Table tennis: Changing with the times makes Samsonov, 40, a constant at the top

Former world No. 1 Vladimir Samsonov is thinking about qualifying for a seventh Olympics. No paddler has been to eight.
Former world No. 1 Vladimir Samsonov is thinking about qualifying for a seventh Olympics. No paddler has been to eight.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Having contended at the top of the table tennis world for over two decades, staying competitive with no fewer than three generations of the best Chinese players, Vladimir Samsonov always finds himself being asked the same question.

How?

But no matter how many times he has pondered over a reply, the Belarusian, who has been ranked among the world's top 10 for much of the last 20 years, still struggles for an answer. His best attempt, perhaps, is to change with change.

"Many people ask me what's the secret. I joke that I drink a special drink every three hours or so," said the former world No. 1 when he met The Straits Times on a visit to Singapore last month.

Humour aside, it has taken him a lifetime of serious work, constantly adapting and making adjustments to the most minute details of his game, to stay competitive even as generations of players come and go.

This is especially critical, said the 40-year-old, given how much the sport has evolved.

Balls, for one thing, have become bigger in a bid to slow the game down and make it more spectator-friendly. They are now made using plastic instead of celluloid, while games are played to 11 points instead of 21 points.

Table tennis today, says the current world No. 9, favours the aggressive player and has led him to adapt his style, despite a self-proclaimed "fantastic passive game" that led him to three World Cup titles and a World Championships silver.

Samsonov is part of a golden generation of European paddlers that also included Swedes Jan-Ove Waldner and Jorgen Persson as well as Austria's Werner Schlager - all world champions.

He said: "In the 90s, there were many players who could use spin to win points. I was winning many easy points using a little bit more rotation... I wasn't winning points with powerful smashes or hard top spin.

"Now, you really have to be physically very strong. I couldn't continue playing on the same level with (this style) so I had to change (by) practising a more aggressive game and taking initiative in the game."

So while he recognises he may never be faster than players like China's world No. 1 and Olympic champion Ma Long, 13 years his junior, his training focuses on how to outwit his opponents through other means.

"The differences are so small in table tennis, maybe even a little wind can change things and one point can change everything," he said. "There are always some small things that you can do better. That's what I do and I'm still trying, but I'm not always successful."

In a way, it was both this never-give-up attitude and a lack of success on the biggest stage of all that has contributed to the longevity of his career.

From the 1996 to the 2012 Olympic Games, he fell at either the fourth round or the quarter-final hurdles, going the distance in each match only to lose in the deciding game. After six straight Olympics, the medal he most covets still eludes him.

Said Samsonov, who was fourth at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in August: "I had so many chances before. On the other hand, maybe if I had won that Olympic medal before, I wouldn't still be playing today."

The father of two sons aged 15 and 10 could yet make a run for a seventh Games. But he has already begun planning ahead for a career away from the arena should he not give it another go - as the director of player operations of new professional league T2 Asia Pacific.

The new competition will be made for digital consumers and aims to pay greater attention to promoting players as personalities - all changes that Samsonov feels table tennis needs.

He said: "We definitely have to change something in table tennis. We really have to do more to make rallies longer, we have to do more for the media, for television.

"Many people outside of table tennis, and even in it, don't know the characters of the players. This has to change. It's an important part of the sport and in engaging fans."

May Chen

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 06, 2016, with the headline 'Changing with the times makes Samsonov, 40, a constant at the top'. Print Edition | Subscribe