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The best table tennis players of all time

Everyone’s interested in who the top athletes, football or tennis players of all time are. It’s no difference for the sport of table tennis either.

However, it’s quite a challenge to pick out 5 players and claim they’re the best in their category. Many people tried and created top lists, sometimes based on objective metrics such as the number of titles and gold medals, other times by taking into account subjective opinions for instance, popularity.

Now, my aim is to provide some kind of mixture. By gathering the greatest achievements of the players while looking at their reputation as well as likeability, we’ll get a clear idea who the best might be. 

The article is unique, since it will be constantly updated. The reason is that I don’t think anyone shall cram only a limited number of big names into one post and keep it as it is. That approach wouldn’t be fair. My aim is to create the most comprehensive content about the best table tennis players, which takes some time. But within a year or two the effort will hopefully be paid off and you’ll be able to find the best ones on one single page.

Please, keep in mind, the order of the players are firstly based on my research and personal opinion, any other viewpoint is respected.

Ma Long

Ma Long (nicknamed as the “Dragon” and “ITTF Pro Tour King”) is definitely one of the best players of all time, no surprise he earned the most exclusive place on the list. 

He set so many records that are almost hard to count. Firstly, after winning the Men’s Singles at the 2016 Olympics in Rio he became the 5th player who completed the Grand Slam (Olympics, World Championship and World Cup Gold medal). Besides, he broke Vladimir Samsonov’s record in 2019, by winning the 28th ITTF World Tour. By now, he’s the 1st male player around the globe who’s won every singles title. At the age of 17, Ma Long became the youngest world champion when he played in the 2006 Bremen World Team Championship. Another spectacular achievement is that he managed to hold the number 1 ranking for more than 5 years. 

As Lio Guoliang claimed once:

“Ma Long has the deepest knowledge of the game, he’s the number 1 in the world. His main weakness now, is age.”

Personally, I’m sure there’ll still be some brilliant moments we can expect from him.

Jan Ove Waldner

Along with Ma Long, the Swedish J-O Waldner is also considered the No. 1 player in table tennis history by many. His smooth and beautiful movements are inimitable.

Waldner started his career in the early 70’, and showed his unique talent in the very beginning by easily returning the ball 60-70 times to the table. Few people know that he was a perfectionist. Some rumors say, the young Waldi was the first who switched the lights on in the training hall, as well as the last one who switched them off. The huge effort that he put into his game paid off immensely as time passed by.

He’s one of the players who took part in the first five Olympics, indicating that he played on the top level for more than 2 decades. Waldi is also one of the exceptions who is a Grand Slam champion, by winning the World Cup, Olympics and World Championship singles golds. 

Besides his great victories, most of us remember him as the genius with an unmistakably elegant playing style.

Unfortunately by now, J.O. doesn’t compete actively among the pros, as he retired officially in 2016. However, he left quite a lot of spectacular rallies to watch for future generations.

Timo Boll

The left-handed Timo is undoubtedly one of the most successful German athletes. He was ranked No. 1 in 2003, 2011 and in March, 2018.

He started his table tennis career at the age of 4. Timo, as a kid, was talented in almost all kinds of sports he tried. Therefore, the final decision towards ping pong was only made 6 years later, when he gave up his soccer and tennis training. 

As now we know, he began to exploit his skills and managed to prove his greatness quite early by winning 3 gold medals at the European Youth Championships in 1995. And that was only the beginning. By the time, Timo Ball has grown to be the most threatening opponent of the Chinese players. 

Up until now, Boll has won the World Cup 2 times, the Single European Championship 7 times and the Europe Top-16 7-times.

Fan Zhendong

The most promising players of the decade. Many people wonder how he could not be a Grand Slammer yet? What I say, just wait for it, sooner or later he’ll become one.

Related to his achievements, the list is already quite impressive. He was a member of the  World Championship winner, Chinese national team at the age of 17. Fan has won the World Cup singles 3-times as well as the prestigious Asian Championship 2-times.

He’s playing style is usually compared to his teammate and world No. 1 Ma Long. He has perfect footwork and enormous forehand loops to finish off the rallies. His stout, but muscled build led commentators to call him the “Little Fatty”. It’s a nickname that we shouldn’t take too seriously. though. As the rumors say, when he was selected to the national team, the talented Fan was trained personally by Ma Lin and Wang Hao. Most likely, these sessions contributed to improving his game rapidly to a very high level.

Fan is not only outstanding physically, but his mental strengths are improving more and more. As he stated in an interview:

I realised that nothing can guarantee to win every single time, I need to adjust my style according to different situations. By putting too much emphasis just on the technique, without a strong, determined mental approach will not work.

Liu Guoliang

During his professional career (as a player), he accomplished to win all titles at the main world tournaments. Since 2001, he has been the former head coach of the Chinese National Men’s Team. And he’s doing fantastic in this role, thus – based on the number of winning titles – he’s the most successful head coach in history so far. Besides his duties as a coach, he also manages the Chinese Table Tennis Association as a president since 2018. 

Probably, for him the most memorable competition is the 1996 Olympics when he won the men’s singles and doubles titles. In the same year, he won the men’s singles World Cup, then 3 years later the World Singles Championship as well, which led him to be a Grand Slammer. Additionally, he was also a member of the World Championship winner Chinese team in 1995 and 1997.

