Let The (Young) Lions Roar

Finally time to think and to write. This post is about the upcoming festivities in London.

It has been a busy summer, kind of cut short by the looming Olympic Games in London. It will be a treat to join the party in the UK, very much the ultimate reward for a sport-nut of the more dedicated caliber. Sport , more specifically Table Tennis,  has been my life and my work  for almost thirty years now .It has brought  professional joy and pride , many years of hard  time consuming  work , intense travel far away from a family in need for their father and husband ,  but also good times connected to many memorable events  , plus I would say  a certain degree of  world awareness   ( at least when it comes to sport 😉

The Power of the Rings

Four years have passed since the Beijing Games and it’s time to light up those Olympic rings again.  What a powerful symbol   they are – The rings. Very much both the bread and the  butter for amateur sports they will rule the airways the next few weeks and bring us sport at its very best –  moments that will stay with fans of Olympic Sports forever.

For most of the amateur sports, Table Tennis included,   the Olympics is THE STAGE  for a brief meeting with mainstream sports media. Local and national media beefs up their coverage of our sport, Olympians are celebrated and rightly so – honored for their achievement just to meet tough international qualifying standards and make it to London. Participation is in itself is in most countries stamped as a success.

Swedish debacle

However – this was not exactly the case in my native Sweden where the Swedish Olympic committee (SOK) took it upon themselves to, in the last minute, axe  a few Olympic dreams, among them the leading Swedish female Table Tennis player – Matilda Ekholm.  In my humble opinion Matilda should have been in London– especially considering a relatively speaking weakened line up of individual players making up the women’s singles event in London.   The way this case played out, well covered by the Swedish media, there are no winners for the moment. The Swedish Olympic Committee stands by their mandate to cut rather than offer and Matilda will watch this one from the side.  I wonder about her rights and duties.  Cannot let go of the fact that this is  an interesting case  featuring a  female low budget professional battling for survival on a day to day basis, now  “ robbed “ of her dream to compete under the shining light of the rings. Go to court Matilda  – defend your rights to do the things you do for a living , kind of put a price tag on the days in the ditch and in the sun –   roar like a Lion and have the system change – that would be my advice.

How will we present ourselves ?

Back to Table Tennis and the London Games.  How will we as a sport stack up against other sports  in London and what are the treats for our fans following the events from close – hopefully from a packed Excel Center or from far , wherever they may be ?!

The quality on display, especially in the singles events, is this time around slightly different from the past. The much debated rule to only allow two entries per NOC, has no doubt taken its toll on the excellence part of the singles event. The math is what it is – looking at the men’s singles almost half of the top fifty players in the world will NOT dress for the singles event in London.  The field looks segregated and any upsets should be deemed as a huge surprise, all given the favorable draw and seeding system for the better athletes.

If excellence is partly out (in the singles event) – universality is in.  This is the good part of the new rule well worth an applaud, clearly in line with the hardnosed ITTF development and educational work that slowly, slowly is trying to re-write the world map of table tennis – or at least wake up a few sleeping giants who once upon a time had a whole bunch of competitive players to field for any ITTF event.

Teams Event shines

The event to watch in London is in my opinion the team events. Here the quality is beefed up significantly with the addition of some very skillful, high ranked individuals joining for the teams only.  In the men’s event we can add nine  players currently ranked top fifty or better , among them one top five ( Ma Long wr 2) and two top twenty – Koki Niwa from Japan and the old-timer Ryu Seung Min from Korea Republic.

Universality Opens up for Emerging Prospects

In the long run the new Olympic “system” should translate into more opportunities for emerging prospects representing some exciting new table tennis markets. On the other hand you have to earn both the way in and then learn to respect the need for Olympic excellence in Table Tennis by taking on a strict regime when it comes to preparation and qualification.  I wonder really if that  formula ever was given a chance this summer as many national associations harboring young prospects seems to have struggled to find the optimal preparation this time around . Anyway ,   let’s hope that we in London will be served some really hot and surprising performances from the youth and the future of our sport – most of them lifted to the required level by years of competing hard at various world title events included in the  now ten year s and running  ITTF Global Junior Programme .

