Legendary table tennis duo return to form China’s coaching staff

Beijing, Feb 27: Almost a decade after they quit competitive play, the table tennis Grand Slam-winning “Twin Stars” of China, Liu Guoliang and Kong Linghui, have come together to coach the national team.

The sport’s governing body of China held a press conference Tuesday to finalise the appointment of Liu to be the men’s head coach while Kong will take charge of the women’s team, Xinhua reports. Liu was also appointed as the general head coach, a first in eight years.

Taking the charge of an all-time leading squad which has been on top of the world for decades, Liu and Kong will have to prove their worth in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“My predecessor Shi Zhihao did an extraordinary job,” said Kong, dubbed the Prince of Table Tennis during his playing days. “Under Shi’s reign, the Chinese women’s team pocketed all gold medals on offer in two Olympics, which set a high bar for me.”

No easy case for Liu, either, since the men’s team has been run under a commission without a “general head coach” for eight years. “It will be very challenging, for sure,” Liu said.

The duo, however, hold far more soaring ambitions than lying on the record of merits.

“I’m both confident and determined to create a new era of table tennis alongside with my buddy Kong Linghui in the coming years,” said Liu, who first took his job as the men’s national head coach in 2003 and successfully guarded it twice in the following years. during his reign, the men’s team collected almost all but one Olympic and world titles.

“Like my buddy Liu Guoliang said, we are not just eyeing to win more gold medals, but going to make table tennis a more popular sport in China and elsewhere in the world,” echoed Kong.

Both now 37 years old, Liu and Kong had been always put on a par with each other in 1990s, not only for their equally glorious career as paddlers but their brotherhood.

“We were called up to the junior national team in the same year when we were 13, but two years earlier we had met each other in some national event,” recalled Kong, a most popular paddler with Chinese supporters even years after he retired.

“Kong and I have always been a pack. In the past 26 years, we’ve been through a lot together,” said Liu. “When we were players, we trained together, played all kinds of matches together, sometime against each other and sometimes combined as a pair. For all those years, we’ve shared so many memories, joy and tears.”

In 1995, the two helped China claim the world crown and days later they squared off for the singles title. Just at that time, Kong claimed his first world championship title at 20 in Tianjin, but had to wait five years to bring in his Olympic gold medal in Sydney.

Liu’s grand slam was completed in the 1999 world championships in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, as he won the final against younger teammate Ma Lin, though he said he performed just 70 percent of his top form as in 1996 when he took the Olympic gold and World Cup title.

The two good friends parted their ways in 2003 when Liu, who was trusted by table tennis authorities and his mentors, made a brilliant triple jump from assistant coach to coach to the youngest head coach ever on the Chinese team, while tenacious Kong continued his playing career.

In the 2004 Athens Olympics, Kong made his third Olympic appearance, while Liu experienced his biggest test as newly combined Ma Lin and Chen Qi claimed the doubles gold but upbeat Wang Hao fell to South Korean Ryu Seung Min in the singles final.

For the following years, Liu led the side to conquer all, including two clean sweeps in the 2008 Beijing Games on home soil and the most recent London Olympics, while Kong acted as a player/coach assisting Liu before he called it quits in late 2006 and turned a trainer to coach the women’s side.

IANS