KAWASAKI, Japan (AP) — Yao Ming graced marquees for a decade in the NBA, spurring basketball’s growing popularity in China.
Table tennis needs the inverse: an eye-catching outsider to get the focus off China. Hugo Calderano fits the profile.
He’s from Brazil — table tennis is largely invisible there — has beaten many of China’s top players, and speaks seven languages including Chinese; a player to broaden the game’s appeal.
“It’s still probably one of the biggest issues we have out there we have to tackle,” said Steve Dainton, the CEO of the ITTF, the sport’s world governing body. He described China’s domination of the game as a situation that has “lived with us for quite a while.”
“I kind of feel Hugo is a part of this change, and it’s been very positive — specifically about China,” Dainton added.
Calderano is No. 5 in the sport’s ranking — he reached No. 3 a year ago — and he’s beaten many of the top Chinese including No. 1 Fan Zhendong.
“If I’m hitting my shots, I have a great chance of winning, even against the best Chinese,” he told The Associated Press in an interview.
Calderano grew up Rio de Janeiro, his coach and support team are French, and he lives in Germany. He speaks Portuguese, English, French, Spanish, and German — and “can communicate” in Italian and, of course, Chinese.
Playing this month in Japan he was asked if he’s trying to add an eighth language.
“Not at the moment,” he replied.
“He has a very unusual profile,” Calderano’s coach Jean-Rene Mounie said. “We joke that Hugo is a bit like a guy from Ethiopia or Congo competing in skiing.”
Chinese players have won 90% of table tennis’ Olympic gold medals, and it’s the country’s unofficial pastime. Men have won six of the last seven Olympic gold medals in singles, and the women have won every singles gold since the sport was introduced into the Summer Games in 1988.
China and table tennis have been synonymous since “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” opened relations between the United States and China just over 50 years ago.
However, China didn’t invent it. That was 19th century England, where the parlor game was known as “whiff whaff” and played across dining tables with wine corks fashioned into balls. Books or cigar boxes were the “net” and stiff place mats were possibly the first rackets or paddles.
Dainton wants China to sacrifice some its medal dominance, focusing instead on international development, sharing expertise, and financial profits.
“They are so technically advanced and most of the world doesn’t have the knowledge,” he said. “Now it’s time for them to share the knowledge.”
An Australian who speaks Chinese, Dainton said he’s talked about Chinese supremacy in the sport with Liu Guoliang, the president of the Chinese Table Tennis Association and a two-time Olympic gold medalist.
“He (Liu) is very keen on developing international stars because, even for China, it’s important the sport stays relevant and strong outside China,” Dainton said.
Mounie has coached Calderano for a decade and describes his game as playing “stronger, faster, and closer.”
“It’s my nature as a person and an athlete to be very aggressive all the time. I want to impose my game and dominate my opponent,” Calderano said.
Table tennis exists in two worlds. There’s the recreational, mass participation game. And there’s the elite version followed across Asia and hotbeds in Europe; lightning strokes, fidgeting players, and a small table to magnify the speed.
Calderano varies the attack. One serve — a high-toss that goes 10 feet up (3 meters) — is followed by a very low one. He crouches almost below the table’s edge to begin the serve and, like many players, continually rubs the table to remove imaginary debris. A sweaty hand gets dried in a corner by the net.
“Hugo is the strongest player in the world,” French player Simon Gauzy told the sports newspaper L’Equipe. “He is hyper-aggressive all the time. When it works, it’s unstoppable.”
Calderano’s dexterity goes beyond table tennis and languages. He has a personal record of solving the Rubik’s cube in 5.61 seconds, which is just 2 seconds off what’s listed as the world-record by the World Cube Association.
His father and mother — Marcos Calderano and Elisa Borges, both teachers — got him started at a local club. He left Rio at 14 to train near Sao Paulo, moved at 16 to France and, after a few years back in Brazil to treat an injury, moved to Germany.
“Hugo has the ambition to be on the top of the world, and that means beating the Chinese because they are the best,” Mounie said. “The emotion he puts in his game is very special, always trying to impose his game.”
Calderano described China’s top four players as a cut above.
“Then they have many other players who are just a level below who are also strong and very dangerous but don’t have the consistency of the top guys,” he said.
Dainton, the CEO, said he expects the Chinese to again sweep gold in next year’s Olympics in Paris. But he can dream. Calderano reached the final 16 at Rio in 2016, and made the quarterfinals at the Tokyo Olympics.
“We need those magical moments where there are some surprises,” he said. “Yes of course, if we had an American, a Canadian — I’ll say an Australian — that would be a massive, massive story.”
Or a Brazilian.
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