The invincibles

Fan Zhendong… the boys singles champion.-K. RAMESH BABU

No other nation has dominated the sport the way China has. What is the secret of the nation’s success? V. V. Subrahmanyam tries to find out.

In table tennis, the ‘Great Wall of China’ seems to be almost impregnable. The nation, which swept all the gold medals at stake in the 2012 London Olympics, made a clean sweep of all the titles again in the World Junior Championship in Hyderabad recently. Petrissa Solja of Germany almost threatened to mar the Chinese party by entering the semi-finals but was beaten in the last-four stage by the Chinese top seed, Zhu Yuling.

So, whether it’s the seniors or the juniors, what is the secret of China’s success?

Miao Miao, the coach of the Australian table tennis team at the World Junior Championship, is of the view that not many train as hard as the Chinese do. “Their commitment levels are much higher than you can see in most other nations. And there is abundance of talent there,” said the four-time Olympian, who was born in China but is now settled in Australia.

“Well, the system there (China) is totally different — caring and demanding. I believe the credit for the Chinese dominance should go to coaches who have ensured this continuity. The intensity of their preparations for any tournament stands out,” says Miao, a silver medallist in the Melbourne Commonwealth Games.

According to Raul Calin, the ITTF (International Table Tennis Federation) competition manager, China on current form is too strong a nation in the sport for any country to match. “Just consider the vast base of players in different age groups across China. It is mind-boggling to have a system that produces results so consistently,” he observed. “I feel the way many former champion players don the role of coaches is the key to China’s success,” he added.

Why is this not possible in Europe?

“The scenario in Europe is not very encouraging right now. We need to get more and more sponsors. Interestingly there are pretty good cadet and junior players, but we lose the best of talent in the transition phase for not many continue in the sport,” Calin explained.

“Yet, France and Germany are exceptions as there are serious, scientific programmes in place to groom young talent,” the ITTF official observed.

The Chinese junior team head coach, Han Hua, said that the emergence of China as a super economic power was largely responsible for the nation’s domination in sport in general and table tennis in particular. “We encourage sport from school-level in a big way. The grooming of talent is done on a very scientific basis; every effort is made to see that genuine talent does not drift away. It is the training programme China has for each age group that is the key to our success,” Han explained. “Whatever the reason, we have a huge assembly line of wonderful talent and the coaches play a major role in moulding talent and making them champions. There’s no scope for any bias at any level,” he added.

“Honestly, I never thought that China would be such a big force in world table tennis, say 20 years ago. Well, the three aspects that make the Chinese stand out from the rest are: personality of the players in terms of physical fitness, intensive training programme and the ability of the young talent to respond to the coaching in the desired manner,” Han said.

“In fact, the players feel proud to be part of the system that thrives on success and nothing else. They understand the needs of the coaches and the expectations,” he added.

Eva Jeler, the chief coach of the German junior team, attributed the success of China to its high quality coaching.

“Sport for them is education and everything in life. For young kids in China, playing table tennis is like going to Cambridge or Oxford in the West. I have seen many Chinese practice sessions and they are just fantastic. You get fascinated and the results are no surprise,” said Jeler, who is also the chief coach of the German youth programmes.

“They train differently, combining technique and physical fitness of the highest order. It makes the players mentally very tough. They ensure that the basics are perfect from a very young age. This is where Europe lags behind, for there are not many good coaches at the Club level,” the German coach said.

“China has a system that thrives not just on quantity but also quality in every aspect. The major difference between the Chinese and European training is that, we (in Europe) generally tend to teach the players to wait for the opponents to make mistakes, whereas they teach their players to force their opponents to make mistakes,” Jeler analysed.

“Well, a European might still win an international medal here and there, but the kind of Chinese dominance is phenomenal right now given the fact that there are eight lakh registered table tennis players, and when the Government supports the system, the results are bound to be there,” she said.

