did his semi-final endeavour; following a straight games win against Nigeria’s Quadri Aruna (11-4, 11-2, 11-6, 11-7), he withstood a spirited recovery by Japan’s Jun Mizutani (11-5, 11-5, 11-5, 7-11, 10-12, 11-5).
The best player in the world, clearly that was the view of Liu Guoliang, the Chinese men’s team coach; in the ensuing men’s team event, Ma Long was always named to compete in the potential two singles match.
A weight had been lifted from his shoulders; in the team event he played freely and with confidence, a fact illustrated in the results. In the opening round against Nigeria, he beat Quadri Aruna (11-6, 11-3, 5-11, 11-2), before in opposition to Great Britain, overcoming Liam Pitchford (6-11, 11-4, 11-9, 11-9) and then in the penultimate round accounting for Joo Saehyuk (11-1, 11-4, 11-4) in the contest against Korea Republic.
Progress to the final, facing Japan, Ma Long proved he was the player on whom any coach could have the utmost trust to deliver. He beat both Koki Niwa (11-6, 11-9, 11-6) and Maharu Yoshimura (11-1, 11-4, 11-4).
Success and in addition to becoming only the second player to hold the most prestigious titles at the same time, if we add the men’s singles title at the ITTF World Tour Grand Finals, he became the first. He is only player ever to hold all four at the same time; in December 2015, he won when the Grand Finals were staged in in Lisbon.
Now another first awaits; in Tokyo can he become the first to successfully defend an Olympic Games men’s singles title? Achieve that goal and surely the accolade of best in the world is unequivocal, maybe even best of all time?
Editor: Ian Marshall