Crisis deepens as paddlers sink to new low

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Liang Guoliang (L) and Zhang Jike. [Xinhua]

Time is running out for China's table tennis chief, Liu Guoliang, to revitalize the nation's flagging fortunes in its beloved sport ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The enormity of Liu's task was highlighted by an embarrassing, some might say disastrous, performance by the national team at last week's ITTF World Tour Grand Finals in Incheon, South Korea.

Instead of a clean sweep of golds that fans had been hoping for, China's only title came in the women's singles-the nation's worst ever performance at the tournament.

The miserable showing was yet more evidence of a power shift in the sport, with Japan now leading the way as it eyes glory at the Tokyo Games.

In the men's singles final, Japanese 15-year-old Tomokazu Harimoto vanquished China's world No 4 Lin Gaoyuan 4-1 to become the youngest athlete to win the title.

"I was not in my best condition throughout the game because I felt huge pressure during the final and I worried too much," said 23-year-old Lin.

Lin's coach, Liu Guozheng, was left stunned by the loss.

"The last time Lin Gaoyuan played a great game against Harimoto, so we didn't anticipate how hard this match would be and how quickly the teenager has developed.

"Actually, we'd studied Harimoto beforehand, but his performance still went beyond our expectation. We need to conduct a more detailed analysis when we get back home. There is so much work to be done for the Olympics."

In another big shock, China's world No 1 Fan Zhendong crashed 2-4 defeat to Brazil's Calderano Hugo in the quarterfinals.

"Hugo's great performance deserves the victory and good luck!" Fan conceded afterward in a Weibo post.

China couldn't compete in the men's doubles after Ma Long's late injury withdrawal, while the mixed doubles team failed to qualify for the Finals.

"I want to apologize to all the fans," said 30-year-old world and Olympic champion Ma.

"My knee keeps hurting, and I tried so hard to play in the Grand Finals. However, the recovery wasn't good enough."

World No 4 Chen Meng's gold and an all-Chinese lineup in the women's semifinals at least provided some positives for the team. However, a new breed of Japanese paddlers, including 18-year-old Ito Mima, continually threatens to usurp China at the top of the women's game, too.

It all adds up to a huge test of Liu's tenure as chairman of the Chinese Table Tennis Association.

During his inauguration speech earlier this month, Liu remarked: "Even if there are competitive rivals and difficulties, we will still pull teeth from the tiger's mouth."

The 42-year-old, though, is well aware that won't be easy.

"We are facing a very real and severe crisis. Given the age of our top foreign rivals, we might face greater challenges in the Olympics," he said recently. "Japan has been making efforts for decades and dreams of winning gold in Tokyo. I have to admit the gap is closing."

As the first Chinese player to win a career grand slam (world championships, World Cup and Olympic titles), Liu appears ideally qualified to turn things around.

He has already introduced two reforms-the establishment of an athletes' committee and a new two-way selection system for coaches and players in a bid to produce more suitable partnerships.

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