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Wang ready to bounce back in 2008
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With the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games around the corner, one Shanghai native will have his name appear more and more in the national headlines - top paddler Wang Liqin, the most popular and controversial table tennis player in China.

As a three-time world champion and former world No 1, Wang is no doubt one of the best paddlers in the world. His gentle manners, stylish looks, introverted personality and a love affair with a movie star have brought him legions of ping-pong fans and media coverage all over Asia.

But just one year before the home Games, the 29-year-old veteran has endured the worst season of his career. Despite claiming the men's singles title at the 2007 World Championships in Zagreb, Croatia, Wang has been piling up the losses. This year, he played in 10 ITTF Pro Tour tournaments, the busiest season of his career, but failed to claim a single title.

At last week's year-end International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) Pro Tour Grand Finals in Beijing, Wang lost to World Cup champion Wang Hao in the singles semifinal, his sixth loss to Wang Hao in as many months. Wang Liqin's shaky performance raised questions about his chances of representing China at next year's Games among fans and local media.

Speculation is mounting about his technique, his mental state and even his relationship status, as one question in particular lingers: Can Wang Liqin come back in 2008?

Turning point

In order to become the best of the best, Wang is willing to change his technique and talk about his problems.

Last week after losing in the Grand Finals singles semifinal, he spent about 10 minutes in the mixed zone patiently taking the media's bombardment, quite a departure from his usual attitude.

"This year I have been trying to improve my backhand skills and practice new playing styles," he said

"My 2007 season was not that bad and I did my best. I am trying to get rid of my old style and draw lessons from my losses.

"If I stick to my new style, I can get back on my feet."

Wang took up table tennis when he was six so it has been difficult to alter the playing style he has used for 23 years.

As the oldest player on the national team, Wang Liqin is facing a strong challenge from a young generation led by Ma Long, Chen Qi and Hao Shuai. All three young guns took Pro Tour singles titles during the 2007 season.

Wang's once-powerful forehand and outstanding stamina have not been enough to gain the upper hand on the youngsters.

"Those young players do put a lot of pressure on the old guys like Wang Liqin and force the veterans to enhance their abilities, which is a good thing for our team," said Chinese head coach Liu Guoliang. "This competition is the key for us to maintain such a high level for decades."

According to ITTF rules, every federation has three berths for the men's and women's competitions at the Games. World No 1 Ma Lin and World Cup-holder Wang Hao have already ensured their spots in the national team's Olympic lineup, leaving only one place open for the rest of the star-studded Chinese squad.

"Now our abilities are getting closer and I don't have an absolute edge over them," Wang Liqin said. "So if I have to play in the qualifiers to get the Olympic berth, I don't think it's a bad thing for me."

"I am ready for the competition and I have the confidence to become a better me."

The perfectionist

Wang is a typical man from Shanghai, a perfectionist in both his personal life and his career.

He always looks neat and has kept the same hairstyle for a decade. He loves to read fashion magazines and buy expensive clothes. He likes watching Formula One and Michael Shumacher is his idol.

Though reluctant to take interviews, he enjoys taking pictures. He tries to keep his distance from the media, and when he talks he only talks about his sporting career.

After paparazzi caught him dating a famous movie actress in February, Wang only asked the media "Is the picture clear?" and then kept silent about the whole thing.

"I only do things I like. Since I was a kid, I've been a very independent person and I don't like to share my affairs with others," he said.

Since taking the World Championship title in 2001 on his way to becoming the world's best paddler, Wang has put much pressure on himself to play better and stay unbeatable.

"I am a perfectionist and of course I want to win my every match," he said.

But now, China's head coach is worried Wang's perfectionism may affect him down the road.

"Wang Liqin is too demanding of himself. He always wants to play better, which is not a good thing for him. He must forget what he has achieved and accept failures," Liu said.

"I still believe in him. If he can shake off his burden and sharpen his backhand skills, he will be back."

(China Daily December 21, 2007)

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