Zhang planning to punch ticket to Tokyo Games

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Zhang Jike, file photo. [Photo/Xinhua]

Rusty but motivated, China's table tennis superstar Zhang Jike has returned to international competition, aiming for more Olympic glory.

Olympic and world champion Zhang made headlines after temporarily rediscovering his fast-attack game at the ongoing ITTF Hong Kong Open, coming on the heels of a six-month hiatus to develop a relationship with actress Jing Tian while enjoying celebrity life and appearing in TV reality shows.

Currently ranked world No 168 because of the long break, Zhang showed signs of rebooting his form in Hong Kong, pulling through qualification with 4-2 victories over Italy's Niagol Stoyanov and young compatriot Ma Te to make the main draw. However, on Thursday Zhang was sent packing 4-3 by young Japanese paddler Maharu Yshimura in the first round.

"It's hard for me at the moment to recover my physical strength and pick up my game again as I am already an old player on the tour," said the 30-year-old Zhang.

"I just need more competitions to shake off the rust on my body."

Zhang's comeback was a far cry from his heyday, when he won singles titles at the 2011 ITTF World Championships and World Cup and the 2012 London Olympics, becoming the fastest paddler to achieve a career grand slam (445 days).

Having enjoyed his private life and the crossover into showbiz, Zhang said he's refreshed for a second chapter of his athletic career and is focused on winning a medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

"Although it's challenging to return to the world's top level, I feel I've been motivated and determined enough for whatever difficulties to face as I want to go to the Olympics for a third time," said Zhang, who won team gold and singles silver at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

However, his attempt to make the three-spot men's team for Tokyo seems a long shot, with Ma Long, Xu Xin and Fan Zhendong, who have just won China's ninth men's team world title in a row, all far ahead of him.

The return of mixed doubles to the program in Tokyo provides Zhang with a more realistic opportunity to keep pursuing his Olympic dream.

He will team up with female shakehand attacker Wang Manyu to play mixed doubles at the China Open next week, reinforcing his shift of focus.

"Tokyo is my ultimate career goal. I will try to return to the men's top 10 and start my Olympic campaign again from there," said Zhang.

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