September 29, 2001

National Team Needs To Overcome the 11-Point Obstacle

After playing in the two Pro-Tour stops, the team came back to Beijing on September 25. The Chinese sent out a strong group including Liu Guoliang, Kong Linghui, Ma Lin, Wang Nan, Li Ju, etc., but instead of sweeping all the events like in the past, the team only won 3 and 2 golds in Korea and Japan, respectively. Especially alarming is not winning the men's singles title in either stop.

This is the first time the team has played the new 11-point scoring format, and judging from both the competition and the results, the scoring change was a main reason why the team did not do well.

Li Xiaodong, head coach of the women's team, said that for the first time he felt very nervous coaching on the court. "It seems that the scoring change has a bigger effect than we have expected. If we add in the serve change, these new rules will pose a greater challenge to our team than the bigger ball".

The 11-point format gave Li a first impression of "the strong not that strong, and the weak not that weak". Every game using the 21-point format is a real test of ability, but now the game is only half as long, and chance plays a much bigger role. Yin Xiao, the men's coach, said that when they played the 21-point games, the scores were usually fairly close after the first 10 points (from either side). But now the critical point is reached after 10 points, and that increases the randomness of the outcome. "The 11-point format's effect on the Chinese team, in particular the men's team, is that it has greatly reduced the difference between the strong and the weak., and perhaps that was the reason behind the change", Yin said. "From the 2 stops, we can see that even when we faced weak players, the scores were frequently tied at 7-all or 8-all, and the last 2 or 3 points decided the game. There is now much more uncertainty in the outcome." Yin feels that this change is good for players with outstanding specialties because they have more chances to use those specialties since the number of critical points have increased. The Korean players in general are powerful with very strong attacks, and that is probably why they have done well in the two stops.

Each game is now shorter, and this requires that the player be able to reach a high competitive mental state very quickly and stay focussed. Facing the much greater frequency of situation changes in each game, coach Li said that his players need to further refine their own specialties.

The other change brought out by the new scoring rule is service. What used to be a 5-serve rotation is now 2-serve, and this affects the overall service strategy. For the Chinese, who excel in using serves to disrupt the rhythm of the opponents, the change has obviously modified their plans, and that made the players feel ill-adjusted. Yin said, "Our advantages have been reduced by the 11-point format". The Chinese are also less familiar with the new rules than their opponents: many times they were warned because they started taking a towel break after 5 points, when the new rule permits toweling every 6 points. Those warnings were very disruptive for the players.

The 11-point game has helped the weaker players, and the victims were not limited to the Chinese. In the two stops, no European has made it to the semifinals, and Samsonov lost to Taipei's Chang Yan-Su.

For the Chinese, it is imperative that they quickly adapt to the change. But the last round of Super League and the National Games in October are still based on the 21-point format. The World Cup, to be held in Italy in November, will be an 11-point tournament, and the Chinese may not be able to repeat what they did last year, when Ma Lin won that event right after a major change (bigger ball).

(Chung's notes: The last time the Chinese sent its top players and did not win the men's singles title in a Pro-Tour event was September 1999, when Samsonov won the Japan Open, almost exactly two years ago. This was a tremendous run by the Chinese, having won just about every men's singles title in the last 2 years or so, with the only blemish being the World Cup in 1999.)

International Challenge Series: Samsonov Beat Yan Sen

On September 29, another match in the International Challenge Series was played in Tianjin, China. Samsonov easily defeated China's Yan Sen 3-0. In the accompanying women's match, Singapore's Li Jia Wei won over Hong Kong's Wong Ching 2-0. Photos of the players in practice here. Photos of Samsonov and his dad touring Beijing here.

Wong Ching took the place of Li Ju who has been ill and is currently hospitalized. The chopper from Hong Kong was obviously out-classed by the Singaporean star.

Yan Sen was not in good playing shape. Before the match, he said that he had to be very quick in order to win. Even though he played some excellent points, the solid Samsonov did not give him many chances. Facing Samsonov who has few weaknesses, Yan did not have any way to break through, and lost 0-3. Yan's record against Samsonov is now 2-3.

Afterwards, Chen Xinhua and Guo Yuehua gave an excellent exhibition.

On September 15, Waldner played a series match against China's Shan Mingjie in Wubei, China. Waldner lost 0-3 (-16, -13 and -19). Li Nan easily beat Swede M. Svensson in the women's match 2-0. Afterwards, Waldner said that he was not used to his rubber. Still, this match confirms the ability of the 18-year-old shakehander Shan.

Koreans Like The New Format

In the just completed Korean Open, veteran Kim Taek Soo won the men's singles. He said that the new 11-point scoring suits his personality well. He prefers to quickly decide whether he wins or loses, rather than to drag things out.

