On Thursday 11th August in the Riocentro at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, China’s Ma Long stood on the top step of the men’s singles medal podium; the mission was accomplished, the greatest prize sport has to offer was achieved.
He had won the most important match of his life; in the final had beaten colleague and defending champion, Zhang Jike, in three straight games (14-12, 11-5, 11-4, 11-4).
However, was it the most important match of all?
At the semi-final stage, he had to bring mind body and soul together to ward off a spirited recovery by Japan’s Jun Mizutani (11-5, 11-5, 11-5, 7-11, 10-12, 11-5), a player who had clearly prepared thoroughly for Rio and was in the form of his life.
Notably, in the whole tournament it was the only defeat experienced by Jun Mizutani; he beat Vladimir Samsonov of Belarus to secure bronze (11-4, 11-9, 6-11, 14-12, 11-8) before guiding Japan to men’s team silver.
Withstanding a fightback, it takes character, but in the contest, he won the first three games in style, he had four more chances to seal the victory. In the fourth round life had been very different; facing Korea Republic’s Jeoung Youngsik, he lost the opening two games, before staging a recovery to win the next four (6-11, 10-12, 11-5, 11-1, 13-11, 13-11).
Now the fact that he recovered, won two very close games to seal the victory, was a major boost.
The well-worn phrase “win a close match and confidence blossoms” was most certainly apt for Ma Long. In the next round, the quarter-finals, he accounted for Nigeria’s Quadri Aruna in straight games (11-4, 11-2, 11-6, 11-7) to book his meeting with Jun Mizutani and eventually a showdown with Zhang Jike.
Now the most important match all in Ma Long’s Rio quest; the fourth round against Jeoung Youngsik.