August 18, 2001

Interview with Waldner

(This article appears in the 2001 August issue of Table Tennis World. Waldner talks about the different generations of Chinese players in the interview.)

Reporter: Since the 37th Worlds, you have been competing against the Chinese team for close to 20 years. When you were playing the Chinese the very first time, have you ever thought that you would be playing against so many generations of Chinese players, and still do so well?

Waldner: I did not worry about that at the time. Over the last 20 years, I have been playing a year at a time. Even now, I still feel that I am in good conditions, and I have found joy in playing the sport.

R: Do you enjoy playing Chinese players?

W: I enjoy that the most, because the Chinese overall have a superior position in the world of table tennis. Not only in teams, but also in singles and doubles. This has been good for both Sweden and China. Sometimes Sweden wins, sometimes China wins, and that helps the sport.

R: Cai Zhenhua is the first generation Chinese player you faced. What kind of impressions do you have of Cai?

W: It is hard for me to compare the different generations and say who is the best. For so many years, the Chinese team has been the strongest team. I have been against the strongest opponents; they are all excellent. I had many tough matches against them. Cai beat me then, and in my mind, he had a great forehand and great serves. Especially the serves.

R: How about Jiang Jialiang?

W: Besides having good skills, he had great smarts. He could always focus in a match and do very well.

R: The matches you played against Jiang in the 39th and the 40th Worlds have left deep impressions.

W: I still remember them clearly. In New Delhi (39th Worlds) I lost to him. Then in Dortmund (40th) I beat him in the teams finals. For Sweden, that was a tough and important match.

R: How do you rate Wang Tao and Ma Wenge?

W: They are excellent players. Ma and I always play very close. Sometimes I win, and sometimes he does. It is great playing against him.

R: At the 43rd Worlds in Tianjin, Sweden lost in the team finals. Having scored two points, did you feel regretful?

W: Yes indeed. I won and my teammates lost; that was disappointing. We had a chance in that final.

R: How about Kong Linghui and Liu Guoliang?

W: The two of them are the best players from China, and they have won the highest honors. Like myself, they have won the Worlds and the Olympics. It is very hard for me to beat Kong. Liu has great serves and very good attacks. I had a lot of problems playing him, but now I can win. That is great for me.

R: If you had beaten Belgium in Osaka, would you feel that you could beat China in the team finals?

W: If we could have played a 5th match against Belgium, we would have a good chance of winning. In the other semifinal, Korea almost beat China. I knew that China would win the title when they beat Korea. If we got into the finals, we had a relatively small chance of beating the Chinese. They would have the upper hand.

R: In Osaka, Liu Guozheng, Ma Lin and Wang Liqin have all played well. Do you think that they have surpassed Liu Guoliang and Kong?

W: It is hard to say that. Kong got into the finals in men's singles. It is hard to predict who will win in a Chinese vs Chinese match. You can see that Kong was leading 2-0 in games, and had the ability to win. From a mental point of view, Kong and Liu are still the strongest.

R: Ma Lin had a very difficult time against you in Eindhoven and in this year's China Open. How would you rate him?

W: Ma Lin is very good. He is in excellent conditions now, and he will be a key member of the team. Even though Wang Liqin did not play much in teams in Osaka, he is very good in singles and won the Worlds. They are all great players. China's top 5 or 6 players are best in the world; they are very hard to beat.

R: If you count Cai as the first generation Chinese player you played against, Jiang and Chen Longcan would be the second. Ma Wenge and Wang Tao would then be third, Liu Guoliang and Kong Linghui 4th, and Ma Lin, Wang Liqin and Liu Guozheng are the 5th generation of players. In the recent International Challenge Series you played Xu Hui. He would be the 6th generation.

W: I had never seen Xu before. He plays very well even though he is so young. At the start he was nervous, but then he began to play well. He needs to play more matches to improve, and it will take a few years.

R: You have been in great shape for so many years. The Chinese usually could only play a few years and then retire. How do you look at this difference?

W: China has a lot of great young players, so they (the Chinese players) do not need to play after a few years. But at the same time, they faced greater pressure than us. They are always worrying that the younger players would overtake them. So they have to play every match carefully.

R: Do you plan to play against another couple of generations of Chinese players?

W: I don't think so. I will not be able to play as much as I did. I may give up the smaller tournaments and focus on the big ones. I hope to play well in every tournament that I enter. I also hope to play the next Olympics, but it is too early to tell.

Interview with Ni Xia Lian

(The interview took place in Osaka, and was written up in the August issue of Table Tennis World)

Reporter: When did you go to Luxembourg?

Ni: In 1989 I went to Germany, and played at the BYE club, which is a big club in Germany. My husband was working at his import/export business in Luxembourg, so I felt that maybe that would be a better place for me to live. A year later, I moved to Luxembourg.

R: You left the national team so long ago, and yet you still are so insistent on playing the sport.

N: When I arrived in Luxembourg, I played table-tennis and I also taught the sport. In 1992 my son was born, and after that I did not place a lot of importance on the sport, and I do not have any solid goals. I think that as a woman, the home is more important than the career.

