Athens 2004

August 22, 2004


China¡¯s final opponent: Ryu Seung Min


Beating Waldner was supposed to be the final goal for Wang Hao, but now the men¡¯s final will be a match between China and Korea. Liu Guoliang had said last month: ¡°Ryu Seung Min demands our special attention¡±.


Ryu started playing table-tennis when he was 9. At the 2001 Korean Championships, he beat Kim Taek Soo and Oh Sang Eun to win the team, doubles and singles titles. In 2002 at the Asian Games, Ryu, using his footwork and forehand power, won the doubles medal with Lee Chul Seung. He plays the traditional one-sided penholder looper style, with a strong and spinny forehand loop. His footwork may not be as good as Kim¡¯s, but he has the necessary physical stamina that is required by his style. His half-toss forehand serves are excellent, and he recently developed a reverse spin down-the-line fast serve that adds significantly to his arsenal. In rallies, Ryu often uses his powerful forehand loops to penetrate opponents¡¯ defenses. When he is forced away from his usual position, he can use a backhand attack that is often devastating due to its power and abruptness. In mid-table defense, he could return loops with his backhand and wait for a chance to counter-loop using his forehand.


Ryu has been playing at a consistent and a very high level recently. He is absolutely Korea¡¯s number-one player today, and has progressed from an excellent player to an elite world-class player. He is at the same level as Chuan Chih-Yuan and Boll. His fighting spirits, power and forehand coverage are threats to any opponent.


Zhang Yining: Cold Face and Fiery Heart


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


Since her meteoric rise in 1998, Zhang Yining had always kept an ice-cold expression when she played. Today, she showed her bright smiling face, and blew kisses to the spectators after her victory over North Korea¡¯s Kim Hyang Mi in the women¡¯s singles final. She hugged Li Sun to show her thanks to her long-time coach.


¡°Words could not describe how much I owe coach Li¡±, said Zhang. ¡°During the many years of my development, he has been everything I needed. He is my coach, and he is also like my father and my friend¡±.


¡°It takes 10 years to sharpen a sword¡±, said Li Sun, with tears in his eyes.


(In 1993, Zhang, who was 11 years old, entered the Beijing team under the guidance of Li Sun. Two years later, she joined the junior national team. In 1996 Li became a coach on the national team, and naturally Zhang, who had made it to the first national team by then, was once again under his supervision. In 1998, Zhang started to show her ability, winning the Malaysian Open singles and doubles titles, the Italian Open singles title, the Asian Championship team title and the Bangkok Asian Games team title. In 1999, at the Eindhoven worlds, she fought her way to the finals match against Wang Nan. Leading 2-0 in games, she lost the match. For the 17-year-old, making the finals in her first Worlds was a very good result, and losing to Wang Nan was nothing unusual. That was also how the coaches saw it, and Zhang¡¯s name was on the short list of Olympic hopefuls.)


¡°Zhang loves playing table-tennis. Many people consider training to be hard work, but she enjoys it, and she could withstand it. Ever since she was young, she had always wanted to be a world champion. In her journey to the top, there were no technical detour, but she had problems with her mental state which tended to fluctuate quite a bit. She wanted a world title, but she did not know that it requires one step at a time, and that there is no short-cut. In the last 4 years, she had many obstacles, and many failures, to become the world singles champion¡±, Li said.


¡°In 2000 she had an excellent chance to play in the Olympics, but her loss to Xu Jing in the Worlds team finals changed her course. In that tournament, Zhang played very well in the beginning. At the finals match, Wang Nan and Li Ju executed brilliantly, and Zhang was almost bursting with emotion, wanting very much to out-perform her teammates. I did not have the experience to handle this situation, and she played without thinking. I almost wanted to go out to the court to shake her to calm her down.


¡°Affected by that loss, she played poorly in the qualifying trials, and lost her chance to go to Sydney. All of a sudden, she was at an emotional low. I said that if you wanted to continue playing, you had to save yourself. You had to overcome this obstacle. During those 6 months, I was concentrating on Wang Nan because of the Olympics.


(Zhang: ¡°Before then I had a very smooth career, and did not have any major setback. So for the next 3 months or so, I could not come to grips with the situation. It seemed like others could win championships so easily, so why was it so difficult for me? The coaches worked with me a lot, and my thoughts went one way then another, but I finally settled in. I love table tennis so much, that I could not give it up. I would start from zero. At the end of that year, we toured Europe and I won two tournaments. My spirits were high again, and I made up my mind to take the world singles title¡±.)


