Titels can´t be defended – they must be won

At the Olympics in Barcelona 1992 Jan-Ove Waldner is a heavy favorite but he dislikes his draw. In the very first round the Swede faces the hard hitting Kang of South Korea. Waldner starts off searching his rhythm but does not act convenient. He is stiff and hesitating in his movements, obviously he is nervous. At 19 all in the first game of the match Waldner gets two points directly on his services. He gets a 1-0-lead and maybe those two services were decisive for winning the whole tournament. Because after beating Kang in the first game, Waldner plays with incredible self confidence. He dares to stay close to the table. He dares to always go for making his point of his own. Swedish men´s national team coach Anders Thunström is a bit astonished by Waldner´s determination. Normally the magic Swede wants to start the tournaments by slowly finding the feeling for his game, but not in Barcelona. Here he marks very clearly from the very beginning in each match who is in charge at the table.

Thunström and Waldner get along very well. Together they build a strong security in their relation and cooperation as coach and player. In a profound way they respect each other. They make a tight team. Before each match Thunström formulates a sort of mantra that he communicates with Waldner: “One can´t defend titles. One must win them. One can´t defend titles. One must win them. The message to Waldner is clear. To become Olympic Champion you must go for it. Hesitation and passiveness won´t do it. No opponent will give a single point away.

When Waldner arrives in Barcelona he has some pressure on his shoulders. He has dominated the world´s table tennis scene over the last five years, ever since he was a runner up at the Worlds in New Delhi 1987. There he lost the finals to Jiang Jialiang, leading 20-16 in the fourth game, being down 1-2 in sets but still not managing to force the Chinese to a fifth and decisive game. Waldner has dominated, yes, but still he has “only” gone the whole way once during the very big events – the Olympics, the World Championships and the European Championship. This only time was in 1989 when he became World Champion. During the European´s 1988 he was close but lost in five games in the semi´s to his dear friend Mikael Appelgren, also from Sweden. At the Olympics in Seoul the same year he lost in five games to Kim Ki Taek in the quarters. In 1990 at the Europeans he missed six match balls in the quarter final against Gatien of France. And 1991 at the Worlds he did not manage to defend his World Champion title – he lost the finals to national team mate Jörgen Persson. So over all he has been the best, no doubt; still he seems to have some problems catching the titles. To win he needs to be as in Dortmund 1989: alert from the very beginning, efficiently going for the point instead of mixing up his game with all sorts of genius artistic shoots and playing manners. Waldner needs to be 100 percent concentrated during each ball, during each game, each match. He needs to be brutal out there, only caring for his gold instead of once in a while going of the audience’s applauses and appreciation. But a key point in his game is relaxation. The more relaxed the better he plays, the more he reaches his unbelievable potential of creativity in his actions, to get his whole knowledge and competence on table tennis flowing in a present now, beyond the regular perception of time. But there tends to be a dangerous edge where this aim for relaxation turns over to be a problem in the game, making Waldner a little too passive, his legs not enough moving, making him losing the initiative of how the rallies are played. Therefore Thunström´s word in Waldner´s ears before every match: “One can´t defend titles. One must win them. One can´t defend titles. One must win them.”

Waldner listens and understands. He incorporates the mantra in his body and makes it a motto of his game. He is brutal out there. After missing the two services at 19-19 in the first game Kang of South Korea has no chance. No one else either. On his way to the finals Waldner beat Solopov of Estonia, Prean of England and Murad Sta of Tunisia, all in three in straight games. Waldner loses one game to Rosskopf of Germany in the quarter finals, but is never close to be threatened. In the semi´s against Kim Teak Soo of South Korea Waldner is back on the track of 3-0 wins.

The final against lefthander Gatien of France is a knockout performance with short explosive duels. Waldner, a right hand player, refuses to leave his position close to the table. Time after time Waldner turns Gatien´s fast forehand attacks with own forehand top spin from both backhand and forehand, which put the extremely fast Frenchman in time trouble. Waldner takes six points directly on the service in both first and third game. He shows no mercy. He shows no nervousness when he, after missing two match points, stakes all his artillery during Gatien´s set balls, which blows away the Frenchman´s possibilities to come back into the match. At 23-22 to Gatien in the third set, Waldner serves half long with a lot of spin. The Frenchman makes one little too short and slow forehand loop that Waldner smashes back into the table with a killing backhand.

