Fan Zhendong didn’t move much during the point, instead he pushed his Korean opponent a few feet away from the other end of the table. He served, early in the second game of the second men’s semi-final at the Asian Cup in Ahmedabad, against world no 14 Sang Su Lee. The South Korean did get his return back into play, but that’s when Fan took over the rally.
It was a point based on brute force rather than finesse. The world no 2 hammered his shot back, got a reply, and then powerfully drove again. With each passing exchange of the six-shot rally, Lee was forced to take a step back just to control the pace at which the ball came across the table — straight at him. Fan didn’t break a sweat nor move a muscle, as his third body shot found the Korean helplessly trying to push back, only to get a thick edge. The top seed from China looked firmly in command, while Lee’s evasive action made him look like an amateur. But that’s how it went on for most of the match that Fan won 11-5, 11-9, 11-8, 11-7.
Aged just 20, Fan has long been a feared opponent on the professional circuit. Back in 2012, aged 15, he won the Junior World Championship in Hyderabad, beating players three years older than him.
A year later, he won the Poland and German Opens in succession — the latter coming after he beat the likes of two-time Olympic medallist Zhang Jike and 2012 London bronze medallist Dimitrij Ovtcharov.
By November 2015, he had climbed to the no 2 rank for the second time in his career, and has never fallen in the charts since. Hailing from Guangzhou, China, Fan followed the path drawn up for the development of elite players. There’s no concept of academics, just full-blooded table tennis. The foundation programme, coupled by his dedication, made him one of the most proficient retrievers in the game. At the same time, his backhand has been rated as one of his most reliable weapons.
The dominance showed against Lee at the TransStadia venue, as Fan rarely gave away any winners. Barring his opening match defeat to Chen Chien-An in the group stage, the paddler has been composed.
He stands close to the table to begin a point — be it serving or receiving — and lifts the sleeve of his shorts up just a fraction as he bends to get into position. The routine exposes the chiselled muscles in his legs briefly before he springs into action once the ball is played.
At the Worlds, when he and world no 1 Ma Long scripted the most gripping finals the sport has seen.
Though Fan lost the clash, going down in the seventh game 12-10, he won four more points than the winner.
At the Asian Cup, he knows his way around, for he’s been a runner-up twice. He’s in the final for the third time and will face yet another Chinese opponent — world no 29 Lin Gaoyuan. This time though, the odds are in Fan’s favour to win his first gold.