Jan-Ove Waldner – a giant in modern table tennis. The odd thing is that he is not Chinese.

Table tennis is China's national sport, and China is the world's most populous country with millions of table tennis players. Yet he has managed to occupy a permanent top position on the table tennis history podium –- Lao Wa, old Waldner, the eternally verdant tree.

Every decade can be said to have its major star, and over the past fifty years, the stars of the table tennis world have generally been Chinese. 1960s: Zhuang Zedong, 1970s: Guo Yuehua, 1980s: Jiang Jialiang and 2000s: Wang Liqin. But the 1990s belong to Jan-Ove Waldner and Sweden.

History's judgement on athletes can be tough. When it comes to comparing over time, it is ultimately about titles won, and for table tennis there is a simple rule: whoever had their heyday from the mid 1980s onwards must have won both the Olympic and world championships in singles to be in the frame. Four players have done this: Waldner and the Chinese Liu Guoliang, Kong Linghui and Zhang Jike, the latter born in 1988, the year table tennis made its Olympic debut, and with the major part of his career ahead of him. It makes him J-O's closest competitor. Despite Waldner winning two World Championship gold medals in singles, the second time without dropping a single set! Waldner against the world 7-0 in matches, 21-0 in sets. Waldner also has an Olympic gold as well as a silver and a fourth place. In addition, he has been in the World Championship final in singles twice, and twice in the semis. Seven World Cup tournaments were played in the years 1987-1999/2000; Waldner was never worse than bronze medallist in singles except once. And along with Mikael Appelgren, Jörgen Persson, Erik Lindh, Peter Karlsson and Fredrik Håkansson (in Kuala Lumpur in 2000), he never finished worse than second in the team discipline except on a single occasion. The team were world champions no less than four times.

How did J-O Waldner get to be among the best? There were early signs that J-O had the potential to be something special. As early as age seven, he could easily return 75 backhands without missing. At nine, he had a good forehand loop. From the very beginning, he possessed an ingenuity that needed to master the many dimensions of playing table tennis. He liked to trick opponents, and table tennis table provided him with endless variations by constantly changing the ball's spin, speed and placement. He wanted to win at all costs. And he possessed an organic feel for the ball, loved finding the perfect shot, the thousandth of a second when the ball hits the rubber pad friction-filled surface, captured by the physical forces of the rubber and wooden frame behind it, only in the next millisecond to leave the rubber with the speed of a catapult and head out on its path across the net to finally bounce down somewhere on the opponent's half of the table. It's the perfect shot, that thousandth of a second that pushes Waldner's buttons. A real push. The experience inside him is so strong that it generates a passion, an inner motivation and engine that for 40 years has driven his table tennis playing and his eager curiosity to constantly seek out new ways of playing, discover new shots, and incorporating them into his forever improving style of play.

The love of playing and the trickery offered by the game's many dimensions. The passionate pursuit of the perfect ball impact and on developing his style to perfection. An insatiable and restless will to win. Maybe somewhere there we will find the basic elements that made Waldner a genuine champion - and the Mozart of table tennis. But the basic elements are not enough. It takes more. Being born and raised in the right environment, for example. Waldner really came up trumps in his choice of parents and family, place and the time to come into the world. Mother Marianne and dad Åke were perfect sports parents, always present and engaged, but without interfering in Janne's development at the table. Big brother Kjell-Åke also became a major league player and was the one that brought J-O to the training hall in an old abandoned cinema in Aspudden when other attractions were available and Jan-Ove preferred to stay home. Jan-Ove Waldner often refers to his family when he looks back and tries to explain his extraordinary career: “I always felt a basic security. At a young age, I could be very unhappy and angry when I lost but for my family it did not matter. To them, I was who I was, Janne, whether I won or lost. This is how it was from the beginning, how it was throughout my career and how it is now. Always supportive, always seeing the positive side. Never being brought down and creating negative energy.”

Yes, a fundamentally safe upbringing plays a role in your performance. Feeling safe gives you courage. Feeling safe makes it easier to think outside the box; easier to take your own path. Having the courage to fail. Feeling safe allows you to take risks.

