A text by Takahiro SATO and Manabu NAKAGAWA. There are diverse and complex reasons for China’s strength and dominance in table tennis, it is impossible to name just one reason, and surely “strength in numbers” is not valid here. But what is? To find an answer to this, we had a close look at the 12th China national games in Fall 2013 to see if we could find any answers. We did.
What are the CHINA NATIONAL GAMES?
The China National Games –to some players- are more important than the Olympics or the World Championships, which is why we have been closely following the games for years.
In 1959 the world championships had taken place in Germany for the first time after the war . Over 40000 spectators were watching the world championships. They had been seeing a Chinese player winning the title: Jung Kuo-Tuan. But six out of seven medals went to Japan that time. Reason enough to react.
It was the year 1959 when the China National Games started and became more and more important in China. Since 1993 they have been taken place in a 4-year rhythm.
More difficult to win than Olympic Games?
All participants qualify for the tournament through the first stage: The city and province level. Players surviving this stage have already accomplished something, since the level of play is quite high. In that regard, the national games are not that different from the Olympics, but there is a main difference: The difficulty of winning the title.
Since 2012, all participating countries are only able to send two players to the Olympic singles competition. At the China national games, there are 30 players left after the qualification round. To put it a bit provocatively: Chinese players are already closer to the title at the Olympics, because there are only 2 players starting for china. Because of this, there is this public opinion in China that a title at the national games is harder to win, since there are more Chinese players to overcome in the course of the tournament.
Winning the title at the National Games means the world to many top players, but internationally, the tournament is quite unknown to the public. Our aim is to change that!
Arriving at the Olymp
The national Games 2013 took place in a city called Anshan in Liaoning province. Anshan is also known as the iron city, because of its economic rise during the era of the railway industry. Besides table tennis, soccer, Handball and Swimming competitions are also taking place in Anshan, with the city building some new facilities specifically for the national games, demonstrating the high value China places on the national games.
It is 1900h on our watches, on September 3rd, 2013 as we arrive after a plane and car travel to the Olympic sports center stadium in Anshan. The name and the strict security measurements remind us of the Olympic games as we enter the venue.
The first thing we see is Ma Long playing a feroicious forehand topspin, followed by a direct service point. He clenches his fist and releases a scream of relief, as if he had just won the world championships. Similar pictures on table no 2, where we see the quarter finals match of the teams’ competition between Bejing (with Ma Long and Yan An) vs Sichuan. One table over, there is the team of the Chinese army, with Wang Hao, Fan Zhendong and Zhou Yu, playing against Guangdong with their team leader Ma Lin.
But first things first.
This is not where you are a star — this is where you become a star
Even without understanding the Chinese language, you quickly absorb the special athmosphere at this tournament. In contrast to the World championships or the Olympic games, nobody is considered unbeatable by the fans.
“Respect means only one thing — to reduce your chance to win.”
Of course, the top players are present, but they are met with considerably less respect by their opponents. So we can see immediately Ma Long and Co. having to play 100% against opponents we had never heard of, with their supporting players all on their feet applauding each point, pushing the player forward as if this was the Olympics Finals. Which is why we ask ourselves:
“Why do these top players seem so absent at international tournaments, but giving it their all, fighting and screaming for each point at this competition?”
The answer might be simple for most players:
“Because nothing else matters!”
For the carreer — for Honor
The value of winning even a match is particularly high for all players usually not considered a part of the Chinese national team. Even for the others, winning here matters. It matters a lot.
All of this makes for excellent table tennis to watch for the spectators, fans and viewers behind their televisions. Anything can happen here.
Impressions from the Men’s team event
Looking back at our first evening on September 3rd, to the quarter finals the team from SHANDONG province (led by the world champion ZHANG Jike, WU Hao and KONG Ling Shuan) lost to SHANGHAI (with Wang Liqin, Shang Kun and Xu Xin). Impressive to any table tennis fans was the result of WU Hao beating XU Xin and ZHANG Jike losing to both WANG Liqin and XU Xin.
In this competition, teams really are teams. Players on the bench support and fight for each point as much, as the player in the box. Winning 11 points this way becomes an experience all of its own.
Meanwhile, the Team of the CHINESE ARMY (WANG Hao, ZHOU Yu, FAN Zhendong) was facing the province team of GUANGDONG (Ma Lin, Zhao Zhou, Lin Gao yen) and won the match, even with WANG Hao losing both his singles’ match vs. LIN Gaoyen and MA Lin. But the youngsters on his team turned the tide, winning one match each. We can see that even these top players, such as WANG Hao and ZHANG Jike are sometimes overcome at this sort of tournament.
