(by Steve Hopkins, photos by ITTFworld)
Often there is a changing of the guard after an Olympics – a time when top players retire and move on to their next challenge. In a normal cycle the Olympics would have occurred a year ago and the landscape of our sport would already have changed – but this is not a normal cycle. Not only did COVID change the Olympic schedule, it affected the number of tournaments, and left many up and coming players unable to showcase their talents. This trend has continued into 2021 as the ITTF calendar has remained sparse and major table tennis powers are focused on preparing their players for Tokyo rather than providing opportunities for young players to shine.
The World’s top ranked player is only 24, and Fan Zhendong has no intention to step aside for the next generation of champion any time soon. But the same cannot be said for World No. 2 Xu Xin who is 31 or World No. 3 Ma Long who is 32. If we assume that these two top Chinese players retire (or decline), we can expect to see room at the top of the World rankings. The same is true in Germany where Timo Boll is 40, and Dimtrij Ovcharov is 32.
Three younger players are already inside the Top 10 with Japan’s Harimoto (age 17) at No. 4, Lin Gaoyuan (age 26) at No. 5, and Lin Yun-Ju (age 19). Here’s a quick highlight of 7 players all at or entering their prime: Japan’s Harimoto, Taipei’s Lin Yun-Ju, China’s Gaoyuan and Shidong and Qihao, and Germany’s Stumper and Meissner:
Tomokazu Harimoto is only 17 and has been in the top three in the rankings. In 2017 he became the youngest ever ITTF World Tour event champion, and a year later he won the ITTF World Tour Grand Finals.
Lin Gaoyuan has often had to limit his international play because of how great the top three Chinese players have been – he is often the fourth player. However, he has been a champion at every level of play – winning the World Junior Team Championships four times, winning the Team World Cup, and winning the Team World Championship. He also won the Asian Cup singles title in 2017 and has won several tour events.
In 2019 at 18 years old, Lin Yun-Ju surprised the tour by taking the T2 Diamond event and then winning the Czech Open the following month. He seemed to be reaching a new peak just as the tournament schedule was shut down – and he has been on top of his game in the limited events in 2020 and 2021. When the tour schedule is back, expect to see Yun-Ju continue rising in the rankings.
Recently a new Chinese player has been making waves. At just 15, Lin Shidong just competed in the China Olympic Simulation and held his own against the World’s best. In fact, he won his group. beating Xu Xin, before narrowly falingl to Fan Zhendong in the Quarterfinals.
At the same China Olympic Simulation event, an even bigger story was the play of 24 year old Zhou Qihao. Qihao has had a career of inconsistent play – sometimes beating the best in the world and other times falling short of his potential. This last week may have been a turning point. He won his group, and then defeated Ma Long in the Semifinals and Fan Zhendong in the Finals to take the title. That is, he beat World No. 1 and World No. 3 on consecutive days. He is really playing well, and if this was a true Olympic Trial instead of an Olympic Simulation (as the team was chosen a year ago), Qihao might be headlining a Chinese Team heavily favored for Gold in Tokyo.
In the last 15 years, nine players have risen to be World No. 1. Of those, 7 were Chinese and 2 were German. Over the last year, these two countries have been the main two locations for events. Both have run their professional leagues, and each have had a series of tournaments and events. In Germany, the Dusseldorf Masters Series has brought together many of the best European players. Recently, young German players have surprised the field. In fact, Cedric Meissner currently leads the point totals through the first five events due to his consistent play, and Kay Stumper won the third Masters event and upset Ovtcharov in the fourth Masters event. Cedric Meissner is 20 years old and Kay Stumper is only 18. Both players are emerging from junior status and have been very limited over the last 18 months in regard to competitions – but both are expecting to compete in tour events this year after the Olympics.
Over the last week, young players have knocked off Xu Xin, Ma Long, and Ovtcharov in events in China and Germany. Over the next two months, the names we all know will be working hard to reach their peak and we’ll see an exciting Olympics. However, once the Olympics is over, expect to see some changes and the next generation of players will finally have a chance to shine. The end of 2021 is going to be a very exciting time for table tennis fans.