(At this time, Ni showed the reporter a picture of her family.)

R: Why did you go to Europe?

N: 1985 was the peak of my career. Due to some external reasons, I had to leave the national team. That was the most difficult period in my life, and I started to hate table-tennis. After I left the team, I went back to Shanghai and live with my parents. Then I enrolled in a university, but a year later, I wanted to play again. There was a feeling deep in my heart about table-tennis; away from the sport, I could not find a place that I belonged. Then I had a chance to go to Germany to play, and I took it.

R: What are the differences between playing in China and playing overseas?

N: It is a totally different feeling playing outside of China. There are no coaches or training partners; I have to be self-dependent. When I played in international tournaments, it was a luxury to find someone to help me. That was how the years went by. I am satisfied with myself, because I do not have a goal but I have reached unexpected heights. Ever since I arrived in Europe, I have been number one there, in my club, as well as in the national team. I never had that feeling in China. I have a sense of success and accomplishment, and my efforts have been recognized. More importantly, I have realized my values.

R: What kind of results have you achieved in Europe?

N: In 1995 I was ready to retire so that I could have another baby. But then I have won the Europe Top-12 title in '96, '97 and 98, setting a record for being the oldest European champion. So I gave up on retirement, and immersed myself in the sport. In 1998 I won the Polish Open, the Bulgarian Open, and the European Championship. In 1998 and 1999 I was the US Open champion. I reached number 4 in world ranking in 1998, with only Deng Yaping, Li Ju and Wang Nan ahead of me. I never dreamed that I could get such great results.

R: What do you think of the "Overseas Legion"?

N: "Overseas Legion" is a product of the times. If China did not open its doors then, there would not have been the Ni Xia Lian of today. We did not leave China to beat the Chinese, but to make a living and to extend our career and realized our own values. When we get good results, we help increase China's influence on the outside world. I feel that this is a successful arrangement.

R: Other than playing the game, what do you do?

N: My two brothers and my sister are all in Luxembourg. We have opened a restaurant, a hotel and a food import-export company. I spent the rest of my time on these businesses.

R: What are your future plans? To continue to play or to coach?

N: Now I am playing professionally for a club in the Netherlands, and I also represent Luxembourg in international events. Many people have told me to stop playing since I am getting old. But I feel that it is a blessing to be able to play. When people want to have you play, that means you still are valuable. I can be a coach when I am 60 years old, but my time as an athlete is very precious. I will never be able to play again after the time has passed. So I have to treasure my remaining time. If my physical conditions permit it, and if I am not losing all the time, I will continue to play. When I get tired of losing, then I will consider retirement. Actually, when you play overseas, no one will be hard on you because you lose, but I am keeping pressure on myself. If I stand in front of the table, I want to win. If I lose, the national team will lose. That's why whenever possible, I will train hard, to keep losing to a minimum.

Editor: In the round of 16, Ni lost to Chinese player Niu Jianfeng. Afterwards, she told reporters that she and Niu are two different generations of players, and it was natural to lose to Niu. Compared to the Chinese, Ni's techniques fell way short, and she was satisfied to make it to the last 16.

(Chung's notes: "Overseas Legion" is a Chinese term used to describe ex-Chinese players now representing other countries. In the latest World Cup, Ni made it to the final 4 by beating Gao Jun in the quarter-finals. That was the first time in 5 tries that Ni has made it to the semis. Ni is now 38 years old, and still plays very competitively. Off the court, she is a very friendly person, and great to talk to.)

Ma Lin's Critiques

(Chung's Notes: After the Worlds, the Chinese national team met to summarize the performance of the players in Osaka. This is the last of the series of critiques written up in Table Tennis World.)

Ma's self critique:

Overall I felt that my performance was acceptable. I had more energy in the teams than in the individuals. During the closed training, I asked to play in teams, and I had a very strong desire to play in teams. My goal was to regain the Swaythling Cup.

On the court, I fought for every point. My problem was in rallying. When I played against Kong and Liu Guozheng, I could not add power to my backhand shots. Perhaps I need to be stronger physically. I was not as good as Chiang Peng Lung or Kim Taek Soo in this respect. I need to improve through more training. In the teams semifinal match, I did not feel confident in rallies against Ryu Seung Min; I felt that my feet were heavy, and I could not stay with my opponent physically. I felt the same way in the match against Kong. In singles, my earlier opponents were not very strong, so I did OK.

Against J-S Saive, I did well in previous matches. But in the team finals, after I made several errors in counter-looping, my tactics were no longer firm. I played passively, and did not use all the tactics. I was afraid to lose. I need to work with my coaches to solve these problems.

Liu's comments:

I play in the same club as you, so I understand you quite well. I can say that whatever Liu Guozheng lacks, you have.

In the team finals against Saive, it was not easy to win under those conditions. From both strategic and tactical points of view, you should have done much better. At the end, you did not have enough courage. You have to give it your all, and be more ferocious. Calculate carefully, then be determined to break through. The penhold style requires that you be aggressive and take risks. The top players all have very strong sense of tactics, you have to be insistent.