The Swedish King is watching the finals live inside the hall, the Polisportiu Estacio del Nord. He loves sports and now he is very tense. Sweden has not won an Olympic gold medal in eight years. He is the symbol of the nation and also his tension is the tension of a whole country longing for an Olympic triumph. On the other hand: “Filou, Filou, Filou”, French supporters screams. The heat is on. The Swedish King looks dogged. He keeps his arms crossed over his front body. But his nervousness can´t be hidden. 23-23. Gatien to serve. Waldner pushes to the Frenchman´s forehand. Gatien attacks to Waldner´s forehand, but Waldner takes command over the rally by attacking down the line. The Frenchman is taken by surprise, blocks the ball back and loses distance to the table. Waldner loops the ball down to Gatien´s backhand, knowing he is vulnerable there. The Frenchman lift the ball back, Waldner goes for an even harder attack to the backhand, but Gatien is incredible fast, manages to move around and counter attacks with his own forehand , which he kind of shoots from the hip, cross court to Waldner´s forehand. What then happens is significant for the picture of the match, and for Waldner´s winning behavior during the whole tournament. Waldner takes a step forward, meets the risky counterattack immediately after the bounce, just to earn some tenth or a hundreds of a second more to put Gatien under even more time pressure. Waldner chooses to block the ball the shorter but therefore also more difficult way down the line, deep out to the Frenchman´s forehand corner. The safer block combined with the early hit on the ball and the placement out to the forehand is a perfect combination of reading the time. Gatien does not get to the ball. He reaches out for it, but the ball hits the edge of his racket woods, and flies far away from the table.
 Waldner in deep concentration before his third match point; serves to the middle. Gatien receives to the Swede´s backhand. Waldner work his way around with fast feet and is going for a hard forehand attack. He kind of keeps the shoot in, waits a tenth of a second longer than excepted, just to get his opponent puzzled of where the attack will be placed on the table. Gatien moves himself very careful into the middle of the table to cover up the spot where most of Waldner´s attacks from this position had come during the match before. Waldner registers the movement of Gatien. Just before hitting the ball Waldner turn his wrist over, so the direction of the ball instead becomes deep to Gatien´s backhand. Gatien is surprised by the angle; he blocks the ball into the net.
 Waldner turns around. He runs towards coach Thunström, jumps up in his arms and hugs him one, two, three times. Then Waldner trips along towards Gatien, and thanks him for a good match and gives a friendly slap over the Frenchman´s neck. The Swedish King is standing, applauding. He looks relieved, makes his belt in the trousers in proper order. Swallows. The nervousness has made him thirsty. And his longing, as well as his peoples, 2 917 days of longing, to be accurate. Waldner´s gold is not only the first Swedish Olympic gold since 1984, it is and will remain the only one in Barcelona, which means it is the only one between Los Angeles 1984 and Atlanta 1996. The only one in twelve years! Watching the King in this particular moment it seems worth waiting.

