Liu Guoliang is considered by many to be one of the greatest table tennis players of all time. He started playing when he was six years of age and was included in the Chinese national team in 1991, aged just 15. Liu has won all titles at major world tournaments, and was the second man to achieve a career grand slam of three majors, Olympic Gold, World Cup, and World Championships. He officially retired from playing in 2003, before becoming the head coach of China’s national team at the age of 27.
As head coach, Liu led China to a team gold medal and a sweep of individual gold medals at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games. He is currently preparing the team for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. As part of their distinguished speaker series, Western Academy of Beijing (WAB) invited Liu to share his experiences. An eager audience of 120 students, parents, and staff were there to hear about his achievements, as both a player and coach. The question panel was made up of WAB Grade 10 students Andy Lou and Angela Liu, both members of the school’s table tennis team, WAB parent David Roberts, plus coach and Assistant Activities Director Caleb Liu.
Liu talked about the period when China’s dominance in table tennis was shattered. It started in 1989 and they went on to lose three championships in a row to Sweden, a period often referred to as China’s table tennis “dark ages”. In fact, from 1989 to 2000 Sweden won no fewer than 30 championship medals, and much of their success was credited to player Waldner. China’s team coach felt that to become world number one again, the players would need to adopt a different playing style.
Liu’s technique used the “penhold” grip, which made his hidden serves highly effective, and his close-to-table fast attacks formidable during his playing career. However, the penhold backhand was proving a major disadvantage against the Swedish players who utilized the “shakehand” grip. Liu worked on his technique and became the forerunner of the “reverse backhand topspin”. This penhold strategy made him the archenemy of Waldner, thereby ending Sweden’s dominance and giving rise to China’s conquest, which Liu has overseen as head coach ever since.
The key turning points in Liu’s life were in 1996 when he won gold at his first Olympics in Atlanta, when he became head coach for the national team, and when he met his wife. “The one thing that has had such an impact is that I met my wife along the way. She has made me the man I am today.” Liu’s most memorable games were the 2008 Beijing Olympics, with his home country as the host nation and an incredible performance from his team.
He talked about Kong Linghui, who he trained alongside and competed with from such a young age. Room-mates at most competitions and championships, they would discuss tactics each night on how they would overcome their opponents. The only time there was no such conversation, was when they were to face each other in a final the following day. “That night, we said very little to each other!” Liu went on to reaffirm what we all know makes a great sportsmen, “Try as hard as you can on the court, to beat your opponent. But whether you lose or win, off the court you are still friends.”
When asked who he feels is the greatest player of all time, he concurred that during the mid-1990’s it really was him and Kong Linghui. “But if we look at the greatest player in the world, it has to be Sweden’s Waldner. He has had an unbelievably long life among the top few players in the world. He beat five generations of Chinese players, a phenomenal achievement.”
Liu was asked if coaching techniques have changed since he was a player. “When I played, the relationship between coach and player was very bilateral. Now it’s a more complicated science and there’s a whole team of people behind a player’s success. Another change is that play speed is much faster and more powerful today.” The training regime for Liu’s team is of course tough, and leading up to a big competition players can expect to do five hours per day on just technique. Another couple of hours will be spent on physical conditioning, which includes weight lifting for strength.
Liu said how impressed he was with WAB and its students. “You are all very lucky to be a part of this school.” Without making any promises, he said he would try and bring some of his Olympic team players to WAB after Rio 2016, so they can impart some of their knowledge and skills to WAB’s table tennis team. This was of course met with huge applause from the audience! The evening concluded with audience members challenging Liu to a couple of games of ping pong. It was wonderful how rapt the students were listening to Liu, a man that has achieved phenomenal success in his career and a true sportsman.
beijingkids Shunyi Correspondent Sally Wilson moved to Beijing in 2010 from the UK with her husband and son. Her daughter was born here in 2011 and both her kids keep her happily busy. In her spare time, Sally loves to stroll through Beijing’s hutongs and parks. She is a (most of the time) keen runner and loves reading: books, magazines, news, and celeb websites – anything really. Sally is also a bit of a foodie and loves trying out new restaurants.
Photos: courtesy of WAB, Sally Wilson