We have talked about the players being less star-struck compared to their international counterparts when facing these top players, but so are the coaches. On the following day, WANG Hao played merely as no 3 on his team with the pressure lying on the shoulders of FAN Zhendong and ZHOU Yu for the semi-finals against the favourite team of Beijing (MA Long, YAN An, HOU Yingchao). And these tactics worked out great. FAN Zhendong beat YAN An 3:0 and ZHOU Yu pulled off the sensation against MA Long, winning 3:1. Wang Hao, now in the comfortable position of playing against a defender (He rarely loses against defence), overcame Hou Yingchao easily, securing the Army Team’s victory.
The other semi finals took place between Shanghai and Tianjin Province (Hao Shuai, Li Ping, Liu Yanan) – Shanghai won comfortably with 3:0.
Hier WANG Liqin vs. HAO Shuai:
So we arrived at the finals between the Army Team (Wang Hao once again on position 1, Fan Zhendong on 3) and Shanghai (Xu Xin on 1, Wang Liqin on 3).
In the first match, Wu Hao played exceptionally well against Wang Hao and was almost able to beat him. Wang Hao saved the last point at 15:13 in the 5th game, scoring the first point of the overall match.
Superlatives all around, for the second match as well. Zhou Yu played extremely fast against Xu Xin, hitting the ball so early, even the fast legs of his opponent could not carry him to the ball in time – it was 3:0 for Zhou Yu.
The third match was experience vs. youth. Wang Liqin, several times world champion himself, was to face Fan Zhendong, World Youth Champion. In that case, experience prevailed, Wang Liqin played cleverly, keeping Fan on his back foot and beating him in the end.
Fan Zhendong vs Wang Liqin
It all came down to the duel of the penhold players: Wang Hao vs. Xu Xin. Wang Hao once again showed his opponent why he dominated the world of table tennis for more than a year, fought for each point and played as aggressively as he could, securing the victory of the Chinese Army Team.
WANG Hao – XU Xin
Women’s: Team-Spirit of SHANDONG — stopping th streak of BEIJING
The Women’s competition took place before the men’s, Shandong being favorites with their top players Li Xiaoxia, Chen Meng and Yang Fei Fei, even so in the semi-finals against Beijing, the team that won the National Games 3 times already, led by Ding Ning. In the match, Ding Ning started well, emerged victorious over Chen Meng – but it was not enough to stop Shandong from reaching the finals with 3:1
In the second semi-finals, the team from Shanxi province (Wu Yang, Li Xiaodan, Gu Yuting) prevailed and entered the finals. But once again, the team spirit of Shandong proved unbreakable, and Shandong became victors of the national games.
But we should not forget that none of the “big” names automatically secure victory for a team. In fact, during the course of this tournament, the top players have all been losing a match here and there and the so called “unknown” players are – in terms of capability – not far behind the big names. The team of Guangdong serves as a perfect example. Even with Liu Shiwen, World No 1 as their lead player, the team did not even make it through the qualification stage.
Mixed doubles on the side? Not here!
During the World Championships 2009 and 2011, we were able to see a certain pattern in the Chinese Mixed-doubles paarings. Players from a younger generation were to pair up with a more experienced and established player to guide them. Winning medals was, for that purpose, more incidental.
In Yokohama 2009, Li Ping and Cao Zhen won the mixed title. Compared to such parings of earlier tournaments (Wang Liqin /Guo Yue) or Ma Lin / Wang Nan, it becomes clear that the strongest possible mixed pairings did not attend.
The picture the Chinese National Games presented in that regard is completely different, with teams like Ding Ning / Ma Long competing, winning over Ma Lin / XU Jie and Chen Qi / Zhou Xin Tong, meeting Zhao Zhou / Liu Shiwen in the finals.
Men’s doubles: Youngsters in front
Different competition, the same picture: Top teams such as Wang Hao / Chen Qi or Ma Lin / Zhao Zhou lost altogether in the first round, so did the favourites Xu Xin / Wang Liqin, leaving the box to the victorious Hao Shuai / Li Ping in the round of 16, who in turn lost as well to the youngsters Fan Zhendong / Zhou Yu.
This made things clear to us: We should not only watch Fan Zhendong closely, who drew more than a few looks on international tournaments in 2013, but also his compatriot Zhou Yu. Both have exhibited excellent developments in the recent months in all aspects of their game, especially power and speed. This combined with use of the most modern shots in table tennis sealed the deal to entering the finals, beating Hao / Li with 3:2. Tragic figure was once again Hao Shuai, who produced a fatal service error at 9:9 in the 5th game, opening the opportunity for the youngsters to close the match. As they did.
The finals match was then played only by youngsters. Fan / Zhou vs. Li Muqiao / Yin Hang — all of them compatriots of the Army’s team. Therefore, the spectators kept silent. Fan / Zhou prevailed once more, becoming Chinese national Champions.
Im Ergebnis spielten FAN Zhendong und ZHOU Yu ihre Fähigkeiten voll aus und gewannen ganz klar.
Women’s doubles: different competion, same learnings
Although we have heard most of the names in the finals before, the “big names” were conspicuously absent in the finals match. After a great game, Mu Zi/ Cao Zhen emerged victorious – once more a team from the Chinese Armed forces.
