Table tennis is a sport which started in the late 19th century and saw its organising body ITTF form in 1926. Hundreds of thousands of table tennis players have played this excellent racket sport but the question we are trying to answer here who are some of the best table tennis players of all time.
First things first, there is no way we could exclude any of the table tennis players who have won a Grand Slam from this list of best ping pong players. The reason is very simple.
For a sport which has been played for decades, there have been only 10 such instances spread across men’s and women’s table tennis, of players having won a Grand Slam.
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What is a Grand Slam in Table Tennis?
Players winning the singles gold medal at the Olympics and title victories at the World Championships and the World Cup are said to have won the Table Tennis Grand Slam.
As on April 2020, 10 players have won the Table Tennis Grand Slam, with only one player having won the first prize at all three of these competitions more than once apiece.
In this list of table tennis players who have won a Grand Slam, Waldner is the only non-Chinese player. A Swede, Waldner holds a list of multiple achievement but none is more stunning than the fact he played the sport for 30 years, and he played across three generations of players.
Just before his retirement, Waldner had matches against players who were coached by his peers from the 1990s and these players in turn had been coached by his peers in the 1980s, speaking volumes about his utter longevity in the sport.
And this is not to say the longevity came at the cost of quality. In a sport dominated so dramatically by the Chinese, Waldner won a gold and a bronze at the Olympics, six gold medals at the World Championships and two at the World Cup along with a plethora of other medals at this competitions.
There were 11 gold medals at the European Championships before he retired and he will go down as one of the greatest table tennis players of all time, probably tied with the second name in this list.
Like Waldner, Long is one of only five men’s players to have won the Grand Slam and at the time of writing is still playing at the competitive level and at peak ability which make him a bigger contender for the G.O.A.T. title.
What makes Long’s record stand out is he is the only men’s player to have clinched every table tennis singles tournament win.
And while Waldner won just one Olympics gold, Long’s list of achievements already reads three gold medals at the Olympics and 12 gold medals at the World Championships. Three of these have come in singles.
Add eight World Cup golds (two in men’s singles) to go with the numerous other title victories around the table tennis world and it comes as no surprise many have Long in their list of the best player ever in the sport.
Not every table tennis player or a sportsperson plays till the age Waldner did but if Long got close enough to that, we could be looking at a player who might have broken all table tennis records. Twice over.
Yaping is often considered one of the best table tennis players of all times and arguably the best in women’s table tennis. Standing at just 1.5 meters (4’11”), Yaping has six World TT Championships women’s singles gold medals, to go with four Olympics golds and one Table Tennis World Cup gold medal.
In 1997, Yaping retired at 24, quite early by any standards but even more so when you compare that with the first name on this list of great table tennis players. Yaping had considered becoming a table tennis coach post her retirement but completed her BA in English at Tsinghua University, before moving to the Nottingham University to get a master’s degree in 2002.
A PhD in land economics at Cambridge University followed soon after and has worked as an Olympics ambassador before becoming a part of the Beijing Olympics marketing team.
Plaudits on and off the field for Yaping.
Guoliang became the second male to win the table tennis Grand Slam in 1999 after he won the 1999 World Table Tennis Championships singles gold at Eindhoven.
Earlier, in 1996, he had won the singles and doubles gold at the Atlanta Olympics and clinched the pole position at the Nimes World Cup.
He retired from table tennis in 2001 and switched over to coaching, becoming the head coach of the country’s men’s team at just 27. And as if to prove he wasn’t just an excellent player, he managed to take the coaching world by storm as well with a record almost unparalleled.
The team has clinched all the men’s singles team titles at the World Table Tennis Championships in the 18 years that Liu was China’s coach.
According to reports, he was fired from the position in 2017 but returned after that only to later be appointed the president of the table tennis association of China.
Two golds and one silver in the three Olympics he participated in, Kong Linghui also went on to win eight titles in the World Championships and a World Cup gold at the 1995 Nimes competition.
Interestingly, Kong was one of the player who was sent to Sweden in a bid to grasp their style of play as China tried to overturn the European dominance in the sport. It proved to be a successful move as Kong returned back in 1993 and within a couple of years had become the top-ranked player in the world.
Wang was the best women’s singles player during a period of nearly four years between 1999 and 2002 when he was ranked number one in the world.
Her Olympics singles gold came in the 2000 edition of the competition where she also won the doubles title, and followed it up with a couple of more golds at the 2004 and 2008 games. All of this, however, came after she had already clinched the gold medals at World Cup (in 1998 and 1999) and another at the World Table Tennis Championships in 1999.
Wang added a four more singles gold medals at the World Cup and World Championships to round off her career.
On paper, there has been no table tennis player like Zhang Yining, man or woman. Zhang is the only table tennis player in the world to have won at least two singles gold medals at the Olympics, World Cup and World Championships.
Zhang’s first major singles gold came at the 2001 Wuhu World Cup and she followed it up three more titles at the same competition in 2002, 2004 and 2005. In the meantime she added a gold medal from the Athens Olympics, clinching both, the singles and doubles titles, before scooping the gold at the 2005 Shanghai World Championships.
She ended her career with 18 gold medals across all the events at the Olympics, World Championships and the World Cup, to go with a few other silvers and bronzes.
Not surprisingly, Zhang was the world number one in the women’s singles rankings in all months between 2003 and 2009 bar a couple.
Following on the footsteps of Waldner, Guoliang and Linghui, Zhang Jike also went on to win the table tennis Grand Slam when he won the gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics games.
Jike had earlier won the Rotterdam World Championships singles gold in 2011 and the Paris World Cup singles gold in the same year as well.
Much like Zhang Jike, Li Xiaoxia also won a singles gold at the 2012 Olympics but her Table Tennis Grand Slam came later.
It was at the 2013 Paris World Championships when she joined an elite of table tennis players to do as she clinched a singles gold there following on from her first major singles title at the 2008 Kuala Lumpur World Cup.
Li Xiaoxia retired from the sport in 2017.
Nicknamed the Queen of Hearts, Ding Ning had the chance to win a Grand Slam in 2012 when she made it to the final of the women’s singles event of the Olympics but lost to Li Xiaoxia in a controversial match.
The umpire penalised Ding Ning thrice during the match for her backhand tomahawk serve and that looked to have punctured her morale and ended her hopes.
However, she came back to win the Olympics singles gold at the 2016 games, beating the same opponent in the final. She had earlier won the 2011 Rotterdam World Championships and the 2011 Singapore World Cup.
Other Notable Mentions
It comes as no surprise the aforementioned list is dominated by Chinese players given the popularity of the sport in the country. In fact China dominates the sport of table tennis more than any other team dominates any other sport, especially if one looks at Olympics medal counts.
Here are a few players, from China and from everywhere else who need a mention as champion players in their own rights despite having not won the Grand Slam.
- Ma Lin
- Chen Jing
- Fan Zhengdong
- Dimitrij Ovtcharov
- Zoran Primorac
- Wang Hao
- Vladimir Samsonov
- Liu Shiwen
- Wang Liqin
- Yoo Nam-kyu
- Tomokazu Harimoto
- Timo Boll