Tokyo 2020: The G.O.A.T. in dragon’s clothing
The first memory of quality table tennis for Indians of my vintage was the 1987 world championships in Delhi – an event so noteworthy that Doordarshan telecast it live across the country. So, every evening, for 10 days in late February, the biggest form of entertainment became tuning in to the action from the Indira Gandhi indoor stadium. This was, to set the larger context of mass entertainment at the time, a month after Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana started airing on Sunday mornings.
The tournament took India by storm, particularly in places where children had access to table tennis tables in their local clubs or community centres. It was the long rallies, the ferocious smashes, the unbelievable blocks; the Chinese penhold grip vs the European shakehand; and the lanky, expressive Jiang Jialiang vs the burly, relentless Jan-Ove Waldner. When Jiang Jialiang won that final, India believed he was, he must be, the greatest table tennis player of all time; though Waldner might have had something to say about that.
The following year, in the industrial city of Anshan in northeastern China, the man who would go on to become the greatest, Ma Long, was born three weeks after the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Surrounded by iron, steel and concrete, Ma Long picked up a paddle when he was five, and was winning local tournaments before he was 10. By 11, his game had outgrown his factory town. He first moved to Shenyang (the largest city in his Liaoning Province), and was then scouted by a club in Beijing that was also home to Zhang Yining, arguably the best women’s player in history.
Ma Long started winning at the world stage in his late teens, but truly stamped his style in his 20s. To describe his game today is to describe what modern table tennis aspires to be. He has a vicious all-attack forehand. He can unleash power from close to the table, not just from a couple of feet away. His smoldering topspin allows him to relax, explode, relax, and explode again, sometimes in the same rally. And he throws in an occasional backhand chop-block to completely unsettle his opponent.
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World No 1 for a record 64 months, including 34 in a row between 2015 and 2017, Ma Long has won three world championships, two world cups, and the Rio Olympics gold. He is called The Dragon, and more popularly, The Dictator.
On Tuesday, this legendary force of nature was across the table from Sharath Kamal at Tokyo.
Sharath Kamal was born in Chennai, six months before the 1982 Asian Games, into a table tennis family (his father and uncle were both coaches). It was impossible for him to stay away from the paddle with that pedigree, and he embraced the millstone around his neck.
Sharath Kamal is a nine-time national champion, the world No 32, a regular in the German Bundesliga, a multiple Commonwealth Games gold medallist, twice Asian Games bronze medallist, and the only Indian to win a singles title on the international pro tour.
However, such is the lot of the Indian Olympic sportsperson that the country has hardly ever watched him play. On Tuesday, because he was up against the great Ma Long at Tokyo 2020, we did. And Sharath Kamal, now in the winter of his career and in perhaps the last of his four Olympics, showed why he always deserved more attention.
There was a phase in the match – between games two and three – when the Indian rattled Ma Long, matching him stroke for stroke, topspin for topspin; and pushed the Chinese champion to corners of the table he did not want to go to.
Ma Long had said before the Games that if he lost a single game, it would be letting his country down. In the second of seven games, Sharath Kamal raced to an 8-4 lead, and just when Ma Long was clawing his way back, pulled off a series of forehand angles to make it 1-1.
In the third game, he fought hard again, coming back from 8-10 to 10-10, before Ma Long pulled away, and didn’t look back again.
Sharath Kamal faced a strange proposition on Tuesday – he knew he would lose, but he also knew he must banish that knowledge from his mind. So, even if for a 15-minute stretch, he decided to believe.
It’s matches like this one – history will record it as just another regulation 4-1 win for Ma Long – that make the Olympics special. For Sharath Kamal will remember, and so will all those who watched the battle of two legends from different contexts.