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Thursday, October 20, 2011
The Mongoose Vs. The Cobra
A couple years ago I paid $25 on eBay for a poor DVD bootleg of this match.
At the time of the Beijing Olympics I was entirely ignorant about table tennis, and had watched the competition with two questions foremost in my mind: "What sort of person devotes their life to table tennis?" And: "Where do these fellows get their flamboyant smocks and how can I build a collection of my own?"
To say that the Ma Lin/Wang Hao match changed my life is probably something of an overstatement, but I nonetheless can't deny that I harbor an unshakable and inexplicable obsession with this particular DVD.
I usually fast forward to the moment when, late in game one, Ma Lin takes a few steps back from the table and, smirking, fans himself dramatically with his paddle. At this point --in a match that was at the time heavily touted as "The Mongoose vs. The Cobra," the two monsters of the Chinese table tennis machine-- Ma, the older and more conservatively dressed of the two combatants, has game point on his paddle.
Wang, however, stages a couple of furious and inspired rallies, manages to battle back to 10-9, and Ma grimaces and takes a towel break.
The table looks impossibly small. It's almost as if they are playing table tennis on an air hockey table.
Towel break over, one of the television announcers observes that Wang, who with his foppishly highlighted pompadour and patterned gaudy brocaded gold-on-black smock looks like a Hong Kong action movie idol, "is definitely swimming against the tide now." There is no question that Ma has been playing with surgical precision, and he quickly finishes off game one with an 11-9 victory.
In game two, Wang again falls behind before mounting another stirring comeback. His rally falls short, however, when Ma crushes a vicious back-corner cross-spin return to finish off the stylish and feisty youngster. Ma, we are told, is the possessor of "the strongest and most feared forehand on the planet."
Wang, finally getting into a groove with his signature Reverse Penhold Backhand, breezes to an 11-6 victory in game three, and the commentators note that the world's number one ranked player (and the sport's most flamboyant and bankable star) appears to be getting stronger as the match goes on. In game four he jumps out to a comfortable early lead only to choke it away down the stretch with flubbed shot after flubbed shot. As Ma eases into cruise control and pounces on his opponent's every mistake you can see in Wang's body language that he has lost his poise and is mentally tired. There is an almost cavalier insolence to the way he plays out the rest of the game, which Ma ultimately wins comfortably to take a three games-to-one lead.
By game five it looks like Wang has thrown in the towel, yet after Ma takes a 7-2 lead Wang makes one more aggressive and tactical charge and pulls to within 10-7. Ma, the consummate old pro, takes a strategic timeout, which effectively ices his younger opponent. As Ma clearly stalls and engages in a bit of dramatic grandstanding you can see that Wang is visibly rattled, and even seething. He mutters to himself, and paces like a panther. He shakes his hair violently, scowls, and appears to strum a few air guitar chords on his paddle. Upon resumption of the action, Wang manages one more brief rally before eventually falling 11-9 and surrendering the Gold Medal to Ma.
The commentary throughout the match is consistently wonderful and educational --we learn, for instance, that Chinese table tennis stars are inordinately pampered, are often notorious divas, and routinely have much publicized dalliances with pop stars, models, and actresses-- but there is one moment during the closing points of that final game that I find myself returning to again and again: "This would definitely be a disappointment for Wang," one of the commentators says, "but his place in Chinese table tennis is secure. The 24-year-old star is already a controversial legend in his native country, and last year he won a million-dollar casino match against Zhang Yan, an older star who was disgraced in table tennis's first doping scandal. Late in the decisive game of the match --which Wang won with ease-- he purportedly used a barber's mirror as a paddle, and paused between each point to admire himself in the mirror and make adjustments to his hair. Grandstanding, certainly, and some might say bush league, but, hey, he's still young and has brought a lot of energy to the sport." At which point the other commentator interjects, "In his defense we should probably point out that Wang comes from a long line of barbers, and he has often claimed that he played his first games with a barber's mirror."