Waldner was born in 1965, the ideal year for those who want to be a world leader in table tennis. In 1971, when J-O was six, Stellan Bengtsson became Sweden's first singles world champion. Two years later, Sweden won World Championship team gold. Stellan and his accomplice Kjell Johansson were mega stars in Sweden and table tennis was being played all over the country – in schools, in recreation rooms, at recreation centres, in public halls, in garages, in gymnastics halls and sports centres. For those who wanted to improve themselves, there were more clubs offering good training from qualified instructors. If you wanted to compete there was an endless range of tournaments to play at weekends. For Waldner, who lived just outside Stockholm, it was logistically natural to start at the Stockholm Spårvägar club, which was one of the best managed and forward-looking clubs in Sweden. In addition, they had two young and extremely ambitious players both at a young age that were part of the national team: Ulf Thorsell and Roger Lagerfeldt. They trained relentlessly and Waldner's objective was set early: being best at the club also meant being among the very best in Sweden. And being among the best in Sweden meant being among the best in the world. A great help along the way for Waldner was Mikael Appelgren. It was primarily with Mikael that he trained for hours at a time over the years in which he developed from a super talent to a champion.

But it was not until 1980 in China that Janne really knew what would be required of him to achieve the objective of becoming the best in the world. There, over three tough training weeks in Shanghai, he had first-hand experienced of how much table tennis meant in China and what he would have to do to get where he wanted to be. Following China, a more serious attitude was adopted to his training. J-O kept a pack of socks in his bag that he promised not to open until he had reached his first World Championship final. He did not have to wait very long for that day. In 1983 in Tokyo Sweden met China in the final of the World Championship team competition. J-O was close to beating Jiang Jialiang in the first match but fell at the last hurdle. Sweden went on to lose the team match 1-5. Two years later Sweden went down 5-0 in the final at the World Championships in Gothenburg, and in New Delhi in 1987 the team final ended with the same result. But it was also in New Delhi that J-O played his hitherto best table tennis. He beat the Chinese superstars Chen Longcan and Teng Yi in the quarter and semi-finals of the singles. The incredible run held up to 1-0 in sets and 9-3 in the final against China's number one and reigning world champion Jiang Jialiang. Then things turned around, Jiang won after being 16-20 down in the fourth set. Later in the evening I met J-O in the hotel lift. I said something like this might be a chance that might never come again. J-O looked a little blankly at me, the lift doors on his floor clattered open and before he stepped out he said: “It will”

And it did. He felt what I had not seen. Sweden was about to take over now. In Dortmund two years later the succession was a fact. Sweden beat China 5-0 in the team final, which is regarded as perhaps the greatest feat in Swedish sports history, and which won the table tennis team the Swedish Dagbladet medal of achievement. J-O began by defeating Teng Yi and at 3-0 to Sweden, he took revenge on Jiang Jialiang in a dramatic match. At 1-1 in sets and 8-5 to J-O,Jiang's serve was deemed illegal. Jiang refused to play on, demanded that the judges had to be replaced, which eventually happened. It was a tactical attempt to unbalance the Swede. The match was also dramatic as it led to a change on the table tennis throne. Waldner was now the champion. A few days after the team gold medal, he finally won his first major championship in singles, and Sweden was about to enter its golden period in men's table tennis. This lasted for three World Championships before China broke back, even though the second half of the 1990s remained even, with Waldner's World Championships singles gold in 1997 and the team victory over China in 2000 as Swedish highlights. It was a period where the Swedes captured a synthesis of the Hungarians' successful style in the 1970s with a lot of topspin from both the backhand and forehand sides – and the Chinese's economic playing style close to the table with the signature shot of always hitting the ball at its highest point. The Swedes combined the best of both worlds with this complete style of play, and it was not until the early 2000s that China regained command.

Without the team it would not have been possible, Waldner has often emphasised. Not without the dynamics of competition, camaraderie and the will to win that characterised the Swedish national team from Waldner's entrance into the team in the early 1980s until his departure more than 20 years later. Behind Waldner, Persson and Appelgren and Erik Lindh there were Stellan Bengtsson, Ulf “Tickan” Carlsson, Peter Karlsson, Thomas von Scheele and Fredrik Håkansson, all world champions. And Ulf Bengtsson, who won the European Championships in singles in 1984. And behind them the unsung heroes such as Håkan Jeppsson, Jonny Åkesson and Jonas Berner. Together they represented a cluster where everyone thought they were the best and where all the horrendously hard training could maximise the development of their specific match play. When it comes to conflict management you notice the importance of this team. There is an unwritten golden rule in the event of any quarrelling: out with it and everything on the table. Sort it out and move on. Back to the team. Onwards towards the next goal. No interference, nothing that could cause lasting disruption or division. One for all – all for one. This is best for everyone concerned in the long run.

But how could one player stand out among all the others? Part of the answer lies in the economic playing style. J-O had a world-class serve and an extremely varied first attack shot with his forehand follow-up. His infinite combinations laid the foundations for his triumphs: serve and first attack. This gave him a psychological advantage over his opponents, and his economic style of play meant he also saved energy. While opponents fought frantically for each point, Waldner was able to win many points quickly and easily and without any great exertion. In so doing he retained a lot of energy and had a clear head when it came to the crunch in the final rounds and the final phases of key matches.

