London Olympic table tennis champion Zhang Jike suffered an early exit from the Chinese National Games on Sunday after he was knocked out in the second round of competition by unknown Zhou Kai 4-2.
As the world No. 5 and Rio Olympic runner-up, the 29-year-old Zhang has drawn consistent support from a large group of fans in China and had been cheered all through the matches he played, but failed to shore up his form, which had troubled him since the team competition.
Zhang, the third men's Grand Slam winner in China, lost three matches in the men's team competition as the leading player from Shandong, which was ruled out in the quarterfinals.
Facing 21-year-old Zhou from the PLA team, Zhang got off to a decent start, moving to a 10-6 lead in the first set, but was not able to capture the four consecutive set points he needed, allowing six straight to the tournament newcomer instead for a 12-10 loss. Zhang and Zhou saw the score seasaw to seven-all in the second set before Zhou nailed a 11-8 win in the third, giving Zhou a 11-9 victory after a 7-7 tie, with a 3-0 lead on aggregate.
Zhang fought back to lift the next two sets, but again lost the sixth 14-12 to Zhou, who reached the last eight.
Zhou says that Zhang's reputation actually helped relieve some of the pressure of the match.
"It's my first experience in the National Games. I felt no pressure here, especially since I was up against a Grand Slam winner, so I thought all I need to do is my best. As an old Chinese saying goes: 'newborn calves are not afraid of tigers.' It's an important day for my progress," said Zhou.
Zhou's previous best result was a fifth place finish in the 2015 National Championships.
"The veteran and renowned players are our examples, but they're also a target to beat for us young players. I did that today, and I hope I can do better in the National Games to win more," added Zhou, who's also the singles winner from the 2013 National Youth Championships.
Zhang dodged questions from reporters after the defeat and headed directly to his hotel. But earlier on Saturday, Zhang offered what may be seen as a harbinger of his own troubles one day later.
"Young players should develop their own skills if they want to overtake us. Simply repeating what Ma and I can do will make their way tough. They should be better players than us and move on from what we have established," said Zhang after he advanced into the second round. Little did he know that a young player would soon heed his advice and manage to overtake him.
Aged just 29, such a lackluster performance in the National Games could very well cast a shadow on Zhang's professional career.