Waldner´s Olympic gold medal is the peak of the Swedish golden epoch that starts 1989 in Dortmund when Sweden beats China 5-0 in the team finals and Waldner beats Persson in the Men´s singles finals. At the Worlds in Chiba two years later Sweden repeats the team victory, Persson beat Waldner in the Singles finals and Sweden also wins gold medal in Doubles (Peter Karlsson and Thomas von Scheele) . After Barcelona 1992 Sweden becomes world champion in teams also 1993, but thereafter the massive success kind of loses strength and during a period of time only Waldner is in there among the winning aspirants during the big tournaments.
 Generally speaking Sweden ruled the table tennis world during a handful of years because one elaborated a sort of complete playing style with individual variations and point winning weapons for each top player. By developing a strong defense with blocking and counter attacking the Swedes won more points in the opponent’s service than the opponent won in the Swede´s. By developing the backhand side the Swede´s covered up the spot that strong backhand players and especially the Chinese used to get the initiative during the rallies against the Swedes. And finally by putting more effort in physical training the Swedes got more powerful footwork and also an all round fitness that make it possible to raise the pace during practice and also to keep up the playing level all the way during the at least ten days of championships competition without losing concentration but performing better and better the longer the tournament lasted.
 But everything that develops has it´s dialectical laws. With the Chinese down in their weakest period ever since they entered the international table tennis during the 1950ties, the answer to the Swedish all round competent style during the first half of the 1990ties came from other European countries and players. And the answer was a sort of knockout table tennis – shorter rallies with higher risk taking. The most successful exponents for this style were Gatien of France and Rosskopf of Germany. They focus hard on the three first shots during a rally. They go for a fast decisive shot and the rhythm with longer duels – which the Swedes like because it is an advantage for them in the long run – is cut down by a game where services, receives and first attacks becomes dominating. A strong mixture between the new knock out style and the Swedish complete style was Saive of Belgium. All these three players had problems and shortcomings with their blocking game and on their backhand side, but when these weaknesses were worked through the high risk style individually put Sweden in the shadow: Rosskopf becomes European Champion 1992, Gatien wins the Worlds 1993 and Saive, who was the runner up both 1992 and 1993, finally gets his title at the Europeans 1994.
 Besides from his soulful passion for the sport and his unique skill of exploring and using the sports all dimensions of spin, speed and placements, the third fundament of Waldner´s mastership is his capability of always moving along, always adapting and developing his way of playing to what the time requires. He reads what is going on and owns the technical capability, fantasy and training will to incorporate it in his way of playing. Most champions have their prime period when they rule the scene. Once reaching the top the art is to stay there, when the whole world is hunting behind. And most champions manage to stay for a short time, then they their weakness is revealed and cruelly used by the opponents. Most of the time the champion then has to adjust the game once again, to cover the weakness, and then has opportunities to come back and once again fight for the big titles. The great exception Is Waldner. He was never left behind since he had his breakthrough at 16, losing his first big finals in the 1982 European Championships to Mikael Appelgren. At 38 he played his last big semi final, losing to South Korean Ryu Seung Min at the Olympics 2004. In between these 22 years of constant world class table tennis Waldner, as a singles player, won two Worlds, one Olympics and one Europeans. Besides he won seven of the in Europe prestigious tournament Europe top 12. He reached the finals at the Olympics once, at the Worlds twice and at the Europeans twice. Besides he reached the round of the last four once at the Olympics, twice times at the Worlds and twice at the Europeans. During his career he played altogether five Olympics, 12 Worlds and 12 Europeans. This means he made the last four in 60 percent of his Olympics, 50 per cent of his Worlds and in 42 per cent of his Europeans. He made the finals in every third big singles championships he entered, over a period of 23 years.
 That record was as a singles player only. His merits as a team player are as impressive: During Waldner´s time in the Swedish national team 1982-2005 Sweden won the worlds four times and was runner up four times. Sweden also won the Europeans seven times and was runner up one time. Only twice, at the Worlds 1997 and at the Europeans 2005, Sweden was not among the four best teams in a championship tournament.
 The Olympic singles gold in Barcelona 1992 was a good example of this truly unique ever moving development of Waldner. From the quarters on he beat three high risk players in a row. He challenged their knock out table tennis and wins thanks to sharper services, safer defense, better backhand, richer variation. In Barcelona Waldner transforms his way of playing from all round to half risk. Compared to his strongest competitors he is safer and more complete as a player. He uses his extremely elaborated notion of playing understanding to turn the fast opponent´s most dangerous weapon towards themselves. Through hitting the ball early and not fall away from the table Waldner uses the speed from the high risk players to get even more speed in his own shots. He takes advantage of the physical law that says faster attacks gives even faster returns. In Barcelona the tactic worked splendid. The explosive high risk players fell on their own grip. They staked so hard that they did not managed to catch up the speed when the ball came back. By biting himself at the edge of the table and staying there with uncompromised determination Waldner won his Olympic title. That was the key. That was the content of the mantra coach Thunström gave him between the matches: “One can´t defend titles. One must win them.”

Jens Fellke

Jens Fellke is a Swedish journalist and author. He has written about table tennis ever since he played himself at a national top 20 level back in the early 1980ties. Fellke has written four books on table tennis, among them the biography of Jan-Ove Waldner called “When the feeling decides”. Fellke´s last piece on table tennis is “Zeitenwende Tischtennis/Point of no return”, which was published in English and German with parallel texts in December 2009. In August 2012 the Swedish public service channel SVT 1 will broadcast “Bragden” (The Feat), made by Fellke, Helena Egerlid and Henrik Georgsson. “Bragden” is a one-hor-documentary on how Sweden could beat China and become the leading table tennis nation in the World in the late 1980ties.

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