Fresh from his record-breaking exploits in Rio, Ma Long will be seeking a fifth consecutive China Open title when the tournament begins later this week. Gruffudd Owen considers if the men’s table tennis world no.1 can dominate the field once again
It was in Pavilion 3 of the Riocentro one month ago that Ma Long assured his position among the all-time table tennis greats.
A majestic 4-0 romp against countryman Zhang Jike earned the Chinese sensation and world no. 1 a first Olympic table tennis singles gold medal which, along with his previous triumphs in the World Championships and the World Cup, made him only the fifth male player to seal a career Grand Slam.
The accolades do not end here, however. Ma Long’s Rio tour de force saw him become the fastest-ever man to accomplish the ‘Full House’ (the ITTF World Tour Grand Finals and the three Grand Slam titles, in just 467 days), the first-ever man to hold all four ‘Full House’ titles at the same time, as well as the fastest-ever man to win every singles title in the game (five years, eight months and 23 days).
In short, Ma Long has nothing left to prove in table tennis. But as is typical of the world’s greatest player, he is already eager for yet more success – starting with the China Open in Chengdu.
The prestigious event was first held in 1988 and has been ever-present on the World Tour calendar since the inception of the ITTF’s elite series in 1996.
And as if the list of records to be broken hadn’t already been exhausted, Ma Long – winner of the last four China Open titles, and a six-time champion overall – can surpass Wang Liqin as the most successful men’s singles players in the history of the competition with a seventh success.
However, the prospect of further record-breaking feats will be nothing more than an afterthought for the tournament’s top seed. After all, the China Open comes at a crucial period in the season. It marks the first time that the game’s top players will have competed since the Olympic Games; more importantly, it is the sixth and final Super Series tournament before the Grand Finals take place in Qatar in December.
Ma Long has already guaranteed a berth at the season finale following victories in both the German and Qatari Super Series events earlier in the year.
But he has failed to win the past two tournaments in Japan and South Korea; a convincing performance in Chengdu would therefore serve as an ideal way to begin preparing for Doha.
And it seems that Ma Long has fully acknowledged the importance of the China Open in this regard. Not satisfied with chasing yet another singles crown, his unabating drive is such that he has also decided to enter the doubles competition in Chengdu alongside Zhang Jike.
More time at the table means more chances to improve his already near-perfect game – a logic that can only work in Ma Long's favour with the Grand Finals around the corner.
Of course, the roster of competitors at the China Open is expected to be strong, with most of the world’s top stars set to participate. But it will take an immense effort to prevent a fifth consecutive triumph for Ma Long – the undisputed master of the modern-day game.
The 2016 ITTF China Open runs from 14-18 September in Chengdu.