Jan Ove Waldner: The Mozart of table tennis
by Simon Daish
The makings of a legend
Some legends only show their capabilities in the late stages of their career while others explode on the stage from an early age. Waldner was definitely in the latter category, showing the world he meant business right from his teenage years.
Born in 1965, Waldi burst onto the scene in 1981 when he defied all expectations to win his first Swedish national title! A fine accomplishment for the young teenager – the next step was to show off that incredible talent on the international stage.
Move forward a year and Waldner very much announced himself to the world, reaching the men’s singles final at the 1983 European Championships and replicating that feat at the Men’s World Cup later in the year. Waldi’s successful stint in Barbados carried an air of significance for he had become the youngest player to reach the Men’s World Cup final aged 18, a record that would stick with him beyond his eventual retirement! This teenager from Stockholm was special and his ambitions were great.
When in the mood!
One trait that attracts plenty of attention to an athlete is their attitude. All-time tennis great John McEnroe rose to fame thanks in part to his fiery exchanges on court in the 1980s, I mean who hasn’t heard of his famous “You cannot be serious!” outburst at Wimbledon in 1981?
Waldner may not have shown his anger in the same way as McEnroe the Swede didn’t always show his best side on the table. For Waldner success was always within reach, but only when he was in the mood for it!
A clear example of this came at the Men’s World Cup competitions in 1989 and 1990 with the Swede experiencing different emotions at completely opposite ends of the spectrum from one year to the next.
Crowned World champion earlier in the year, Waldner was anticipated to be a major challenger in the race for the 1989 Men’s World Cup in Nairobi but victory over Kenya’s Noel Carvalho was all he managed as the Swede finished a disappointing 15th position. Fast forward one later to the 1990 Men’s World Cup in Chiba and Waldner found himself standing on the top step of the medals podium! That was Waldner for you – when in the mood.
Unprecedented heights and a beacon of hope
In 1991 Waldner came mightily close to successfully defending his World Championships title, only to lose out to fellow countryman Jorgen Persson at the final hurdle. A sense of frustration, but one year later Waldi would go on to achieve unprecedented heights which none of his European contemporaries could match.
Erik Lindh was the Swede everyone was talking about at Seoul 1988 after claiming a bronze medal for his country in the first year of table tennis at the Olympic Games. Waldner was also present in the Korean capital but was a beaten quarter-finalist. At Barcelona 1992 Waldi wasn’t willing to play second fiddle, he wanted to be top dog and boy did he deliver!
Dropping just a single game on his way to the men’s singles final, Waldner met French legend Jean-Philippe Gatien in the gold medal contest. Gatien was a man to be feared having dethroned 1998 champion Yoo Nam-Kyu in the Round of 16 and two-time Men’s World Cup winner Ma Wenge two rounds later. However, that didn’t faze Waldi one bit, who dispatched with Gatien in straight games (21-10, 21-18, 25-23) to take the Olympic crown.
To this very day Waldner remains the only player outside of Asia to be crowned men’s singles champion at the Olympic Games. Waldi was also a finalist eight years later at Sydney 2000, just missing out to China’s Kong Linghui. His success sent a message to the rest of the world that the Asian powerhouse can be toppled on the Olympic stage!
A master tactician with incredible foresight
Not only was Waldi a skilled craftsman with the racquet but he also possessed an incredible mind both on and off the table. He could see things which many others couldn’t, and his unmatched foresight would go on to prove most valuable to his country.
The year was 2000, the welcoming of a new millennium and also the 45th edition of the World Table Tennis Championships in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Sweden entered the competition as ranked outsiders but a fine run to the men’s team final put the country in with a shot of the title, but overcoming a formidable Chinese line-up of Liu Guoliang, Kong Linghui and Liu Guozheng would take a monumental effort from the European side.
In the pre-match meeting before the final coach Ulf “Tickan” Carlsson sat down with the Swedish trio of Waldner, Jorgen Persson and Peter Karlsson to discuss the playing order. This is where Waldner’s tactical prowess really shone.
Waldi came out with a masterstroke. He was sure they would put Liu Guoliang to play first and fifthth, Kong Linghui would play second and fourth, Liu Guozheng thirdth. While Waldi had never previously beaten Liu Guoliang, he argued that he had taken games off of him so therefore he had the potential to prevail. If he could beat Liu Guoliang it would be a massive dent to Chinese hopes and as fate would have it – he did! Waldi then played Kong Linghui in the fourth match; he said to Persson, before the match “get ready” because Persson would play Liu Guoliang in the fifth match. Again Waldi was correct! He lost to Kong and Persson beat Liu Guoliang in the fifth match. Waldi’s foresight was not only accurate but could be argued helped Sweden to the gold medal in 2000.
One of a kind
Another incredible aspect to Waldner’s career is its longevity – in 2010 Waldi was crowned Swedish national champion for the ninth time aged 44 and was playing at the highest level of German club table tennis as recently as 2012!
However, after more than 30 eventful and very fruitful years Waldi decided hang up the racquet in February 2016 as he played his last match for Ängby/Spårvägen. As with the close of every chapter there starts a new one – Waldi’s long standing record of the being the youngest player to reach a Men’s World Cup final (aged 18 in 1983) was finally defeated last year with Tomokazu Harimoto dethroning the Swede aged just 16 years and 157 days old at the time. The fact the record remained intact for 36 years shows just how difficult a feat it proved to better.
Many athletes go on to achieve wonderful things and then there are some who simply transcend the sport. A master craftsman, a genius, Waldi really was one of a kind!