Kim said that compared to the 21-point format, the new scoring adds a lot of "uncertainty". The winner of the game is very quickly decided, almost as soon as the game starts. It adds more pressure on the players. He feels that the it is probably not advantageous to the Chinese, and it increases the likelihood of the Koreans beating the Chinese. But at the same time, it also increases the likelihood of the Koreans losing to other foreign players.

Kim, who is over 30, said " I never dwell on the age problem. I have no problem continuing to play. I think as long as I can manage to stay in good physical shape, I can keep playing. This will set an example to the younger players". He hopes to stay in shape and be able to beat the Chinese team in the Asian Games next year.

Kim has signed with the Korean Tobacco and Ginseng Association team. He holds a position equivalent to a section manager. He also plays as an individual in the Japanese league. He plays in Japan because there are quite a few Europeans there, and that helps raising his own level. He wants to play in Japan for 3 years.

Kim married last year to an archer on the Korean Olympic team. In September his wife gave birth to a baby girl. She was cheering Kim in the Korean Open, and two days later, the baby was born. Kim said that the men's singles title was the best present for his daughter.

After the Korean Open, the Korean men's coach spoke to reporters. "In the past when we played China, we often led in the beginning of games. But then we could not maintain focus as well as the Chinese, who often came back to win. A good example of that is the semifinal match in Osaka. But the 11-point format is different: technical ability is only one aspect, and now the keys are the fighting spirits and luck. This is the best news for the Koreans," he said. "Liu, Ma and Kong all lost to Koreans. This is unprecedented, and a direct result of the new scoring format."

Story of Ma Wenge

(Chung's notes: Part one of this article appears in the September 2001 issue of Table Tennis World.)

Editor's notes: After the completion of the 2000-2001 German Bundesliga season. Ma Wenge came back to Tianjin for his vacation. There was an international challenge match held in Tianjin, and Ma was asked to play an exhibition match with Kim Taek Soo. Before Ma and his family returned to Germany, we asked him to come to our office to talk with us.

The medium-height Ma Wenge appeared to have put on a little weight. He has now played 6 years in Germany. After the 1995 Worlds, he started playing in the Bundesliga. In 1996, he came back to China to help the team prepare for the Atlanta Olympics. He was the training partner for Wang Tao, Lu Lin, Kong and Liu Guoliang. In 1997, he played for the Chinese national team, for the last time, in Manchester. After that he officially retired from the team.

Of all the ex-Chinese players in Europe, 33-year-old Ma is the best. In the 2000-2001 season that completed in June, Ma's club (TTC Zugbrucke Grenzau) won the league championship. His personal record is also league-best. His world ranking is number 15, and he is in third place in the ITTF Pro-Tour standings.

When I first arrived in Germany, I played for Yang Jinhua's club, and later transferred to the Ochsenhausen club. Last year I signed a 2-year contract with Grenzau. I also played one year for Belgium's Charleroi club.

Grenzau won the league title as well as the Cup tournament this season. In league play, I was in 33 matches out of 36 ties. I lost 5 matches total, out of the 33. I was not used to the big ball in the beginning, and I lost 4 matches in a row. Then I was able to practice for about half a month, and I got a lot better at it.

The pay is OK in Europe. Besides the contract wages, I receive DM1000 for every win. There are 36 ties in league, and 12 matches in the European Championship League. The latter is hard to play, because the teams are all national winners. You see players such as Waldner, and the French club has Gatien, Legout and Chila: it is in fact the French national team.

I also play the Pro-Tour several times in Europe. If I want to play in a Pro-Tour event, I have to contact the CTTA. If our national team has entered, then there is no room for me to play; I cannot take the place of national team members. It is good for me to play in these events, because the competition is very high-caliber. Playing in the German League, I am always seeing the same players, so my game can get stagnant, and I might end up at the same level as the second league players in Germany. In Europe, the players pay their way to play in the Pro-Tour stops. In March I won the Croatia Open by beating Chiang Peng-Lung 3-2, and I made over $10,000. Before that event, I was losing money playing in the Pro-Tour. Usually only the final 8 players can count on coming out at least even, but it is difficult to make the final 8.

The Chinese Super League is doing quite well; there are players from Taiwan, Singapore, Japan and Korea playing. I was asked to play here, and I had played several matches in the past, but I am not adjusted now. It is unlikely that I will come back. If I play in the league, I will probably be practicing with the province teams, and that is very different than training with the national team. It would be hard to stay in physical and mental shape. Also, it is not easy playing the Chinese league, with so many good young players here. The format is best 3 matches out of 5, so I might only play one singles. In Europe we play best out of 7, so I can play 2 singles plus a doubles. In addition, I have friends here, so I would have a lot of social activities. If I were to come back to play here, I probably will only do that for 2 years, and then I really have to retire.

I really enjoying coming back for my vacation. As far as playing table-tennis, I prefer Europe. Even though the competition is not easy, the life style is simpler there.

