Global Times: China’s young table tennis aces are poised to defend their nation’s legacy in the sport amid stiff competition

BEIJING, April 1, 2024 /PRNewswire/ — Considered as the national sport of China, table tennis is a sport in which the Chinese national team has historically excelled at the Olympic Games.           

China finished the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with four gold and three silver medals, losing only the mixed doubles gold to a Japanese pair.

Following the 2024 World Team Table Tennis Championships in Busan, South Korea in February, 16 men’s and 16 women’s teams have qualified for the Paris 2024 Olympics.

While China’s men’s and women’s teams defended their titles at the Busan worlds, they faced stern challenges from the host, Japan and other emerging countries.

Japan’s women’s team pushed China to the wall in the final, while Wang Hao, head coach of the Chinese men’s team, admitted that the team withstood unprecedented pressure in the semifinals against the host, but noted that the difficulties encountered in this competition were an asset for the Chinese team.

The elevated competition has raised expectations for the Paris Games, where China’s young paddlers aim to defend the honor of the national sport.

In this installment of the Road to Paris series, we would like to offer you some insight into the four young ace paddlers who are the flag bearers of the Chinese team.

Petra Sörling, president of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) and member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), told the Global Times during a recent interview that the Busan worlds showcased a notable increase in competitiveness within the sport, and expectations are high for the upcoming Paris Olympic Games.

“The world team championships in Busan showcased a remarkable display of skills and sportsmanship. Across both the men’s and women’s events, teams from four continents advanced to the round of 16, setting the stage for intense matches with unexpected upsets and the emergence of new contenders,” said the Swede.

“While China ultimately retained its titles, the journey was marked by formidable challenges. This dynamic landscape promises an exciting future for table tennis, with each event offering thrilling encounters and opportunities for growth,” she noted.

Sörling said ITTF holds great expectations for table tennis at the Paris Games.

“The recent historic achievements of the French men’s and women’s teams, both winning medals at the same event for the first time, particularly invigorate our anticipation. Notably, the men’s team reached the final for the first time in 27 years,” she said.

Sörling also recognized the contributions made by the Chinese Table Tennis Association in promoting the worldwide advancement of the sport.

China’s dominance in table tennis is unparalleled, and its role in helping the development of the sport globally is crucial, said the president.

On March 26, Beijing, a dual Olympic city, was selected to host the World Table Tennis (WTT) Grand Smash for the next five editions from 2024 to 2028. It has been 63 years since Beijing hosted a top-flight global table tennis event in 1961.

Men’s world No.1 Wang aims for debut gold

All eyes are on the rise of Wang Chuqin, one of China’s young sensations in men’s table tennis.

Now sitting at world No.1, Wang will be taking part in his first Olympics, after being included as an unused reserve in the Olympic team event squad in 2021 at the Tokyo Games. 

With Chinese players dominating the top rankings as usual, the question on everyone’s mind is whether Wang can seize the coveted men’s singles gold now that veteran Ma Long is expected to not contest the singles event in Paris and with Wang’s teammate and world No.2 Fan Zhendong recently playing inconsistently.

Drawing inspiration from Ma’s resilience in the sport, Wang has emerged as a formidable force on the international stage. At just 24 years old, Wang has already left an indelible mark on the sport, as he has won seven world championships titles.

Despite his burgeoning fame and status as a medal favorite, Wang remains grounded and humble. His quiet demeanor off the court belies the fierce competitor within, a testament to his unwavering focus and commitment to excellence.

As he prepares to make his Olympic debut in Paris, Wang admits to feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the event. Yet, this sense of uncertainty only fuels his determination to give his all on the grandest stage.

Despite the mounting pressure as a medal favorite, Wang remains unfazed, viewing the attention as a source of motivation rather than a burden. With humility and gratitude, he embraces the opportunity to showcase his talent and inspire a new generation of table tennis enthusiasts.

As Paris beckons, Wang stands poised to etch his name in the Olympics, ready to write the next chapter of his extraordinary journey in pursuit of gold.

Fan in pole position

With Chinese table tennis icon Ma Long stepping out of the major international competitions, Fan is the favorite to take over the mantle and clinch his maiden Olympic singles title at the Paris Games.

Ma is the first and only male player to complete a career Double Grand Slam as an Olympic gold medalist in the men’s singles in 2016 and 2020. But Ma announced in February that the Busan tournament would be his last worlds and it remains unclear if Ma will compete at the Paris Games.

