International stars, led by a 16-year-old Japanese prodigy, are challenging China’s ping-pong dominance

Society & Culture

The China Sports Column is a SupChina weekly feature.

The Table Tennis World Cup ended in Chengdu this week with China’s world No. 1 Fán Zhèndōng 樊振东 claiming a second straight World Cup title, his third in his career. The 22-year-old entered the tournament as the top seed and lived up to the expectations of the home crowd.

Mǎ Lóng 马龙, the Chinese team captain and face of Chinese table tennis, found himself dumped out of the tournament at the semifinal stage by the 16-year-old Japanese prodigy Tomokazu Harimoto (who lost 4-2 in the finals to Fan). Ma then lost the third-place game to 18-year-old Lin Yun-Ju (林昀儒 Lín Yúnrú) of Chinese Taipei.

Fan played consistently throughout the tournament, recording easy wins in the early stages. Only in the semifinal against Lin and in the final against Harimoto did Fan find himself under any pressure. The final — which can be watched in full here — was an engrossing affair that saw Fan trailing the young Japanese firecracker in the third set before pulling the game back on his way to winning the title. Harimoto looks like a potential star of the future and already has a signature move: a distinctive roar each time he wins a point.

In fact, this World Cup has been the story of Lin and Harimoto. The two teenagers broke a number of records in this tournament, which has been played every year since 1980. Lin is officially the youngest player to finish third, while Harimoto is the youngest player to feature in a final.

Harimoto has been a looming threat to Team China for a while now, after the youngster claimed top prize at last year’s end-of-year finals. But also emerging on the world stage in the last year are 19-year-old American Kanak Jha and 23-year-old Brazilian Hugo Calderon, who, together with Taiwan’s Lin, will challenge China’s dominance in the sport for years to come. While the world’s top four men’s players are Chinese, the next three are Harimoto, Calderon, and Lin. Of the five Chinese players in the top 10, only Fan is younger than 25.

Heading into the Olympics next year, all eyes will be on whether the young star from Japan — cheered on by his home fans — will be able to unseat the Chinese at their own game.

Jeremy Lin coming on strong

With the CBA season in full swing, we’re beginning to get a sense of which teams are contenders and which are not. (The Guangdong Southern Tigers and Xinjiang Flying Tigers, to no one’s surprise, currently top the standings.) Jeremy Lin, the biggest name in the league right now, has started well at his new home in Beijing. While the former NBA vet hasn’t blown the league away as many Ducks fans had hoped, he has been steady and consistent. Lin currently sits 15th in the league in points per game and 13th in assists.

On Wednesday, Lin had the best game of his young CBA stint, with a 36-point haul against the Guangzhou Loong Lions (with 8 rebounds and 6 assists). The Ducks are currently fifth in the standings, while Beijing’s other team — the Fly Dragons, coached by Stephon Marbury — are 8th (if you haven’t already, you need to check out the highlights of the Beijing derby last week).

CBA standings

Lin is not the only former NBA player making waves. Antonio Blakeney, released by the Chicago Bulls in the summer, is currently leading all scorers with 36.2 points per game. Blakeney, playing for Jiangsu Kendia, has been the star in Nanjing this year, though his team is currently sits 13th in the standings.

The Guangdong Southern Tigers — last year’s champs — are led by CBA debutant MarShon Brooks, the former Memphis Grizzlies guard who is averaging over 30 points per game. He’s supported by the best Chinese cast in the league, led by Yi Jianlian, who is averaging around 20 points and remains one of the best defenders and rebounders in the league. (More stats here.)

Guangzhou Evergrande wins Chinese Super League

Guangzhou Evergrande wins CSL 2019

The Chinese club season drew to a close last weekend as Guangzhou Evergrande picked up a record eighth title. The team from the south ran out comfortable 3-0 winners over a weakened Shanghai Shenhua. Shenhua, resting many first-team stars, including its foreign players, for the return leg of the Chinese FA Cup final on Saturday, looked as poor as it has all season, and was picked apart by Evergrande, who played at a pace way beyond the Shenhua reserves.

Beijing Guo’an, which entered the weekend two points behind Evergrande, had to fight back from a two-goal deficit in the first half against Shandong Luneng to keep their title hopes alive. Their efforts were in vain after Evergrande secured their victory.

Chinese soccer fans will now turn their attention to the forever-unanswered questions that linger around the national team, as well as the transfer window that opens on January 1. The theme of the offseason will certainly be the potential acquisition of players with naturalization potential. While you are reading this, there are directors of football and scouts scouring the family histories of transfer targets looking for any excuse to bring them on.

The China Sports Column runs every week on SupChina.