Boll proud to paddle on against China's finest

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Timo Boll of Germany competes during the men's singles second round match against Ma Long of China at ITTF World Tour Platinum, Qatar Open in the Qatari capital Doha on March 29, 2019. (Xinhua/Nikku)

Timo Boll says he is proud to have fought against generations of Chinese table tennis masters, and has not ruled out renewing the epic rivalry at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

In a recent interview with Xinhua, the 40-year-old paddler recalled his experiences of taking on world champions Kong Linghui, Wang Liqin, Zhang Jike and Ma Long, as well as fast-emerging youngsters like Wang Chuqin.

"Ma Lin was a tough opponent. He played really smart and his style was very unusual for Europeans. He always found a good strategy against me. I only had two or three wins against him," said the German.

Boll reckons Fan Zhendong, who won singles silver in Tokyo behind Ma Long, is the most difficult player to beat.

"He plays a bit the same style like me, but a little better. He's more powerful and physical," said Boll.

Having faced so many top Chinese players through the decades, Boll says no single strategy could be used to outmaneuver them, and his only hope of triumphing was to mix up his game.

"They have perfect technique and I have to surprise them with every single shot to get them out of balance, to make them a little bit insecure or unconfident."

With a sizable legion of fans in China, Boll is studying Chinese language and culture at the Confucius Institute in Dusseldorf.

Boll, the winner of eight European championships singles titles, believes China's dominance on the table is due to the country's training system.

"Table tennis is a technical sport and you need to start early to have good technique from the beginning. China has a good talent-scouting system and top coaches for young players. They can practice a lot when they are young," he said.

"When they grow to become top players, they practice together. It really helps a lot. Young players especially profit from that."

Boll says European players start their professional training a little later in their lives and do not train as much as the Chinese. This difference, he contends, could be a reason why European players tend to peak later than their Chinese rivals and why they have longer careers.

"If you practice a lot, the body and mind might be a little tired or even damaged. The Chinese players might meet physical or mental problems earlier, which may not support them to keep competing against the young ones," he said.

"I see table tennis as my hobby and passion. I still love the sport the same way as when I was young."

'Lot of respect'

Boll reached the last 16 in the men's singles in Tokyo, and won silver in the men's team event with Germany, which lost to China in the final.

Rating his performance at the Games as a seven out of 10 in the singles, and a nine for the team events, Boll said: "I won all the important games before the final. In the team final, it took me one and a half sets to get used to the style of Ma Long. He played fantastically with lots of self-confidence. Every shot was precise.

"The whole German team had a good performance, even though we lost 3-0 in the final. We have to admit that China is the best country. We show a lot of respect for how strong they are."

Boll has collected many of the sport's top honors throughout his career, but Olympic gold has proved elusive.

"Maybe I have felt a little more pressure, especially in tough games when you lose control," said Boll.

"Sometimes I had my chances, but I just didn't take them. My opponents always played better than me. I cannot say I did not give my all."

Ruefully recalling his disappointing campaign at the 2004 Athens Games, Boll said of his quarterfinal defeat to Swedish legend Jan-Ove Waldner: "I beat him three weeks before, but three weeks later in the Olympics I lost to him."

Germany's best hope of denying China men's singles gold in Tokyo lay with Dimitrij Ovtcharov. He ultimately dropped a gripping semifinal 4-3 to Ma Long, and Boll is hopeful his teammate can continue to challenge Chinese dominance in three years' time at the Paris Olympics.

"He is 32, but still many years younger than me and he'll have some more years at the highest level. He believes he can go full power to Paris 2024. For me, I try to keep my level, but it's getting harder and harder," said Boll.

He's not ruling out making a seventh Olympic appearance in the French capital, and says he won't be retiring any time soon.

"I'm the type of guy who thinks not too far away, especially when I'm 40," he said. "I enjoy every day of competing and practicing. I have done this all my life."

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