Ma Long walks into the interview room carrying no pretensions or airs.
The 30-year-old is the reigning Olympic singles champion, and like many table tennis players in his native China, receives rock-star treatment from his fans, who travel all over the country and the world to cheer him on at tournaments.
In fact, as the Olympic Channel sits down with Ma in Shenzhen, the southeastern Chinese city bordering Hong Kong hosting this year’s Marvellous 12 Chinese qualifier for the World Championships, he says he has just returned from an autograph signing session.
WATCH: Behind the scenes at “One of the toughest tournaments in the world”
WATCH: Behind the scenes at “One of the toughest tournaments in the world”China produces the world’s best table tennis players. How did they perform under pressure at the Marvellous 12 competition, the national World Championships qualifier? Olympic Channel were given exclusive access to the event.
Rock star status
But Ma portrays a humbleness in our interview at odds with his status as one of the sport’s greats. Asked about how he feels to receive such maniacal support, Ma gives a somewhat non-committal answer: “Regardless of whether it's me or the whole Chinese table tennis team, this gives everyone a lot of positive energy.”
This isn’t necessarily a phenomenon reserved for Chinese players, Ma points out. “There have always been many Chinese fans supporting foreign players, like [Timo] Boll or [Dimitrij] Ovtcharov, and Ai Fukuhara or Kasumi Ishikawa before as well,” he says.
‘The Dictator’, as he is sometimes known, is sitting out the Marvellous 12 tournament as he ramps up his rehabilitation from a knee injury. It’s an injury that has kept him out of international competition for six months and forced him off the top of the world rankings after 34 consecutive months of being number one.
If he’s feeling frustrated by the enforced absence, he’s not showing it. Instead, he opts to look forward, telling us he intends to compete at the World Championships – albeit without making outlandish predictions about how well he will do.
Adapting to changes
The spell away from competitive action means Ma will have to get used to a new order in the table tennis world.
Japanese teenager Tomokazu Harimoto, the Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Olympic silver medallist, became the youngest ITTF World Tour Grand Finals champion in Ma’s absence in December, while Germany’s Boll – the European champion – and Ovtcharov remain perennial threats to China’s domination of the sport.
“This is completely normal,” Ma reflects calmly. “In every sport, the amount of time when anyone can stay at the peak isn't very long. It will keep ebbing and flowing.
“Yes, China is meeting a period where others are improving, but this motivates us even more,” he insists.
“Times have changed, skills have changed, the ball has changed, players have changed. A lot of things have changed, and we all need to adapt to the environment.”
Asked to identify his weaknesses and strengths in his current game, he says: “I think I’m still lacking a little in my power. But my game intelligence is my strength.”
Memorable table tennis rally from China star Ma Long
Memorable table tennis rally from China star Ma LongMa Long shows great defensive skills and then decides to seize control of the rally in the semi-finals against Jun Mizutani.
The man behind the star
Another one of Ma Long’s nicknames is ‘the Dragon’, which comes from the literal translation of his name (龙).
But who is the person behind ‘the Dragon’? These more personal questions sees Ma relax and open up as the Olympic Channel tries to find out about the star’s likes and dislikes.
Fellow Olympic champions Lionel Messi, Paul George, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal are among some of Ma’s sporting heroes, as is three-time NBA winner Stephen Curry. “I used to play soccer, and in the last few years I’ve played some basketball,” Ma says. “I used to play golf, too. But with the fear of injury, I’ve been playing less.”
Like any regular person, he says he listens to music (Chinese music, he emphasises) and watches films to relax – and also likes going out to eat with his friends. What’s his favourite food?
“Huo guo,” he says without missing a beat. Chinese hotpot.
And his favourite country to travel to? “I think there’s quite a few,” he says with a smile. “In Europe, I quite like Germany and Austria.”
Then, with a laugh, he adds: “I’ve been to South America twice and I find Brazil quite nice, because I became Olympic champion there!”
Potential history maker
Ma could make history at Tokyo 2020 with potential fourth and fifth Olympic gold medals – the current record is four jointly held by Wang Nan, Deng Yaping, and Zhang Yining. ‘Captain Long’ does admit to having already given the next Olympic Games some thought.
“I think it’s the same for every athlete,” he says. “As soon as one Olympic Games is over, preparations for the next Games begin on day two.
“Of course, during this process, there are many things that make it up including training and smaller competitions. If I do everything in front of me correctly, things will happen naturally in 2020.”
Four weeks after our interview, Ma made his return to international competition, winning his comeback tournament – the Qatar Open – in Doha before finishing second to world number one Fan Zhendong at the Asia Cup in Japan.
It was a reminder to everyone that he is still a force to be reckoned with. Even if his humility means he won’t shout about it from the rooftops.