A Stepping Stone

Ian Marshall (2003)

‘Four Chinese again’, is the comment I hear in the background. Once again a major international competition sees four female players from China contesting the latter stages, all three medals on offer will go to the same country.

It’s no good moaning, grumbling, complaining or feeling sorry for yourself; they deserve their success, they’ve worked hard and they’ve won; that’s why we compete, to try and win! So, if you can’t beat them then join them, or at least learn from them, they must be doing something right, they keep winning and the results from the World Junior Championships suggest that the dynasty is set to continue.

It was clear from their performances that nothing had been left to chance, attention had been paid to every detail of their game and they could expose weaknesses in their opponents that against other adversaries did not appear to exist. The European girls were impressive when the ball was long and they could topspin aggressively, the Asian girls, especially the Japanese were quicker close to the table; the Chinese were simply cruelly efficient in every aspect of their game. They were professional in the best meaning of the word, each player had her own style, her own strengths, but all were extremely consistent and when it came to the vital areas of serve, strong first attack and good receive of serve they were supreme.

Defeat for a Chinese female player against anyone from outside the country’s borders is a comparative rarity but it does happen. Kristin Silbereisen of Germany defeated Niu Jianfeng in the ITTF Pro Tour Danish Open whilst Midori Ito of Japan overcame Li Qian in the Girls’ Team Final at the World Junior Championships in Santiago. Splendid performances that no doubt gave the victors great confidence; however from defeat you should learn and it would seem that both Chinese girls learnt and learnt very quickly! A few weeks later Niu Jianfeng won the ITTF Pro Tour Grand Finals and four days after her reverse Li Qian was the Junior Girls’ Singles World Champion.

However, there is an adage that if you can do something once, you can do it again. The problem for many is believing that they can win, simply treating the opposition as a player and not someone from an extra-terrestrial planet, who has a range of skills not bestowed on earth’s mortals. Perhaps that’s why the Chinese girls win, they believe they can win and with some justification, they know that their technique will withstand the most intense pressure whilst their counterparts from foreign lands might well show signs of cracking as the intensity of the situation mounts.

Equally, they have their eyes focussed on the highest goals. I heard the comment in Santiago from some players and coaches: ‘That’s it, that’s her last match’. A strange comment perhaps but one that is heard all too often; the comment refers to the fact that it’s the player’s last match as a junior, the aim for too many girls seems to be to be selected for the national team as a junior and that is their ultimate goal. I can think of one country in particular where more girls have retired from table tennis after playing in their last European Youth Championships than have continued to play in the seniors, let alone progress to greater international heights.

However, the attitude expressed by Li Xiaoxia, Peng Luyang, Cao Zhen and Li Qian, the four members of the Chinese girls’ team in Santiago, was totally different. ‘It’s only the World Junior Championships’, explained Peng Luyang and Li Qian, the finalists in the Girls’ Singles. They showed a great deal of respect for the event and were modest when congratulated on their achievements but they saw their success merely as a stepping stone, they had climbed another rung on the ladder towards a golden goal at the very highest levels.

No doubt they will achieve success on the senior circuit, Cao Zhen has already an ITTF Pro Tour title to her name, the 2003 Malaysian Open; an achievement in itself but no doubt just a stepping stone towards a medal on the World and Olympic stage. The Chinese girls are a credit to the sport, well mannered, polite, gracious but determined and in every department of the game they are comfortable, competent and when necessary courageous.

They win and they deserve to win.