An amazing thing happened in the Palais Omnisports, Bercy, in the 12th Arrondissement of Paris, more amazing than Werner Schlager's semi-final defeat of Kong Linghui, which guaranteed for the first time since 1999 that China would not go home with all of the world titles stuffed into their luggage. The Austrian, who would go on to be crowned world champion, actually apologised. 'I would like to say sorry to China. I know the importance of the World Championships for the China team because they are all my friends,' he announced. Imagine for a moment Arsene Wenger feeling a hint of sorrow for Sir Alex Ferguson had Arsenal pipped Manchester United for the English Premiership title. Picture, if you will, Kimi Raikonnen or Juan Pablo Montoya sparing a single thought for poor old unfortunate Michael Schumacher if they ever oust him from his throne as Formula One's champion. Impossible. Yet Schlager, a 30-year-old who had spent almost his entire career desperately trying just to catch the slipstream of the Chinese juggernaut, actually felt sorry for the players he'd beaten - defending champion Wang Liqin and Kong - and repeated the fact again after the greatest victory of his career. 'I know the Chinese people give the Chinese players a lot of pressure. I know the coaches also put pressure on the players. It's not like that in Austria. You have to be free in you mind to play good table tennis. Wang Liqin and Kong Linghui were not free in the big games. They were not able to relax and play the way they are able to.' The fact was not lost on the Chinese delegation, although the significance of the sentiment may well have been. 'We did some calculations and the statistics say that in the mixed doubles we won 69 per cent of the key points. For the women the statistics were very good, but for the men the results were not so satisfactory,' declared Li Furong, China's deputy sports minister and a three-time World Championship finalist in the 1960s. 'The men were not aggressive enough, not brave enough.' China's men's coach, Ying Xiao, concurred: 'In the big matches the foreign men are playing more freely and more bravely than the Chinese players and they are taking their chances.' As the post-mortem began into China's 'failure' - winning four out of five world titles should not be considered such, especially when six of the seven men's singles entries lost their matches in the maximum seven games and the seventh, the rank outsider of the Chinese squad, teenager Qiu Yike, was beaten by one of his own players having already dumped the world number one Timo Boll out of the competition - it seemed necessary to question head coach Cai Zhenhua as to whether China needed to look at the fundamental issue of the relationship between player and coach. The question, comparing the trend in modern western coaching towards a more understanding, in-this-together, friend-to-friend dynamic, was probably too direct. 'We're not only like friends and brothers, but like father and son,' Cai replied. 'We have to teach players a lot about their mentality. Players in Europe do seem to be more calm in competition. Chinese players are not so brave and aggressive in the key points. We have to learn the aggression of European players, but we have to keep some of the merits of the Chinese team such as our discipline.' It would be a mistake, however, if the conclusion taken from the Chinese men's defeats, all in such close games, is that they need to be braver. As Schlager pointed out, and he should know having stood eyeball-to-eyeball through those mammoth tussles with Wang and Kong, the Chinese do not lack what the Spanish would call cojones. They just became tense. The reason is simply that they are weighed down by the cost of failure, rather than being lifted by the potential rewards for success. 'They're under much more pressure than the Europeans, especially from their coaches, because if they lose it is possible that the coach will lose his job,' explained Hong Kong men's coach Chan Kong-wah, whose SAR team co-exists almost side-by-side with the Chinese. 'The coaches have four-year contracts and take care of maybe three or four players, but only one, or two if they're lucky, of them will be really good. If you, as a player, are successful, then the coach is successful. He will maybe get a flat and a share of the prize money. Also the [Chinese] Olympic Council will look at the results of the players and if the results are not good the coach will have a problem. All that pressure, in the end, falls on to the player.' Chan, a Guangdong native who represented Hong Kong and has spent over 15 years coaching and playing in Germany's Bundesliga before returning to the territory two years ago, says he has modelled his player-coach relationships in the European style. 'I try to be a friend to my players. It's important that they trust me. Until now in China they haven't built relationships like that. It's more teacher and student. One or two of the coaches can be a friend, but 90 per cent are more strict. 'All the Chinese coaches are very serious. When they sit beside the court their faces are much more serious than the Europeans. It depends on the understanding between player and coach. Some are more relaxed and can smile to reassure the players, but I know most of the Chinese players want their coaches to take it easier. 'If the mentality of the player is strong it doesn't matter, but if the mentality of the player is not so strong then it is important that the coach is lighter, more friendly, more lucker [a German word which translates as casual, informal and loose, among others], more open, more trusting.' Of course, China's inability to clinch a third successive clean sweep at the World Championships does not spell the end of an era, even though it followed on from the 'catastrophic' Asian Games where they won only four of seven gold medals. But they will not make the mistake again of failing to prepare for the new era of defensive players - the highly effective attacking choppers like South Korean men's singles finalist Joo Se-hyuk and the Austrian quarter-finalist from Inner Mongolia Chen Weixing.