A Crack in the Great Wall

Table Tennis Thoughts

Thanks to Glenn O'Dea for this interesting article. What are your thoughts? Is there really a crack appearing in the great wall?

China retained both the men's and women's titles
Photo Courtesy of ITTF

Do I detect a small crack in the Great Wall of China? Is the influence of the greatest table tennis nation in the world starting to slip? Well, not in the short term, but the balance of power may be starting to tilt away from Beijing.

Looking through the list of players on the ITTF World Rankings, most people don’t venture past the top ten. Luckily for you, dear readers, I am not “most people”. It is possible to investigate the details of Senior players, Under 21, Under 18 and Under 15 rankings for Men & Women. And the details show a startling pattern.

There are 1,297 players listed in the Senior Men’s rankings, and as we all know China has players ranked at numbers 1, 2, 3, & 4. Very impressive. But the only other players China has in that list are at positions 11, 191, 542, and 552. China, the greatest power in table tennis over the past 40 years has only 8 players out of nearly 1,300 in the Senior Men’s rankings. And the participation is on the decline. In the same rankings in 2014, China had 25 players listed. That’s a 68% drop in 2 years.

By comparison, Japan and Russia both have 36 players in this list, Egypt has 28, Germany has 27, Korea has 21 and Australia has 12. Yep, that’s right. Australia has more players in the Senior Men’s rankings than China.

So it gets better for China in the Under 21’s, doesn’t it? They have the number 1 there as well. They also have the numbers 37, 209, & 215. That’s it. 4 players out of 637. And the comparisons? France has 29, Japan has 27, Egypt 23, Russia 22, Germany 18, Korea 17, and Australia has 7. Again, Australia has more players in the list than China.

Under 18’s? Here’s where things get diabolical. China has only 2 players, and they are ranked 103 & 108. And that’s out of the 474 listed players. That’s all they have. Just the 2 players. France has 20, Japan and Egypt have 18, Russia 17, Germany 15, and Australia has 6.

So their youth must be hiding in the Under 15 Boy’s then, right? Wrong. There are no Chinese listed in the 148 players in that age group.

Therefore, obviously the strength of the Chinese is in the Women’s ranking. Well, let’s look.

China has 7 players in the Senior Women’s ranking of 808 players. But they have the numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, and 8 in the top 10. Egypt has 34 players, Japan 33, France 31, Russia 28, Germany 25, and Australia has 15. 2 years ago, China had 21 Senior players in this list. This is a 66% decrease. Almost identical to the Men’s.

In the Under 21’s, the Chinese Women still have the number 1 spot, with only 2 other players in the list, and they are ranked at 278 & 509. Just 3 players out of 541. Egypt has 30, France has 26, Germany has 17 and Russia has 15.

The Under 18’s ranking is worse. Far worse. There is only 2 Chinese woman listed, at numbers 184 and 391. Out of 421 players, China only has 2 player listed. Egypt has 27 players, France has 23, Japan has 17 including the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 & 10. Russia has 11. Even Australia has 6 players in this list.

And the drought continues for the most populous nation on earth, with only 2 players listed in the 145 on the Under 15 Girl’s ranking. By comparison, Egypt has 14, France has 9, Russia and Germany have 7 each, and Japan has 5.

So where are the Chinese junior players? Are they being developed away from the prying eyes of the table tennis world, or do they simply not exist? We know that table tennis is their national sport, and that they have extremely strong internal competitions and training facilities, but surely they would want to test their younger players against the best the world has to offer.

In his excellent book, Ping Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World, Nicholas Griffin makes the point that “If you’re young and Chinese, you’re wearing a Houston Rockets shirt and bouncing a basketball on Beijing asphalt, or you’re wearing a Manchester United kit, sprinting after a dusty ball and dreaming of a greener field. Table tennis is a game your dad plays.”

So if the youth of China are falling out of love with their national sport, who will take their mantle as the top table tennis nation? Japan is the obvious answer. But they may not have it all their own way.

If you look at the list of participating countries in all the age groups, a few names keep cropping up. France, Russia and Egypt are all listed as having a large number of participants in each of the age groups for both men and women. Admittedly, their players all appear down the listing, but they’re there, Will they have a world champion within the next few years? I doubt it. But if you have a large number of participants the chances are you will find a diamond in a mountain of coal.

