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Serving up some surprises

By Qiu Quanlin in Shenzhen, Guangdong | China Daily | Updated: 2017-03-07 07:12

 Serving up some surprises

World and Olympic champion Ma Long, 28, is being challenged by China's next generation of table tennis superstars at The Marvelous12. Fierce competition inside the national team helps maintain the nation's global status as No 1 in the sport. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Veterans have their hands full at Marvelous12

China's next wave of table tennis stars are out to end the dominance of revered veterans at The Marvelous12 national trials for the upcoming World Championships in Dusseldorf, Germany.

The first casualty was 2012 Olympic gold medalist Zhang Jike, who dropped four matches in the first three days of the week-long tournament that concludes on Friday.

Plagued by a lingering foot injury, Zhang decided on Monday morning to withdraw from stage one of the trials.

"After the Rio Games, I had not played a match for nearly half a year. My foot injury has not fully recovered yet, so I can't move fast," said Zhang.

In his opening game, Zhang lost to Liu Dingshuo, who was rewarded for his aggressive and high-risk tactics against the Grand Slam champion.

"This is my first time attending the World Championships qualifiers. Though I was feeling nervous, I found the matches very enjoyable," said 19-year-old Liu.

"We young players should play hard against veteran players. Only through better performance and good results will young players become more famous in the tough domestic competition," he added.

Despite taking down world No 1 Ma Long, 20-year-old Zhou Qihao knows the road to the World Championships is about more than just a single win.

"Only one ticket is available in the first stage of the qualification. We young players have less opportunity to win that ticket," said Zhou, who defeated Ma in three games on the second day of the competition.

"As a young player, to fight as much as we can is our attitude during the trials. We look at the next game and try not be affected by losing."

On Sunday, Ma took over top spot by taking down Xu Xin 2-1, with high hopes of packing his bags for the May 29-June 5 world championships in Germany.

"I felt a bit nervous before the trials. The atmosphere at these games is very intense and fans are even more enthusiastic than at the Rio Olympics," said Ma.

"I just performed normally, and quickly got myself into the game."

On the women's side, Queen of Diamonds Liu Shiwen thinks it will come down to how she perceives herself as a player.

"I must act like a young player and fight. If I see myself as an old and more experienced player, I'm more likely to rely on defense, trying to save the game instead of winning it," Liu said.

Liu was tied with Ding Ning atop the standings at the end of play on Monday.

Create fanbase

The Marvelous12 is a cooperation between the Chinese Table Tennis Association and Tencent Sports, a division of internet-service giant Tencent Holdings.

Aimed at creating a larger fanbase among younger table tennis enthusiasts, the competition can be viewed live online.

"We realized there will be a growing number of young fans watching the games online, so we wanted to make the national trials different and attractive," said Ewell Zhao, general manager of Tencent Sports.

Since the rise of Zhang and Ma, Chinese players have gained a much higher public profile.

As well, national-team members are now more open about their off-court activities and appear regularly on television shows.

"Previously, most domestic table tennis trials were closed door," said Zhao. "But with the booming internet service, more young people are expected to enjoy this beautiful game and closely watch the progress of their favorite players."

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