China's superb sweep

Guo Yue with the women's singles trophy.-AP

The World Championships in Zagreb were all about the supremacy of China, which is now aiming to repeat the performance at the Beijing Olympics next year.

China's absolute domination of the World Championships has sparked more calls for the country to help develop table tennis beyond its borders. The five finals in Zagreb were all-Chinese affairs for the third time in the championship's history and it was the sixth time China had swept all of the titles.

"The Chinese table tennis team has reached a new golden age," said Cai Zhenhua, vice-director of China's sports administration.

"In order to improve the attractiveness of the sport, however, there should be changes to the rules as well and more care taken about the development to empower more and more countries and regions in this sport.

"China should not only lead the development of skill and techniques but also make efforts in training coaches and players from the backward countries and providing them with infrastructure."

Wang Liqin staged a thrilling comeback to defeat Ma Lin and claim his third men's singles title — a feat only previously accomplished in the era of biennial championships by compatriot Zhuang Zedong. In an exact repeat of last World Championship final, defending champion and second-ranked Wang overcame the twice runner-up and top-rated Ma, 4-11, 8-11, 11-5, 4-11, 11-9, 11-8, 11-6.

"This is the best game of this championships," said Wang. "From now on, I will focus on the Beijing Olympics and hopefully I will represent China in 2008."

Earlier in the day, Wang Liqin shut the last non-Chinese out of the World Championships, ensuring China's clean sweep of gold and silver medals.

Wang had played a technically smart game as he outlasted South Korean Olympic champion Ryu Seung Min 6-11, 11-3, 11-7, 14-16, 11-6, 10-12, 11-7 in the semifinals.

It is the fifth time that China has made a clean sweep of the individual gold medals and the third time — after the 1981 and 2001 championships — it has walked away with all the gold and silver medals.

In the deciding seventh set of his semifinal, Wang forced the South Korean to make mistakes by putting pressure on his backhand and finding open space on his forehand side. Ryu had driven into the net four times, before Wang jumped to an 8-4 lead and then ran away 10-7. A backhand return too long by Ryu sent the lanky Shanghaiese into the final.

"It was a very difficult game, for which I had prepared thoroughly," said Wang. So had Ryu, who said he spent much of his time the night before studying Wang's video.

"Ryu has been in superb form after beating his team-mate Oh Sang Eun and German Timo Boll, who both had never lost to Ryu before this World Championships," said Wang.

Wang said the new techniques and tactics he used against Ryu worked very well. "I did fairly well in service returns. I used my backhand to receive Ryu's services, the technique I had rarely used."

Ryu said he was satisfied with his play. "I stretched Wang Liqin to seven sets and that means I have become a better player. I have hit top form and shown the best of my play," he said.

Earlier, Ma Lin ousted fellow Chinese Wang Hao 6-11, 11-9, 12-10, 4-11, 11-9, 11-6 in the first semifinal.

In the women's doubles final, defending Olympic and world champions Wang Nan and Zhang Yining defeated Guo Yue and Li Xiaoxia 11-5, 11-6, 13-11, 11-9.

Guo Yue, however, showed that her future is bright by beating fellow teenager Li Xioaxia to win her first women's singles world title. She then combined with Wang Liqin to bag the mixed doubles title too.

Ma teamed up with Chen Qi to deprive Wang Liqin of a third gold in the men's doubles final.

"I was disappointed to miss out on the doubles gold medal," Wang Liqin said. "There is not a long time to the (Olympic) Games, I need to progress more."

Zhuang Zedong, the man whose record Wang Liqin matched at the championship by winning his third world title, said recently that he was concerned about how those Chinese who moved abroad to help develop the game were perceived. "If China always sweeps all world titles, nobody will be interested any longer," said Zhuang, who won his titles in the 1960s. "Many Chinese coaches and players have gone to other countries and helped them develop, but once any of them defeats a Chinese player, they are called `mercenaries'."

There will not be too much concern if China sweeps the table tennis medals at the Beijing Olympics next year. And Ma Lin has set his sights on the Games next year. "If I can win the singles title at the Beijing Games all my past losses will mean nothing," he said.

The Results

Men's singles final: Wang Liqin bt Ma Lin 4-11, 8-11, 11-5, 4-11, 11-9, 11-8, 11-6.

Women's singles final: Guo Yue bt Li Xiaoxia 8-11, 11-7, 4-11, 2-11, 11-5, 11-2, 11-8.

Men's doubles final: Chen Qi & Ma Lin bt Wang Hao & Wang Liqin 6-11, 11-7, 6-11, 11-3, 11-9, 11-9.

Women's doubles final: Wang Nan & Zhang Yining bt Guo Yue & Li Xiaoxia 11-5, 11-6, 13-11, 11-9.

Mixed doubles final: Wang Liqin & Gue Yue bt Ma Lin & Wang Nan 13-11, 11-7, 8-11, 11-9, 9-11, 12-10.

As the world champion Wang Liqin was talking to the media in a noisy press conference room teeming with reporters, Ma Lin looked listless, staring aimlessly. He didn't catch the first question addressed to him. And when he started to answer, he choked.

"I just picked a phone call from my parents and they asked me when I will be home," said Ma, who half an hour back had squandered a 3-1 lead of sets to lose the championship final to Wang Liqin.

Ma continued: "My grandfather jumped from a high building and committed suicide a week ago. I didn't know until now." The toughest fighter in the world of table tennis then buried his head in a towel and could barely speak any more.

The tragedy reminded of Ma Lin's former partner Zhang Yingying, who was told after winning the mixed doubles gold at the 1999 World Championships that her father had died.

Ma Lin, world runner-up to Liu Guoliang in 1999 and again to Wang Liqin in 2005, had been cruising to his first world singles title before Liqin woke up from 1-7 down to not only snatch the fifth set but also the next two. The victory earned Wang his second straight singles crown and third overall, while for Ma it was a case of third time unlucky.

At the awards ceremony, the ITTF (International Table Tennis Federation) president Adham Sharara whispered into Ma's ear: "I think you are as good as the champion."

Ma had beaten Belarussian star Vladimir Samsonov and China's Olympic silver medallist Wang Hao en route to the final.

"Ma Lin is the best performing player in the Chinese team," said the head coach Liu Guoliang. "He will still have a chance in the Beijing Olympics."

In a media poll announced by the ITTF later, Ma was adjudged as the most impressive player at the Zagreb championships.