China's champions have no time to rest on laurels

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Sun Yingsha (left) and Wang Manyu completed China's clean sweep of gold medals by beating Japan's Hina Hayata and Mima Ito 4-2 in Sunday's doubles final at the world championships. [Photo/Xinhua]

Liu Guoliang became an icon as a player and coach. Now, as chief of China's table tennis governing body, he's aiming to steer the national team to a new level of supremacy.

Liu, who was appointed chairman of the Chinese Table Tennis Association last December, proved his worth by helming the national team to a perfect record at the world championships in Budapest last week, sweeping all five gold medals.

The result should provide long-awaited motivation for a squad that had struggled for several months in the face of challenges from rising regional rivals, particularly Japan, ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Ma Long claimed his third straight singles title at the worlds on Sunday - becoming the first man in over half a century to do so - and also won doubles gold with teammate Wang Chuqin.

On the women's side, Liu Shiwen won the singles crown by defeating teammate Chen Meng, and Chinese pair Sun Yingsha and Wang Manyu took doubles gold by beating Japan's Hina Hayata and Mima Ito.

China's Xu Xin and Liu Shiwen beat Japanese duo Maharu Yoshimura and Kasumi Ishikawa to strike gold in mixed doubles, which will be a new event at the Tokyo Games.

"This time we defeated Team Japan at the worlds, but it does not mean we can beat them every time," said Team China boss Liu.

"Japan wants to surpass us before the Tokyo Olympics, so they have added mixed doubles as a new event at the Games.

"They pushed as hard as they could, so we have to keep winning at key international tournaments and force them to be afraid of striking at key moments of a match. We must constantly improve in order to avoid being surpassed."

China's brightest star at the worlds was Ma. Returning from an eight-month injury layoff, no one was certain if the 30-year-old multi-Olympic champion still had what it takes to compete with the world's best.

Winning two titles in Budapest made Ma only the third man to claim three or more consecutive world singles crowns, a feat that had not been achieved since compatriot Zhuang Zedong won the 1961, 1963 and 1965 editions of the biennial competition.

Hungary's Viktor Barna won four consecutive titles in the 1930s when the world championships were held annually.

Ma was very emotional after Sunday's singles final. With tears in his eyes, he shouted to the crowd in English: "I am made in China!"

That simple sentence instantly became one of the most trendy topics on Chinese social media, viewed more than 300 million times on Weibo as of Monday morning.

"This might be my last individual world championships," Ma said. "I value this opportunity and don't want any regrets for the rest of my life."

Meanwhile, women's singles champion Liu Shiwen ended a 10-year wait to find her golden stroke at the worlds. She had won two silver and three bronze medals in her past five outings at the individual worlds and had not claimed an international title since July 2018 in Australia.

"Ever since I became a World Cup champion at the age of 19, I have dreamed of winning the world championships," said the 28-year-old, whose raw emotion after the match showed just how much the victory meant to her.

"I had missed the opportunity by losing two finals and I was doubting my ability to succeed. I even considered giving up. I am so grateful to all those who have supported me all this while and to my team for giving me this chance to win today."

Team China returned to Beijing on Monday and chairman Liu said it's time to prepare for the next test.

"Everything will start over again; we have to make sure every player will learn something after this trip," he said.

"After all, not everyone is a champion. We will help them adjust their psychological situations, but there's no time for sorrow because the next race in coming."

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