I have lived in Germany for so long, but I still cannot understand German. I communicate in English. When I arrived in Germany, everyone was talking in German, and I asked them to speak English in meetings. Since then, we conducted our meetings in English, and everyone is used to talking to me in English. German is very hard to learn, but I regret not learning it earlier. At least I might have been able to understand it a little bit more.

I am no longer against learning German, because I want to start a company in Germany. It is easier to start a company in Germany than in China; you only need DM50,000 of capital money. Since I have lived in Germany for close to 6 years, I can apply for a long-term residence permit. I have to take care of business myself once I have started my company, so I have made up my mind to study German.

Editor: We moved our meeting to a Korean restaurant close by, and we kept talking while having lunch. We talked about the past, something that Cai Zhenhua alluded to a little earlier. In 1991, because Ma was late for training, and refused to admit guilt, Cai sent him back to the Tianjin team. "Ma was shocked, and so was I", Cai said. "We were getting ready to play in the 2nd World Team Cup, and that was the biggest event since the forming of the new coaching team. Ma was the only world champion on the team, and he was the number-one player. How could we play without him?" Cai reminisced. "I was the bad guy, and I had to find someone to play good guy to get Ma back".

When we told Ma about this, Ma put down his chopsticks and laughed.

I remember that incident very clearly. Cai was the new coach then, and the team had a rule: no morning training on Saturdays, but everyone had to be up by 7 am, so that the internal tournament could begin by 8 am. One Saturday, I got up and it was already 8 am. So I rushed into the playing hall, and everyone was already there. I did not even have the proper shoes on, and Cai scolded me in front of the whole team. Then when we started playing, I was regluing my racket. Cai took me to another room and asked me what was the matter. I said I skipped breakfast, and my stomach was hurting a bit. He said, "You are the only one on the team who is late. Others don't glue and you are the only one. Don't think that the team cannot go on without you. If you did not have breakfast, how can you play today?" Actually I never had those thoughts, but I was young, and I told him "Then don't let me play". Cai got really mad, and said "Go back to Tianjin". Once he said that, I could not stay around anymore, so I left.

I felt I was unfairly treated, and I had been scolded many times because I glued my racket. "The Chinese team has dominated for 30 years. How did all those champions do it? They did not glue, and they still won. How come you have to?" they said. At the time I thought we fought and won wars with rifles in the past, but could we still do that? I was the only player who used top-sheet/sponge sets, and I could not play without regluing. In the morning everything was in a rush. Back then conditions were not as good, and there were lines to the bathrooms. When I glued my racket in the playing hall, the coaches said that I was affecting the whole team. Nowadays, if a player does not glue, he probably will be chewed out: "How come you did not glue today? How can you insure training quality?" Today's players are so lucky. The manufacturers deliver the rubbers, and if they are not good, the coaches will work things out with the manufacturers. I was too progressive for my time.

I was in a bad mood after Cai kicked me out. Coach Yin Xiao followed me out, and talked to me for a long time. Then I called my girlfriend and told her that I would be going back to Tianjin. On my way back to the dorm, I met Cai who was riding his bicycle. He called me, and the two of us talked a lot, just like old friends. He said that he had coached me ever since he came back to China, and he cared about my welfare. He also said that he was not very patient, and he sometimes used very strong words. Then I told him that I had been going over the incident myself, and there were things I needed to correct. We both cried. Finally Cai asked me to write a report and read it in front of the team. The incident had a major impact on me, and from then on, I acted a lot more maturely.

I played in 5 Worlds and one Olympics. There were 2 very memorable matches. First one is the 42nd Worlds team final. Although I beat Waldner, our team lost 1-3. The other was the 43rd Worlds in Tianjin, when we finally recaptured the Swaythling Cup.

Before the Tianjin Worlds, I was not in good condition. I did not play for almost a year because of my shoulder injury. The coaches had met many times to try to decide whether to play me in the teams event. Before the team roster was set, I came back from Shenzhen after receiving treatment there. After one day of practice I played in the internal tournament. I faced Wang Tao, whom I very seldom lost to after I switched to inverted in 1989. He was a little nervous, because I was out of training for so long, and he should not lose to me again. But then I beat him 2-0. Coach Cai was very happy: "Ma's game is still up there", he said. Because of that victory, the team decided to let me play in teams. I later found out that I was still rusty, and physically not as strong as before, and I played in the Worlds after two and a half months of training.

In the men's team semifinals, I lost 2 points to Korea. But the coaches trusted me, and still let me play against Sweden as the number one player. Against Persson in the second match, I lost the first game, and was trailing in the second. But I finally won, because of our strong will. Our team has been depressed for so long, and the coaches and players had so much pent-up emotion that had to be released by winning the Swaythling Cup.

To Be Continued.

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