Table tennis maestro Ma Long was surprisingly beaten in the final of the China Open last week, dashing his chances of a fifth successive title. Gruffudd Owen profiles five players around the world who could be the new kings of the sport
Where else to begin than with the player who toppled Ma Long in Chengdu? Fan Zhendong’s 4-0 demolition of Ma Long in the final was a powerful statement of intent from a serious talent tipped to be his country’s next no. 1 player. The 19-year-old prodigy from Guangzhou had previously shown his promise by winning the 2012 World Junior Table Tennis Championships at the age of 15, and clinched his first Pro Tour title a year later in Poland. He has since shot up the rankings to no. 2 in the world, and while his exclusion at the Rio Olympics may have raised eyebrows, it is believed that the Chinese team was waiting to unleash him at the Tokyo Games in four years’ time.
Many view Sweden’s Jan-Ove Waldner as the greatest table tennis player of all time but, since his dominance during the 1980s and 1990s, his countrymen have had little to cheer about in the sport. That may soon change, however, with the emergence of 19-year-old Anton Kallberg. The teenager impressed greatly at the 2015 Swedish Open, progressing as far as the quarter-finals where he was edged out by Fan Zhendong. Can he establish himself as Waldner’s heir?
While most of the world’s top table tennis players hail from the traditional titans of the sport – China, Japan, South Korea, Germany – there are exciting prospects to be found in the less decorated nations too. Sam Walker, 21, represented Great Britain in Rio, although he has for the past five years been living in Germany, where he plays for ASV Grünwettersbach. After earning a silver medal in the men’s team event at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, he then helped his country to a highly commendable bronze medal at the World Team Championships earlier this year. In Rio, his stock rose even higher with an impressive win over top 20 player Simon Gauzy of France.
For a man who has not yet turned 22, it is easy to see why there is so much hype surrounding the Japanese sensation Koki Niwa. He has competed in two Olympic Games, beating Ma Long himself to qualify for London 2012 and winning a silver medal in Rio this summer. A Youth Olympic Games gold medallist in 2010, the nation’s hopes of table tennis glory will rest largely on his shoulders when Japan hosts the Olympics in 2020 – although a certain compatriot of Niwa’s may beg to differ…
The final player to appear in this list makes the others seem like battle-hardened veterans in comparison. Aged just 13, Japanese player Tomokazu Harimoto has already risen as high as 62nd in the world rankings and became the youngest person ever to win a World Tour under-21 event with victory in the Japan Open in June. He has set himself the target of winning gold at the Tokyo Games in 2020; if the young teen continues to progress at his current rate, his dream might just come true.