`Ma is the best'

As the world champion Wang Liqin was talking to the media in a noisy press conference room teeming with reporters, Ma Lin (in pic) 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.