Sunday, June 6, 2010

Oh ; What a May it has been

What a May it has been. If you have been a sports fan, that is. I already posted on the day that the earth shook here. May also saw the world team table tennis championships for the Corbillon (women) and Swaythling (men) Cups. This time it was held in Moscow.

China dominates the world of table tennis in a way few countries can dominate in any sport. It is the national sport of China. China wins everything in table tennis, whichever team it sends – its top team or its fifth team.

Last Sunday, I settled down on a lazy Sunday late afternoon to watch the finals. Of course China had come easily to both the men’s and women’s finals. They hadn’t lost a match. I wasn’t expecting anything to be different in the finals as well, but when the Chinese play table tennis its sheer poetry. So I settled down to watch even thought I was expecting to see a whitewash. How wrong I was.

First was the women’s final for the Corbillon Cup. Pitted against mighty China was tiny Singapore. Singapore can’t play TT for nuts. But they have adopted, at least on the women’s side, the concept of importing Chinese and giving them citizenship. A little bit like the Kenyans who run for the Arab countries. China had fielded a very young team. The unbeatable star of the last 10 years – Zhang Yining had got married and decided to skip this event. The Chinese inexplicably benched Guo Yue, who has lots of experience in international events and fielded the world’s top ranked, but inexperienced Liu Shiwen , Ding Ning, and Guo Yan. Feng Tianwei, Singapore’s No1, who took Singapore citizenship only 2 years ago won both her singles. Amazingly China, lost the finals 3-1 ; in terms of a sports upset this was off the Richter scale. Singapore, a country that has won nothing ever in any sport, were the world champions. Any other country would have gone completely crazy ; Singapore being a nanny state, looked to its “paramount leader” to tell them that they could feel happy.

Next came the Men’s final – China against Germany. Usually, its an all Asian final. But Timo Boll of Germany was playing the finest table tennis of his life and winning everything. Germany beat Korea and was now playing China in the finals.

First up was Timo Boll against Ma Long. Ma had risen to be the World No 1 ranked player. Young, extremely fit, he has a ferocious forehand – if you take one of his forehand shots on your body, you’ll get an almighty bruise – such is the power he wields. He had been in top form in the tournament and the match developed into a classic. Ma won the first two games. But then Boll fought. And how he fought. Inch by inch he climbed back into the match. A good crowd started to go berserk. Every neutral was cheering Germany. But China had its won contingent of fans, as always and thunderous shouts of “Zhonghuo Jia You” – the Chinese cheer, rent the air. The fifth game swung this way and that. Finally Boll won. Germany 1- China 0. What on earth was happening.

Into that cauldron walked Ma Lin, Beijing Olympics gold medalist. Ma Lin is an old hand, very experienced, but he wasn’t in the best of form. Ma Lin was amazingly relaxed and even had a smile – he is usually poker faced and looks like a robot while he destroys his opponents. This time he was pumped up, but calm and using all his experience he easily beat Dimitrij Ovtcharov. And then young Zhang Jike, a surprise choice for the third singles found himself in all sorts of trouble against Christian Suss, but held his nerve to win.

That set up Timo Boll against Ma Lin. And what a match that was. Every point was fought and Timo Boll played perhaps some of the best table tennis he has ever played. But Ma Lin, with all his experience, lifted his game and simply would not let Boll get away. It swung this way and that, but Ma finally held match and championship point. He took it and China went delirious. Ma Lin had held nervous China together and won for his country. Timo Boll looked crushed, but every Chinese player went and hugged him, for he had played divinely. Well done Germany ; you were heroes even though you lost. And Ma Lin, showed that despite all the talent and youth and fitness you can have, the old dog can show a trick or two. It was a day of table tennis that those privileged to watch would never forget.

I had watched non stop edge of the seat action for some four hours. I still can’t get over what a day it was. On such days, sports transcends everything to become almost divine .....