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Ready to seize their golden opportunity

0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China Daily, July 16, 2021
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China's world No 1 Fan Zhendong is targeting gold in the men's singles in Tokyo. The 24-year-old will be making his Olympic debut at the Games, where the action on the table starts on July 24. [Photo/Xinhua]

As the world's undisputed table tennis powerhouse, Team China has made no secret of its desire to sweep all five gold medals on offer at the Tokyo Olympics.

Under normal circumstances, that would be no mean feat. However, the addition of what the Chinese team has described as "extremely difficult" COVID-19 health and safety regulations has made that task even harder to accomplish.

With training camp and warm-up matches wrapping up in Weihai, Shandong province last weekend, the Chinese squad is currently gathering in Beijing to make its final preparations for the unprecedented challenges that await in Japan.

"The buildup to these Olympic Games has actually been extremely difficult. There have been so many challenges and problems. And there will likely be more difficulties that are beyond our expectation in Tokyo," Chinese Table Tennis Association (CTTA) president Liu Guoliang told China Central Television on Tuesday.

"We didn't expect some of the epidemic rules that have been announced. For example, players will not be allowed to wipe the game table with their hands, or blow on the ball. So what we need to do now is let our athletes adjust to these changes and make sure they will not be distracted by stuff like this.

"We need to allow the athletes to fight back when they encounter unexpected obstacles. The most difficult part of the Olympics for table tennis players is actually the first two rounds, when they face fierce battles and possible elimination."

Grand Slam winner Ma Long leads the men's team, along with world No 1 Fan Zhendong and doubles specialist Xu Xin, currently ranked No 2 in singles.

A similarly strong women's team features world No 1 Chen Meng, third-ranked Sun Yingsha, and reigning singles world champion Liu Shiwen.

China has collected 28 out of the 32 gold medals on offer since the sport debuted at the Games in 1988, including three straight clean sweeps since the 2008 Games. Repeating the feat by claiming all five golds in Tokyo, however, will be far from easy.

Strong rivals

With home advantage on their side, Japan's men's world No 4 Tomokazu Harimoto and women's world No 2 Mima Ito will provide stiff opposition for China.

The debut of mixed doubles at the Games presents an extra element of uncertainty. Liu and Xu currently sit third in the rankings behind Japanese pair Ito and Jun Mizutani, and the top-ranked Chinese Taipei duo, Cheng I-ching and Lin Yun-ju.

"Mixed doubles is about cooperation. I used to just care about my own pace, but that's not a good tactic in mixed doubles. Through our training, I've been changing my mindset," Liu told CCTV.

"The Olympics are upon us now, and I feel I'm ready. At this stage, we should simply stay safe, and wait for the start of the Games."

CTTA president Liu-a two-time Olympic champion during his legendary playing career-echoed those sentiments, saying:"The team is ready, and we have been preparing for this for five years, and we're just waiting to shine in Tokyo.

"Everyone is confident and in a good frame of mind. So we just have to help them adjust their pace and mentality to ease the pressure a little and let them enjoy the Olympics."

Embrace the pressure

Despite not lacking for world titles, the 27-year-old Chen and 20-year-old Sun will be making their Olympic debuts in Tokyo. Liu believes the two are well-equipped to cope with the weight of expectation on their shoulders.

"I just want to say you are not a champion yet, so if the team has selected you, don't think too much and simply give all you have in the matches," Liu told China's gold-medal hopefuls. "If you feel a lot of pressure, then why didn't we select the veterans to play?"

Chen is taking that advice on board, and believes she has matured a lot in recent years.

"This is my first Olympics, and the Tokyo Games are really special. All athletes can be nervous, so the most important thing is how to handle it. At first, I had worries and concerns, but these feeling were also mixed with excitement and expectation," said Chen.

"This is how I feel about the Olympics, it's complicated. So I need to stay calm and try hard in every training session. Now I'm trying to treat the Olympics as just another championship. All I need to do is to play my own game. I will just play point by point. Overthinking is not good for me.

"Throughout the preparation, there have been all kinds of pressures. My way of coping is to talk things through, and try not to hide it in my heart. I just communicate with coaches and friends."

Fan fired up

Considering his already bulging trophy cabinet, it also seems strange to think that top-ranked Fan is making his Olympic debut. However, he has not been showing any sign of nerves.

"Everyone has the desire to succeed, and the Olympics are the biggest platform for us to show the best of ourselves. So I hope I can produce good performances to display my skills. However, we cannot let the pressure affect us and make us scared. We should show our desire and prove ourselves," said the 24-year-old world champion.

"I have never competed at any Olympics, and I think there are two sides to this coin. Because I have never been there, and I don't know what it's like, I might be fearless. But, on the other hand, because I'm not that experienced, there could be details at the Olympics that I don't know about. So I need to maintain good communication with the team leader and coaches, who all have Olympic experience."

For veteran Ma, Tokyo will very likely be his last Olympics. The three-time Olympic gold medalist and reigning men's singles champion admitted that the postponement of the Tokyo Games made his preparations extra tough.

"In the first half of 2020, we just kept training behind closed doors at the same place, and at that time we did not know how the pandemic would pan out, and all the matches were canceled," said the 32-year-old.

"When competitions returned, we had new targets. As long as there are chances, we will try our best. It's not about just testing our previous training, it's also about being more focused on the matches."

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