By Patrick Tan. How many times have we been surprised by Zhang Jike? Well, the number isn’t actually important. The vital thing is that this player continues to amaze the Table Tennis world from time to time. This year, Zhang Jike took us in a whirlwind of emotions: from his defeat in Tokyo, his performance in the Super League, and of course, the drama that unfolded in the Men’s World Cup.
“He is a champion. And a true champion will never stop fighting.” – Mikael Andersson
2014 hasn’t ended yet but Zhang Jike seemed to have already reached his quota in making himself into the headlines of Table Tennis news, surprising us in a manner that only he can do. A Table Tennis Grand Slam champion is expected to maintain a high degree of technical prowess and decorum in the arena most of the times. He should be responsible for himself and for his team. He is an idol and everyone just loves and respects him.
A different idol – under pressure at all times
Zhang Jike is a Grand Slam champion but he doesn’t fit in all those definitions. He loses, he gets wild, he is misunderstood for his sense of responsibility, and lastly, he doesn’t have any shortage on doubts and criticism. This year he became a favourite subject again for his critics when they saw him crushed by the German Dimitrij Ovtcharov in the World Team Championships in Tokyo. His lack of competitive spirit made them question the responsibility and determination of Zhang Jike.
The World Team Championships is one of the most important competitions in Table Tennis and he lost. Making it more serious, Zhang Jike’s defeat was against a non-Chinese player in a final. This put him definitely under big amount of stress, knowing that he needed to redeem himself. Zhang Jike did redeem himself in the Chinese Super League when he led his Shandong Team into the championship title. In the finals, he pulled off an epic performance against Dimitrij Ovtcharov. Down in 0-4 in the decider, he scored 7 straight points to snatch the match to his favour. Against obvious challenge, Zhang Jike survived. However, Liu Guoliang was not too convinced with Zhang Jike’s performance in the Super League. Seeing the matches between Zhang and Ovtcharov, the head coach believed that his player didn’t have much advantage over the German and that they were just at par.
A new opportunity: The Men’s World Cup
Zhang Jike’s perfect opportunity to redeem himself came when he was invited to play in the 2014 Men’s World Cup. This year’s playing lineup was interesting as Ma Long was also invited. Aside from that, the competition has a lot of weight as it was the first big competition in the men’s division using the new plastic ball. In the last day of the competition, the Grand Slam champion almost simultaneously faced big challenges from two strong opponents. He faced Timo Boll in the semifinals who, aside from the strength, had an additional advantage playing in his home country.
This placed Zhang Jike in a difficult situation, a situation he wouldn’t hope for. But at the end of a tight match, Zhang Jike survived and progressed into the finals, not without difficulties.
However, Zhang Jike had another mountain to move, finding himself against his strongest opponent, nemesis and teammate, Ma Long. Such battle in a world competition final has long been awaited by the entire Table Tennis community. Ma Long has always had the clear advantage over Zhang Jike in prior records and Zhang Jike’s Grand Slam has been doubted because he achieved it without facing Ma Long in all occasions. Therefore, you can only imagine how much pressure Zhang Jike was feeling in that match. He held on for seven sets with an extension in the decider.
Mis-Step or pure emotion?
So when he pulled off that last rally marking his victory, Zhang Jike couldn’t contain all the emotions wanting to get out from him: He defeated Ma Long in a World Cup final with the new plastic ball! He was so elevated that shouting wasn’t just enough: He kicked the surrounds of the arena, leading to some destroyed barriers and shocked responses from people.
In just a matter of seconds, people were drawn from his awesomeness in the match to being baffled of what he just did.
Unfortunately, the ITTF wasn’t quite happy to see such excessive behaviour as their advertisers’ cardboards were shattered into pieces. Eventually, they penalised the winner with the whole amount of his prize money, $45,000 USD to be exact. Zhang Jike was quick to make a public apology and took full responsibility of his actions but criticism was already on the internet.
Zhang Jike explained his side after the incident. He said that he has been holding on for too long. From his defeat in Tokyo and not being able to play in the Asian Games Singles, he was under big amount of pressure. But he admits that what he did was still wrong and he was sorry for it.
For the nth time, Zhang Jike silenced and shook the people of Table Tennis. Of course, the spotlight was on him again.
Zhang Jike’s personal coach, Xiao Zhan, was one of the very first people to have defended Zhang Jike. He said in his Weibo that although everyone is saying that he is the only one who believes in him, he will always believe in Zhang Jike for there is a reason for believing, referring to the victory. But he knows that what his player did after the match was wrong and he sought for understanding from the people.
Head coach Liu Guoliang said that he was shocked and embarrassed with what his disciple did. He revealed that once they’d get back to China, there will be disciplinary measures to be done. In that way, they get to teach Zhang Jike in controlling his emotions more. The coaches admitted that they weren’t able to spend more effort on that aspect. Punishments are not new to Zhang Jike. He was ousted from the National Team in year 2004 due to serious violations. He then had to return to his Provincial Team, Shandong. After two years, he got back on board again but in 2009 he was punished after disrespecting his coach. He was not allowed to play in the 2009 World Championships Singles.His father, Zhang Zhuanming also expressed that he didn’t like the excessive behaviour of his son in the World Cup. In short, he shared the same sentiment with Liu Guoliang. However, performance wise, the father is very impressed with how his son fought,
Although there was a lot of this criticism mixed with support from his team’s coaches and his father, there was also people who understood and defended him. Aside from his fans, the German Dimitrij Ovtcharov came to the defence of the Chinese player as well and asked the people not to have too negative evaluation on Jike as he did not inflict any harm to anyone. German coach Rosskopf also criticised his penalty saying that the amount of the fine was ridiculous. Zhang Jike also found a supporter from the ITTF as a Media Executive from the federation believed that what he has done is actually good for the sport’s promotion. He said that Table Tennis needs a big name and that should be Zhang Jike.
He may not be able to please everyone but one thing is sure as of now and that is Zhang Jike is a World Champion for the fifth time. He is the male player who’s closest to complete a second round of Grand Slam, the first one in history. Zhang Jike isn’t afraid of criticism. In fact, he is comfortable with it and his strength allows him to work harder to prove them wrong. He is not afraid of showing a different side of him and Table Tennis. He doesn’t just deliver results but he continues to surprise and amaze us, and that makes him the true rock star of Table Tennis.
(Idea and original text by Patrick Tan, China & Asia Editor, TableTennista.com. Editorial adaptation by Sebastian Hallen.)