Chinese paddlers will continue dominance
China can replace top-ranked trio because of their strength in depth, says rivals
The Chinese juggernaut will continue to roll on in men's table tennis, regardless of what happens to their top three players, or the rise of Japan towards the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Past and present paddlers whom The New Paper spoke to at the launch of the T2 Asia-Pacific Table Tennis League in Johor Baru, Malaysia, on Tuesday expect China's dominance in the sport to continue because of their strength in depth.
The world's top three men's singles paddlers - Chinese trio Ma Long, Fan Zhendong and Xu Xin - raised eyebrows when they withdrew simultaneously from the China Open last week, along with coaches Qin Zhijian and Ma Lin.
The three players and two coaches posted the same message on their respective social media accounts in support of their head coach Liu Guoliang, who was redesignated to a vice-president position in the Chinese Table Tennis Association (CTTA).
That sparked a stern reaction from CTTA, who said in a statement that the actions "damaged the team's positive social image of upholding patriotism, collectivism, and strive to fight for the glory of the country".
Liu, 41, broke his public silence on Tuesday to say that he "knew nothing of them dropping out of the matches in advance" and apologised to fans on the players' behalf.
Separately, the International Table Tennis Federation said "all potential sanctions" are on the table over the withdrawal.
When asked what a ban of the Chinese trio would mean, England's world No. 45 men's singles player Paul Drinkhall said: "The loss of the top three players in the world, in terms of rankings, would be a big shock.
"But, if that (ban) happens, they (China) will have three other players to take their places at the top of the world.
The three of them are great role models for our sport and have inspired millions of people around the world... We need them in table tennis.German world No. 5 dimitrij Ovtcharov on China’s top-ranked men’s trio
"The names will change, but China have such a strong team with depth. So, maybe, there will be changes in the game in the short term and new faces at the top."
The 27-year-old added that he wanted to see "the best players in the world play", a sentiment echoed by German world No. 5 Dimitrij Ovtcharov, the highest-ranked non-Chinese paddler in the world.
THE SPORT NEEDS THEM
He said: "The three of them are great role models for our sport and have inspired millions of people around the world... I hope there would not be any big punishments for them and I hope I can see them very soon again on court, because we need them in table tennis."
"Personally, I might capitalise on that (their absence) with more success but, in the longer term, we will deteriorate without them in the sport. They are the best in the world and they deserve to be on that stage," added the 28-year-old, who won the China Open title this year.
Separately, TNP asked China's two-time men's singles world champion Jiang Jialiang about the threat Japan will pose to the Chinese at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Japan are eager to make an impression on home ground, and have been upping their efforts to develop their young talents.
One of them is Tomokazu Harimoto, who has been turning heads at the international level in recent years. The teenager celebrated his 14th birthday at the T2Apac launch on Tuesday.
While Jiang, 53, acknowledged the teenager's talent, he dismissed Japan's threat, at least in the next few years.
He said: "At the moment, I don't think they are a big threat because, in general, China are still very strong.
"I first became a world champion when I was 19 and the peak years of a player has been pushed back now. The Japanese may be able to get a medal, but not necessarily the gold."
He also brushed off suggestions that the Chinese need to up their game to deal with the rise of other nations.
Jiang said: "Our system is already very good because the competition in our system is very intense.
"For China, decisions are made for the benefit of the country, so they are very simple and clear.
"The Europeans have tried to challenge us before, but they couldn't get there because the cultural differences play a big part.
"Others may rise and fall like the tides but, in the end, they still cannot beat the Chinese."