(3/24/2016) - In an enormous twist, the recent ITTF World Tour Kuwait Open 2016 produced two results which the table tennis world have been waiting for. Falling performances have been on the cards constantly for Grand Slam Champions, Zhang Jike and Li Xiaoxia. Over the past year their results have suffered, injuries have struck and their form has been incredibly inconsistent for players of their calibre.
For Zhang Jike the path has been littered with defeats, falling at the hands of foreign opponents, the likes of Jang Woojin, Jens Lundqvist and Stefan Fegerl. His path has been troubled by lower back injury and fans with crossed fingers. While this was occurring his main opposition, Ma Long, was on top of the world. Seemingly untouchable it was Ma Long who claimed 3 major titles in the past 12 months and cemented himself as the top contender for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Questions were raised as to whether Zhang Jike would even make the lineup for the Chinese contingent. Everything was in the air.
Li Xiaoxia had gone down a different path, being absent from a number of competitions both major and minor. She had suffered an early exit in one tournament and had withdrawn due to injury across a large number of events in 2015. Her teammates Liu Shiwen, Ding Ning and even the likes of Chen Meng and Zhu Yuling looked to be pulling ahead of the defending Olympic Champion.
The World Championships saw both players take a pivotal role in the Chinese teams on their road to gold with neither of the two players losing a match along the way. While their performances weren't as dominant as we have seen in the past, this was a common trait in other players during the competition also. Kuwait was the first World Tour event following the World Championships and had an all-star lineup of some of the world's best players. A perfect test to see if the two Grand Slam champions could be prepared in time for Rio.
For Zhang Jike he overcame some big hurdles on the way to victory. The first hurdle was an incredibly close 7 set duel with Germany's Dimitrij Ovtcharov, a player who had passed him on the ITTF World Rankings and had defeated him on a couple of occasions before. This was a huge match and showed that Jike is prepared to take on foreign opponents. The semifinal saw him take on the young fresh blood in the team, rising star Fan Zhendong. Fan is a big driving force behind the new generation of Chinese players and the 4-1 win for Zhang Jike signalled a healthy sign in his preparation for Rio. The match wasn't full of the usual explosive rallies but there was a significant improvement in the stability of Zhang's game, especially in terms of consistency on his dominant backhand side over the table.
Slightly more reminiscent of their old clashes, it was Zhang Jike who looked in better form during the final match and there seemed to be far more errors from the current World Number 1 as the Grand Slam champ took the match away in 5 sets. The results certainly spoke, but Zhang Jike is certainly not back at his best form yet, given the current trends will he be ready for Rio?
While I didn't feel Jike was a dominant force despite his victory, Li Xiaoxia was fantastic. She seemed much more dominant than on many previous occasions and did well to dispatch her two major competitors, Liu Shiwen and Ding Ning as well as the foreign threat of Kasumi Ishikawa who she dispatched 4-1.
So the old guard were back on top for the weekend. With a number of months between now and the 2016 Olympic Games it still remains to be seen as to whether the defending champions will be the favourites on the day!
Written by: Matt Hetherington