Men’s singles: a chance for the new generation
33 players qualified to the elimination round of the Chinese national games.
Although at the very end, there were no big surprises, it was close at times. Notably the first round match of Ma Lin, who had to play his best to keep the aggressive penhold player Jie jian wei in check. World Champ Zhang Jike had a hard days’ work winning over Shi Ming Yu by the narrowest of margins in the 7th game.
Both A-Team players were on full steam – their opponents were just that strong.
The 3rd round becomes important to players below the B-Team in China. Here, players can make a name for themselves and be elected to the B-Team, younger and older players alike. This is where players can use their chance to shine against the very best.
So did the physically strong Cheng Jing Qi, putting Wang Hao under pressure with his rocket-like topspins over and over, leading 3:0, having matchpoint. It was not enough.
Or the 17 year old Asian champion Liang Jin Kun, arousing the spectators with his ferociously aggressive play against Ma Long, almost beating him. Again, almost.
With Cui Qinglei beating Ma Lin and Yan An beating Zhou Yu, there were at least some sensations. The quarter finals for example, where Fan Zhendong pulled off a victory over Zhang Jike, when only four months before, he was without a real chance against the Olympic Champion in Paris at the WTTC. Xu Xin had a difficult victory over Yan An, after being down 2:3, and Wang Hao had his work cut out for him against Cui Qinglei, but in the end remained on top.
Men’s singles: Semi-Finals without new faces
So there were Wang Hao, Ma Long, Xu Xin and Fan Zhendong left standing.
MA Long vs WANG Hao
Both players knew each other very well, so it all came down to their daily form. Instead of preparing the points with his backand, Ma Long tried to use the powerful forehand topspin whenever possible. This might have tipped the scale in his favour, as Wang Hao became more and more tense and in the end could not defeat Ma Long, as he had many times before.
XU Xin vs FAN Zhendong
Xu Xin –as a penhold player- has to have the better footwork and has to run considerably more than his shakehand opponent. This might be the reason, that Xu sustained a leg injury in the match, and the game had to be interrupted.
In the Chinese National Games, you do not throw a match, so after a short break, he was all taped up and back at the table with enough energy left in him to win games 4 and 5. Fan exerted his dominance again in the 6th game, winning 4:2. In spite of his young age, Fan Zhendong had made it into the finals.
Finals match : MA Long vs FAN Zhendong
As if just now realizing the pressure he was under, Fan began the finals match with a service error. Ma Long on the other side was completely calm and collected, focusing his attacks onto his opponent’s body.
Both gave their best, with Ma Long leading 3:2 and coming back from an 8:9. But then it was check, and mate. Ma Long being on top of the table tennis world for quite some time, was finally able to win a “big” title – he was unable to contain his happiness after the last point
Women’s Singles: LI Xiaoxia vs. CHEN Meng
The women’s competition was full of the same fighting spirit and sensations.
Chen Meng went on through to the finals, after beating Ding Ning in the quarter finals and now she was facing Li Xiaoxia, World and Olympic Champion. Li on her side overcame Liu Shiwen in the Semis, and had a great run in the finals as well, winning the title and not just that.
Li became one of 3 players in the history of table tennis – winning the World Championships, the Olympic Games and the China national Games!
Back to our question: Why are the Chinese so strong?
So what can we learn from our observations in Anshan?
If we remember our Interview with Zhang Jike, he recalled the “structure and organization” in Chinese table tennis as a main reason for their dominance and added the importance of coaches, team managers, physical coaches, therapists and all the staff to the list of factors. We took the liberty to add some reasons:
The serve in table tennis is the only shot, where the opponent has no influence over what’s happening. In China, players use the serve much more offensively, as a first opportunity to attack. At no other tournament have we seen better and more creative serving than here.
(Click to enlarge)
The same can be said for the receive game.
Focusing on the “Chiquita”, the backhand flick as receive, we could see this as a building block in the gameplay of every player, including the women’s competition. So players in China have been adapting this new technique and added it to their palette already.
Lets have a look at how FAN Zhendong is playing the “Chiquita”:
Often, we saw the so-called “stop-receive”, a technique that allows a player to play a very, very short push on the serve of the opponent, eliminating any chance to attack.
Punish long serves
Players in China viciously attack on a long serve. Always and every time. This seems to be taught in Chinese table tennis school as a standard response: If the serve goes long: attack.
Full physical power
Throwing all of the body into each and every shot is another characteristic move we saw at this tournament, making it possible to exert the most power possible from any shot. This requires physical fitness and speed, which also provides more power to any game. Just look at these pictures from Fan Zhendong and Zhou Yu.
Full palette of Game styles
We have seen all sorts of styles at the China national games. There is no preferred way to succeed, Attack, defence, block, counter – everything was present here. It does not matter what you do, as long as you do it well.
(Translation of the Japanese original text to german and editorial adaptation by Frank Völler. Translation into English by Sebastian Hallen)