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Three years ago, Fan Zhendong was one of the stars of the Youth Olympic Games Nanjing 2014, with the Chinese teenager winning YOG gold in both the men’s singles and mixed team events – to the delight of local fans. Now, at just 20 years of age, he is among the favourites to top the podium at the 2017 World Table Tennis Championships, having enjoyed notable victories over the current world and Olympic champion, Ma Long, in recent months.
But being one of the favourites for the world title is unlikely to faze Fan. After all, it was a similar story in Nanjing in 2014, when the then 17-year-old carried the hopes of the host nation on his young shoulders, as China’s only representative in the men’s singles event.
Fan arrived in the Jiangsu capital already ranked third in the world at the senior level, and was widely expected to steamroll his way to the gold medal. But he found himself under huge pressure in the final against Japan’s Yuto Muramatsu, as he initially struggled to cope with the defensive play of his opponent.
The clash of styles had the crowd at the Wutaishan Gymnasium on the edge of their seats, as Fan found himself trailing Muramatsu by two games to one before rallying to win three games in a row to clinch the YOG title in dramatic fashion.
“The match was not easy, not easy at all,” said Fan afterwards. “The final was a very hard match, but I reached my goal. I made some mistakes at the beginning, but my coach gave me good advice how to change and in the fifth and sixth games I moved much better.”
Fan’s victory proved to be a springboard to further success, as he went on to win singles bronze and doubles silver at the 2015 World Championships, in addition to team gold in both 2014 and 2016.
And while he was unlucky to miss out on a place at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 – with China selecting Xu Xin and 2012 Olympic champion Zhang Jike alongside Ma Long – many of his YOG opponents did compete in Brazil.
Kirill Gerassimenko (KAZ) and Brian Afanador (PUR) were both eliminated in the first round, while Padasak Tanviriyavechakul (THA) lost in the second round. Nanjing 2014 bronze medallist Hugo Calderano (BRA), meanwhile, delighted the home fans as he battled his way to the fourth round, where he came close to upsetting eventual bronze medallist Jun Mizutani – fighting back from two games down to level the match at 2-2 before losing 4-2.
Calderano, Gerassimenko, Afanador and Tanviriyavechakul will all be among the challengers at the 2017 World Table Tennis Championships in Dusseldorf, but all eyes will be on Fan to see if he can follow up YOG gold with the world title.