(This article appears in the September edition of Table Tennis World, and was written by a reporter who accompanied Persson to the International Challenge Series match against Ma Lin in China.)
Nice Guy Persson
The Chinese have a habit of putting "old" in front of names. Players like Waldner and Persson who have played so long are called "Old Wal" and "Old Pe". I have always heard that Persson is a nice guy, and it was during his stay in China recently that I experienced his friendliness firsthand.
After I picked up Persson from the airport and delivered him to the hotel, he asked to go to the coffee shop. As soon as he sat down, the waiters recognized him and they all asked for his autograph. Persson immediately got up, went back to his room, and brought back a stack of postcards with his photo and his autograph to the coffee shop. The workers at the hotel all were touched by his generosity.
On Saturday morning we held the practice sessions. Persson and his coach Carlsson, much to the delight of the fans who were there to watch the practices, played an impromptu exhibition. The CCTV director thought that it would be great if, after the match in the afternoon, the two could play an exhibition for the TV audience, and approached Persson and Karlsson with that idea. The two said that they would decide after the match.
The Ma Lin-Persson contest was a close, exciting one. After 4 games, the players won an identical number of points. But Persson won the first game by 6, and then Ma won the next 3 by 2 points in every game. So Persson lost the match 1-3, and he was visibly disappointed. He appeared to be agitated and tired. His coach Karlsson saw that, and told us that they would not play the exhibition. We then confirmed that with Persson, who asked us to give him a few minutes to calm down first. Because it was a live television broadcast, we could not wait, so Ma Lin now started playing with people from the audience as was originally planned. After Ma finished with the first one, Persson picked up his racket and stepped onto the court. He talked with Carlsson about how to play the exhibition, and proceeded to dazzle the spectators with their skills. Their wonderful performance won them rounds after rounds of applause from the spectators.
A Happy Family
When we had tea with Persson, we found out he has two children: an 8-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter. Persson had a very happy expression when he was talking about his children, and he showed us a photo of them. They looked lovely. Persson pointed to his daughter and said: "She has very blond hair. Even in Germany, people would stop and look at her hair". He proudly said that they like table-tennis because of him, and they are familiar with the stars like Kong Linghui and Liu Guoliang. He took his children with him to the Osaka Worlds so that they could watch him play these "old enemies". He also told us that whenever he lost, they would get mad at him. They kept telling him that he should have won.
Persson Talks About China's Olympic Bid
Persson, along with Waldner, has been fighting against the Chinese for many years. He understands China well, and he is very interested in China's bid to host the Olympics. He felt that China had a great chance to win the bid, and he personally hoped that China would win. He analyzed the Olympic situation: Seoul hosted in 1988, Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta in 1996, Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004. Paris does not have a good chance to host in 2008, since the 2004 Olympics is in Europe already. Also, since the US wants to host in 2012, it is not likely that it will support Canada for its 2008 bid. So it is Asia's turn to host in 2008, and therefore Beijing has a great chance. When I asked him whether he will play in Athens, he said that it all depends on his condition. If he could stay in good shape, he may play.
Persson On Rule Changes
Persson told us show he feels about the recent rule changes. He said that the service change has no effect on him, but will affect players like Waldner more. He thinks the 11-point game will make the sport more exciting and more fun to watch. When seen on television, the 21-point game appears long. Especially if the players are about the same level, the scores are close and the game takes a lot of time. He has played 11-point games that were televised, and the results were excellent. The shorter game is also a great advantage to Europe's younger players (e.g. Boll, Maze, etc.), as well as a great help to the development of the sport.
Persson frankly said that he would retire from the sport within the next 3 to 4 years. I asked him what he would do then. He smiled and said that there are many things he wants to do. When asked whether he will be a promoter like Xu Shaofa, he said that it is difficult to promote table tennis in Europe, because there are many other sports that compete against it, especially football and the NBA. Those sports are much better funded, and a lot of money is being invested in televising those sports, with the result that they receive much more media attention. Table tennis has a much smaller market. Even in a high level tournament such as the Swedish Pro-Tour stop, there are very few spectators. Also, football players receive very attractive salaries, whereas in Sweden, the table tennis players are paid by the week. The European newspapers have a lot of coverage on salaries, and that has a big effect on children: they want to play the sports that pay well, because they hope to one day be making that kind of money.
