It’s no secret that since the 1960s, world table tennis has been outrageously dominated by the Chinese, who have won 20 of the last 31 world championships in the men’s category. Nevertheless, a few European players have sometimes managed the genuine feat of shaking up the hierarchy. In order to bring back some good memories, here is our Top 5 of those who have managed to shake up the order established by the leading pinging nation.
N°5 : Vladimir Samsonov
How can we not start this Top 5 by quoting the European record holder for the number of Pro-Tour titles? Even though Ma Long dethroned this all-time record a few months ago, Vladimir Samsonov counts the trifle of 27 titles on the world circuit. Remaining in the Top 10 for more than a decade, the Belarusian made a place for himself at the highest level during one of the most successful periods in history, and his longevity means that he is now considered one of the best non-Chinese players in the history of the game.
Samsonov has won three World Cups (1999, 2001, 2009) and can boast one of Europe’s best ping-pong records. Add to these three major titles and his 27 Pro-Tour titles 9 Champions League, 3 European singles titles (1998, 2003, 2005) and a silver medal at the world championships (1997), and it is easy to see why the Minsk native is a legend. Several times winner of Chinese players over the last two decades, he still performs well against the masters of the game, as evidenced by his victory over Lin Gaoyuan at the Qatar Open on March 5.
We could also have mentioned Werner Schlager, the last non-Chinese man to put his name on the list of world championship winners, but we felt that this was only a stroke of brilliance at the highest level, alongside all the achievements made by Vladimir Samsonov throughout his career (which is not even over yet).
N°4 : Jean-Philippe Gatien
Is it really useful to recall the best record of French ping on the international scene? Olympic vice-champion in 1992, “Philou” made his way to the final of the Barcelona Games, beating successively the reigning Olympic champion Yoo Nam-Kyu in 8th place (21-19), Ding Yi in the quarter-finals and the Chinese Ma Wenge in the semi-finals. Despite a defeat in the final against Swedish legend Jan-Ove Waldner, the French left-hander enjoyed two legendary successes over Jean-Michel Saive in the following seasons, first in the 1993 World Championship final and then in the 1994 World Cup final.
While Chinese domination was perhaps less exclusive at the time, the list of winners established at a time when names such as Kong Linghui, Liu Guoliang and Jan-Olve Waldner were making their mark on the world circuit is still very much in evidence. To convince the last sceptics, we even added a bronze medal in doubles at the 1999 Olympics with Patrick Chila and two at the world championships with Damien Eloi in 1994 and 1997.
N°3 : Timo Boll
He has never been world champion, but his longevity and record in the game’s most successful period in terms of the homogeneity of the players making up the Chinese contingent make him one of the best European players in history. Indeed, Timo Boll is no less than 7 times European champion and 11 times German singles champion. But he also and above all has one of the most extensive European records in the world, with a bronze medal at the Rio Games in 2016, 14 medals in the two flagship competitions (World Cup and World Championships) including two World Cup victories (2002 and 2005) and prestigious victories at the Open in China (by beating Wang Liqin in the final in 2006) and Qatar (by beating Ma Lin in 2009).
World number one in 2011 and then in 2013, the German left-hander has evolved over the years to become a reference in his sport with a complete game based on ball rotation, which has enabled him to beat the best Chinese players such as Ma Lin, Wang Liqin, Zhang Jike and Ma Long on several occasions.
N°2 : Jörgen Persson
He is one of the figures of the great Swedish team of the 90s. Triple team world champion (1989, 1993, 2000), two-time semi-finalist at the Olympic Games (2000, 2008) and winner of the World Cup and World Championships in singles in 1991, Jörgen Persson would have shaken more than one Chinese player throughout his years at the highest level. World #1 in 1991 and 1992, he would have made a name for himself even in the shadow of the best European player in history, who was none other than his compatriot.
But he has not stopped making a name for himself in recent years, becoming world veteran champion in the 50-54 age group in 2018, and helping from his chair to take Mattias Falck to the world championship final in 2019.
N°1 : Jan-Ove Waldner
A veritable myth. A living legend of the sport. Nicknamed “the Mozart of table tennis,” Jan-Ove Waldner won it all. Winner of the World Championships in 1989 and 1997, the World Cup in 1990 and the Olympic Games in 1992, he became the first player in history to achieve the Grand Slam by winning all three major table tennis competitions. To this day, he remains the only non-Chinese player to have achieved this feat. He also won 4 World Team Championships with the Swedish team (in 1989, 1991, 1993 and 2000), and was of course world #1 for many months. These performances allowed him to be elected to the Table Tennis Hall of Fame in 2003 (with his Swedish national team mates, Jörgen Persson and Peter Karlsson).
A European runner-up from the age of 17 in the early 1980s, the Waldner empire stretched over almost 25 years and ended in a semi-final at the 2004 Athens Olympics at the age of 38. His record is so impressive that it would almost make his silver medals at the 2000 Olympics and the 1983 and 1999 world championships anecdotal.
Beyond his brilliant performances, Waldner revolutionized the game, disgusting all his opponents with his quality of variation and his innate ball touch. In fact, after his 1992 Olympic final, which he lost 3-0 to the Swede, Gatien said of him: “I can’t remember a guy with so much spin and so much variation in placement and camouflage. Horrible! ». That definitely says something. For the younger ones, we leave you with a compilation of his best moves.