Saturday, August 20, 2011

Is Jan-Ove Waldner is the best male table tennis player ever?

Waldner is a Swedish table tennis player who has a remarkable career.  He won the World Championship twice in singles and four times in teams, one World Cup, and one Olympics Gold.  He appeared in a few other major finals as well, and won numerous other titles.  Nobody can argue he is not one of the greatest ever, but is he the GOAT, as many people believe?  Objectively, does he pass the litmus test with the three criteria?

First, the achievements.  Waldner has an impressive collection of major titles (team and singles only).  But keep in mind that World Cup didn’t exist until 1980, and Olympics 1988.   Guo Yuehua, who played from mid-1970s to 1983, won the World Championship twice in singles and three times in teams, and two World Cups.  In more recent times, Wang Liqin won three World Championship singles and four team titles, and one Olympics team gold.  Ma Lin won five team World Championships, four World Cups, and Olympics team and singles gold medals.  Waldner stood up well against anyone else, but did not go far and beyond. 

Second, head-to-head records against rivals.  This is one area Waldner did not exactly excel as GOATs would.  Waldner competed with a long list of players, in terms of generations of Chinese, Jiang Jialiang (most of the 1980s)-Ma Wenge (1989-early 1990s)-Kong Linghui/Liu Guoliang (mid-1990s to early 2000s)-Ma Lin/Wang Liqin (Waldner played longer, but those were his chief rivals).  Waldner dominated only against Ma Wenge.  Jiang Jialiang always gave Waldner a headache.  Liu Guoliang was tough on Waldner until 2000, while Waldner beat Kong until 2000.  Waldner’s records against Ma Lin or Wang Liqin are not good, although then Waldner was already past his prime.  His teammate Jörgen Persson also played about 50:50 against Waldner. 

So come to criterion #3, it is safe to leave GOAT open, because nobody has been THAT dominant.  This certainly does not diminish Waldner’s immense influence on the sport. 

Now the more technical:  how about the intangibles, and will or should they affect the consideration of GOAT?

The most impressive aspect about Waldner’s career is definitively its longevity, beginning from his first world championship team final appearance in 1983 till his run in 2004 Olympics.  Only Jörgen Persson could match it in duration but not in brilliance.  But as great as Jimmy Connors was, few consider him as GOAT. 

The playing style, will or should it add a few points?  This is too subjective.  Waldner had a great table tennis instinct, excellent and deceptive serves followed by devastating attacks, and his rallies were steady, innovative, but not overpowering.  Many “new tricks” attributed to Waldner were actually not his inventions, although his high profile enhanced their acceptance.  The fact that Waldner was a finesse player who relied more on instinct and experience than on athleticism explains his longevity but also why players like Jiang Jialiang and Liu Guoliang whose styles of play caused a natural trouble for Waldner. 

Should Waldner get extra credits for challenging the Chinese all by himself?  This argument is in reality not valid because it ignores the fact that Sweden was one of the best table tennis countries for a long time and has a rich history and tradition.  Waldner is the most outstanding, yet he was aided by great coaches, mentors, and teammates along the way.  Stellan Bengtsson was the first Swedish world singles champion in 1971 and a huge influence, and two of the most successful teammates of Waldner were Mikael Appelgren and Jörgen Persson.  From 1980s till mid-1990s Europe also had many other elite players like Andrzej Grubba, Zoran Primorac, Jörg Roßkopf, Jean-Philippe Gatien, Jean-Michel Saive, and Vladimir Samsonov.   

In sum, Waldner has a strong case but weaker than Federer in tennis.  By the way, I think Steffi Graf is, but Federer is not GOAT. 

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