Raising high a heart-shaped gesture with both hands, Ma Long celebrated his first Olympic gold medal in a quiet but unique style.
The world No. 1 completed his Grand Slam request and came out the fifth male paddler to do so in table tennis after winning an All-Chinese final over defending champion Zhang Jike here on Thursday at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
“To win a gold medal at Olympic Games has long been my dream ever since I started my career as a table tennis player,” said Ma after the 37-minute final.
“Today I live up to my dream,” he added. “But most importantly, Jike and I played a high-level game and showed the very best of table tennis. I think that’s more important than winning a medal, in sake of the sport and its future.”
Ma made short work of teammate Zhang 14-12, 11-5, 11-4, 11-4. It has been Team China’s 11th gold at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, while Zhang added a silver.
The victory puts the reigning world champion, 27, in the same league of such legendary players as his coach Liu Guoliang, China’s women’s national coach Kong Linghui, Sweden’s Jan-Ove Waldner and his opponent of the final Zhang Jike.
“There’s a very long list for me to thank, and I’d like to put Jike’s name on it,” said Ma. “He’s been one of the best paddlers in the world for the past few years and I regard him as a rival, a friend and a model to chase after.”
“I’ve been very motivated with Zhang competing against and playing alongside with me,” he added.
Already a Grand Slam winner four years ago after being crowned at the world championships, world cup and Olympic Games in just 15 months, Zhang made too many unforced errors and failed to perform his trademark backhand Thursday evening to easily surrender.
The first set was his best chance, though the 28-year-old suffered a slow start as usual to trail 8-4 after opening it in style.
Coming back to his normal level of play, Zhang pulled five points in a row to take the lead 9-8, but the Qingdao native again stumbled before losing it 14-12 with two unforced errors in the end.
The following games thus went in favor of Ma, who led 6-2, 10-4 in the second set with fast and perfect reaction and kept it that way.
“I’m happy that I well carried out my task of defeating all none-Chinese players to set up a final with my teammate Ma,” proclaimed Zhang.
“No regrets, nor surprise for me, though I failed to defend the title. This is life and this is what competitive sports look like. It’s cruel but exciting,” he said.
“There’s any kind of match and any kind of result. You can’t win every single time. And being unpredictable is what made a competitive match perfect,” he added.
Earlier in the evening, Jun Mizutani won the first ever Olympic men’s as well as singles medal of table tennis for Japan after beating 40-year-old Belarus veteran Vladimir Samsonov 4-1 in the third-place play-off.
“I’m huge exciting and obviously happy about it,” said Mizutani, talking about the history he’s just made. “It proved the level of us in terms of Japanese team’s improvement.”
“Running up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Game, we’ll keep it in our mind that we want to be the strongest in the world. And we’ll be training very hard for this to the very end.”