Timo Boll: Legend, "superstar" and still chasing gold

German table tennis Timo Boll has made it all the way to the final of the men's team competition. Tokyo 2020 caught up with him before the Games about his Olympic ambitions. 

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

In the Tokyo 2020 Athletes' Village, Timo Boll sat in front of the TV and recorded a video after finishing his men's singles match. The TV behind him was showing the quarterfinals. ”It is still running, but I'm not in it”, Boll said, apparently disappointed. "This is my sixth attempt and of course I'm frustrated that it didn’t work out.”

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Picture by 2017 Getty Images

Living in two worlds

Boll is a huge celebrity in People's Republic of China.

There is a video of his top 10 shots on YouTube and one of the most liked comments reads: “Unfortunately, Timo gets far too little attention as far as his status is concerned. For me, he's easily on a par with Schuhmacher, Nowitzki, Graf and Becker. A true Legend”.

For Boll's compatriots, it may be impossible to imagine how famous he really is in People's Republic of China. In a country where table tennis is the national sport, Boll is a bonafide superstar.

LIU Guoliang, the renowned table tennis player and coach, had this to say about Boll: "I have always told Chinese athletes that in addition to his playing, his on and off the field his interactions with people make him a role model and an icon in the world of table tennis."

Timo Boll says he hopes he has always been a polite and gracious person. And for someone who is "unknown" in his hometown, he thinks it's actually a good thing.

"I have a relatively normal life in Germany, where I can do normal things, and in China I can feel like a superstar," said Boll, “I live in two worlds, and I think it's a perfect combination. In fact, I'm quite happy with that.”

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Picture by 2019 Getty Images

The road to Tokyo

For Boll, the postponement of Tokyo 2020 was a lifeline In mid-2020, he suffered a serious spinal injury and had to pause all sporting activities. If the Olympics had taken place last year, he would have not been able to play. 

“Will I be able to hold up physically?” he pondered. “I’m 40 now so there has always been a question mark.”

European players have often had longer careers but even in Europe, Boll is an anomaly. He was a table tennis prodigy who began playing at age four and won the European Championship at 16. At the 2002 Table Tennis World Cup, he stunned the world by beating two of People’s Republic of China’s most celebrated players, WANG Liqin and KONG Linghui. Over the next decade, he won the European Championship 15 times (eight team and seven singles titles), eight World Cup singles medals (including two golds) and eight European Championship singles golds - including one just a month before Tokyo 2020. 

That last European Championship came at just the right time for Boll, giving him a much-needed confidence boost and the knowledge that he was still physically able to mix it with the best at international level.

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Picture by 2005 Getty Images

The secret to his longevity

For an older competitor, Boll has needed to be smart to maintain his level of performance. 

"I train differently now", he said, "I can no longer train like my colleagues, who train six to ten hours a day. Of course, I couldn't do that at age 40. I train for shorter periods of time, but with very focused energy, trying to analyse every bounce, every shot, and I'm very much a perfectionist in that sense. Maybe that's why I'm still able to keep going."

And something must be working. Boll has never fallen out of the top 15 in the world rankings and has topped those rankings on three occasions: 2003, 2011 and 2018 - the last of those when he was 36 years and 11 months old.

However, even at his peak, Boll never triumphed at the Olympics. In fact, in six Games he has never reached the singles semi-finals. 

He does, however, own three Olympic medals from the team event (silver Beijing 2008, bronze London 2012 and Rio 2016) and he is on course to equal or better his Beijing silver in Tokyo. 

“There are many reasons for that, of course, but I did my best and that's what's important to me, not the result,” he said, referring to his singles record. “If that's not enough, then it's because the opponent is better and I accept that. That's why it doesn't matter if I don't win a medal in the men's singles, I won't be upset, at least I tried everything I could"

An unrequited pursuit for gold

Once again, Tokyo 2020 saw Boll fall at an early hurdle in the singles, beaten by the Republic of Korea’s JEOUNG Young Sik. After the loss, Boll replayed the defeat over and over in his head. "Jeoung was too strong,” he said. “I couldn't find the right solution, and I am still thinking about the game and it was really tough."

Boll’s usual strategies didn’t work against Jeoung and any adjustments he did make couldn’t help him salvage the situation. Boll prides himself in being able to vary his returns but he wasn’t able to get a read on Jeoung’s serve. 

After the match, Boll regretted that he didn’t “try everything” and wasn’t as intuitive or creative as he usually is. 

“I am still thinking about what I should have done and maybe I should have taken more risks,” said the Olympic veteran. “Of course I’m disappointed but it’s like that when you’re a sportsperson. I have to stand up.”

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Picture by 2008 Getty Images

A medal for Tokyo

After more than two decades on the court, Boll has experienced countless defeats and victories. One thing he is thankful for is that the table tennis season is always there. With one tournament swiftly followed by another, it is important to pick up the pieces quickly.

"I will try my best now in the team [competition], concentrate on the German league for my club, and the World Championships. I can plan for those events, I can motivate myself,” said Boll. “And I don’t know whether I will have another chance in the singles. Paris 2024 is a long way away and I am 40. I can’t plan that far into the future.”

Boll now has one more match - the final of the team event - to claim the top spot on the podium for the very first time.

And one thing is clear: he wants to win a gold medal.

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