Updated: July 27, 2021 12:54:10 pm
Ma Long, the World No. 3 men’s singles table tennis player, raised his racquet perpendicular to the palm of his left hand and put his racquet down on the table to call for a time-out.
The three-time Olympic gold medallist then walked towards his coach. He looked worried, an expression he usually forces opponents into.
He had played India’s Achanta Sharath Kamal four times before they met on Tuesday, at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, for their men’s singles third round Olympic tie. He had won all those matches and dropped just one game. But the Indian perhaps had never seen the Chinese super star anxious before.
The commentator Adam Bobrow stated that Long had made it clear in pre-Olympic interviews that any game dropped in Tokyo would feel like he let down his country. And a player of Long’s stature has the talent to back up that confidence.
But after 19 minutes, when Sharath drew level to make it 1-1, Long had been given reason to worry.
A short while later Long called for a time-out at a crucial juncture of the match. He was leading 12-11 in the third game and Sharath was about to serve.
Again Bobrow explained the significance of the move, claiming when the Chinese call for a break it comes from the coach, not the player. But it paid off. Sharath’s rhythm was broken as Long took the game. And then he started to turn the screws in what became a 4-1 (11-7, 8-11, 13-11, 11-4, 11-4) win for the World No.3.
It was always going to be a hard task for Sharath to take on a player with many tags – The Dictator, The Dragon, The Captain, The Greatest Of All Time, and his name translates to ‘horse dragon – and even more accolades.
He has won 28 tour events, three Olympic gold medals, two World Cups and three World Championship singles titles. He had held the World No.1 rank for 64 months – 34 consecutively, a men’s record.
To beat a player of this stature Sharath could not waste any time engaging in long rallies. He’d need to strike the ball well and true right from the start. And that’s exactly what he did.
“You can’t let a player like Ma Long get into a rally,” says 2008 Olympian Neha Aggarwal.
“Sharath did the right thing by going for his shots from the start, pushing the opponent throughout and going for quick points.”
The tactic was working tremendously well. Long was being hassled in a match he would have expected to have breezed through. Then came that crucial match turning time-out.
“It’s true that the Chinese rarely take time outs. Even when they’re down, the players are smart and quick enough to turn things around themselves,” Aggarwal says. “So the fact that Sharath forced him to call for the break is a big thing itself.”
The break stopped Sharath’s flow, and it gave Long enough time to change his own strategy. Till then he might have been treating this match like a regular encounter against a lower ranked opponent. But now he could sense trouble. He had to bring out the big guns.
“He started hitting the ball with much more pace and it made it difficult for Sharath. He’s still quite quick for a 39-year-old, but the reaction-time has gone down and footwork speed too. So the speed in Long’s shots made it difficult,” she adds.
“And then he was putting in more spin as well. The shots were coming in faster and spinning more, making it difficult to control. If he was playing at 90 percent earlier, Sharath forced him to step things up.”
Both players came out with the intention of finishing points early – the average rally length over the five games was 5, 5, 5, 4, 4. For a majority of the first three games Sharath stayed relatively level. Then Long decided he needed to play like the World No.1 he once was.
Credit to Sharath, however, for forcing the Chinese to do so.
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