Could Ma Long Become the First Player Ever to Win Two Olympic Singles Titles?

By Ray Huang | March 13, 2018, 10:58 a.m. (ET)

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Right now, the general consensus says that Ma Long is the best player in the world, despite what his world ranking may reflect. With records such as going unbeaten for 40 straight matches and holding the world no.1 spot for 34 straight months, it is hard to imagine such dominance ever again. Ma Long’s rise to the top was relatively slow, but in 2015, by overcoming some mental barriers, he took gold in the World Cup and World Championships. In 2016, he completed his Grand Slam by finally capturing the Olympic crown. With Tokyo 2020 looming, can Ma Long become the first male player to win 2 Olympic golds?

With his unequivocal control over foreign players, Ma Long’s stiffest competition comes from his teammates, namely Fan Zhendong, as only two Chinese players are allowed to participate in the Olympic singles. The fiery youngster has proven himself more than capable of slaying the dragon, having beaten Ma Long a total of 9 times. However, Fan Zhendong has yet to beat Ma Long at a major tournament, having recently lost to Ma Long at the World Championships. Furthermore, Fan Zhendong has never participated in the Olympic games, while Ma Long already has the singles title and 2 team titles under his belt. And while the rising star is evidently more powerful than Ma Long, he simply doesn't possess the dragon’s mental game and tactical play.

Ma Long always seems invulnerable at major tournaments, showing no signs of nervousness or anxiety; on the other hand, Fan Zhendong’s inexperience and youth still get the best of him at times. Ma Long also possesses an amalgam of tools, regularly switching tactics depending on the opponent. Fan Zhendong just doesn’t have the same tactical strength, choosing to consistently stick with his primary weapons: banana flick and forehand loop. As a result, if Ma Long meets Fan Zhendong in the Olympic final—as they are likely to do so given current outlooks—the reigning champion undeniably has the higher ground, though a lot can still change in the next 2 years.

While Ma Long doesn't seem to face any insurmountable forces, internal matters are another story. Injuries are always a looming possibility—just take a look at Zhang Jike. A series of injuries managed to reduce the former Grand Slam champion to a reality star. At his current age of 29, Ma Long is no youngster, and by Tokyo, he will be 31. Transversely, Fan Zhendong is only 21 and has much potential for improvement, while Ma Long may be nearing his peak.

In addition, with the recent loss of head coach Liu Guoliang, the Chinese team experienced a subtle dip in performance. Liu was of paramount importance to the team, not merely for his training and technical insights, but also because of his ability to read a match like a book. Besides cleverly picking apart the opponents hidden weaknesses and shortcomings, Liu manages to psychologically influence his own players, giving each one some personal words of advice in order to defuse the fatal bomb of doubt and anxiety. Without Liu Guoliang, just a few months ago, Timo Boll managed to snatch the World Cup from the Ma Long’s fingers, defeating Ma Long 12-10 in the 7th game. Ma Long had to settle for the bronze medal by beating Simon Gauzy in six games.

Ma Long’s second Olympic dream is still very much a reality. Recently, Ma Long silenced doubters by going undefeated at the World Team Cup, demolishing Samuel Walker and defeating Koki Niwa 3-1. A lot can happen in 2 years, including rapid improvement by Fan Zhendong, the rise of an unexpected star, and the injuries that come with age. But as long as Ma Long continues to keep the ship steady, his odds of becoming the Olympic champion in 2020 are unmatched. And let's face it, if anyone is going to break the record and become the first to win two Olympic singles golds, Ma Long certainly has the history and career accolades to be that man.