The Odyssey of Ruichao Alex Chen a Chinese Star from Sweden in America

By Larry Hodges | March 24, 2015, 12 a.m. (ET)

Alex Ruichao ChenRuichao Alex Chen, 17, was once just another future star player born in Sweden, which has a rich table tennis history. Except his dad, Chen Jian, a professional player from China, was a teammate of Jan-Ove Waldner in the Swedish leagues at the time Alex was born. And so the name Alex wasn't an Americanized name given to him when he came to America, like so many other Chinese players - he was given that name at birth in Sweden.

Alex lived in Sweden until he was four or five, though he didn't yet play table tennis seriously. That started at age eight. After having a "normal" first and second grade, in third grade he was admitted to the Hangzhou Sports School in Zhejing Province. From then on it was two training sessions a day, about two hours each, until he was thirteen - and then he became a full-time player, going to school only part-time.

He developed one of the most devastating attacks around. He is known for his tricky serves, fast footwork - especially for someone who's 6'3" - and big forehand. "When he loops, nobody can touch it," said Nathan Hsu, who trains regularly with the lefty Alex. When he serves there's almost no way to stop him from following with a relentless forehand; he probably has the best pure third-ball attack in North America.

Fast forward a few years, and he's a member of the elite Shanghai Table Tennis Team. He also played in the Chinese Super League for the Hangzhou Nirui Club in Zhejiang Province, and trained with the Chinese National Team. In 2013, he returned to his "roots," playing professionally for Tibble Kungsängen BTK in the Swedish Super League.

And then, in March of 2014, he came to the U.S. as a player/practice partner/coach for the Maryland Table Tennis Center. Since that time he's been one of the dominant forces in the country, with a suspiciously devilish rating of 2666. Below are the nine U.S. tournaments he's won in just the past year. (The four MDTTC and Potomac Opens he won are the only ones he's played in.)

  • Capital Plastics All-star Team Championships in Houston, March, 2015, where he went undefeated with wins over Li Kewei (2720) and Gaoxiang Zhao (2691), and helped win $5000 for his winning team.
  • 4-star Butterfly Aurora Cup in Chicago in January, 2015
  • 4-star Triangle Team Tournament in Cary, NC, in January, 2015 (going undefeated, with teammate Nathan Hsu).
  • 4-star Westchester Open in New York in December, 2014
  • Lily Yip Open in New Jersey in January, 2015
  • Potomac Fall Open in Maryland in November, 2015
  • Potomac Spring Open in Maryland in May, 2014
  • MDTTC 2015 March Open in Maryland
  • MDTTC 2014 April Open in Maryland

He's also made an impact as a practice partner/coach, where he trains with a number of elite players, often seven days a week. Some of the players he trains with and helps coach include Crystal Wang (13, 2507); Nathan Hsu (18, 2496); Klaus Wood (13, 2312); Derek Nie (14, 2240, but over 2300 until recently); Tiffany Ke (10, 1993, but 2047 before a "disastrous" 50-point loss); Amy Lu (14, 2012); and many-time U.S. team member and three-time U.S. Men's Doubles Champion Han Xiao. He also trains with Coach Cheng Yinghua, who puts him through grueling multiball training sessions.

Alex comes from a sports family. His dad was teammates on the Chinese National Team with MDTTC coaches Cheng Yinghua and Huang Tong "Jack" Sheng. He was the coach of the Chinese National Junior team, coaching Zhang Jike, Ma Long, and others at the World Junior Championships and other international tournaments. He was also the national coach for Singapore, and the head coach for the Zhejiang Nirui Table Tennis Club, which won the Chinese Super League a few years ago.

Alex's mom, Ma Miaolan, was also a professional athlete - in the women's heptathlon, an Olympic event which combines seven events: 200 and 800 meter runs, 100 meter hurdles, high jump, long jump, shot put, and javelin throw. She won the gold medal in the 1990 Asian Games, and silver medals at the 1987 and 1989 Asian Championships. In 1993 she set the all-time score for a Chinese heptathlete at 6750, a record which still stands, and which is the 19th highest score of all time.

Alex is rapidly learning English, attending English classes four times a week, plus a weekly one-on-one tutoring session. He speaks fluent "table tennis," of course - he learned the basic table tennis terms in English early on. His interests outside table tennis and school include Chinese literature, music (especially Wang Leehom), basketball (a passion he shares with Nathan), and he is learning to play the guitar.

At one time he wanted to play on the Chinese National Team. Now he says, "I want to play for USA." He does find the U.S. scene a bit different. "In the U.S., you have so many opportunities to play tournaments. But in China, the training is more intense." It is that intense training in China that Alex and other Chinese players bring to the U.S., along with their high level of play - and perhaps it'll rub off on others, and drive up the level of play in this country.