Sunday, 16 September 2018

It's Time to Recognize that Ma Long is the Greatest Table Tennis Player of All Time

I'm never too far from controversy, but this is a topic that has come up time and time again over the past decade now. The age old battle of whether Ma Long or Jan-Ove Waldner should be considered the greatest table tennis player in history. For many years I was staunchly in Waldner's corner, but I believe the tides have changed, and there is finally plenty enough evidence to support the valid opinion that Ma Long is the king pin in the history of table tennis. Before you set your laptop on fire and never look at my blog again, remember this is a discussion topic, so please read my thoughts first and then feel free to comment with your own.

Ma Long the greatest of all time?
photo courtesy of ITTF.com
Many people say the two cannot be compared, Waldner and Ma, different eras, different equipment, different rules. When you think of what qualifies a player to be the greatest of all time, you should simply be able to look at their performance and achievements within their generation of competing. I don't believe that comparing the two means we have to guess who would win between the two if they were both in their prime, that is one of the main reasons why there is so much debate when it comes to the classic 'who was/is better' question.

So let's observe how my own thought process changed. Waldner was an artist, they didn't call him Mozart for no reason. He was a pioneer of creativity, touch and genius in table tennis. With his excellence he stood head and shoulders above the competition, the people loved him, the spectators loved him. He won a gold medal at the 1992 Olympic Games, a silver in Sydney in 2000, he won 2 World Championships - among his 16 total WTTC medals.

With Sweden he was World Team Champion 4 times and held off the might of China, much to the world's delight. In 1990 he won the World Cup, meaning his '92 Olympic Gold held him as a Grand Slam Champion, among the greats of the sport.

Waldner has often been compared to a God in the sport of table tennis, tribute videos are plentiful online, he is admired and even in retirement still celebrated, as a true champion of the sport.

So it's not hard to see why he was labelled the greatest player of all time, and he absolutely was in his era and for a long, long time after it. This part there is no dispute about, Waldner was the greatest, and in many people's opinions (and I make no point to disagree with them) he still is.


Now let's examine the career of Ma Long, often named The Dragon (as per his Chinese name, Long). The early breakout of Ma Long was most definitely on the ITTF World Tour, during 2011 he was an unstoppable force, winning 5 Pro Tours in succession. Had he won a sixth (he lost to Zhang Jike in the Slovenia Open Final), he would have set a new record.

During this time the fans were split between Ma Long and Zhang Jike. As Ma reached World Number 1, his fans around the globe eagerly awaited his next trial. At this stage people began to ask, is Ma Long greater than Waldner, and at that point it was clear - with no major titles, the answer was a bold and loud - NO.

Ma had an opportunity to cement himself among the greats, but it wasn't until 2012 that he claimed his first Slam title - the 2012 World Cup in Liverpool. This gave fans some hope, as he had only landed bronze in both the 2009 and 2011 World Championships, both times losing to Wang Hao. 

It was no surprise that Ma didn't have an opportunity to play singles in 2012 Olympics, as Zhang Jike was already World Champion and Wang Hao was two time silver medalist. Another big opportunity would pass. At this point many were wondering if Zhang Jike would rise to become the best player in history instead of Ma.

Indeed in 2012 Zhang Jike became Olympic Champion and joined the ranked of the Grand Slam Champions, the first to hold all three major titles consecutively. He had set the bar. 

In 2013 Zhang won his second World Championships, Ma Long lost out to Wang Hao yet again. Would he ever be World Champion? It seemed that without World or Olympic titles to his name, his other top results were just not significant enough to make a big impact for his career legacy.


In those times the battles between the two were classics, most likely missed by many today. Zhang had the record with majors, but Ma Long was still arguably the best player in the world on individual results.

So let's get to the important stuff. 2015, Ma Long wins the World Table Tennis Championships, finally triumphing. The same year he wins his second World Cup gold. After many years, Ma Long seemed to have broken through the pressure of the big events and was delivering. His nemesis Wang Hao, who had stopped him in '09, '11 and '13 had retired, and he was a man in form.

Roll on 2016 and his big chance came. If he were to win the Olympic Games he would be crowned a Grand Slam Champion, if his teammate and rival Zhang Jike won, he would become the first player ever to claim a double Grand Slam.

It was a one-sided affair, Ma Long was dominant in the final and took gold. Zhang's career faded into the background as injury and contract issues with his Super League club in China reduced his ability to train or compete. Until recently he was absent from international events.

Ma Long had finally achieved his career dreams. 