Former three-time National champion Manjit Dua of India recalled the time when China stopped competing in events in the 1960s and focussed more on training, and they were almost unstoppable once back in the fold. “This was because of the scientific and gruelling training programmes. And table tennis is played almost everywhere in China — in schools, clubs, offices, parks. It is some sort of a religion there. No wonder, they can easily field 10 to 12 world-class teams in any major competition,” he said.

“The fact that China won nine of the 10 editions of the World juniors is proof of the way they nurture talent. The key to their success is their meticulous planning in ensuring that the transition from the juniors to seniors is near perfect,” said Manjit.

On Europeans struggling to make a similar impact, Manjit pointed out that it was because of their different culture and approach. “In Europe, a child and his parents have to decide whether to pursue the sport despite early achievements. The risk factor, of not being able to make a big career in table tennis is a major deterrent. It is a five-out-of-100 scenario now,” he explained.

“But again, Germany is an exception given the way the Bundesliga is organised, for even the Chinese compete there. No wonder, Germans continue to be the big hope from Europe in table tennis,” Manjit said.

For the record (All Chinese finals)

Boys singles final: Fan Zhendong beat Lin Gaoyuan 10-12, 7-11, 11-8, 11-6, 11-8, 11-4.

Doubles final: Lin Gaoyuan & Xu Chenhao beat Fan Shengpeng & Fan Zhendong 11-8, 11-9, 11-5, 11-6.

Girls singles final: Zhu Yuling beat Gu Yuting 11-6, 11-5, 11-9, 11-8.

Doubles final: Gu Yuting & Zhu Yuling beat Gu Ruochen & Liu Gaoyang 8-11, 11-5, 5-11, 7-11, 11-6, 11-9, 11-4.

Mixed doubles final: Fan Zhendong & Liu Gaoyang beat Lin Gaoyuan & Gu Ruochen 4-11, 4-11, 12-10, 4-11, 11-9, 13-11, 11-9.

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K.RAMESH BABU

True grit

Bruna Alexandre is determined to follow in the footsteps of sportspersons such as Natalia Partyka, the Polish table tennis player born without a right forearm, Natalie Du Toit, the South African swimmer without one leg, and blade runner Oscar Pistorius of South Africa, who have all participated in both the Olympics and the Paralympic Games.

For the record, the 17-year-old Brazilian table tennis player, who had taken part in the World Junior Championship in Hyderabad recently, was a victim of a medical blunder that saw a wrong dose of vaccine injected in her. This led to the amputation of her right arm when she was only three years old.

It was a handicap that could have forced many to take up a vocation that was far easier in life than table tennis. However, Bruna belongs to a different breed and she was determined to make an impact in her sport.

That she was the cynosure at the World juniors even though the Chinese were dominating was a tribute to her grit and tenacity. “I really don’t give any thought to this problem (pointing to her hand). I just want to go there and enjoy the game,” said Bruna, who started playing table tennis at the age of eight when she used to accompany her brother and mentor Bruno.

“I am pleased that I could make it to my maiden World Championship. Hope things will keep improving,” said the Brazilian.

Earlier, she used to keep the racquet in her armpit and toss the ball with the left-hand, but had to dispense with the method, as it was very uncomfortable for her. The way Bruna tosses up the ball to serve, holding both the racquet and the ball in her left hand, was a touching sight. “It took two months of real tough training to master this art and I am grateful to my first coach Alexandre Ghizi,” she said.

Lincon Yasuda, her coach, is confident of Bruna going places. “She has the game and the will power to take any load of training,” he said.

Bruna has already started dreaming big: she wants to win a gold medal at the Paralympics and represent Brazil in the 2016 Rio Olympics. “There is no better feeling than to represent your country in the Olympics,” she said.

Hailing from the land of soccer wizards, Bruna’s passion for football is understandable. She is a big fan of Kaka. “Oh! I love watching him score all those goals,” she said of her idol.