Youth versus Experience 

The clash between the future and the past is an interesting side store developing for the games.  On the one side of the age spectrum we find the youth and on the other side, both in the men and women’s lineup, an ageing group of seasoned athletes well past their best ever date. Listen to this;   Among the eighty-six confirmed athletes in the women’s singles a whopping fifteen percent are older than thirty five.  On top of that we have six competitors + 40 with one ;  Ni Xianli from Luxembourg entering the Olympic courts at the age of 50.

Big picture image of Table Tennis is on the line here and we do have to put in some thoughts on how to promote young players to work hard and to develop skills.  At the same time, given the age spectrum for the 2012 Olympics it is most likely that changes in our sport will come soon and come quickly as an older generation of in most ways fantastic players will march out from the arena during the next Olympic cycle.

Rio 2016 – A different story

Looking ahead to Rio 2016 we have to work hard to reestablish the understanding of excellence out there with the National Associations and other driving forces (coming fast)   and also set up a competition system that not only attracts but also provides a true pathway to the world elite.  If done right – adjusted to reality and the real needs the new ITTF Challenge tour might be the missing link.  But only if some serious developing kind of thoughts is added to the concept in order to find the right dynamics. Such a process should   also include a closer look at the slow moving ITTF ranking list and promote the introduction of a stricter set of appearance obligation for the top players in the world.

But all that is more for the people with the hats and the hammers to figure out. For now it’s all about the Games.  I have put together   a very personal list of potential noise makers,   a mixed bag of favorites and up comers – some of them seemingly untouchable, some on the move – some in trouble – but all of them with close connection to the ITTF Global Junior Programme. Let the Lions out of the cage.  Let’s hope they can bring some excitement to the Olympic courts and energize the crowds in the London Games 2012.

The Lions – male

Zhang JIKE ,  China age 24  ; World rank 1

The most potent lion of them all right now is the twenty four year old defending world champion Zhang Jike. Watched him play for the first time ten years ago in the very first ITTF Cadet Challenge held in Hungary. Boldly predicted an Olympic debut already in Beijing that time.  I was four years off the pace with that call   – but here he comes with full power and a mean demeanor. The only thing to overcome now – and it’s not a small one – is the Olympic Pressure. It will be, to put in big letters VERY INTERESTING to watch how Zhang Jike goes about his business as the heavy favorite in the Men’s singles.

Marcos Freitas ,  Portugal   age 24  ;  World rank 31

Coming  off another good year in the German Bundesliga , the London Games could be the perfect scene for the left-handed Portuguese that playing wise is walking in the footsteps of the great Swede Mikael Appelgren. May lack some toughness close to the table and is at times coming up soft in the heated moments.  I say; Time to go from being a pretender to a solid contender.

Andy PEREIRA ,  Cuba age 23  ;  World rank 203

This is a jazzy kind of guy that has spent the better part of the last six years in the custody of the Swedish coach Soren Ahlen at the ITTF Hot Spot Center in Koping , Sweden.   Still remember when I met him for the first time in Havana some thirteen years ago – then just a small kid – now a steady performer in the Scandinavian league system (Denmark and Sweden) with plenty of upsides to his game, although the international toughness is still a missing link in order to challenge the very best in the world.

Noshad ALAMYIAN  , Iran  age 21  ; World rank 77

Got the Game, Got the serve and the spectacular shots to challenge the very best players in the world in his very best moments. However, when it comes to consistency and tactical approach the level is still most likely too low deliver an upset in London – but then again Noshad could be the guy to avoid when the singles draw is done on the 25 of July. Made is first international appearance in the 2006 ITTF World Cadet Challenge in Serbia and stormed into the scene for real when he ousted the defending  World Junior champ Kenta Matsudaira in the 2008 ITTF World Juniors in Madrid .

