Chinese Table Tennis players
PARIS—With their trendy haircuts, magazine good looks and superstar swagger they could be a boy band. And indeed Xu Xin, Zhang Jike, Wang Hao and Ma Long are bona fide A-listers, their names and faces known to hundreds of millions. They can't walk down the street without being mobbed by fans.
But their skills aren't in singing and dancing. They put on their shows with devastating flicks, lobs, chop-blocks and loop-drives. These four were the core of the table-tennis team representing China at the World Table Tennis Championships that concluded here on Monday, with Zhang defeating Wang to retain the title he won in Rotterdam two years ago and repeat his performance in the Olympic final.
Even though many in the West are utterly unaware of their existence, they are some of the biggest names in world sport.
The 25-year-old Zhang is the current megastar of table tennis. He was the first person to hold the Olympic, World Cup and World Championship titles at the same time, which made him a household name in China, and landed him gigs advertising Kia cars and a Coca-Cola KO 0.37 % television ad campaign.
It's unclear how much he earns, with rumors putting him comfortably in seven figures, but the Maserati he drives to training suggests he is doing just fine. And being a double world champion can only help.
With red tints in his hair, and a habit of tearing off his shirt to reveal a muscular torso and a tattoo of wings across his back with the word "Perseverance" beneath—something which shocks many people in China, where tattoos are rare—Zhang has something of a bad-boy image. His romantic life is gossiped about, and he has 4.1 million followers on Weibo, China's answer to Twitter. ( Rafael Nadal has 4.2 million on Twitter.)
"The top players are like Messi or Ronaldo are in Europe or the Americas, " said Vladimir Samsonov, the Belarussian table-tennis player who has been at the top of the sport for 20 years and used to play in China regularly. "In the street, you always see posters of them advertising the big companies. They're huge stars.
"And even me, too, " he said, laughing. "When I arrived in the airport you could sense that people thought something was happening."
Samsonov's career peaked at a time when the world's best players were European, but now that the Chinese have regained the ascendancy the game is more popular and, paradoxically, top Europeans are even bigger stars in China. Timo Boll, the fifth-seeded German who is the world's top non-Chinese player, has profited from this.
Boll has 5, 000 Twitter followers, but 1.1 million on Weibo. His endorsement list doesn't end with a deal from Butterfly, the Japanese equipment company. He is the face in China of mining giant RAG and heating systems firm Viessman, appearing on billboards and print ads.
"I can be a normal person in Germany, I get recognized, but you can't compare it to China, where nearly everyone knows my name, " he said. "If one person recognizes you in a restaurant they tell another and you hear your name going round like a fire."
And the perks aren't only financial. There are also ping-pong groupies. "Yes, they wait in hotels and in front of the venues, " Boll said.
With great fame comes great pressure, though. Players from Kazakhstan, Costa Rica, Namibia and Nepal were clearly happy enough to have simply qualified for the tournament last week.
But it wasn't fun for everyone. China's Ma Long, the former world No. 1 who was dropped from the Olympic team for his tendency to crumble under pressure, trained with the look of a man walking down the aisle to a shotgun wedding, which continued throughout a bad loss in the semi to Wang. Zhang, meanwhile, wore an expression of physical pain.
The reason for their nerves, perhaps, was the presence of their 23-year-old teammate Xu Xin, the freewheeling young gun who has leapfrogged them both to become world No. 1 and started as the tournament's top seed. His flamboyant shots have made him the new face of Stiga, the Swedish manufacturer.
During practice Xu wore a big smile and a T-shirt emblazoned with the devastating slogan "The King of Table Tennis". It didn't seem to be helping Ma or Zhang's moods. (Though maybe it helped Zhang's determination: he thrashed Xu 4-0 in the semifinal.)
Talking to Xu, it's clear that he is not quite a superstar yet. He doesn't have any non-table tennis sponsorships and only has 1.3 million Weibo followers—a number well outside the league of his superstar compatriots. He said just one magazine has interviewed him about his private life.
Did it ask about girls? "I'm not interested in girls, " Xu said. Cars then? "I'm very interested in cars, " he said, adding that his dream ride would be a BMW BMW -0.60 % 3 series.
Managing their turbocharged egos is the men's team coach, Liu Guoliang. He was famous during his playing days for epic battles with Swedish great Jan-Ove Waldner, the first table-tennis millionaire who at one point owned a chain of bars in China. A veteran of TV talk-shows, Liu has as many social media followers as David Beckham.
In a break from a training session during which he was firing balls at his charges with alarming speed, Liu admitted his fame comes with boatloads of pressure.
"Sometimes I feel like this, but I am recognized as part of the team, not as a person. I am not influenced by media and fans, " he said. "Table tennis has become bigger, there is more stress"