Perhaps one of the most famous table tennis player that has ever lived is Jan Ove Waldner, a Swedish genius who was born in Stockholm October 13th, 1965. Waldner has achieved almost everything that table tennis has to offer: besides the several international accomplishments, he won the Olympic games in Barcelona in 1992, and also the World Cup in 2000 that was held in China. It is fair to say that he helped Sweden become one of the leading table tennis nations to a great extent. Some people call him a magician, while others say that he is a table tennis god. One thing is sure: J-O Waldner deserves his fame and popularity.
How did it all start?
The 1970’s was an ideal era for those who wanted to conquer the table tennis scene of the world. In the case of Sweden’s, the example was set by Stellan Bengtsson, who became the first Swedish world champion in 1973; and the Swedish table tennis team itself that was able to win the gold medal two years later in 1975. The sport gained extreme popularity after these successes: more clubs were offering training opportunities and competitions were constantly being held at weekends. The young Waldner lived in the suburbs of Stockholm, so it is not surprising that he began his table tennis career at the most promising clubs of Sweden, the Stockholm Spårvägar. After some years of practice, J-O defined his goal: becoming the best Swedish player and being among the top 10 players in the world. The circumstances were all set: players, such as, Mikael Appelgren, Ulf Thorsell and Roger Lagerfeldt proved to be great training partners, and supporters along his journey. They trained every day and night together for years, which undoubtedly contributed to their later success.
The early signs of the genius
Waldner’s brilliance showed at a rather early age. Being only seven years old, he was able to return 60-70 backhands without missing the ball. Two years later, he already had a decent forehand loop, which was quite unique compared to his club mates. Table tennis allows to do countless tricks, which quickly became Waldner’s favorite activity. He liked to make a fool of his opponents, giving incredibly and unexpected spins to the ball. J-O had an organic feel of the game, and he loved discovering new shots which he developed until perfection over the years. Although he could not stand losing, when he did so, he tried to make the most out of it: training harder and polishing his leaks, if there were any. According to his memoir, besides his incredible talent and immense persistence, his safe family background was also an important factor that made him the best.
The turning point in China
While still improving his game, the young Waldner, along with other Swedish national players, flought to a training camp held in China. The trip was a turning point in his career and changed his attitude towards the sport. He hadn’t experienced such respect for the sport anywhere in Europe before. The dedication and solidarity of the Chinese players highly impressed him and gave him a solid boost to achieve his goals. As China loved J-O, it is not surprising that he became the most popular and admired European ping pong player in China. Rumor has it that there was a time when he was being recognized more easily in China then the President of the United States, Bill Clinton himself.
Jan Ove Waldner’s playing style
Waldner read the game like a book: he absolutely controlled each rally. From an outsider’s perspective, it seemed like that there is nothing that could surprise him during a match. Although some people may argue that every professional player has strong basics, Waldner’s was on another level. His tactical awareness was also brilliant: he never lost his temper and was always one step ahead of his opponents, which showed in his effortless way of returning serves, and picking the best serves each time. As in tennis, a good serve can win many points, therefore the match itself. Waldner had a wide range of serves, laying constant pressure on his opponents. After the opening, he could control, then finish the point most of the times. J-O’s forehand and backhand were elegant, smooth and effective. His touch of the ball was always perfect: he could add as much spin to the ball as he intended. Due to the hard work and conscious practice, he also developed great footwork: it was rare to see the ball passing him. At times, this rapidity of his ended up in him standing 20 metres from the table, returning the ball, and still being able to rush to the table and finish the point whenever necessary.