Athens 2004

August 18, 2004

Excellent Performances by Waldner

(This is an article written by the chief editor of Table Tennis World.)

"This is the Olympics. Who knows what will happen?" Poland's Tomasz Krzeszewski made this comment after he and partner Lucjan Blaszcayk advanced to the final 8 in men's doubles. This was a very accurate description of the results of August 18.

There is an unusually large number of upsets. Of the 8 seeded mens doubles pairs, three were eliminated. Hong Kong's Leung/Cheung lost 0-4 to Russia's Smirnov/Mazunov,  and Austria's Schlager/Jindrak lost by the same score to Denmark's Maze/Tugwell. But the biggest surprise was China's Kong/Wang losing 1-4 to the Swedish veteran pair of Waldner/Persson with a combined age of 77 years.

Although many people have expected that Kong and Wang will face some difficulties in their first match, because the Swedes have played well in doubles and singles so far, no one expected them to lose. Even when the Swedes were at the peak of their careers, they could seldom beat the Chinese players in doubles. The last time the Swedes were in a world-level final was at Manchester in 1997, when they lost to Kong/Liu 2-3. In Sydney, they lost to the French pair Eloi/Legout in the round of 16.

After Sydney, Waldner seemed to have lost his edge after being beaten by Kong in the finals. Also, Persson started his decline after the bronze medal match against Liu Guoliang. In the 2001 Worlds, Waldner lost 0-3 to Samsonov in the round of 16, while Persson lost 1-3 to Wang Liqin in the same round. In doubles at Osaka, they did not even make the final 16. At the Paris Worlds, Waldner was eliminated in the first round, and Persson lost in the 2nd round to Leung Chu Yan and they did not even make it to the round of 32 in doubles. Right before this year's Qatar Worlds, Waldner was working hard in the joint training sessions with the European players, practicing during the day and working on conditioning in the evenings. This was unheard of in his career. As a result, he injured himself after two days. At Qatar, Waldner did not play a single match, and Persson lost 0-3 to the retiring Kim Taek Soo in the Sweden-Korea tie. Having competed against the Chinese since 1981, these two Swedish players were more and more out of focus in their opponents' eyes, and fewer and fewer reporters talked to them.

Waldner and Persson must have felt neglected by the media. Perhaps that helped them play loose, and perhaps they tried harder to show what they could do. Against Kong and Wang, they played with unprecedented ferocity. Facing the much younger Kong/Wang, they played as if they themselves were the up-and-coming players. They executed crisply, from 3rd ball attacks to rallies. They adopted a clear strategy: look for the breakthrough in the forehand side of their opponents. They were not afraid to make mistakes. Their over-two-decades of experience, especially against the Chinese, and their superb execution led to the defeat of Kong and Wang.

The bigger upset was still to come. Seven hours later, against Ma Lin whom he had lost seven times in a row, Waldner once showcased his skills, his mental strength, and his intelligence to prove to the world that he is an undisputed genius in table-tennis.

But Waldner's superb performance was aided by Ma Lin's unusally poor execution. Just like his partners Kong and Wang Hao, Ma's conservativeness led to a poor start. Down 0-2 in games, he won game 3 11-7, but then he got into a defensive mode again. He was following Waldner's rhythm, and did not actively try to change the lanes of attacks. He was eliminated 1-4 before he could show his many skills.

Coach Cai Zhenhua praised Waldner highly: "He played these two matches exceptionally well. He was much more ferocious than before". Then he added: "We have to hold a meeting right away. These last two days we played much too tight, and much too conservatively".

Playing twice on the same day against the top Chinese, and winning miraculously, Waldner once more was the focus of the media's attention. After beating Ma, he told the collected European reporters: "I have not had particularly good training for a long time. Against Ma, I opened the match very well, and I had some lucky points. That was very important for my confidence. Tactically I had some fast serves and was successful with them. That affected his position and his rhythm. That was a major reason why I won". He also said that the scheduling of the matches was to his advantage. "In the Worlds, you have to play several matches a day. Here we only play one or two matches daily. My body is able to keep up with this". He is firmly setting his sights on medalling in singles or doubles.