So let's iron out some stats to examine the case.

Waldner won the Olympics, two World Championships, one World Cup. Ma has won the Olympics, two World Championships and two World Cups. Zhang has also won the Olympics, two World Championships and two World Cups. 

With such similar and high standards of achievement at major events, what then, could decide who is the greatest player in history?

Dominance. Ma Long stands out because he has an aura of intimidation, for many, many years he was deemed to be the ultimate player on the international circuit. 


Ma Long holds the record for the highest number of months as World Number 1, a staggering 64 months (5 years and 4 months total). That includes a consecutive period of 34 months from March 2015 (just under 3 years). This period was only interrupted by the introduction of a new work ranking system.

Ma Long has an unbelievable win rate over his career, particularly during his years as World Number 1. Not only that, but aside from his Chinese teammates, he has a miniscule loss rate to foreign players, even lower than Zhang Jike - who suffered some significant losses to foreigners around 2015 and after.

Ma Long has been a force of sheer dominance. When you compare that with Waldner, you can see a huge difference, here below are some career result records from an interview with Waldner, I omitted from his very early career his loss rations with the older Chinese generation like Cai, Guo and Chen (wins-losses):

Liu Guoliang: 4-5
Jiang Jialiang: 4-8
Kim Taek Soo: 12-11
Yoo Namkyu: 9-2
JP Gatien: 22-11
Andrzei Grubba: 41-20 
Zoran Primorac: 20-13
Jörg Rosskopf: 22-11
JM Saive: 26-21 

Here are some of Ma Long's head to heads (wins-losses):

Zhang Jike: 13-6
Wang Hao: 11-12
Xu Xin: 19-8
Fan Zhendong: 13-1
Vladimir Samsonov: 7-5
Timo Boll: 15-4
Dimitrij Ovtcharov: 14-0
Jun Mizutani: 15-0
Koki Niwa: 10-1
Chuang Chih-Yuan: 14-2
Joo Sae Hyuk: 15-2

As you can see there are many players who were able to win against Waldner throughout his career, Waldner was not totally dominant, he just won the big matches when it really counted. 

Ma Long has some unbelievably impressive individual head to head's, his 14-0 and 15-0 over Ovtcharov and Mizutani are major standouts, along with his 13-6 against Zhang Jike, who equals him for major titles.

If Ma Long can go ahead to Tokyo 2020 and win gold there, he will become the first player ever to win a double grand slam. I think he can still achieve this, but my opinion now is that he is indeed the greatest table tennis player of all time, there is nowhere near as much conflict in my mind anymore.

This has been a huge topic for a very long time, and so I certainly hope to get a lot of feedback from everyone whether you think I'm right or wrong. Of course, everyone has their favourites, but in my opinion, if you look at the hard evidence, it become a little more clear, particularly in the past few years.

21 comments:

  1. Agreed, once Ma Long won the Rio Olympics he really cemented his GOAT status for me. Also his titles were all gained at events with other Chinese players competing, like on the World Tour. Vladimir Samsonov only leads the titleholder count there because of his wins at less prestigious opens. Before the World Tour there was the World All Stars circuit and the Grand Prix, as well as stand-alone open events, it would be interesting to see how many titles Waldner gained during those years.

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  2. What about Waldner's perfect run I 97 on his way to a world title? He didn't drop a single match on the biggest stage for the biggest title...a feat Ma Long (nor anyone else) has ever duplicated.

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    1. But back then they played to 21 ;)

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  3. A big achievement for sure, but don’t forget the sets were in 21 points so it was a bit easier to not drop a single one when you were the best because the level difference appears more in 21 points than in 11. On the other hand, it seems to me that Ma Long didn’t lose a single match in a whole calendar year (2015), did anyone else manage to do that in modern tavle tennis ?

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  4. Correction: "If Ma Long can go ahead to Tokyo 2020 and win gold there, he will become the first *male* player ever to win a double grand slam."

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  5. I agree! Ma Long is indeed the greatest player of all time. But I don't think he will try to win Tokyo2020. He will let Fan Zhendong to do that. I've explained it here: https://pingsunday.com/greatest-table-tennis-players-in-the-world/

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  6. I love both Waldner and Ma Long but the depth of the competition is so much higher nowadays that my GOAT is Ma Long.

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  7. I love both players as well but will consider Ma Long is the best because of the titles he achieved and because of the adaptation that he has had through the changes in the game ( set's points & ball specs), which is more important ( in my opinion).
    And his lowest loss rate.