The Chinese Team In Persson's Eyes
Just like Waldner, Persson has played 6 generations of Chinese players. The first generation is Guo Yuehua; back then Persson was still unknown. The second is Teng Yi and others, then Wang Tao and Ma Wenge. Kong and Liu make up the 4th generation, and Liu Guozheng, Ma Lin and Wang Liqin the 5th. The 6th generation would be players like Xu Hui and others like him. When asked who is the player he admires the most, he said without hesitation: Guo Yuehua. He said that Guo is an exceptionally all-round player: good serves, great footwork, great controlling ability, tremendous forehand power and excellent fighting spirits.
Persson said that the present crop of Chinese players have poor command of English in general, and only Kong is a little better in that respect. The world's top players have to talk to reporters from different countries, and the language used is often English. If one does not speak English, one would have a lot of problem communicating, especially in Europe. These obstacles in communication usually cause everyone huge problems.
Who Will Take Persson's Place?
Persson thinks that Europe's best hope lies with Sweden's Molin, Germany's Boll and Austria's Maze. Those 3 will pose the biggest threat to the Chinese. Unfortunately they are from different countries, so would not compete against China in teams.
(Chung's notes: there appears to be an error in the
original article. Maze is from Denmark, not Austria. I'm not sure
if the reporter made a mistake, or Persson had a slip. Probably
the former, I guess.)
Even though there is still another round of competition, the Men's Super League champion has already been crowned. The PLA-ICBC club, led by Ma Lin, Liu Guoliang, Wang Tao and Wang Hao beat the Luneng club in last Saturday's league match to win the championship. They have one more win than the second team, Shanghai Edelweiss club led by Wang Liqin, and because of their better face-to-face record against Shanghai, are assured of first place in the league.
In the PLA-Luneng match, Liu Guoliang first faced Chiang Peng-Lung. Chiang won the first game 21-17. Liu was down 10-15 in the second, but used his variations to pull up and win the second game 21-19. In the 3rd, Liu continued his attack to win 21-19. In the second match, Luneng's Zhang Yong won the first game against Ma Lin 21-18. In the second, Zhang appeared to have lost his mental edge, and did not play with spirits. He made a lot of unforced errors to lose the game 16-21. In the 3rd, Zhang recovered, and the game was very tight, with Ma Lin finally pulling out a 23-21 victory.
Liu Guozheng and Wang Tao then played a relatively boring match, with Liu winning 21-14 and 21-19 to pull to within one.
In the 4th doubles match, Liu GZ and Zhang Yong easily defeated Liu GL and Wang Tao who appeared to be out of shape, 21-12 and 21-11.
With the score tied at 2-2, the two teams played the Golden Ball 5th match. Ma Lin beat Liu Guozheng in the final contest 5-2 to seal the championship for the PLA-ICBC team.
In the women's Super League, the Hebei club led by Niu Jianfeng, Bai Yang and Wang Tingting is in the driver seat: it only needs one win in the remaining two rounds to secure the championship. Hebei beat the strong Liaoning club led by Wang Nan 3-2 on September 9 in a very tight contest. Bai won the first match against Li Jia, followed by Wang Tingting losing to Wang Nan in the second. Niu then lost to Zhang Rui 1-2 in the 3rd singles. The doubles team of Bai and Niu beat Wang Nan-Zhang Rui 2-1 to force a 5th Golden Ball match. Bai Yang upset Wang Nan 5-3 to end the exciting 2 hours 25 minutes contest.
(Chung's notes: there will be a Super League Championship
Cup later this year, and the top 6 teams will compete for it.)
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