Zhang Jike

He got acquainted with the sport around the age of 4. Thanks to his father – who was a table tennis coach -, he improved his game quickly. Zhang is the exceptional player who achieved the Grand Slam only within 445 days, and the one who was closest to winning the 2nd one. 

In 2011, he secured his name in table tennis history by winning the World Championship, the World Cup and the Olympics. In 2013, again, he won the World Championship, then the World Cup in 2014. Up until now, he has won 6 Pro Tours. 

Zhang Jike is known for his mental strengths as he almost always managed to win the most crucial rallies. Besides, he’s got a killer forehand and backhand loop which helped him achieve many of his victories. The audience also likes and cheers for him – regardless where he plays -, which is partly due to his passionate and sometimes fun celebrations. 

Is Zhang Jike retired?

In the past few years he’s been fighting with back pain. In 2016, after the Olympics he even announced that he’s already prepared for retirement. According to the latest rumors, he doesn’t plan his comeback for the Tokyo Olympics, which – besides his previous injury – might be also because of his lack of motivation.

Ma Lin

Ma Lin retired in 2013, and now he works as the former coach of the Guangdong provincial table tennis team. He was 14 years old when he joined the Chinese national team. Ma Lin is the exceptional player who managed to win Olympic gold in singles, doubles and team as well. In addition, he holds a record with 4 World Cup victories.

One of the things that differentiate him from other players is that he uses a penhold grip. This allows him to highly vary the services and returns, making the opponent under constant pressure. Not surprisingly, he’s considered to be the best server in the world, even earning a nickname to “Ghost Server”. Among others, he also gained titles such as “Maestro Ma Lin,” “Defense Killer,” and “Table Tennis Olympic Champion”, relating to his achievements at the Olympics.

Why don’t people like Ma Lin?

Some may criticize him due to his unusual behavior and grimaces. True facts that he got yellow cards from the empire many times, took long breaks until his next service and disagreed with the opponents sometimes. However, these are not unique attitudes if we look around the professional table tennis or even tennis players. 

Wang Liqin

Similarly to many other kids, Wang Liqin started to play at the age of 6. Nine years later he was already selected to the Chinese Men’s National Team, which gave a quick boost to his career.

Before Ma Long broke his record, he was ranked No. 1 in the world for the longest period of time, with 25 months. He put an end to his marvellous career in 2013.

He won the World Championship Singles three-times and made a victory in doubles at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Wang Liqin collected two olympic bronze medals in singles and one gold medal in a team together with Wang Hao and Ma Lin. Considering his Pro Tour performance, he stood on the top podium 21-times altogether.

As regards to his style, he aimed to dominate with his forehand loops. His height is above average that he used for his own benefits, speeding up the ball and getting into a topsin rally.

Wang Hao

Wang Hao clearly deserves his place on the list. During his 16 years-long career, he won the World Cup three times and set a record by competing in the most prestigious tournaments twelve times altogether. Between October 2007 and December 2009 he led the ITTF world rankings.

Probably, the only achievement that is missing from the shelf is the Olympics gold. Even though he got into the finals three times in a row (starting in Athen 2004), he couldn’t make it to the end. 

His popularity was also because of his entertaining and unique playing style. He used a penhold grip, which allowed him to be dominant on the forehand side. However, Wang Hao didn’t follow the usual scenario, but developed to perfection his backhand shots by hitting the ball with the reverse-side of the paddle. When he joined the national team, most of his teammates didn’t think highly of him, but Wang proved them wrong and became one of the most “dangerous” offensive players.

He announced his retirement in 2014 in a private party. Even though he doesn’t compete professionally, he’s still around in table tennis and takes a role as a coach in the national team.

Xu Xin

Due to his showman attitude and insane skills, he’s become the favorite player of many people lately. Xu Xin’s successful ride began in 2012 by winning the World Tour Grand Finals. This achievement guaranteed him to start the next year as the world No. 1.

Until June 2020, he’s won 17 Pro Tour Singles titles. He’s a three time World Champion in doubles, two times in mixed doubles and five times in a team. No surprise, he’s stated as the best double player nowadays. Besides the World Championship victories, he’s reached the top at the Rio Olympics in 2016 with his fellow teammates, Zhang Jike and Ma Long.

During the years he earned numerous nicknames such as “XUperman”, “Cloudwalker” or “Showman”.

Vladimir Samsonov

The Belarusian player – also called the “Tai Chi Master” in China – is another crucial icon in the field of table tennis. 

During his remarkably long career, he’s gained a total of 27 men’s singles titles on the ITTF World Tours. He participated at six consecutive Olympic Games between 1996 and 2016. Vladi is also famous for playing 15 years in a row at the European Champions League and winning twelve titles with three different teams.

He was closest to becoming a world champion in 1997, Manchaster when he encountered Waldner in the final. For his bad luck, the Swedish legend was in top shape and beat him 3 smooth sets. Despite the fact, he didn’t win this specific title, he earned the World Cup shiniest trophy three times. 

Is Samsonov ever going to retire?

In the year of 2020, he’s turning 45 years-old and gets the same question frequently.

As the legend replies:

“I know that at some point I’ll have to retire, but in any case I’d love to be connected to table tennis in the future”.

His superb elegant, ball controlled style as well as his fair play attitude has brought joy to many. Needless to say, the fans hope to see him continue playing for a long time.

Stay tuned, more players will come soon!

Photo credit: ITTF

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