Of the doubles victory, Waldner said: "We had lost to Kong/Wang before in Pro-Tours, but only by a few points. This is my 5th Olympics. I know how to play. Olympics and the Pro-Tours are two entirely different things".

Cai talks about the doubles loss

"Doubles are fiercely contested", Cai said after Kong/Wang lost to Waldner/Persson. "Men's doubles is just as difficult as men's singles, and perhaps getting the gold medal is even harder".

Cai explained the loss: "First of all, this is their first match, and they have some execution problems. Not that they played poorly, but they lacked a certain fluidity. They were not linking their shots well. Second,  the Swedes were well-prepared against us. In the Olympics, every match is a final, and the 11-point system makes the game more variable. We actually had some chances. In the 4th game, at 9-8, if Wang Hao could take advantage of the opportunity, we could have tied it up at 2-2. Then it would be anyone's match",

Then Cai rated the performances of his players. He felt that overall, Wang played well enough, but Kong did not play his best. "There were some subtle techniques that he did not master. Back home, we told him that he did not grasp those, but he kept saying that he had got them. Now we all know."

Is this loss a warning for the team? "This is not really a warning. We all know that the Olympics would be difficult. Some people think that we would win no matter what happens. How could that be?"

Niu's upset loss: Less than 60%

In the round of 16, Niu Jianfeng lost to North Korea's Kim Hyang Mi. In the spectator stands, Niu's coach Qiao Xiaohua felt deeply the pain of the loss,  and was unable to understand why Niu could possibly lose this match.

"Niu beat Kim at the Olympics trials in April, 4-2. Compared to that match, Niu today executed at less than 60% of her level", Qiao said. "Based on the two players' capaibilities, if Niu could just return serves well, she is ahead in every other skill. She has the spins, and she has the variations. But Niu was playing too tight, and had problems following the serve returns. She was not decisive. In jugdment of the shots and in movement of the feet, Niu was unable to keep up. In the second game, Niu opened well and had a clear set of tactics: move the ball to the right, press to the middle, and loop to the backhand. But she did not insist on this. She was ahead 7-3, and let Kim catch up. In the last two games, she was a little confused. She kept aiming at the left half table, and her loops were short and easily attacked by Kim's pips-out backhand. Once Kim started her attack, Niu was in a passive situation".

Also, Kim made another mistake: she used the stooped serve. At the Olympic trials, all those serves were attacked effectively by Kim.

"Yesterday watching Niu play Wosik, I knew that whenever she tried to force her shots, she was too tight. When faced with difficulties, she took too long to adjust. Of course, she was thinking a little too much because it is the Olympics, but playing this poorly is just too unusual. She did not lose to her opponent, she lost to herself", Qiao said.

Yan Sen comments on the doubles loss

After Kong/Wang unexpectedly lost to the Swedes, reporters asked Yan Sen in Beijing for comments.

"I never expected Kong and Wang to lose; I was very surprised. They played very well in the training sessions, so I did not think that they could lose. Their loss is not something for me to be happy about; even though I am not playing, I have a great relationship with them. We are on the same Chinese team. I really hope that everyone could win. Now that Kong and Wang had lost, Ma/Chen has a very big chance of winning. They also have played very well recently.

"After this upset loss by Kong/Wang, Ma and Chen should really let go of any baggage and play loose. After all our team is the strongest; this is our national sport. If they can play freely, and not worry too much about winning and losing, this pair is the strongest in the world. Barring any accident, they should win the gold medal", Yan said.

Yan also thinks that this loss could affect Wang Hao's performance in singles. "I don't think there will be any bad effects. Instead this should give him even more motivation in the singles to play at his very best",  Yan said.

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