Maintaining China’s grip at the top of the table tennis rankings requires solidarity and innovation, says former national team coach

By Zhang Ni and Li Sikun Source:Global Times Published: 2019/9/26 20:23:40

Ren Guoqiang gives guidance to Ding Ning who is one of China's five Grand Slam Champion. Photo: Courtesy of Ren Guoqiang

The key to success in table tennis, said Ren Guoqiang, is "sticking together and innovation." Ren, former coach of China's national table tennis team, speaking to the Global Times in an exclusive interview, gave his opinion on how the Chinese table tennis team could retain its grip on the world championships.  

Ren, 65, who served in the national team for more than 30 years, both as player and coach before retiring in 2015, stressed that young players have to "live dangerously." Despite their predecessors' glorious achievements, a result of continuous striving by their forebears in the national team, young players cannot rest on their laurels. "There will never be a time to play it safe," he said.

To play ball is to play with people with different ideas and capacities, Ren said, remembering what his own team leader used to say. These beliefs have been passed on and combined into the current training philosophy for Chinese table tennis players, he said. 

Ren started playing table tennis at elementary school. He recalls the happiness at school when Rong Guotuan claimed the world men's singles championship in 1959, China's first world title in sports.  

"After that the teacher started to teach us table tennis. We found two wooden planks [as bats] and took turns to play," Ren said. 

Ren later joined the provincial team and then the national team. Although he never won a world championship as a player, he said it was the dream of the world championship that motivated him to become a coach. 

Great innovation

Ren was coach for Olympic champion Liu Guoliang - current president of the Chinese Table Tennis Association - and Olympic gold medalist Kong Linghui. It was a time of innovation in playing techniques, which included changes to one of the sport's classic grips, known as the "reverse penhold backhand." 

The change came after the defeat of the men's team at the 1989 World Table Tennis Championships in Dortmund, Germany, which highlighted the need to change China's traditional technique system. 

Before the defeat, the Chinese team used the reverse penhold backhand grip mainly with the grain side of the bat, which was called the "right side," as there was no rubber on the opposite side of the bat.

After the defeat, Xu Yinsheng, the leading figure in Chinese table tennis at that time, started promoting spinning techniques used by European players, making great innovations to playing style in China, Ren said.   

Ren said that Xu came to the training center every day after work and shared his thoughts with young coaches and checked their training methods. 

"After he worked with us for about a year, Liu Guoliang, Wang Fei, Feng Zhe and many other players who used to play with traditional techniques all made great breakthroughs," Ren noted. 

The biggest change to the traditional grip came when a rubber was added to the other side of the bat, which made it heavier. Many players struggled to adjust, including Liu, who was 13 at the time. Ren said Liu even broke down in tears at the national junior competition in 1989. 

It was Xu's encouragement that helped Liu adjust quickly, Ren said. Xu asked him "Guoliang, do you believe in yourself?" Liu said yes. "Then why did you cry? If you can't take a small challenge like this, you can go back where you came from." 

In the end, Liu won his first national junior championship at 13. Later in 1992, he did not lose a single game in China table tennis invitational tournament between the world's four strongest teams at the time - China, North Korea, Yugoslavia (broke up in April 1992) and Sweden. Four years after that, he won double gold on his Olympic debut in the men's singles and doubles at the 1996 Atlanta Games.  

Looking back, Ren noted that it was the changes in techniques they instituted that improved the Chinese team so much. 

Hard-working followers

Ren was appointed coach of China's women's team in 2006. World champion Guo Yue and one of China's five Grand Slam Champion's Ding Ning were part of his team. A grand slam in table tennis means winning singles titles at the Olympics, World Cup and the World Table Tennis Championships.

Ding was the youngest in the team and ranked lowest at that time. Her technique was not exceptional, but she grafted the hardest, Ren said.

"Ding was neither good at [remembering] technical statistics, nor careful with details. So I talked to Ding about Guo. I told Ding that Guo was able to memorize a match from the first hit to the last, and Guo could memorize a lot of games, which made Guo's attacks very accurate," Ren said. 

He assigned Ding to analyze five games over a weekend and report back her assessment. 

Ren said he did not expect Ding to finish as she had only a half day off over the weekend after training and studying. But she made it. 

"So I told her that she did very well and taught her how to analyze [matches]: how many times a player wins and loses in a round, how to round up the percentage of a player winning a round…" Ren said. 

Ren said he witnessed a big change in Ding along with the method as she realized that there is no need to use all her strength every time. Ordinary attacks can lead to winning, too. 

At the 2019 ITTF-ATTU Asian Table Tennis Championship in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, Chinese table tennis team won seven gold medals. In the monthly top 10 rankings of the International Table Tennis Federation, five spots are occupied by Chinese men, and six by Chinese women players. 

These successes are based on China's national system, Ren said. 

"China provides strong support for table tennis. In the national system, each team has manpower for research, medical and psychological support. Housing and facilities are also provided by the government. No other country can do this, which guarantees our success." 

Leng Shumei contributed to the story

Newspaper headline: Success off the bat

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