(This is a translation of an article by the chief editor of Table Tennis World.)
After the men¡¯s doubles gold medal match, Wu Jingping, coach of the two Chinese players, walked out of the hall and saw Cai Zhenhua. ¡°This has been so difficult¡±, he said, and he could not hold back his tears.
Wu was talking about Ma Lin¡¯s journey.
Those who understand Ma know that he came to Athens for the two gold medals. In the round of 32, Cai said that Ma was the best of the three Chinese players. Surprisingly in the following round Ma lost to Waldner. Ma was shocked, and the coaches suddenly had a big problem: there was no one protecting the bottom half of the draw. They were also worried about men¡¯s doubles, because one of their two pairs had been eliminated in the first round. If Ma could not adjust in time, with Chen Qi¡¯s inexperience, the last pair might be out of the event before long.
Ma Lin and Chen Qi were able to withstand the pressure, won the next three rounds, and the important gold for China.
August 19. Ma and Chen played against Poland¡¯s Blaszczyk and Krzeszewski. In the beginning the Chinese were too tight to attack, and it was later in the match that they took the initiative. The turning point was in game 3 with the score tied at 5-5. Ma served, and Blaszczyk quick-flipped it to Chen¡¯s backhand. Chen backhand looped that to score the point. From that point on, Ma Lin played strongly.
Here¡¯s what they said:
Chen: ¡°When the coaches prepared us, they were constantly trying to lift our spirits, so on the court we felt very positive.¡±
Ma: ¡°So far, in this match I felt the most pressure. I lost to Waldner, and I had never expected to face such problems. Since 1999, we played each other 6 or 7 times, and I had never lost to him. Going into that match, I felt I would not have any problem, and all I needed to do was to execute at the proper level. But he was playing unexpectedly well, and had a lead from the beginning. I did not adjust my mental state well, was affected by the score, and was playing too tight. After that loss in singles, we were also the only pair left in doubles. We could not afford to lose. Because of this pressure, I could not play powerfully in the beginning. In game 3 at 5-5, Chen¡¯s strong attack was a big motivator for me. All of a sudden I was playing loosely, like I was a different person. Sometimes one or two points can change the way the game goes.¡±
August 20. Ma/Chen played their third doubles match, the semifinals against Denmark¡¯s Maze/Tugwell who just eliminated Persson/Waldner. Ma/Chen won the first game. In the second, they were ahead 10-6 and were caught up by the Danes, losing that game 11-13. After the score was tied at 2-2 in games, Ma/Chen fell behind 6-9 in game 5, but came back to win it 13-11.
In this match, the Danes were using the same tactics they used on the Swedes. They pushed serves down the line frequently, but Ma could step around much quicker than Waldner. In serves and attacks, Ma and Chen could control the returns well.
Coach Liu Guoliang said after the match: ¡°When Ma/Chen lost that 2nd game after leading 10-6, I felt that it was going to be a very difficult match. And indeed that match was tied at 2-2. The key of the match was game 5 when we fell behind 6-9 and our players did not give up. Point by point they fought back. In particular, Chen was very decisive. If Ma put in more variations and speed, this would have been an easier victory. But the two players had the lead, got caught up, and then regained the lead. They withstood the changes on the court and did well mentally. This would be very useful for them in the finals¡±.
Chen: ¡°For me, this was the most pressured match. We beat that Polish pair twice before, so I felt confident in that match. We had not played the Danish pair before, and their shots were somewhat awkward for us to handle. So the two games were tight. In game two we lost a big lead, but we were not shaken up. In the first match we also lost game 1 after a lead, so I felt that losing a game is no problem.
Ma: ¡°When they came back to win game 2, that did not affect my confidence at all. In fact, I never doubted our ability. At the end, I trusted Chen more and more, and I believed in his ability more and more. In a certain way, his desire to win and his confidence gave me power¡±.
August 21. Ma and Chen played their 4th match, against the Hong Kong pair Ko/Li in the finals. Although there were some problems, and they lost the third and fifth games, they had the better spirits in that match.
Ma: ¡°Today we played our normal game. Compared to the last two matches, we felt calmer. But still I played a little too tight. That had been my problem in the Olympics. I was not crisp in execution, and I could not play as fluidly as I did during the training sessions. This is a problem I have to solve¡±.
Chen: ¡°Ma¡¯s loss in singles must have affected him in doubles. During our training sessions, there were also times when he did not handle himself very well, but I believe in his ability. We have mutual trust, and I know that we will won the gold medal¡±.