Dream teams unite for glory

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(Left) World and Olympic champion Ma Long celebrates Team China's victory over Germany on Sunday; Chen Meng leads China to victory over Japan in Saturday's women's final at the World Team Table Tennis Championships. [Photo/Xinhua]

Team China reasserted its dominance of the sport by claiming both gold medals at the World Team Table Tennis Championships in Chengdu, Sichuan province, over the weekend.

The victories, however, were far from straightforward, with the performances of a number of their fast-improving rivals warning China against any complacency.

"The victory this time is different. This is the fourth time I've participated in these championships. I was a substitute in the first two editions when I was still learning from the veterans, and now I'm already a core player. My role has changed and I shoulder more responsibility. But I just keep learning and growing," said men's world No 1 Fan Zhendong after the win.

China defeated Germany 3-0 in Sunday's men's final, a day after their female compatriots swept Japan 3-0 in their final.

The Chinese men's team avoided any defeats on its journey to the gold medal. The squad lifted the Swaythling Cup for the 10th straight time and 22nd time overall. The last team to stop China in the finals was Sweden in 2000.

The Chinese women's squad won its fifth consecutive women's team title to raise the Corbillon Cup for a record-extending 22nd time.

Team China players all agreed the challenges they faced together en route to the top podium made victory taste even sweeter than singles glory.

"This is a team competition, which requires everyone to be at their best to contribute to the team. I was actually worried that I might lose my match, but I had huge trust in my teammates to win," said Team China legend Ma Long, the reigning Olympic singles champion.

Chen Meng, a gold medalist at the Tokyo Olympics who now ranks second in the world, exemplified the team spirit of the women's squad.

"Before the final, I just told myself no matter how hard it might be, I must win my match in the final. I hoped to lift the morale of the team by winning the first match," said Chen, who overcame Japan's Miyuu Kihara in that opening encounter.

"And the performances of my teammates Wang Manyu and Sun Yingsha were also brilliant. I enjoyed the final so much, and gave it all I had. I just want to thank the trust and confidence that everyone gives me."

Chen's victory certainly seemed to ease the pressure on Sun Yingsha, as the world No 1 unleashed her full repertoire of shots.

"I prepared myself for the toughest possible match. But my teammates had great performances in the first two matches, so I had no pressure and was able to produce my best," said Sun.

"I'm really happy to win the world team title. All our players and our coach were very united. We trusted and supported each other."

Li Sun, the head coach of the women's squad, credited the great team spirit and hard work in training for the golden result.

"We all had the same goal, and that was to win this title. From the first match to the final, all our players had great momentum and produced great performances. That's the result of our tough training over the past few months," said Li.

Surging talents

Despite the two gold medals, the Chinese aces faced stern tests en route to victory to underline how quickly their foreign rivals are improving.

On the men's side, Japan gave the host team a big fright in the semifinals on Saturday. Young Japanese talent Tomokazu Harimoto defeated world No 1 Fan and young star Wang Chuqin consecutively in the semifinal, before Team China managed to win the fifth match to edge past Japan 3-2.

"In terms of the men, Team China has been challenged by rivals for decades. We have many strong opponents in Asia and Europe. There are always promising young foreign stars," said Qin Zhijian, head coach of the Chinese men's team.

"Since the Tokyo Olympics, many teams have been selecting more young players who are shining on the world stage. To take on those competitive young players, we are nurturing more of our own.

"Our lineup for the world team championships is a combination of three generations of players, such as veteran Ma Long, current world No 1 Fan Zhendong, who is now the core of the team, and youngster Wang Chuqin, who has very strong momentum."

The five-match final was also a tough test of endurance — both mentally and physically — for young star Wang Chuqin, who lost to Harimoto in his first match but bounced back to win the fifth match for Team China.

"Coming through a five-match semifinal at a major global championship is actually a very valuable experience for me. It's unusual for Team China to be pushed to the fifth match. My coach and teammates helped me a lot when I did not play so well, and they always gave me confidence and encouraged me," said 22-year-old Wang Chuqin, who now ranks 11th in the world.

Veteran Ma encouraged Wang throughout the championships, and the young players' growth has impressed the legend.

"Apart from me, the whole Chinese men's team is young with great momentum. Not only the players who participated in the championships here in Chengdu, there are more and more young Chinese players who are shining in WTT tournaments. I believe more Chinese players will impress the world," said Ma.

"As a table tennis player, I feel so lucky to be part of the Chinese team. I'm so lucky to have such a great group of teammates, and to be able to train and live with them. It's such a beautiful period of my life."

On the women's side, Japanese star Mima Ito has been Team China's strongest rival in recent years. She failed to win at the worlds last week but said the experience has made her a better player.

"Despite the 0-3 defeat to China, I actually enjoyed the final. Of all the contests, it was the best experience at these championships," said Ito. "Throughout our journey to the final, we encountered many difficulties and overcame them.

"I have become a better player and I reached my goal. Thinking back to my match against Wang Manyu, I identified a weakness of mine and now I know how to play better in the future. I hope the experience here will help me grow in the future."

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