Wednesday 9 September 2015

Travelling with the North Koreans

4am on my last day in Chengdu and I had the unique pleasure of sharing a bus with the team from North Korea. They were full of smiles and very pleasant.

The bus ride was about 50 minutes and I parted with the team at the terminal and tried to find my checkin desk. It wasn't there, I was at the wrong terminal. An 800 metre walk ensued with all my luggage, down the road to the next terminal. I figured the bus driver must have dropped us all at the terminal that the DPRK team needed for their flight.

I checked in and made my way down to the gate lounge. 10 minutes later as I am sitting listening to music the North Korean team start walking in and a few of them see me again and point and smile and wave. Quite a surprise to see them. I did my best to ask them which gate they are leaving from, it was the one opposite mine according to one of the female players. So my flight was called and I got in line to get the bus out to the plane. As I was standing in line a couple of the players waved goodbye to me, they really seemed like very nice people.

Matt Hetherington (me) with the North Korean Team

I got on the bus and they were still in the terminal, I thought I guess I won't see them again for quite some time. So I made my way to my seat on the plane and I'm sitting there relaxing and watching people squeeze by. 5 minutes pass and I see one of the DPRK players. Again the whole team starts making their way past me, smiling and waving again. The whole thing has become kind of comical.

So we fly to Beijing and once we arrive I can be assured we will be parting ways for sure. At the baggage claim I ask them how long it will be to fly to Pyongyang for them. They tell me it is just over 2 hours. They ask how long my flight will be, I tell them 17 hours and facepalm. They laugh a little and then we part ways, this time for certain.

It was a unique experience to be closer to one of the most unique teams in the world, from a country that is really behind closed doors. They were an incredibly pleasant team and I hope I can meet them again in the near future.

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Could Ma Long Be The Favourite in Rio?

Ma Long is the current World Champion and recently cemented his position as the best player in the world at present by winning the 2015 ITTF World Tour China Open. He has also been ranked World Number 1 since the beginning of March and it's not hard to see why. Last year I wrote an article questioning whether Ma Long could achieve a Grand Slam in his career. Read More. Now I believe his career path is really set on track and I firmly believe he will be the champion in Rio De Janeiro.

Ma Long is 2015 World Champion
Overcoming the WTTC Barrier

Ma Long had the weight of the world on his shoulders, tipped as the dominant force on the World Tour and yet when it came to the World Championships he couldn't prevail, not once but on 3 occasions. At all 3 opportunities he was defeated by Wang Hao. Coincidentally once Wang Hao retired, Ma Long became the 2015 World Champion.

The big mental barrier we suggested was plaguing Ma Long was that he couldn't perform in major events. Now he has made a breakthrough and he is looking more dominant than ever. This poses the question, how good are his chances to win Rio?

Making the Cut

I would say Ma Long is probably leading the race to represent China at the Olympics at the moment. You could say Zhang Jike is top contender but with his recent slumps in form and lack of strong results, injuries and absence from the Super League it's possible that Ma Long is a little more set in place in the meantime. I think if Ma Long can continue the dominance he is showing now then he will most definitely be playing singles at the Olympic Games in 2016.

Do I see Xu Xin as a contender? Yes. But he is going to have to really put in the work if he wants to get there. ZJK has the advantage of being defending champion, Ma Long of being WR 1 and World Champion. Xu Xin doesn't have much to go on to obtain a top 2 spot and so it's going to be an uphill battle for him. I can see him being the third member in the team competition.

The Rio Lineup

Ma Long has a fairly solid record against foreign players and so given the chance I can see him making the final if he holds his current form (peaks at Rio) or improves on it. The question will really come down to which Chinese player he could end up facing for a gold medal, should that be the scenario. In an Olympic Final I think Ma Long would have the upper hand on all other national team players with the exception of Zhang Jike.

Seeing how badly Ma Long disposed of Fan Zhendong at the World Champs really reinforced in my mind that he has learnt how to rise to the occasion and step up that extra gear against his peers.

Of course with Zhang Jike you never know, their World Cup encounter proved quite a spectacle, including Zhang Jike's antics and absurd fine for his behaviour. The good news is we have never really seen Zhang Jike whitewash Ma Long in a match, but we have seen some pretty dominant displays from Ma Long in his wins. That means Zhang Jike knows in order to have a chance at winning he really has to put it all on the line, I think Ma Long is still very much the dominant player in a head to head.

Wait and See

So first Ma Long will have to make the cut and achieve one of the two places for China in the Olympic Singles event, then he will have to win all of his matches. If he can take the confidence he has and hit peak form then I think it's definitely a very real possibility that we could see Ma Long win the Olympic Games and achieve a career Grand Slam.