Ma Long defended his Olympic title at Tokyo 2020 by beating his teammate and highest ranked player Fan Zhendong. | Photo credit: AP
By Ashwin Subramanian
Ma Long consolidated his position as the GOAT of table tennis. Defending his men’s singles title at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, he became the first athlete to win 2 gold medals in singles. He won the title in a characteristic dominant performance, beating compatriot and world No.1 fan Zhengdong by a margin of 4-2.
While this result came as no surprise to anyone, a lot has changed since Ma Long won her first gold medal at the Rio Olympics. In 2018, he suffered a career-threatening knee injury, as well as wrist and back problems. This forced him to withdraw from several high-profile World Tour events and the prestigious year-end Grand Final. He did not participate in any international event for more than 5 months.
In fact, Liu Guoliang, president of the Chinese Table Tennis Association and former head coach of the national team, had publicly admitted that Ma’s injury was worse than initially thought. He even said his participation in the 2019 World Championships in Budapest and the Tokyo Olympics was in serious doubt. Many had started to wonder if he would ever return to the top level.
But ‘The Dragon’, true to its nickname, made a comeback at the 2019 World Championships. He won a record 3rd consecutive world title, spitting fire and smoldering his opponents. This has put to rest question marks about his future and silenced his skeptics for good.
Now what makes this return to form even more interesting are the changes Ma made to her game after her injury. He gave up his full game, attacking the forehand in favor of a relatively reserved style, using his backhand much more. He also started using passive hits like pushing, backhand and blocking for better spin. He even started pushing and blocking bullets he allegedly attacked before. He recognized his technical superiority and started using those shots to dictate rallies and create opportunities so he could unleash his forehand like a sucker kick. Sure, he must have played longer rallies than before, but these changes helped him preserve his knee and make up for the loss of movement. Injury handicaps forced him to become a smarter operator and a boy, he did so convincingly. He has become a complete player.
Erasing years of muscle memory and game plans and coming up with new technical and tactical changes is by no means an easy task. Especially after an injury. It takes an incredible amount of mental resilience. To be able to do that and come back in such a record fashion to win in Tokyo at 32 is truly an incredible achievement. This is what makes ‘The Dragon’ the undisputed GOAT. And he’s here to stay.
(The author is a national level table tennis player who has represented the state of Maharashtra at national championships in various age categories including men. He has also represented India in international tournaments at the national level. age groups. He has also represented Mumbai University in the All India University Championships and is a medalist)