Omar ASSAR ,   Egypt age 21 ; World rank 209

It has been all “trouble come and get me “for the African Games champion the last six months.   The list of problems include poor international planning, club contract disputes and perhaps most devastating – injuries. Omar has since departing with coach Peter Karlsson and the Falkenberg club in Sweden dropped eighty places on the world ranking and is nowhere near as dangerous as before. Needs constant supervision and quality coaching, almost on a daily basis in order to continue to reshape some of the flaws in his game, many of them for the top players in the world way to easy to read. Testing times to come London is my best guess.

Dimitrij OVTCHAROV , Germany age 24 ; World ranks 12

Let’s finish with one of the players that can – on a very good day be a threat to the likes of Wang Hao and Zhang Jike and with that play his way into medal contention. “ Dima” is one of the few European players who dare to go about his business his own way and tries hard to find the winning formula against the top Asians including the Chinese.

 The Lioness-es

Ding NING , China age 22   World Rank 1

It could very well be that the casual fans of table tennis at times have a hard time embracing Ding NING – or perhaps any of the female Chinese players as true superstars ?.   I most certainly don’t. In fact I would say that Ding NING is “the best “table tennis player competing in London. Take a closer look at the serves, the soft and tactically correct returning of service and the way she so smoothly finds the perfect distance to the table to execute quality strokes – speed, spin and placement.   Going for Gold in London – nothing else matters.

Caroline KUMHARA , Brazil age 17  ; World Rank 190

The resurgence of Brazilian Youth Table Tennis is one of the more positive stories in our sport for the moment.  In four years time – when the Olympic Games comes to Rio we should see a more finished product of this young girl who has all the possibilities to become the best ever Latin American female table tennis player all categories. Supported by well rounded game with few weak points Caroline should improve rapidly if she is provided with the good training environment.  Made her first Olympic appearance in the Singapore 2010 Youth Games and   might be ready to deliver a minor upset already now.

Lily ZHANG  , USA  age 16 ; World Rank 136

Parked some twenty spots below her team mate Ariel HSING on the ITTF WR; I still like Lily’s chances to become the better of the two young Americans. Her overall game is shining a little more talented than most are able to see and she is also slowly learning to compete for real on the international stage. Let’s hope that Lily can find the right balance between courage and confidence already in London. If not – I would hope that she is ready to deliver in the  Nanjing 2014  Youth Olympic Games and that the current ambitions also harbors Olympic Dreams for Rio 2016.

Kasumi ISHIKAWA , Japan age 19  ;  World Rank 6

Hard to imagine that this girl is just nineteen years old.  In my books she has been there forever as one of the most promising young talents out there. I do get a bit worried that her development has stalled a bit the last few years. This often happens when it’s time to apply the out of the box thinking and make the necessary technical and tactical adjustments in order to become a threat to the very best in the world of female table tennis ( read the Chinese). But anyway ,  let’s try and  put her,  with a dose of  wishful thinking  , in the contenders department for a medal in London.

Daniella DODEAN, Romania  age 24   ; World Rank 42

Search; FORM – result; nothing.  Search; DRIVE – result: ? Search; EUROPEAN TOP PROPECT – result ; once was?!   Search; PROMISING – result; fading.  Search; TIGER – result; an article written almost ten years ago when I for the first time met Daniella Dodean .. Here it is; http://www.ittf.com/_front_page/ittf_full_story1.asp?Year=&General_Catigory=&ID=3994&Category=&Competition_ID=&Player_ID=102316&

The following year she took Ding NING to seven games at the 2003 ITTF World Cadet Challenge in the best cadet singles match i ever seen. Let’s hope, for the better good of European female Table Tennis, that this young girl (still only 24) quickly wakes up to be the best she can be. 

Dina MESHREF  , Egypt  age 18  ; World Rank 160

The leading African junior player has by now explored the complete range of ITTF Global Junior events – by playing all what there is to play. Steady performer on the ITTF Junior Circuit – multiple times competing for Africa in the Cadet Challenge and on top of that four time ITTF World Junior participant. She participated in the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore and did well, but will most likely find the tigers in the London cage a bit too aggressive and tough.  Having said that – this girl comes to play most days and likes to compete with good focus.

 Now.. Let the Games Begin – and by all means Let the Lions Roar !

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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