If you follow the ITTF World Tour, or international table tennis in general, you’ll know all about Fan Zhendong. For those that don’t here’s a very quick overview…
Fan Zhendong appeared pretty much out of the blue in 2012 as a fifteen year old. He won the Volkswagen World Junior Table Tennis Championships in Hyderabad beating players three years older than himself.
By January 2013 he had a senior world ranking of #41, a junior ranking of #1 (as an U16), and was fast being pointed out as the future of Chinese table tennis.
However, his major breakthrough came just a few days ago, and in quick succession. On 10th November he won the Polish Open, beating team mate Zhou Yu in the final and Kenta Matsudaira in the semis. The Polish Open had quite a weak entry though with Fan Zhendong being the 2nd seed. Then on the 17th November, seeded 5th, he won the German Open, beating legends such as Zhang Jike (4-2), Vladimir Sansonov (4-2), and Dimitrij Ovtcharov (4-1).
Let’s pause for a second… this kid is 16 years old!
This must surely be one of the best sporting performances from a 16 year old athlete, ever. He’s currently ranked 11th in the world but he’s certain to shoot up when the new list comes out in December. I can’t wait to see how high he gets.
If you’d like to watch his performances in the finals of these world tours I’ve put the YouTube videos below…
Fan Zhendong’s recent performances have sparked a pretty interesting debate over on TableTennisDaily.
Michal_Z posted this message…
I just watched the final of German open, which is possibly the most prestigious Pro Tour tournament, and everyone was pretty much destroyed by a 16 year old kid! I am really disgusted at this…
I am sorry for Fan Zhendong fans, but this is just sick. How can European players (or lets say non Chinese players) be motivated, or even think about winning a tournament, when they get their ass kicked by a 16 year old?! That’s just no good for the competition.
Fan Zhendong played some really amazing table tennis and I hated it, because of his age. If he can do this at 16 years old, that means, for the next 10 years, I really don’t see any chance for any non Chinese player to even think of becoming a world champion.
And I have to admit I see his point…
The table tennis world has been applauding the efforts of Dimitrij Ovtcharov, since he took the bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympics. We’ve been encouraged to see a young(ish) European players make a genuine effort to take on the Chinese and climb the rankings. To see him beaten by a Chinese player nine years his junior is a little disheartening, to say the least.
The real issue
The real issue here isn’t Fan Zhendong. He just happens to be the latest in a long line of fantastic, young Chinese table tennis players.
The real issue isn’t even that of China’s complete dominance over table tennis during the past several decades. That is old territory. I wrote a post entitled Why is China So Good at Table Tennis over a year ago, when I’d first started this blog. We know China are currently unbeatable.
The real issue is what are we going to do about it?
Either we look for ways to hamper the Chinese National Table Tennis Team by changing the rules of our sport (yet again) or putting limits on how many of their players are able to enter events (like they did in the London 2012 Olympics), or we accept it and focus on trying to catch them up.
As unrealistic as it seems to choose to try and catch up the Chinese, I believe this is our only option!
You see the problem with limiting Chinese players from entering events is that then you end up with a situation where people are saying (and players are thinking), “Well it might have been a different result if China had been able to put out a full squad.”
I don’t mean to take anything away from Dimitrij Ovtcharov and his bronze medal at the Olympic but would he be the bronze medalist if three Chinese players had been allowed to enter the men’s singles event (as they have done in previous years)?
The answer is, we’ll never know. But wouldn’t that bronze medal feel so much better to Dima if he’d taken on and beaten a Chinese player to get it, instead of Michael Maze?
We could try and change the rules again. Restrict certain glues/rubbers/bats. Change the ball. Increase the height of the net.
The problem with this, though, is that all the players have to change and it’s usually the Chinese National Team, with their huge budget and hundreds of members of support staff/sport scientists, that discover the best way to adapt, first. Therefore, rule changes actually end up giving the Chinese yet another advantage over the rest of the players.
I like this quote from Coach John Wooden…
“No whining, no complaining, no excuses!”
Can we ever beat them?
So our only option is to swallow our pride, grit our teeth, and keep going out there and facing their sixteen year olds and giving it everything we’ve got.
Can we catch them up? Well, it’s not going to be easy but what other option do we have. We better get started right away!
I believe that there is one important factor on our side, in this modern world, and that is the growing Chinese middle-class.
One of the points that is always brought up is that the Chinese train the kids too hard, they specialize too young and rob them of their childhood. We can’t get away with that kind of behaviour in the West and therefore have no chance competing.
In my mind the main reason China have succeed in international table tennis for so long is that so many Chinese parents have been happy to let their ten year old children pretty much drop out of school and play table tennis full-time. Their logic for this choice is that they give their child a small chance to make something of themselves and escape a life of poverty.
The problem is that I doubt this logic makes much sense in the minds of the 21st century Chinese parent. Sure, if their child plays table tennis for 7 hours a day, every day, from the age of 5 they might make it as a professional but then again for every Fan Zhendong there must be hundreds if not thousands of failures. Kids that put everything into their table tennis but didn’t make it and are left with nothing.
As China continues to develop economically, I can see more and more parents deciding that it just doesn’t make sense, from an individual point of view, to focus 100% on table tennis. That will leave China is a similar situation to all the other European countries, where table tennis players want to at least finish school up to the age of 16 or 18 before going full-time. And that will force China into incorporating more study into their junior players timetables, and therefore, less table tennis.
This, in my eyes, is the light at the end of the tunnel for table tennis and the reason that I believe Europe can once again dominate and overtake the Chinese. It’s not going to be easy but surely this is our chance!