In general, a bet on the table tennis Singles Champion coming from China will not win you much money. Almost any of the competitors from the Middle Kingdom could win the Singles title, especially title defenders Ma Long and Ding Ning.
For quite a while, Ma Long has swept the board in international table tennis. He is the current World Champion and Olympic Champion. In 2016, the 28-year-old was dubbed ‘The human alien’ by the FAZ newspaper. Even before he first won the World Singles title in 2015, he was an international star and had been at the top of the world rankings for a long time. However, the culmination came at the World Championship title in Suzhou. Previously, it was believed that the sensitive Ma didn’t have the strength of nerve to win a large Singles tournament. Nobody says that any longer. Since then, Ma Long has been Olympic Champion three times (2016 Singles and Team, 2012 Team), World Champion eight times and is the absolute favourite in Düsseldorf. In seventeen duels, Dimitrij Ovtcharov has never beaten him. “If the ball comes over the net a couple of times, then I have the upper hand. The problem is, he so often destroys me with the first shots, that I only rarely manage to get into a rally,” says world-ranked No. 5, Ovtcharov, about Timo Boll’s Doubles partner at these World Championships.
Ma Long’s compatriot Ding Ning is equally as formidable at large tournaments. The women’s title defender and Olympic winner from Rio is expected to be the one to beat. Like Ma Long, the powerful left-hander came back stronger after suffering painful defeats. In 2010, together with China, she lost the World Championship Finals against Singapore – a no-go for the gold medal subscribers from the Middle Kingdom. At the 2012 Olympic Games in London, Ding Ning lost in the Finals to Li Xiaoxia but got her revenge four years later in Rio.
Despite being the hot favourites, Ma Long and Ding Ning are fairly sceptical going into the World Championship. At the Asian Championships at the beginning of April, both suffered surprise defeats. Ma Long lost for the first time in four and a half years to the relatively unknown South Korean, Jeong Sang Eun; Ding Ning was beaten by the just-turned 17-year-old shock winner, Miu Hirano (Japan). In addition: more recently the national team has had to deal with illnesses and injuries. Is the ‘Chinese Wall’ beginning to crack? Certainly not.
The losses at the Asian Championships led to General Head Coach, Liu Guoliang, preparing the team even more meticulously. The stars were isolated for several weeks with no outside contact. The emphasis was on training and distractions were forbidden. The only exception: focussing on the opposition. Liu Guoliang posted a picture from the training hall of a several-metre-high board. On it was a black list of the Chinese Men’s competitors, broken down into three groups. Amongst others at the top of the list were Dimitrij Ovtcharov and Timo Boll.
So for both Ma Long in the men’s game and Ding Ning in the women’s, the strongest competition for the World Championships title in Düsseldorf will come from their own stall.