Calm­ing in­flu­ence

Top ta­ble ten­nis player eases Olympic fears with al­co­hol

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE -

Ma Long has added a new twist to his Rio 2016 train­ing regime as he tries to over­come anx­i­ety: booze.

The world’s top ta­ble ten­nis player, who is one of China’s safest bets for a gold medal, has long dom­i­nated the world rank­ings — but Ma failed to qual­ify for the sin­gles com­pe­ti­tion at the London 2012 Olympics.

He fi­nally won the world cham­pi­onship last year on his fifth at­tempt, rais­ing ques­tions about his men­tal re­silience.

The lanky, mus­cu­lar 27-year-old from the north­east­ern prov­ince of Liaon­ing lacks noth­ing when it comes to tech­ni­cal skills and is renowned for his scorch­ing serve and de­cep­tive spin.

But his strug­gles with nerves un­der pres­sure have driven China’s chief ta­ble ten­nis coach Liu Guo­liang to fo­cus in­stead on teach­ing his pro­tege how to re­lax.

“For Ma Long, two things are most im­por­tant,” Liu said on the week­end.

“One is that when the pres­sure gets very high, to make him go to a bar and drink some al­co­hol. The other is to dis­tract him with con­ver­sa­tion.”

Mod­er­a­tion in drink­ing was key, Liu said, but the goal was to get the ob­sessed player to “re­lax a bit, be­cause the de­mands he usu­ally puts on him­self are very harsh”.

Ma has been se­lected for both the sin­gles and team events in Rio, along­side com­pa­triot and London gold medal­ist Zhang Jike, whom he will at­tempt to pre­vent from be­com­ing the first man to de­fend an Olympic ta­ble ten­nis sin­gles ti­tle.

“I think Ma Long is the fa­vorite to take first prize at the Olympics,” Liu said.

“Now we just have to pay at­ten­tion to his thought pat­terns and re­lease his men­tal stress.”

Some ob­servers say Ma is the best in the his­tory of the game, more pow­er­ful and faster than the leg­endary Swedish player Jan-Ove Wald­ner, rais­ing ex­pec­ta­tions on the star, for whom Olympic gold is the only ma­jor sin­gles ti­tle he has not won.

“I have to throw off the bur­den and the pres­sure,” Ma said. “That’s the only way I’ll get the ti­tle this time.”

In Rio, mil­lions of Chi­nese eyes will be fix­ated on Ma, a celebrity in a coun­try where ta­ble ten­nis is a source of na­tional pride.

In the past, in a coun­try that lacked top-class fa­cil­i­ties for other sports, young Chi­nese who wanted to play some­thing had few op­tions apart from ta­ble ten­nis.

For decades China has been the world’s top breed­ing ground for ta­ble ten­nis tal­ent and has won 24 gold medals at the seven Olympics since the sport was added at Seoul 1988.

“Ping-pong is re­ally seen as China’s na­tional ball sport,” said Liu. “The key is the pas­sion and pop­u­lar­ity of the game. Other coun­tries haven’t matched us on that point.”

At the London Games in 2012, China sealed its sec­ond con­sec­u­tive sweep of all four golds.

The top-ranked four male play­ers in the world are all Chi­nese, and in Rio Ma’s stiffest com­peti­tor will likely be his com­pa­triot Zhang.

“The Olympics are a stage for up­sets,” Ma said.

“But in the end I hope I can win the fight.”

World No 1 Ma Long will lead China’s charge for a golden har­vest in ta­ble ten­nis at Rio.

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