Posted 8 years ago

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Shaun Synot

Shaun Synot Posted 8 years ago

I think people forget that when Waldner was at his peak the Chinese were considered unbeatable but the Swedes defeated them. It's no different now someone will eventually come along and beat them,  Glenn's articles are always interesting.

Johan B

Johan B Posted 8 years ago

We know that table tennis is their national sport, and that they have extremely strong internal competitions and training facilities, but surely they would want to test their younger players against the best the world has to offer.


Maybe that's a reason they stick to their national competition.. Higher quality opponents

Chris Chin

Chris Chin Posted 8 years ago

This article is kinda off because it doesn't consider how many of the Chinese practice partners and super league participants in most all provincial teams and even the national b team have many members who don't get the chance to play internationally because of the almost assured victory of sending the top 4 instead. Also it might be a old article because players like shang kun, lin guoyuan, zhou yu, fang bo, yan an,liang jingkun are/were recently rated all very highly >wr80. Also when timo participated in the super league he lost to other rather unknown chinese players. So I believe the talent is still there but China doesn't allow it to show often in international play. 

Dieter Verhofstadt

Dieter Verhofstadt Posted 8 years ago

One answer could be found by looking at the situation 10 years ago: were Ma Long & co hiding back then, or were they out in the open?

Alois Rosario

Alois Rosario from PingSkills Posted 8 years ago

Good thought Dieter.  Whereas I can 't find easily his ranking at that time, here is a grab from Ma Long's record from around that time:

CHN  Pro Tour  2006  Guangzhou  CHN   Rd of 16  QF     
CHN  Pro Tour  2006  Singapore  SIN   SF  Runn-up     
CHN  Pro Tour  2006  Kunshan  CHN   Rd of 16  SF     
CHN  Pro Tour  2006  Kuwait City  KUW   Rd of 64  QF     
CHN  Pro Tour  2006  Doha  QAT   Rd of 32  QF     
CHN  Pro Tour  2006  Zagreb  HRV   Rd of 16  SF     
CHN  Pro Tour  2006  Velenje  SVN   QF  Winner   

Alois Rosario

Alois Rosario from PingSkills Posted 8 years ago

And here is his Pro Tour Grand Final results in total:

CHN  Pro Tour Grand Finals  2011  London  ENG   Winner  Runn-up     
CHN  Pro Tour Grand Finals  2009  Macau  MAC   Winner       
CHN  Pro Tour Grand Finals  2008  Macao  MAC   Winner       
CHN  Pro Tour Grand Finals  2007  Beijing  CHN   SF  SF     
CHN  Pro Tour Grand Finals  2006  Hong-Kong  HKG     Winner     
CHN  Pro Tour Grand Finals  2005  Fuzhou  CHN   QF   

Jeff Plumb

Jeff Plumb from PingSkills Posted 8 years ago

Here's some interesting pages showing the rankings of players over time:

Ma Long

Zhang Jike

Xu Xin

Fang Bo

Wang Hao

Jean Balthazar

Jean Balthazar Posted 8 years ago

In general I would think that the Chinese listed in the world ranking are only the visible part of the iceberg. As Chris mentioned, it definitely wasn't a walk in the park for Boll when he participated to the Chinese national championship, where he played against many internationally unknown opponents. Why is it that these guys don't come out of China, I don't know. On the other hand, are there ant sports in which you see lots of Chinese playing abroad? Although China is much more open now than it was in the past, it's still not that easy yet for them to get out and play in foreign countries.

Look at Zhang Jike's progression: he idled around the 150st place between 2002 and 2005, then he vanished for 3 years and came back directly in 84th place in 2008. What did he do during those 3 years? Bootcamping in China I guess...

Dieter Verhofstadt

Dieter Verhofstadt Posted 8 years ago

I guess if one has to choose between travelling around the world to meet mediocre players or staying home to encounter the fiercest of opponents, it's a choice made fast. Perhaps we should ask why a teenager Japanese prodigy needs to spend his life in airplanes ...

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