The Chinese National Games and the Olympics do not seem to lend themselves to easy comparison, but Tianjin 2017 will put Rio Olympic champion Ma Long who is facing a rough road to his national title defense.
As the reigning men's singles champion at the National Games, which will open Sunday, Ma is at his technical and mental peak after beating London Olympics gold medallist Zhang Jike in the final at Rio. But unfortunately for the 29-year-old, he is not at his physical best at moment.
Ma's coach Zhang Lei confirmed last week that injuries are troubling Ma, who's competing here on behalf of the Beijing delegation. "The old injuries to his hip joint and wrist are getting worse," said Zhang. "The old wound reoccurred in his training last week and he had to take cortisone injections and take some time off of training for recovery."
A busy schedule will also add weight to Ma's injuries as the world No. 1 will play in three events (singles, doubles and team) in the National Games. "If he goes deep in each event, he has to play two to three matches each day and face stiff challenges physically," added Zhang.
Ma will be up against more capable opponents in the National Games than he faced in the Olympics, since most of the world top ranked players are from China.
World No. 2 and World Championship runner-up Fan Zhendong, 20, is Ma's archrival in the National Games -- two had to go through seven sets to decide this year's World Championship title and they were also the gold match opponents four years ago in last edition of the National Games.
Two-time Olympic runner-up Wang Hao, coach of the Chinese national team, believes the National Games will be rough not just for Ma, but for all the leading players.
"Ma is a master in skill and experience, so he was able to beat Fan in the World Championship final in a seven-set showdown, but that defeat is helping Fan to build up his own experience in handling big events and key moments. That's just what Fan needs the most in order to start his era of dominance in the sport," said Wang, who is coaching Fan as he represents the PLA delegation.
In addition, Xu Xin and Zhang Jike are another two players among world top five to play the National Games. "Chinese players know each other so well both in terms of skill and temperament, so it makes the job easier to find a way to defeat the star players," added Wang.
Chinese veteran coach Zhou Shusen, 76, who has been active in the sport for 59 years and is coaching the Shandong delegation in the Games, thinks the same.
"You don't need to play so many Chinese players on the way to win in the Olympics, as only two players from each country are allowed to compete in the Olympics, but here you have to play a couple of Chinese on the way to the crown," said Zhou, who steered Singapore's ladies to a historic team title past China in the 2010 World Championship. "Each of your opponents is one out of hundreds or thousands, and no one is an easy target," Zhou added.
Ma downplayed the issue of his physical condition on Sunday, but refused to rule it out. "On the whole, I'm feeling all right and not quite worried about injury troubles, but I have to say it's quite tough to play in the National Games and you'll have to play your best in every match in order to avoid early elimination," said Ma.