Not So Trivial Pursuits

Of the ten champions to achieve table tennis' grand slam, what is the name of the only player who is not a citizen of the Peoples Republic of China?

Deng Yaping was the first Chinese player to win table tennis' grand slam when she captured the gold medal at the 1996 Table Tennis World Cup. Regarded as one of the greatest players in the history of the sport, between 1989 and 1997, she won eighteen world championships including four Olympic gold medals. Standing only 4 feet 11 inches tall, Deng was initially kept off the Chinese National Team because of her diminutive stature; now she is a giant in the sport. Somewhat of an overachiever, Deng also holds a Ph. D. from Cambridge.

In the world of table tennis, the grand slam consists of winning the Olympic gold medal, the World Table Tennis Championship, and the World Cup. Ever since Rong Guotuan became the first Chinese national to win the World Table Tennis Championship in 1959, table tennis players from the People's Republic of China have dominated the sport. During this time, ten players, five women and five men, have won table tennis' coveted grand slam. Of these champions, all five of the women, Deng Yaping, Wang Nan, Zhang Yining, Li Xiaoxia, and Ding Ning, and four of the men, Liu Guoliang, Kong Linghui, Zhang Jike, and Ma Long, have been members of the Chinese National Table Tennis Team. So, of the ten champions to achieve table tennis' grand slam, what is the name of the only player who is not a citizen of the Peoples Republic of China?

Jan-Ove Waldner was the first player to complete table tennis' grand slam in 1992 when he captured the Olympic gold medal. Although he is the only one of the ten grand slam champions who is not a Chinese citizen, ironically he is even more popular in the People's Republic of China than he is in his native Sweden. In China, he is affectionately know as "Chang Qing Shu" (evergreen tree) an acknowledgement of Waldner's amazing longevity in the sport of table tennis.

Regarded widely as one of the greatest table tennis players of all time, and often referred to as the "Mozart of table tennis," Sweden's Jan-Ove Waldner became the first winner of table tennis' grand slam when he won the Olympic Gold Medal at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. He is considered by many to be the consummate table tennis technician, and undisputedly, he is the most famous table tennis player of all time who was not born in China.

The pride of Sweden, after garnering the silver medal at the European Championships at the age of 16 in 1982, and capturing gold medals at the Swedish National Championships at the ages of 17 and 18 in 1983 and 1984, the Swedes honored Waldner with his own postage stamp in 1985.

Waldner is renowned for his technical mastery and his longevity. In a sport where if a player remains competitive for a decade it is considered a good run, Waldner competed in international table tennis at an elite level for more than 30 years. In 1982, at the age of 16, he took silver in the European Championship, and seven years later he won his first World Championship in 1989. After capturing Olympic and World Cup gold, he won a second World Championship in 1997. He won his ninth Swedish Championship in 2010, and two years later, at the age of 46, Waldner officially retired.

After the European Championship in 1982, Waldner traveled to China with a Swedish table tennis delegation to participate in a national-level training camp. Inspired by the dedication and camaraderie of the Chinese players, the young Swede decided to rededicate himself to his table tennis career, and thus began his life-long friendship with China and its people.

Despite the fact that he is the lone champion spoiling China's opportunity for an all-Chinese, grand slam decemvirate, Jan-Ove has a special relationship with China and its people. In his youth, as a member of a Swedish table tennis delegation, he traveled to China to partake in a national-level training camp. Waldner was so impressed by what he learned and by the camaraderie and dedication of the Chinese players that he rededicated himself to his training. He credits the experience as a major source of his success.

Better known in China than the U.S. President, Waldner poses with some of his Chinese fans in a makeshift table tennis pavilion in the Beijing Mall where he played exhibition matches for the grand opening of China's first IKEA store.

Over the course of his career, Waldner's relationship with China and its people has become one of mutual admiration. He is one of the most famous foreigners in the world's most populous country where table tennis is all the rage. In the 1990's, he was more well-known in the country than U.S. President Bill Clinton.

So beloved is Waldner by the Chinese people, that upon his retirement in 2012, the country honored his career by placing him on a postage stamp. He is the only living foreigner to appear on a Chinese stamp. Only one other foreigner has ever made his way onto Chinese postage and that was Karl Marx who was honored posthumously.

When the Swedish company IKEA opened its first store in China, the company brought in their compatriot to promote the event. IKEA executives set up a table tennis pavillion in the Beijing Mall where Waldner played exhibition matches. It was a mob scene. After his retirement in 2012, China issued a postage stamp honoring the Swedish table tennis star - a high honor. Jan-Ove Waldner is the only living foreigner who has ever appeared on a Chinese postage stamp.

"Ma Long: King of Epic Shots" highlights some of Long's more amazing shots during his storied career. Notice Long's quick and active footwork and his powerful looping forehand and backhand shots (hence the term "double winged looper").

Waldner was the first player to win tennis' grand slam in 1992, and China's Ma Long was the last player to accomplish this feat in 2016. Long is the current Olympic and World Champion, and he has held the world's number one ranking for 64 months, longer than any other player. Along with a host of other records and statistical anomalies, he has won a record five straight International Table Tennis Federation World Tour tournaments and is the only male player to have won every singles title. As arguably the best two-winged looper in table tennis history, it is not surprising that he is widely acknowledged to be the greatest player of all time.

Known as "The Mozart" of table tennis, Waldner earned a reputaion as a master technician. The above video features some his magical shots. If you do not have the time or inclination to watch the entire video , do yourself a favor and watch the action at minute 5:11. You will witness one of the greatest recovery shots and rally comebacks in the history of the game.

Right behind Long, many consider Waldner to be the second best player in table tennis history. Although twenty-three years Long's senior, Sweden's iron man of table tennis was still competing when Long was at his peak, and quite often, Waldner gave as good as he got. There are many Waldner fans and table tennis enthusiasts who would like to have seen the two square off when both players were in their primes. Still, their matches were electric. Below is a video comparing the play of the two table tennis grand masters.

The video "Clash of Titans," compares the play of Jan-Ove Waldner with that of Ma Long. The first half of the film features Waldner highlights, and the second those of Ma Long. You be the judge.