ITTF (International Table Tennis Federation)

Too caught up in celebrity life? Multiple Olympic gold medallist Zhang Jike crashes out of the Hong Kong Open

China’s three-time Olympic gold medallist loses to Japanese opponent on Thursday evening as he tries to regain his once formidable form

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 May, 2018, 8:07pm
UPDATED : Friday, 25 May, 2018, 12:34pm

Chinese table tennis legend Zhang Jike was mobbed by screaming fans before his first-round main draw game even started on Thursday afternoon – but the three-time Olympic gold medallist could not produce the goods against Japan’s Maharu Yoshimura, fuelling concerns he is prioritising entertainment over sport.

Former world number one Zhang – whose ranking has dropped to 168 as of May this year – lost 4-2 despite rapturous super-fans hitting banners together at his every move at the Seamaster 2018 ITTF World Tour Hang Seng Hong Kong Open in Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Wan Chai.

“I haven’t played for a long time so my energy levels are probably worse,” said a dejected-looking Zhang. “I need to regain that feeling of playing matches in the first game.

The grand slam champion made his long-awaited comeback to the sport in November last year having spent months out with injuries and taking up regular guest roles on various Chinese television shows. He lost that match and subsequently took another break from the table.

“I don’t feel as confident or at ease as I used to but I think it will get better with each game,” added the 30-year-old before walking off, seemingly agitated at questions surrounding playing men’s singles for China.

In January, the Chinese Table Tennis Association modified its selection criteria, whereby players who performed badly would not be considered for the next tournament. This mixed with Zhang’s drop in form may not bode well for his national team future.

In March, Zhang shot to celebrity and social media stardom after revealing he was in a relationship with popular Chinese actress Jing Tian, one of the few who successfully transitioned into Hollywood. Jing has recently appeared in Pacific Rim: Uprising and Kong: Skull Island, with Zhang upping his Chinese television show appearances as a result.

Despite off-court distractions, local fans continue to have his back and hope he can return to the dominant figure he once was.

“[Zhang] wasn’t bad; he was injured before and hasn’t trained much,” said fan Jeff Tam Yuet-pan, who travelled to the Open with friends for Zhang specifically.

“I think he’s already a legend and I heard his back injury was very serious ... if he puts in more time into training then he may win again in the future.”

Fans saved the biggest applause of the day for the seven-time world champion and six-time gold medallist – even more than home favourite Wong Chun-ting, who continued his scintillating Open form with a straight sets win over Austria’s Daniel Habesohn.

At the end of 2016, Zhang said he would “prepare to battle” for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. He has not given an update since.

“He just has to try his best,” said Tam. “He has China Open and Japan Open in the near future, if he gets a top performance you never know.”