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  8. Matt - "Many people say the two cannot be compared, Waldner and Ma, different eras, different equipment, different rules. When you think of what qualifies a player to be the greatest of all time, you should simply be able to look at their performance and achievements within their generation of competing. I don't believe that comparing the two means we have to guess who would win between the two if they were both in their prime, that is one of the main reasons why there is so much debate when it comes to the classic 'who was/is better' question."

    My response - I get where you are going and fundamentally this type of comparison in looking at dominance in their era probably makes sense if you want to get an answer to the question "Who is the GOAT?". I get that. But now we're deciding the GOAT based on their level of competition at that time. More variables one can debate. Waldner had to face opponents from across the world he faced only rarely in comparison to Ma Long. Ma Long's greatest competition are on his very own team who he gets to see & practice against every day. Granted he's better than them but that certainly helps him.

    This is a 1 vs 1 sport and we're talking about the GOAT. How can we not think about who would win in their prime? We can't. Or I can't or wouldn't want to. With that being said, you then have to go back to "Well what ball are we playing with? What rules?". My answer changes depending on those circumstances.

    So where does that leave us? It's an impossible question to answer. There's no GOAT. Only the greatest players in a given era. And that's okay. The good news is that players continually get better. I believe this in all sports. You think if Waldner would have played in this era he wouldn't have learned a bananna flip? Sure he would have as it's in style now and has been for some time. I'll be excited to see what FZD can do going forward and future players alike. The competition & skills learned taken form former greats will only make future players better.

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  9. I have watched lot of videos of Waldner and Ma Long. Though I have not been lucky to watch them live to give a stronger opinion. This is totally my view, and I may not be correct in my assessment as I have not played against the greats. Some one who has played(Samsanov) with both can tell the difference authoritatively I would look like to analyze from the following perspective. Emotional, Tactical, Variety/Entertainment, balanced skill set. Emotional: Waldner is emotionally stable than Ma Long, and is capable of maintaining the calmness under any environment. Ma Long had a system and Coach Liu Guoliang who had to set him on the winning track. Not sure if Waldner had one. He had innate capability to keep things under control. Tactial: Walder was far more tactical than Ma Long; Ma Long has recently been losing because he has lost the tactical inputs from Coach Liu Guoliang; Ma Long got his strengh and plays amazing when Liu Guoliang is around. That is why he is vulnerable against Chinese players, as there are no tactical inputs available.He barely survived to win the world championship against FZD. https://www.ittf.com/2017/06/12/match-analysis-world-championship-finals-ma-long-vs-fan-zhendong/; Variety/Entertainment: Waldner was more creative on the table than Ma Long; You name all the strokes, Waldner would have done at some point of time; Hence it made Waldner to bring in the spectators and offered entertainment value to the crowd. Though Ma Long has tried to instrument chop block, and some serves I don't think he is no where near to waldner. Balanced Skill Set: Agree Ma Long has one the best and cleanest Forehand of all time; Waldner's is not far from that; But Waldner backhand was better. No one can corner Waldner on his backhand. But Ma Long has a passive backhand and has to rely on his Forehand to make winners, which helped him win the last world championship. Hence Malong is vulnerable against Left Handers (Lin Gaoyuan) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDJn8JWGz2g) who take the ball off the table, or who has crazy backhand(Liam Pitchford) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QeQf8JCpKiQ; Both Ma Long and J.O. Waldner are great players and love to watch them play. I would still consider Waldner as GOAT, as he is a few notches above Ma Long though I agree Ma Long is great if the decision is purely based on match winning statistics.
    Note: I am not a high-level player, but the observations above are based on what I have seen out on the videos and live matches I have seen.

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  10. I still put ZJK ahead of them both. I'm more impressed with the years of ZJK fighting against Liqin, Lin, Hao, and his early classics against Long. I really don't think Ma Long's Chinese competition is as tough as ZJK's was. As I say that, I'm really excited to see how FZD does in the 2020 olypmics!!!

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  11. I would vote NO on that for several reasons. First of all, has he won the most titles? No, others have won more. Has he nerves of steel? No, in fact he's quite vulnerable for a world champion, he has choked a few times, his coaches have had to work with him on that. Does he have the most amazing serves? No. Serve returns? No. Most wicked imaginative winner-shots? Well sort of, but others have as good or better. Any glaring weaknesses? Well actually, I've noticed that when he is wide on the forehand and he needs to come back to the backhand he can't do it. We've seen this in many highlight videos and I've noticed it in several matches as well. He's great at the running forehnad, but not the running backhand. Has he adapted well to changes over time? Not really. He was great for the 40mm ball, not so much for the 40+. Why he is so successful? He's just really stable, good serves, spinny forehnad, and dependable backhand. But it's a stretch to say "GOAT", I would say he has potential to be the GOAT IF, and that's a big IF, he wins another world championship with the 40+ ball, sticks around a few more years, and really dominates everyone. But lately he's been losing to quite a few players, Harimoto, Liam Pitchford, and so on. GOAT is not a light term you can't throw that around without some evidence, some stats, etc.

