As Indian table tennis players head into the preliminaries and first rounds at Rio, we take a look at the world’s greatest paddlers of all time. From surviving a world war to completing 30 year long careers with a bang; from taking care of ill parents while working and jugggling an international career to making opponents ritually fear a particular backhand strike – the most popular racket game in the world has these legends to thank for its popularity.
Country: ChinaHighest level of competition: Olympics (2012, 2016)
Since March of 2015, Ma Long has been comfortably nestled in the number one position of the world’s table tennis rankings. This makes him the longest holder of the rank as he goes into the Rio Olympics.
The reigning world champion, when he was 18 years old, Ma competed at the 2006 World Team Championship at Bremen and became the youngest world champion. The 27-year-old has no dearth of medals, including at gold at from the 2012 London Olympics’ team event.
If he wins gold at Rio, the backhand looper and chop blocker will complete an impressive series of wins in every table tennis competition possible, ranging from the smallest domestic competitions to the IITF World Tour to the Championships.
Country: JapanHighest level of competition: World Championships
A player with humble beginnings which had him taking care of an ailing father, not only did Ogimura win the men’s World Championships – both in singles and doubles – 12 times starting from 1954, he contributed to the sport as one of the lone Japanese figures excelling in it.
He spearheaded one of Japan’s brief bursts into table tennis that resulted in the country winning five team championship medal at the time.
A former president of the IITF, a former Japanese Olympic Committee executive and also a vice president of the Japan Table Tennis Association, Ogimura campaigned relentlessly for a better reception of table tennis in Japan. He died in 1994.
Country: ChinaHighest level of competition: Olympics (1996, 2000; as coach 2008, 2016)
The second man in the history of table tennis to win a career grand slam of three majors (Olympic Gold, World Cup, World Championships), Liu Guoliang is credited with the game-changing introduction of the backhand reverse top spin.
Even after his retirement, Liu would continue the legacy of his on-court ferocity by taking the Chinese men’s team to Olympic gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics as their coach.The head coach of the contingent of male table tennis players who are in Rio for the Olympics, the 40-year-old’s easy acceptance of regulations and affable advices to players – including asking one to drink alcohol when under pressure – make him one of the most loved figures in TT.
Country: ChinaHighest level of competition: Olympics (2012 Champion)
The 2012 London Olympics women’s champion is the woman to beat in contemporary table tennis. At 28-years-old, Li is already a veteran of the sport, with her right-handed shakehand grip signifying tell-tale power and her backhand creating challenging angles for opponents.
Inducted in the International Table Tennis Federation’s Hall of Fame in 2013, Li’s considerable stash of medals make her a worthy inheritor of China’s position of power when it comes to ping pong. Since August of 2007, Li has never fallen below the eighth position in the world rankings.
The world number six promises a great show at Rio, to which she qualified with ease over the period of 25 short minutes.
Through injury concerns, winning of world titles and relinquishing those titles, Li has maintained a super human calm. Although her critics allege that since the Paris World Championship defeat to Liu Shiwen in 2015, Li’s career has been on the ebb, she is still one of the greatest force and the quietest storm to have happened to table tennis.
Country: DenmarkHighest level of competition: Olympics (2004)
One of the most formidable all-rounders in table tennis, Danish paddler Michael Maze is a left-handed enigma who has flummoxed many an opponent with his powerful defensive lobbing. Considered a rare left-handed talent, Maze’s career kickstarted when he won both the singles and the doubles at the European Juniors Championships in 1999.
Beaten in the 2012 London Olympics’ men’s singles quarters by Dmitrij Ovtcharov, Maze is still a more iconic player than Ovtcharov, simply because of the possibilities he has unfurled in the game, through his stint in it.
Standing as far as possible from the TT table, Maze was a picture of flamboyance and focus – the kind the game had not seen before. The 34-year-old announced his retirement earlier this year.
Country: RomaniaHighest level of competition: World Championships
In every game there are the path-breakers and then there are those who have lived the game, moulded it and through their lives, have made it possible for others like them to excel in it. One such woman was Angelica Rozeanu, who won the Romanian National Championship in 1936 and then went on to live through the World War II and a cross-continental move to Israel after which she emerged on the other side with a six-year long winning streak at the World Championships from 1950 onwards.
As a Jew, Rozeanu was feared persecution during the years of the War, let alone enter a gymnasium to train.
In 1995, Rozeanu, who has never played in the Olympic games was inducted into the IITF Hall of Fame. She died in 2006. Her 17 World titles are an achievement quite like any other.
Country: ChinaHighest level of competition: Olympics (2004, 2008)
The world’s number one ranked table tennis player from 2003 to 2009 (with the exception of two months in 2008), Zhang Yining’s career began with a firecracker in 1997 when she beat all known world champions competing at China’s Eighth National Games. Over the years, the 34-year-old from Beijing became quite simply the greatest talent to have competed in women’s table tennis.
A fact that Zhang’s medal tally proves time and again. With 10 World Championship wins, four World Cup golds and four Olympic gold medals, Zhang not only defended her position through six years of undefeated games, but she also retired as a reigning champion, in an unextinguished blaze of glory.Trained by Li Sun, who was also Li Xiaoxia’s trainer, Zhang’s decision to quit in 2009, left a vacuum in Chinese women’s tennis that existed for a while before Li could step in to decisively fill it.
Country: South KoreaHighest level of competition: Olympics (1988, 1992)
The story of a North and South Korean united front beating the invincible Chinese team at the 1991 World Championships is one that is yet to be forgotten by followers of the sport all over the world. At the centre of the driving force behind that iconic victory (which in addition to all the newspaper articles, even has a film made in its honour) is the now South Korean national women’s team coach Hyun Jung-hwa.
The only Korean table tennis player to have won the Grand Slam, the Hall of Fame inductee’s finest moment jostles between the above victory and the gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. In 1989, Paraguay honoured her by placing her on their postage stamp!
Country: ChinaHighest level of competition: Olympics (2012, 2016)
A sweeping tour de force in present day table tennis, Zhang Jike is the reigning singles and doubles Olympic champion.
At 28-years-old, Zhang has already achieved a career grand slam. Named after the Brazilian footballing legend Zico, Jike will be travelling to Rio with hopes of defending his title.
His swift changes in action and style, depending upon the styles used by his opponents, has given him a protection of unpredictability that he used to his advantage to beat heavyweight rivals like Ma Long or Fan Zhendong. He is a pioneer of the on-table backhand flick – a move which he has perfected and which often wins matches for him.
Country: SwedenHighest level of competition: Olympics (1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004)
In 1980, at his very first competition – the Shanghai Open – a 15-year-old Waldner lost most of his matches. But in a matter of two years he had returned to become the youngest European Championship finalist of all time at the age of 16.
At the 1992 Olympics, Waldner became the only Swede to win a gold medal. But his affair with gold had only just begun. Over a career spanning 30 years, Waldner has not only managed to become one of the legendary figures to define world table tennis, but he has also introduced to his spectators the concept of playing the beautiful game.
Not only is he an almost effortless reader of positions, to watch him play is to watch a maestro execute a piece of artistic wonder. But more than an exhaustive list of his many medals or the recognition of the fact that he has completed a career Grand Slam in the sport, Waldner’s greatness can be measured by the simple fact that the Chinese who have for years maintained a pole position in the game of TT, have nicknamed him Chang Qing Shu, or Evergreen Tree.
An immortal sportsman, Waldner announced his retirement at the age of 50 from the game on February 11, 2016.