In his debut at the Olympic Games, Fan fell short of Ma 2-4 in the singles final of the Tokyo Games to win silver. Now, the 27-year-old has reached his prime but he has to keep his feet on the ground and move on from recent off-the-court incidents.

Fan took to social media on March 25 to urge fans to stop violating his privacy. He posted on China’s X-like Sina Weibo that “someone has allegedly disseminated my personal ID number on the internet, seriously violating my right to privacy and reputation as a citizen.”

He was also thrust into the spotlight earlier as some fans blamed his defeat to 18-year-old national teammate Lin Shidong in the round of 32 at the World Table Tennis Singapore Smash on his presence at pop superstar Taylor Swift’s concert in Singapore.

In response to fans’ criticism, Fan said on Sina Weibo that “music knows no borders. On the field, I’m an athlete cultivated by my country, tirelessly striving to bring honor to my country for over a decade. Off the field, in my limited personal time, I’m just an ordinary young person, with normal hobbies and connections.”

“I experienced a lot of challenges (in 2023) during which I also matured, and after winning the world championships in Durban, that really helped me,” Fan told in January.

“To me, I’m just eager to participate and perform well at Paris 2024. I hope in 2024 I have the same mentality and form and adjust myself to be the best,” Fan said.

Sun rises to the occasion

Among the five female stars to watch at Paris 2024 listed by the IOC on its website in March, Sun Yingsha is one of the five must-watches set to shine in Paris.

Despite being just 23, Sun has been the women’s singles world No.1 since July 2022. The Chinese paddler hasn’t been out of the world’s top three since October 2019, and continues to dominate among her teammates, according to the IOC.

Winning her first worlds singles title at the 2023 World Table Tennis Championships in Durban, South Africa in May of 2023, Sun is aiming to become the first table tennis athlete to win three gold medals at a single Olympic Games in the singles, team and mixed doubles events in Paris.

In the nail-biting final of the Busan team worlds, when China was 1-2 down against a relentless Japanese team, the current World No.1 rose to the occasion and pulled China back on level terms with her tenacious performance. Her 3-0 win over Hina Hayata forced the final to a thrilling decider in which China triumphed to clinch its sixth consecutive team title.

If Sun were to be crowned in the ITTF Macao World Cup in April and the Paris Olympics in July, she will set a new record for the fastest Grand Slam achievement, taking approximately 432 days, surpassing former Chinese male player Zhang Jike’s 445 days.

Japan’s women paddlers will once again be a serious title contender in both the team and individual events for China in Paris. But for Sun, the biggest challenge is to strike a balance between the three events in which she is to compete.

“When people associate their ideals with their motherland, they are armed with unstoppable mental strength,” Sun said.

Wang Manyu contributes beyond team role

Wang Manyu, 25, is rarely at the top of the echelon in China’s star-studded table tennis squad, she has never been someone to ignore.

With a career brimming with accomplishments, including an Olympic team gold medal and six world championships titles, Wang stands poised to represent China again at the Paris Olympics.

Known for her lightning-fast reflexes and impeccable technique, she has quickly risen through the ranks of the sport. Wang’s dedication and talent has propelled her to numerous triumphs on the international stage.

The current season is still challenging for her, as it has been marked by fluctuating rankings and intense competition within the Chinese national team.

Before losing to teammate Sun Yingsha in the WTT Champions event in Incheon, South Korea, on Sunday, Wang clinched the women’s singles title at the 2024 WTT Singapore Smash on March 17, defeating her teammate Wang Yidi in a thrilling five-set final.

She has showcased her dominance by defeating top players like Mima Ito of Japan and defending Olympic champion Chen Meng en route to the final. Pairing with Chen, Manyu also won the women’s pairs title in the Singapore event.

With the significant wins in Singapore, Wang Manyu has bolstered her chances for a spot in the singles event at the Paris Olympics following the optimization of China’s Olympic selection criteria, proving her resilience and talent on the international stage despite facing challenges along the way.

A disappointment earlier this season came during the Busan worlds, where, despite her impressive performance in the group stage, she missed out on the knockout rounds due to the selection criteria favoring higher-ranked players in the team.

Whether Wang Manyu ascends to the top of the podium or faces adversity along the way, one thing is certain – her journey to Paris as well as her contributions to the national team are destined to captivate audiences globally.

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