Teenage triumphs signal new era in table tennis

Fan Zhendong enhances his reputation as a rising star and Miu Hirano announces her arrival on the big stage in spectacular fashion at the Men’s and Women’s World Cup. Gruffudd Owen reports...

There are signs that a new era of table tennis has dawned following two thrilling tournaments in the Liebherr 2016 Men’s World Cup and the Seamaster 2016 Women’s World Cup in October.

In the German city of Saarbrücken, Fan Zhendong served an emphatic reminder of his status as a potential superstar in the sport by landing the first major title of his career, battling through five games to dispatch Chinese compatriot Xu Xin in a closely-contested final. 

The milestone victory for the 19-year-old comes just one month after his China Open win over world no. 1 Ma Long – who pulled out of the World Cup due to a busy schedule – and signals a real statement of intent from a youngster who is determined to make it to the very top of the game, having missed out on a place in the Chinese men’s table tennis team at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

“My next goal is to continue improving and enhancing my level,” Zhendong, who lost in the 2015 final to Ma Long, told the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) in the aftermath of his win in Germany.

“I hope that I can be the world’s no. 1 and then win the World Championships and the Olympic Games. I hope that I can be the greatest player in the world.”

As for the women’s edition – held a week later in Philadelphia, USA – another teenager secured what was arguably an even more momentous victory.

At just 16 years old, Japanese starlet Miu Hirano strolled past Cheng-I-Ching of Chinese Taipei in straight games to become not only the youngest-ever winner of the Women’s World Cup, but also the first-ever non-Chinese player to win the competition.  

The result may ultimately be seen as a watershed moment for Japan and their lofty ambitions in the sport. Such an impressive result bodes well for a country aiming to launch a serious challenge to Chinese hegemony at their home Olympic Games in Tokyo in four years’ time.

As for Hirano, however, her mind is focused solely on what to do with the earnings gained from this enormous achievement.

“I’m very happy with the victory. It all feels like a dream to me,” she told the ITTF.

“With the $45,000 prize money, I’m going to do some shopping for my family, coaches and friends.”