Table tennis' legendary duo take charge of national teams
Newly appointed China's national table tennis general head coach Liu Guoliang (R) and Kong Linghui, new women's national coach walk together after a press conference announcing their appointment in Beijing on Tuesday. [Photo/CFP]
BEIJING - Just a decade from their players' time, the table tennis Grand Slam winning "Twin Stars" of China, Liu Guoliang and Kong Linghui, have again joined forces at the leading role of the country's national squads' coaching staff.
The sport's governing body of China Tuesday held a press conference to finalize the appointment of Liu to be the general head coach while to keep his job as the men's head coach, and of Kong to head the women's national side.
Taking the charge of an all-time leading squad which has been on top of the world for decades, especially on the women's side, Liu and Kong will have to prove their worth in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
"My predecessor Shi Zhihao did an extraordinary job," said Kong, dubbed the Prince of Table Tennis at his player time. "Under Shi's reign, the Chinese women's team pocketed all gold medals on offer in two Olympic Games, which set a high bar for me."
No easy case for Liu, either, since the Chinese national team has been run under a commission without a "general head coach" for eight years. "It will be very challenging, for sure," Liu said.
The two young Turk, however, hold far more soaring ambitions than lying on the record of merits.
"I'm both confident and determined to create a new era of table tennis alongside with my buddy Kong Linghui in the coming years," said Liu, who first took his job as the men's national head coach in 2003 and successfully guarded it twice in the following years. In his reign, the Chinese men's team collected almost all but one Olympic and world titles.
"Like my buddy Liu Guoliang said, we are not just eyeing to win more gold medals, but going to make table tennis a more popular sport in China and elsewhere of the world, to help it better develop," echoed Kong.
Both now 37 years old, Liu and Kong had been always put on a bar with each other in 1990s, not only for their equally glorious career as paddlers but their brotherhood.
"We were called up to the junior national team in the same year when we were 13, but two years before we became nationals, we had known each other in some national events," recalled Kong, a most popular paddler with Chinese supporters even years after he retired.
"Kong and I have always been a pack. In the past 26 years, we've been through a lot together," said Liu. "When we were players, we trained together, played all kinds of matches together, sometime against each other and sometimes combined as a pair. For all those years, We've shared so many memories, joy and tears."
In 1995, the two helped China claim the world men's team crown and several days later they squared off for the singles title. Just at that time, Kong claimed his first men's singles world championship at 20 in Tianjin, but had to wait five years to bring in his Olympic gold medal in Sydney.
Liu's grand slam was completed in the 1999 world championships in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, as he won the men's singles final against younger teammate Ma Lin, though he said he performed just 70 percent of his top form as in 1996 when he took the Olympic gold and World Cup title.
The two good friends parted their ways in 2003 when Liu, who was trusted by table tennis authorities and his mentors, made a brilliant triple jump from assistant coach to coach to the youngest head coach ever on the Chinese team, while tenacious Kong continued his player career.
In the 2004 Athens Olympics, Kong made his third Olympic appearance, while Liu experienced his biggest test as newly combined Ma Lin and Chen Qi claimed the doubles gold but upbeat Wang Hao fell to South Korean Ryu Seung Min in the singles final.
For the following years, Liu led the Chinese men's side to have conquered all, including two clean sweep in both the 2008 Beijing Games on home soil and the most recent London Olympics, while Kong acted as a player/coach assisting Liu before he called it a quit in late 2006 and turned a trainer to coach the women's side.