PRC demolishes Belgium for men’s gold in table tennis

OSAKA, Reuters

Mainland China bagged the men’s world team table tennis championship on Sunday, crushing Belgium 3-0 for a seventh title in 11 tournaments. The victory comes a day after the women demolished North Korea 3-0 to grab the gold medal and brings China a step closer to its goal of sweeping all seven of the championship’s top prizes. The favourites were confident enough to leave world number one Wang Liqin on the bench and give second-ranked Kong Linghui a shot at redemption after his disappointing performance in the semifinal against South Korea. The paddler known in China as “Cool Boy” for his love of trendy clothes dropped both his games on Saturday, a rueful memory he said he would take to his grave. Defeat against the Belgians, who slipped into the final with a surprise win over defending champions Sweden, might well have proved an unbearable blow. China had never lost to the European team in the six times they had met. But Kong kept his cool, overpowering Martin Bratanov, ranked 105, to secure a place at the top of the podium. The plucky Belgians put up a brave fight but found themselves outclassed technically and outsmarted strategically. Number three Ma Lin shrugged off a shaky start against Belgium’s Jean-Michel Saive, ranked 12, simply shifting gear to take the the opening rubber 18-21 21-7 21-15. Liu Guozheng continued the onslaught, making light work of Saive’s 47th-ranked brother, Philippe. That left Kong to polish off the match with a 21-18 21-19 win. While China’s triumph had an air of inevitability, the journey to the title was not always the romp many had expected. On Saturday, the team came agonisingly close to being knocked out by South Korea, surviving seven match points in a showdown coach Li Xiaodong described as the most nerve-wracking of his career.

The contest proved that packing a team with the world’s best players is no guarantee of tournament success. Mainland China learned that lesson last year in Kuala Lumpur, when a technically brilliant squad buckled in the final, losing 3-2 to Sweden.

At the time, head coach Cai Zhenhua solemnly vowed to regain the crown in Osaka. To the delight of China’s drum-beating supporters, he was true to his word.

“I’m delighted that we’ve got the title back from Sweden,” he said after the match.

While praising the Belgians, who seemed to thrive on their underdog status, the Chinese said victory against their old rivals might have tasted sweeter.

“Of course I wish we could have taken on Sweden, and I’m sorry they lost to Belgium,” Kong said. “I fear two of their major players won’t be playing in 2004, so I’ll miss the chance.”

He was apparently referring to all-time table tennis great Jan-Ove Waldner and veteran Jorgen Persson. Speculation has been rife that this could be their final team tournament.

Belgium took their defeat philosophically and said they were delighted to have the silver medal.

“If China wins, it’s normal,” said Belgian coach Wang Dayong. “But the Belgian team tried all the time. We lost. This is normal. It’s sport.”

Jean-Michel Saive said he was pleased to have denied Ma Lin the first game, the only one China lost.

“Against China, it’s important that you lead,” he said. “If you’re always behind then they get more and more confident and more and more free.”