You always were worrying about covering the whole table. You made the right guesses a lot of times, but you did not dare to full-out attack. Against Ryu you had great spirits. If you could play like that every match, you will be great.

Kong's comments:

In the semifinals, you were behind 8-15, but you came back to win. That was not easy at all. Against Saive, you had too little variation. You were serving short all the time. You served long once, but it netted, but that long ball had Saive hesitating a little, and made him think about what you would serve next. But you were afraid to serve long after that net ball. When you played against me, you did not try to break up my strategy. In the 4 games, you did not serve long once. You need to vary your game. Also you need to raise the quality of your backhand loops. You play a single-winged looping style. Once your opponent understands your game, you would find things difficult, especially if you lack physical stamina. You need to be like Kim, be explosive whenever you have the chance, so as to put more pressure on your opponents.

Coach Yin's comments:

You have contributed to our team winning the Swaythling Cup. In the semifinals, the 3rd match was very critical. When you were behind 8-15, you still maintained your calm and bore down. When the opponent was varying his tactics, you were able to withstand the pressure. Actually, you did not have any tactical advantage. But you waited for your chances, and did not give up. You fought for every point.

The first match in the finals was not easy. If we beat Saive, we would win, so that was a very important match. You played quite well, and the focus during the closed training had a lot to do with that.

You need to have more courage. When it is time to be determined, then you have to be determined. When it is time to change, you have to change. You cannot rely on your best shot all the time. You have an excellent short game, and you tend to use it exclusively. That is not good. Even though it is your best shot, if your opponent understands it, it will not be a best shot anymore. You have to surround your best shot with variations. On your backhand, your blocking is a little shaky. You need to work on it, and see if you can use the reverse side more. Wang Hao can use the reverse side in looping and fast countering. You learned the reverse-side skills late, and you do not have a strong sense of blocking. Most importantly you have to increase your forehand power. You have good footwork, and can cover the whole table, but at the end of the match you will not have enough energy, and your explosiveness and your power will decrease. So you should study the opponent, and focus your power instead of spreading it over the whole table. Another problem to resolve is how to increase your stamina: this will be an exercise for us.

Coach Shi's comments:

The match in the team final was critical, and it was natural for you to be nervous. It is not easy to withstand the pressure, so you need to maintain this advantage that you possess.

Your willpower should be proportional to spirits. Against Saive, you won, but there were still problems. Many times, you guessed correctly on what your opponent would do, but you do not have the guts to execute. This shows that you lack willpower. Your short balls are great, but you need to use the long balls, too. You cannot be too "square". You have to learn from Kim's spirits: you need great spirits to play as a penholder. You have to break through. If you want to be champion, you need to pass 7 tests. You cannot lose any match.

Coach Wu's comments:

I was worried about you in teams. You did not play much in the beginning, and I was concerned that you would not be used to the pressure. In the finals, you wanted to win, but you were nervous in a match that you should win. You did not loop any backspin returns. I think after this experience, you would not be as nervous in the future. Sometimes you think too much, and you lack willpower.

In the singles you did well. But you need to solve this problem: If the opponent controls your 3rd-ball attacks, how would you rally? Against Kong, you did not use any long balls. Even though you have the technical ability, you do not have the willpower. Singles is like that: the opponents get stronger and stronger. This requires that you have a strong will at the critical junctures, and you be able to vary. In our internal matches, you usually won against Kong. But in the Worlds, you got nervous, and that affected your execution. This is a problem of the mind. If you are good, then you should believe that you are good. Don't be afraid to vary your tactics. If you have a better serve than your opponent, and if you can score two points on your opponent's round of serves, you would have the match won. But you need to be even better. What if your serves are not as good as your opponent's? You have to increase your willpower, and not be afraid when you get into the rallying phase. Also, how to block when rallying is a problem to tackle.

Coach Han's comments:

Your specialties are outstanding, and from now on, you have to prefect the rest of your skills. You short pushes are very good, but your flips are not as good. Saive is very good in placing the ball short. He would serve short to your forehand, and if your flips do not have high quality, he would place the ball back to your backhand side. You have to solve this problem. During training, your long serves worked well, but you did not dare to use them. You have to perfect your game, otherwise with increasing age, your physical strength will diminish and with injuries, you would face great difficulties.

(Chung's notes: These critiques are very difficult to translate, because a lot of technical terms commonly used by the Chinese have no simple English equivalents. I used "willpower" in quite a few places, but the Chinese term means more than than. It is a combination of spirits and willpower; it is an ability to overcome obstacles. There was the Liu GZ critique article in the July issue that I decided not to translate, because of the difficulty involved in doing so.)

Ulf Carlsson Resigned As Swedish National Team Coach

Ulf Carlsson announced on August 8 that he will no longer be the head coach of the Swedish national team. The former player has just completed the 5-year contract with the Swedish TT Association. He said that for himself and for the team, he could not continue as the head coach.

The most famous victory under Carlsson's reign is the Worlds team title last year over the Chinese. No replacement has been announced yet, but Bengtsson, a former star of the sport, is a popular candidate.

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