Rio 2016: Table tennis ones to watch

China has been dominant in table tennis since the sport debuted at the 1988 Olympics – winning 24 of 28 gold medals. As Rio 2016 welcomes arguably the strongest Chinese squad ever assembled, Sam Price profiles the contenders

Defending champion

Zhang Jike was a dominant champion at London 2012, and the 28-year-old is back for more despite slipping to fourth in the world rankings in the interim. Named after Brazilian footballing legend Zico, Zhang is renowned for his aggressive style and mental fortitude, and should he triumph in Rio he would become the first male table tennis player to defend his individual title successfully. Competition looks hotter this time, but Zhang has one thing that his rivals don’t – an Olympic singles gold medal.

Key contender

The man most likely to block Zhang’s path to gold is Ma Long, who didn’t play in the singles competition in London but has since risen to the top of the world rankings – and stayed there. He was unstoppable in 2015, winning the World Championships, World Cup and ITTF World Tour Grand Finals, and Olympic gold would make him the fifth man to complete the career Grand Slam. A two-winged looper with arguably the best forehand topspin in history, Ma’s style provides an interesting counterpoint to Zhang and a final between the two could be an Olympic classic.

Tried and tested

Like Zhang Jike, Li Xiaoxia is pursuing a ‘double double’ in Rio, having won gold medals in the individual and team events at London 2012. But like Zhang, she has since slipped in the rankings to become the fourth-ranked Chinese player in world table tennis. However, a proven Olympic track record is the most important criteria to the Chinese selectors, which means that while Li and Ding Ning – who won individual silver in London – will occupy China’s two places in the singles event, world number one Liu Shiwen has to settle for a place in the team event.

Rest of the world

Can anyone stop China? It seems unlikely, but the table tennis powerhouse can only win two of the three medals in the singles competitions and one in each team event, so there are still plenty of medals to be earned. Germany’s Dimitrij Ovtcharov is a three-time Olympic medallist and enters the Games in good form, while Brazil will have one of their own to cheer as Hugo Calderano bids to make the step-up from the Youth Olympic Games, where he won bronze in 2014. In the women’s events, Japan has three players inside the world’s top 10 and should make the podium, while 19-year-old Hong Kong starlet Doo Hoi-kem – another Youth Olympic Games graduate – can make her presence felt after a stunning victory over Liu Shiwen earlier this year.