Don’t let the nickname fool you. Affectionately called “Little Fatty” (xiao pang) by his teammates in the Chinese National Team for his heavy build and cheeky smile, Fan Zhendong is no pushover on the table, arguably hitting the heaviest and hardest shots in the world. Right from the start of his international career, there has been much talk about him being the next Grand Slam Champion. But is the talk just talk—or does Fan Zhendong have a real shot joining the exclusive club of Grand Slam Champions?
Born in Guangdong, Fan Zhendong joined the Bayi team in 2008 and entered the national team a mere four years later. Unlike most of his teammates, his rise was quick and sudden, springing into prominence in 2013 by taking the 2013 ITTF Polish Pro Tour, where he defeated Kenta Matsudaira in four straight games and compatriot Zhou Yu, winning the final point with a backhand around the net. Just a few months later, Fan Zhendong proceeded to bag the gold at the ITTF German Pro Tour, defeating Grand Slam Champion Zhang Jike along with Vladimir Samsonov and Dimitrij Ovtcharov.
His unexpected rise was similar to Harimoto’s, as at the time Fan Zhendong was only 16 years of age. Now, at the age of 21, he has taken titles such as the Asian Cup in 2014, ITTF World Tour titles, and the silver medal twice at the World Table Tennis Championships and once at the World Cup. This means even with his impressive list of accomplishments, Fan Zhendong has yet to take one of the three titles needed for a Grand Slam.
At the moment, Fan Zhendong’s primary rival is Ma Long, having lost to him in the finals at the World Cup and twice at the World Table Tennis Championships. Their current record is 20-9, with Ma Long leading. He also faces stiff competition from his teammates within the Chinese national team, as recently, many new faces have emerged such as Lin Gaoyuan, Wang Chuqin, and Yu Ziyang; in 2017 at the Asian Cup, Lin Gaoyuan defeated Fan Zhendong four sets to two. Furthermore, although dominant enough, Fan Zhendong has not exhibited the same consistency against foreign players as Ma Long has, who went unbeaten for a record 40 matches. To top it off, Fan Zhendong has never played a match in the Olympics, and the Chinese National Team recently lost head coach Liu Guoliang, which may further harm Fan Zhendong’s chances of a Grand Slam.
But just because Fan Zhendong doesn't possess any Grand Slam titles as of now doesn’t mean he’s out of the running. At the mere age of 21, he is already unusually developed. As an extremely aggressive player, Fan Zhendong isn’t limited to his forehand side, blasting rockets from both his backhand and his forehand. He also utilizes a dangerous banana flip and is known for the heavy quality of his shots, and in competition, he maintains a fierce fighting spiri with piercing eyes. And Fan Zhendong has proven himself more than capable countless times, having beaten Ma Long a total of 9 times. In fact, legendary player Zhang Jike has only defeated Ma Long 10 times.
The one title that has alluded many legendary players of a Grand Slam is the Olympic gold medal. Players, such as Wang Has and Jorgen Persson, have fallen short of a Grand Slam because of the Olympic title. However, at the age of 21, Fan Zhendong has at least two shots of a gold medal, possibly even three before retirement. Most importantly, by Tokyo 2020, his main obstacle, Ma Long, who is past what could be deemed his peak at the age of 29, may have declined, whereas Fan Zhendong still has much room to grow and mature.
Although the youngster Fan Zhendong has yet to capture any of the three titles, his odds at a Grand Slam are exceptionally high, certainly higher than other players at the moment. Players such has Harimoto and Lin Gaoyuan show promise; however, there are still young and their futures uncertain. Fan Zhendong has unequivocally established himself as one of the best players in the world, and if he can maintain his form—and improve his mental game—Fan Zhendong is likely to cement his place in table tennis history as the next Grand Slam Champion.