Zhang Jike: The McEnroe of Table Tennis

Zhang Jike is what party people would call loose. Saturday night Netflix streamers would call him outrageous – a disgrace to the sport! But one thing can be agreed – Jike is worth watching; Stranger Things binge watching.

Jike was born in 1988, in Qingdao (also spelled Tsingtao). This is a city with a population of 9 million. Like most table tennis players in China, Jike was coached from a very young age by his father Zhang Chuanming (Editor’s note: Okay, so most were probably not coached by Chuanming). Hard work, talent, high expectations and then a gold medal at the London Olympics and only the fourth player to achieve a Grand Slam (joining the likes of Jan-Ove Waldner amongst others). And that’s where the typical champion narrative ends.

Backtracking, Jike’s rather unusual given name is the Chinese way of pronouncing Zico – the legendary Brazilian football player who was also known as “White Pele” (a moniker even Pele himself has agreed upon). The football connection was not lost on Jike. His father wanted him to pursue a professional career but was dissuaded by the shape of the sport in China. Today, Jike still supports Real Madrid and man crushes on Cristiano Ronaldo. Who doesn’t.

Jike and his father invested in table tennis and in 2002, their hard work paid off. At 15, Jike made it into the national team (a feat considered more difficult than winning an Olympics gold medal). It was in the national team that his temperamental personality came to the fore. Defining his career, his behaviour led to his ousting from the team in 2004. Undeterred, he clawed his way back in 2006. 2008 proved to be his breakout year. He defeated Olympians Ma Lin, Wang Liqin and Wang Hao to win the National Championship.

Jike is the product of a production line not unlike the factories that propelled the country to its roaring prosperity. Along with Ma Long and Xu Xin, Jike is a part of a masterful design to put a Chinese sleep hold on the sport. But somewhere along the line – maybe there was a jilted worker that was anti-establishment – or maybe it was just in his DNA – Jike broke the mould. Rarely the fan favourite like Ma Long or Xu Xin, Jike is known to throw in some Death Grips on a ‘Mellow Sunday Afternoons’ playlist (Editor’s note: Ooh, nice.) because Jike is lone wolf. Sometimes and especially against his compatriots, he would show a courage and irreverence often lacking in the competitive realm and switch his grip (Editor’s note: To Death Grip?) to mess with their heads. Commentators have even commented on his immense mental endurance. When on, Jike can grind out match where every other player would break.

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Like Ronaldo, Jike is also notorious for his showmanship. During a competition in 2014, after a long and hard-fought victory against Ma Long, he celebrated by kicking down two advertising hoardings and ripping his shirt off. Editor’s note: FArghking A, man! To the conservative establishment, this was not cool and so they pooh-poohed his highs and handed down a fine of US$45,000. Editor’s note: Not cool, guys. Not cool.

Unperturbed, Jike moved on. The next viewing highlight was a homage to his Brazilian namesake. In an exhausting rally against a defensive opponent metres back from the table he secured the win with a kick drop shot that left his opponent bewildered and down a point. Yes, literally a kick with the sole of his shoe lifted above the table to meet the ball (cue South American football commentary celebration). The judges reluctantly awarded him the point.

Today, in the aftermath of his gold medal match loss to Ma Long at the 2016 Olympics, Jike retired. Before campaigning for a Phoenix-esque comeback, Arghk will wait impatiently to see if rumours of his return will ring true.

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