China’s golden table tennis star
Chinese table tennis star Zhang Jike’s list of accomplishments is a sight to behold. An individual Olympic gold medallist in 2012 and silver medallist four years later, he is also a two-time Olympic team champion. On top of that he has been crowned world champion seven times and is a six-time ITTF World Cup singles and doubles champion, not to mention winner of his sport’s fastest ever Grand Slam.
Born in Qingdao, Shandong in 1988, Zhang Jike took up table tennis in 1993. Trained by his father, he made his international debut in 2002. He has gone on to gain fame for his almost unreturnable forehand pendulum serve – as well as his spectacular forehand smashes and backhand side-twists that leave opponents flummoxed and fans thrilled.
His aggressive style helped him break into the world rankings top 10 in 2010. Prior to winning his first Olympic titles at London 2012 he won the ITTF World Tour singles title three times, took gold in the World Cup in 2010, and won six doubles titles on the ITTF tour and one in the Asian Games.
He arrived in London in 2012 as the player to beat after taking the World Tour title in 2011 and winning his first World Championship title in 2012, beating compatriot Wang Hao 4-2 in the final in Rotterdam. He was also crowned world champion in the team event in 2011 and 2012.
Olympic success in London
When Zhang Jike won table tennis singles gold at London 2012 he jumped the hoardings at the ExCel venue, raced up to the podium and kissed the top step. His joy was understandable. Not only was he the new Olympic champion, but also became just the fourth man in his sport’s history to complete the grand slam of World Cup, World Championships and Olympic success – following in the footsteps of countrymen Liu Guoliang and Kong Linghui, and Swedish legend Jan-Ove Waldner.
In the gold medal match in London, Zhang steamrollered his countryman rival Hao Wang in clinical fashion, winning a rally-filled final 4-1 (18-16, 11-5, 11-5, 10-12, 13-11) to consign his team-mate to a third successive Olympic singles silver.
Lightning fast Gram Slam
After his victory, he told reporters: “I’m not too excited because we need to think about the team competition, that’s the first goal. The team is representing the whole country, so I need to do everything to prepare myself for that.”
Despite his understated reaction, his achievement was remarkable, as he became the only player in history to hold all three major competition titles simultaneously – as well as the youngest. And the fact that he did so in the space of 445 days meant his Grand Slam was also the fastest in history.
China sweeps the podium again
His emphatic victory helped China to a successive clean sweep of table tennis gold medals in London. After their thrilling singles final, Zhang and Wang joined forces in the doubles and duly delivered another gold for their country, defeating Oh and Ryu of the Republic of Korea.
Zhang and his compatriot Ma Long then went on to dominate the men’s table tennis scene four the next four years.
From Zhang to Ma and back again
Zhang won his second world single’s title in Paris in 2013, recording another victory over Wang Hao in the final, while Ma took the bronze. However, he ceded his World Cup title to Ma, though reclaimed it in 2014, only to see it revert to Ma again a year later. The two rivals teamed up to help China win the world team titles in both 2013 and 2014, and were also part of the Chinese team that won every team title in the World Cup and Asian Games in the same years.
Ma Long’s revenge
While Ma Long failed to qualify for the singles tournament in London 2012, he arrived in Rio four years later ranked as world number one and reigning world champion. Zhang, ranked number two at the time, matched him step for step through the rounds and they once again faced off in the final on 11 August 2016 at the Riocentro Complex.
This time Ma won convincingly, defeating Zhang 4-1 (11-4, 11-9, 6-11, 14-12, 11-5) to complete a Grand Slam of his own. Zhang was gracious in defeat, highlighting the outstanding level of play in the match between the world’s two best players. “This will remain a special memory for us and for everyone watching. Ma was very good today, particularly in the first set. He won this title and I’d like to congratulate him for winning a Grand Slam.”
Enormous challenge awaits
On 17 August 2016, Zhang Jike, Ma Long and Xu Xin achieved China’s third consecutive Olympic clean sweep. In the final of the team event they defeated a tenacious young Japanese team 3-1. For Zhang, it was his fourth time on the podium, and his third gold.
Zhang and Ma will be hoping to defend their titles at Tokyo 2020, though given the strength and depth of the Chinese team they can take nothing for granted, and Chinese coach Liu Guoliang has predicted that the two will “face an enormous challenge in the next Olympic cycle.”