¡°In 2001, Zhang¡¯s skills were already outstanding. She played well in the Osaka Worlds, and she had high hopes for the 9th National Games. But in that national title match, she was ahead 2-0 in games and got caught up by Wang Nan again. She only scored 5 points in game 5. She was mad at herself, and she intentionally gave up the last point. Because of this, she was severely reprimanded. The coached decided that (1) the whole national team had to be critiqued, (2) she was barred from competition for 3 months, and (3) she had to write a public apology in Table Tennis World. The 9th National Games was a severe blow to her.


¡°Zhang¡¯s personality is different from Wang Nan¡¯s. Wang Nan is more solid, and would do what you told her to do. Zhang has a strong personality but would act in an unorganized fashion. We have to be more heavy-handed in dealing with her. So I was hard on her, and I would still scold her if she needed scolding, even after she became a world champion. In 2002, Zhang had good results, winning the World Cup, the Pro-Tour Final title and the singles title at the Asian Games. In January 2003, she was ranked number one, for the first time. At the Paris Worlds, she was at her peak in terms of techniques and mental state, and once again she played the finals match against Wang Nan. This time she trailed 0-3 in games and then won the next 3 games. But at the end she lost. At the end of that year, she lost the World Cup, so once again, her confidence was shaken.


(Zhang: ¡°I tried many different approaches. At the National Games, I had very high spirits, but I lost.  At the Paris Worlds, I was very cool and calm, but I lost. I did not understand why, and I felt I did not understand myself. That was a scary feeling¡±.)


¡°Technically, Zhang, through the many years of refinement, is at a very high level. Even if she does not attack, it is hard for someone to beat her. But she wanted the world title too badly, and she went through many emotional ups and downs. When she played well, she felt she was invincible. When she played not so well, she felt she was no good at all. She kept this all in her heart, and would not share it with her parents, because she was afraid that they might worry for her. She sometimes cried when she talked to me, and she sometimes talked about very irrelevant things that got me confused as well. Once someone has doubts about herself, it is hard to work with her. So I changed my method. Out of 10 talks, I would encourage or motivate her 9 times. The 10th time I would try to shock her. Our whole coaching staff, including Cai Zhenhua, have worked a lot with her to establish her confidence, so that she could overcome herself.


¡°The period from the start of the closed training sessions to now is the most difficult one in my coaching career. In the two sessions, Zhang would train quite well but play poorly in matches, including both singles and doubles. In the two warm-up tournaments, she lost in the first round both times. So before we got here, I felt that Zhang was very uncertain, and not very confident.


¡°In her first two Olympic matches, she did not play particularly well, and she was tight. In the eighths, I talked to her very severely after she beat Lau Sui Fei. I said that if you played like that, it was just a matter of time when you got eliminated. The following day Ma Lin lost to Waldner, and that was a shock to her. She felt that even though Ma¡¯s skills were the highest in the world, he could still lose. So if she got conservative, she might end up the same way. The next day, when she played Boros, she was like a new person.


¡°Niu Jianfeng lost to Kim Hyang Mi, and Wang Nan lost to Li Jia Wei. The bottom half was now unprotected, but that did not affect her. Her personality is such that she always is willing to carry the heavy burden. In the 2000 Worlds semifinals against Korea, Wang Nan lost the first match to Kim Moo Kyu and Li Ju won the next one. In the 3rd match before she went on the court, she guaranteed to us that she would beat Lee Eun Sil. So teammates losing really does not affect her negatively. Instead she got the feeling that she could now show her full abilities.


¡°After Wang Nan lost, someone told Zhang: ¡®Your chance has arrived¡¯. She responded: ¡®I have not thought that far out. I am only thinking of beating Kim Kyung Ah¡¯.


¡°Perhaps because of her calm mental attitude, she finally combined her steadiness with her high spirits. Everything she learned in the last 4 years she used in today¡¯s singles finals match. She did not make any mistake, whether it was tactical or mental. This was just about a perfect performance¡±, Li said.


(Zhang: ¡°In the last 4 years I had been through everything. But that tuition I paid was not wasted. All the failures have added to my wealth, and I won a major one today. Coach Cai said that I am now a leader on the team. I hope I could be a good leader, but it will not be easy. I have to discipline myself, and be willing to carry an even heavier responsibility.)


(Chung¡¯s notes: For those who are not familiar with Li Sun, he was sitting on the right of Cai Zhenhua during the WS gold medal match. That video is now widely available for downloading on various sites.)

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