‘Coaching came naturally to me’

Published : Dec 12, 2009 00:00 IST

Kong Linghui in action in his playing days.-AP
Kong Linghui in action in his playing days.-AP

Kong Linghui in action in his playing days.-AP

“It is important for us to win the team title but it is equally important for us to train our young players. Our Federation is concentrating on preparing for the 2012 London Olympic Games. That’s why the coaches are trying out young players in international competitions, especially in the team events,” says the Chinese women’s coach, Kong Linghui, to Rakesh Rao.

Former World and Olympic champion Kong Linghui is considered among the greats of Chinese table tennis. He played a major role in China’s domination of the game through the 1990s and won the 2000 Olympic gold by overpowering the great Swede Jan-Ove Waldner in a memorable final.

After ending his international career in 2006, Kong Linghui became the coach of the Chinese National women’s team. He is also a key person in China’s preparations for the 2012 Olympic Games. In Lucknow, during the Asian table tennis championship, this two-time Continental champion took time off and spoke to Sportstar on various subjects, with interpreter June Zhu playing her part through the interview.

Question: You retired when you still looked good for a few more years. Why?

Answer: When I retired, I was already 31. Another reason was my shoulder injury. May be in some other country, it is different. But in China, the intensity of training is too high, especially for the National team. I could not cope with that. In addition, I had already won the World and Olympic titles. There was no special goal, no real motivation left for me to continue. That’s why I retired.

How did the coaching assignment come about?

Immediately after my playing career ended in 2006, I took up the responsibility of being the coach of my country’s women’s team. Coaching came naturally and easily to me. In these three years, I’ve adjusted quite well to my new position.

Do you see any difference between coaching men and women players?

Quite frankly, men’s and women’s table tennis are different. But psychologically, at this level, it is quite the same. With my experience, I could help them.

Going back to your playing days, there was a slump in your form after you won the Olympic gold in Sydney. In the 2001 World Championship semifinal against Korea, you lost both your singles but Lui saved seven match-points to see China through. What were the reasons for those poor performances?

In 2001, there were two major changes in the rules and regulations. One was about the serve and the other was the change in the size of the ball. At that time, I was not quite accustomed to those changes. For about six months, I was not in my best form and lost quite a few matches.

Coming to this championship, China’s men’s team had a narrow victory against Japan in the final. How do you assess that close result?

For this competition, as you’ve seen, the Chinese team is quite young. Some of them are very young. (World champion and world number one) Wang Hao and (Olympic champion) Ma Lin, two of our very best players, did not come. That’s why we had this close result against Japan this time.

But this young team almost lost. Why was Wang Liqin rested for the final? Isn’t winning more important than experimenting with young players in the title-match?

If we had lost, it was only because our best did not come here. It was natural. It is important for us to win the team title but it is equally important for us to train our young players. Our Federation is concentrating on preparing for the 2012 London Olympic Games. That’s why the coaches are trying out young players in international competitions, especially in the team events. That’s why Ma Lin did not come here and Wang Liqin was rested for the final. We understand that in 2012, Wang Liqin will be 34 and Ma Lin, 32. That’s not the best age for players to go for Olympic gold. That’s why we are fielding our young players.

Looking at the results here, do you think the gap between China and the rest in Asia is narrowing?

I agree. I think the gap between China and others is clearly less now. As you saw, three Chinese players in the men’s pre-quarterfinals needed seven games to win. Our players won because they prepared better and had the confidence that they can win.

How do you look at young prospect Xu Xin?

Xu Xin is a young player. He is still a teenager. The fact that he is left-handed is quite unusual for China. He is a player with great potential. He is also a key player in our team and we all are helping him. Being a young player, technically, I think, Xu Xin did not reach the very top here.

How do you assess the resurgence of Japan with young players like Jun Mizutani, Kenta and Seiya performing consistently?

These three young players are quite good. In the past 20 years, Japan never had three good players at the same time. But from China’s point of view, these players will be our main challengers for five to eight years. At the moment, they are very strong but there is no comparison with China because Wang Hao and Ma Lin did not play here. But these Japanese players are between 17 to 22 years now and in another two years, they will be China’s toughest opponents.

Your views on the Indian table tennis players.

I see that the Indians have improved a lot in recent years. When I was an active player, there was one player (Chetan Baboor) who played in Sweden. Now, this one player (Sharath Kamal) who defeated a Chinese player in the team match and almost beat Wang Liqin is quite good. I understand he plays in the European club competition. One reason I see why Indians are lagging behind is because table tennis is not very popular here. If you have more players playing table tennis, you will have more talented players to choose from.

Lastly, how much do you remember of the 2000 Olympic final against Jan-Ove Waldner?

I was really excited when I won that match. But in all these years, I never got a chance to review the match. Once in a while, I get to watch it on television. For me playing against Waldner was always a dream. From my younger days, I was a big fan of Waldner. It was unbelievable for me to beat him for the Olympic gold.

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