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    1. GOAT is not a term that you can throw around without some evidence or stats? Um, look up dude - my article isn't devoid of information. Sticks around a few more years? Is being world number 1 for a record 64 months not enough? 32 months in a row at number 1. The way you people measure things is laughable. Most imaginative winner shots? Why would that make you GOAT - ok I changed my mind I've decided that Quentin Robinot is not the GOAT...come on. Does he have most amazing serves, serve returns?

      Here is my answer. He wins with what he has. He wins on an unparalleled level. He's won all the majors, including two Chinese National Games - THE HARDEST table tennis tournament on the planet. Aside from Samsonov (who has won lots of Challenge Series tours), he has won the next highest number of World Tours (probably the most high level ones), he holds jointly the record for highest number of pro tours won in a row (5), he holds the record for the highest consecutive months at world number 1 (32) and total months at world number 1 (64).

      I find some of the responses to this piece baffling really.

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    2. Winning the Chinese National Games is an achievement but the "Hardest TT tournament? Waldner won the equivalent in Sweden, you cannot discount the strength of the Swedish National team during Waldner's era. Sweden had 3 players in the Top 10, and dominated the Chinese National team. Sweden's National Team, (Not just Waldner) revolutionized the modern TT game. JO was the best player on arguably the best team during his era. He also played the best on the biggest stage.
      The chinese coaches called him too old, past his prime right before he had his perfect World Title run ...Ma Long? He couldn't get past Wang Hao

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    3. Yes the Chinese National Games is often noted as the hardest table tennis tournament to win. 3 players in the top 10 is solid, but if you took the top 32 players from the Chinese National Games and put them out on the world tour, then under the old ranking system you would have a disaster for the rest of the world.

      I'm absolutely not discounting Waldner or Sweden, like I said, I was firmly on Waldner's side of the debate for a very long time, but recently I genuinely believe that Ma Long has surpassed him.

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  12. "He was great for the 40mm ball, not so much for the 40+." I really don't follow here. Perhaps you accidentially typed it backwards. Ma Long won his Grand Slam with the 40+ ball. Back when they were playing standard 40mm, that was when ZJK was in his prime.

    38mm era (I'll take Liu Guoliang in his prime vs anybody)
    40mm era (a short era but ZJK was pretty dominate here)
    40+ era (still a short time span thus far but seems as though Ma Long has this title as of right now)
    Although it took him a long time to get here and FZD is almost right there with him already at the age of 21 so we'll see who wins out in the long term.

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  13. My vote is for JO. He did this overcoming the mighty Chinese team 4 times at the worlds. That alone could be enough. Yes he had plenty of losses but the players played way more back then. Team events and singles were at every tourney.
    Ma Long has the Chinese machine to back him. JO had the tiny Swedish contingent and limited financial support lie Ma does.

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  14. Agreed, i'd say Ma Long is the GOAT. He has been completely dominant and his win ratio speaks for itself.

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  15. Consider the World Cup record of each player.
    Waldner attended 18 times between 1983 - 2004, reaching the final on three occasions and winning just once, in 1990. Additionally he won bronze once, making a total of four podium finishes. Five of Waldner's attempts resulted in a finish outside the top 8, his worst being 15th place in 1989. Waldner has 54 wins, 35 losses at the men's world cup, a 60% win rate.
    Ma Long has attended 6 times from 2008 to 2017, and will not play this year in Paris. Every time he plays, Ma Long gets a medal. Two gold, one silver, and three bronze. I could analyse his record compared to other leading Chinese players over the years but this discussion is about Waldner vs Ma Long for GOAT. Ma Long has won 24 times and lost 6, for an 80% win rate.
    This is just one event, but it is held every year and gives a good idea of a player's progression. Ma Long surely won't play into his 40s like Waldner did, but his achievements in a much smaller time frame speak for themselves. Nuff said.

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  16. Hey Matt!

    Long time no talk! I'm getting back into the swing of things on the website, maybe I'll commission another article or two?

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