EXCLUSIVE: Injured Ma Long expects World Championships return

Three-time Olympic champion is back in training and intends to defend his world title at the end of April.

By ZK Goh

He hasn’t played internationally since losing in the last 32 at the Bulgarian Open in August 2018, but injured Olympic champion Ma Long intends to defend his table tennis world title in Budapest next month.

The 30-year-old sat down exclusively with Olympic Channel in Shenzhen, the southeastern Chinese city bordering Hong Kong that is hosting this year’s Marvellous 12 Chinese qualifier for the 2019 World Championships. Ma had been due to compete in the tournament, but withdrew just a few days prior to the start to focus on his injury rehabilitation.

Ma has been hampered by a left knee injury that also kept him out of the 2018 Men’s World Cup, Swedish and Austrian Opens, the World Tour Finals, and January’s Hungarian Open.

Having not taken part in the internal trials, Ma will have to rely on a coach selection to be named to the Chinese team. But, he reveals, his comeback has progressed to a point where that is likely.

“Based on my recovery right now, I’m confident that I will compete,” - Ma Long to Olympic Channel on World Championship hopes.

‘One match at a time’

Ma hasn't missed a World Table Tennis Championships since he made his debut in 2006.

The Chinese superstar has clinched two singles world titles in his career and is the defending champion, but he hesitates when asked whether he’s out to retain his title, given his recent injury problems.

“I’ve won the gold medal twice, so I’m not going in thinking that I want another. I think I’ll still take it a match at a time.

"Once you’re in a competition, you don’t set long-range goals [until] you make it to the later rounds.

"For me, my goal will be decided during the tournament."

Comeback from injury

That appearance at the Bulgarian Open – where he only played once, losing to England’s Liam Pitchford – was Ma’s last international competition in an injury-hit 2018.

He explains that his recent problems were a culmination of small issues with his body that had accumulated.

“This was the result of a long-term build up. I had a long period of discomfort and then it kind of blew up,” he says.

But he is positive about his treatment.

“In the last two weeks, there has been quite a bit of progress."

“Previously, it was mostly about building up strength but in the last half a month I've been able to jog, as well as practice with the ball.

"It's going in the right direction.

Staying healthy

The three-time Olympic champion – who has two team golds in addition to singles gold at Rio 2016 – says he’s not setting any competitive aims for this season.

Instead, he will focus on staying fit and regaining match condition.

“Most importantly, if I want to continue playing, I need to keep myself healthy. That's a priority." - Ma Long

“I need to find some competitive form, because I think I haven't played internationally for about six months now. Once I've found the form, I'll take it bit by bit.”

So does that mean someone else will challenge for the world title and take it away from him in Hungary next month?

“I think this is a difficult question to answer right now. A lot of people have a chance. It all depends on the draw during the competition.”

Stay tuned to the Olympic Channel for more from our exclusive interview with Ma Long.