Waldner's sense of movement is also crucial. He instantly sees if his opponent is unbalanced – and from almost a sixth sense he always plays the ball exactly where the opponent least of all wants it, and in a way that makes it as difficult as possible to return based on position and balance. He also uses his eye for the movement of his opponent to read his form or mental status at that particular moment. “You can detect nervousness in movement patterns. If your opponent is moving well, you know that he is in shape. Stiff movements means he is either out of shape or nervous. It is important to spot this at the beginning of each game. An opponent who moves well is always dangerous.” The hawk eye also sees more than you think. At 17-17 in the deciding set, in the midst of the decisive phase of his match against Teng Yi in the team World Championship final against China in 1989, for example, Waldner makes a mental note of the warm-up exercises Jörgen Persson is doing in another part of the hall. This ability to split vision is extreme and allows Waldner to studiously work the tables while playing backgammon in the stands or messing around with a friend. He notes which serve a dangerous opponent uses when it comes down to the deciding set. He notes which serve return a dangerous opponent is looking to play in the decisive duels. His eyes are watching everywhere, absorbing and letting his brain process information that may be useful for future championship games.

“You could wake me in the middle of the night and I would be able to tell you the best tactics to adopt against the top 100 in the world. And how they serve when the score is 19-19 in the decider. Saive (Belgian, no 2 at the World Championships in 1993) was always tired at the end and tried to work his forehand all over the table. So I always played short against his forehand. If this did not work, I would drive far out into his forehand, stand at the table and block the next shot with a backhand.
Gatien, for example, always played a long fast serve straight out of his forehand. He assumed that you would loop it back diagonally, so he could move around with a forehand into the backhand corner and pull the rebound straight. You had to be alert there and pull the forehand loop straight directly from the serve instead.”

J-O enjoyed his greatest triumph against Gatien. The Olympic final in 1992 in Barcelona. In my biography about J-O – When the feeling decides – his career highlights are described as follows:

“At 23-23 Gatien serves short, J-O plays the return half way to the forehand, and the Frenchman opens to the Swede's forehand. J-O takes the initiative by attacking back straight, and the Frenchman blocks and loses ground from the table. Waldner pulls the ball to the backhand again where Gatien is incredibly quick and manages to hit back with his own forehand loop, which he shoots from the hip, diagonally across the table to Waldner's forehand. What J-O then does is significant for the overall match. He takes a step forward, meets the Frenchman's risky counter attack immediately after the bounce, chooses to block short and thereby the more difficult straight route out towards the Frenchman's exposed forehand corner. Gatien is unable to reach the ball, which hits the racket edge and bounces far away to the side of the table.

 Waldner collects himself before the third match point. (...) He stands in the position to serve with the forehand. He throws the ball up gently, just above his head, and serves - horizontally and screwed to the middle of the table. Gatien returns to the Swede's backhand, J-O works around and prepares for a forehand attack. He waits to strike, making Gatien unsure, and the Frenchman moves slightly to the middle of the table to cover. Waldner records the movement with his almost telepathic wide-angled vision. He twists his wrist just before the moment of impact so that the ball's direction goes deep into the backhand. Being surprised by the tight angle, Gatien cannot reach and he blocks the ball into the net.” (…)

 With a time to reflect on the moment in Barcelona, J-O thinks that his Olympic gold is his greatest win.

 “At the Olympics the whole troop of several hundred people worked as one team. It is different when a lot of other sports are involved, you win not only for table tennis but for all of Sweden.

 Olympic gold means Waldner's popularity as an athlete is reflected in all aspects of the population in Sweden. In the autumn, he will receive the Swedish Dagbladet medal again, in splendid isolation this time.”

Jens Fellke

Jens Fellke is a Swedish journalist and author. He has written about table tennis ever since he played himself at a national top 20 level back in the early 1980ties. Fellke has written four books on table tennis, among them the biography of Jan-Ove Waldner called “When the feeling decides”. Fellke´s last piece on table tennis is “Zeitenwende Tischtennis/Point of no return”, which was published in English and German with parallel texts in December 2009. In August 2012 the Swedish public service channel SVT 1 will broadcast “Bragden” (The Feat), made by Fellke, Helena Egerlid and Henrik Georgsson. “Bragden” is a one-hour-documentary on how Sweden could beat China and become the leading table tennis nation in the World in the late 1980s.

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