The last 12 months were a huge success for Chinese table tennis – but can Ma Long and his teammates maintain their primacy over the rest of the world? Will Jones looks ahead to 2017
No two ways about it – China continues to rule the table tennis roost. The powerhouse nation swept the board at Rio 2016 with four Olympic gold medals, their fifth clean sweep in the last six Olympic Games. China ended 2016 occupying the top four positions in both the men’s and women’s singles world rankings, leaving every other country trailing in its wake.
The achievements of the national table tennis team were recognised in Beijing last month at the China Top 10 Benefiting Laureus Sports for Good Awards. Men’s Olympic champion, ITTF World Tour Grand Finals winner and current world No. 1 Ma Long was crowned Athlete of the Year, while Zhang Jike, the man he beat in the Olympic final, won the prize for the Most Popular Male Athlete.
Last but by no means least, Liu Guoliang picked up a special Outstanding Achievement Award. Widely regarded as one of the greatest players in the sport’s history despite retiring at just 26, Liu has coached the Chinese men’s team through a decade of unfettered supremacy, and the prize was appropriate recognition for his role in guiding the team through their immaculate Olympic year.
Can China continue its dominance of the sport? Much will depend on whether Liu stays with the team, amid rumours that he may soon step aside from his role as head coach. However, as of January 2017, he remains in charge – and more Chinese victories at the world’s big events look assured.
Whoever leads the team through 2017 will have to contend with a new format on the ITTF World Tour. Ma Long and women’s world No. 2 Liu Shiwen look set to defend their titles in Doha at February’s Qatar Open, the first of six top-tier World Tour Platinum events in 2017. At the end of the year, the top-performing World Tour players will then be invited to compete in December’s prestigious Grand Finals.
World No. 1 since March 2015, Ma Long will be hoping for another year at the top, though Fan Zhendong and Xu Xin will try to challenge for the top spot. Women’s Olympic champion Ding Ning will also be planning for more of the same in 2017, with Liu Shiwen among those snapping at her heels. Can anyone challenge the Chinese? Only time will tell, but you’d have to be very brave to bet against another year of dominance.