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Feature: Ma Long, heart of a great champion

Xinhua
31 Jul 2021, 19:30 GMT+10

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Crowned the most decorated paddler in Olympic history, Ma Long's journey continues as he sets his eyes on the Olympic team event.

TOKYO, July 31 (Xinhua) -- Against ages, against injuries, against all odds, Ma Long finally made it.

"Don't ever underestimate the heart of a champion."

Former Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich's famous quote has turned out to be true once again.

Ma, captain of the all-leading Chinese table tennis team, won back-to-back Olympic titles in the men's singles event after overcoming fellow Chinese Fan Zhendong on Friday, a feat that no male player has ever achieved before.

After the win, Ma put two arms overhead and gestured a "heart" toward the stand, which he later explained as a move for his family, child and the team.

But more connotative, this is the "heart" of a champion.

With four gold medals, Ma has tied the record as the most decorated paddler in Olympic history, and first among male players.

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"The record is used to be broken," Ma said after winning a record-extending sixth ITTF Finals title in November last year.

"It feels like a dream," he added while waiting for the tournament's award ceremony after winning his first trophy in 15 months.

Now, after eight months, it remains true to him.

Already the World Championships and the World Cup winner, Ma achieved his Grand Slam feat after winning the Rio 2016 gold medal. The 32-year-old also has the Asian Games, Asian Championships, Asian Cup and China's National Games titles under his name.

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But the veteran was wary about the topic of his era continuing.

"First I have to keep a winning mentality. This is the most precious thing and the reason why this team offers huge support to me. I think I can continue to play and compete with those rivals," he said.

Starting to play in the national team at the age of 15, Ma won his first world champion in the 2006 World Team Championships in Bremen, Germany three years later. Now he has tallied 25 world champions under belt after his latest Olympic gold medal.

But Ma's road back to glory was never plain sailing.

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After having become the first male player in over half a century to win three straight world championships titles with the latest in Budapest in April 2019, Ma decided to have surgery on his knee in August to be fully fit for the Tokyo Olympics.

Before the surgery, Ma shaved his head bald, in line with a Chinese saying that represents starting from scratch.

Back from his knee surgery, Ma had a singles title-winning drought for over a year, arousing the doubt if he still has a shot at the delayed Tokyo Olympics.

Due to the cancelation and postponement of international competitions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it would pose great challenges for players to keep their concentration in behind-closed-doors training.

"As some tournaments were canceled, players might not be able to keep their concentration at a certain stage. As there were no matches, and we trained in an isolated environment every day, we might lose our sharpness," he recalled in an interview back in May.

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But tireless efforts to come back paid off for Ma. After standing on top of the world again, he continued his favorable form and became the WTT (World Table Tennis) Macao champion one week later.

At the Tokyo Olympics, Ma faced a stern test in the semifinals, where he eventually emerged victorious after full sets.

"Sometimes in competitions, it's about the last point and who can hold their ground, who has more willpower," commented Ma after defeating his long-time German rival Dimitrij Ovtcharov.

"Undisputed G.O.A.T. Ma Long Breaks New Ground in Tokyo," read the headline of the ITTF's article commenting on Ma's achievement.

"I feel quite lucky to be among the best," he said after the match.

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Now the champion and record has been passed. Starting from scratch off the podium, Ma has set his eyes on the Olympic team event which will get underway from Sunday.

"It's a bigger target for the Chinese team, and I will make my contribution as an important part of the team," he said.

"Hopefully I can assure everyone within the team as I did in the last edition of the Olympics five years ago, and go all out without feeling any burden like today," he added.

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