ZAGREB: The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) uses English as a working language, but in the ongoing ITTF world championships, the most spoken tongue is Chinese.
"You are the 150th person who I say ni hao to," Liu Jia, top player for Austria, told reporters.
Liu Jia is one of about 70 former Chinese players representing other countries and regions at the Zagreb Worlds, which has attracted over 600 athletes. Add the players from China and Chinese Taipei, the number of Chinese-speaking athletes is well over 150.
Ai Fukuhara, the hugely popular Japanese player, speaks fluent Chinese with a slight Liaoning accent, acquired while playing for the northeastern Chinese club in 2006.
China is never short of table tennis talents as the country has invested heavily in the sport since Rong Guotuan claimed the 1959 world singles championship, the first world title of any sports for China.
"Almost every Chinese plays table tennis and there are so many good players out there," said the Beijing-born Liu.
"It is very hard to make it to the Chinese national team. For a better career, I joined the Austrian team," she added.
Beijing has churned out more paddlers than any Chinese cities. Zhu Fang (Spain), Li Jiawei (Singapore), Yang Zi (Singapore), Zhang Xueling (Singapore), Wu Xue (Dominican Republic), Li Qiangbing (Austria) and Wang Chen (United States) are all from the Chinese capital.
The women's competition at the recent European championships was dominated by former Chinese. Liu Jia failed to defend her singles honor while 34-year-old Li Jiao of the Netherlands downed 44-year-old Ni Xialian of Luxembourg in the final.
When jokingly asked about the official language of world table tennis, ITTF media chief Arne Madisen quipped: "It's Chinese, of course!"
The all-conquering Chinese team, which has lost only one world title in the new millennium, sees Singapore as a major threat in Zagreb.
All of the six-member Singapore team come from China. Its women's players Li Jiawei, Wang Yuegu and Sun Beibei are ranked 7th, 9th and 19th in the world.
The top ranked Singaporean men are Gao Ning, 25th, and Yang Zi, 33rd.
"I think Wang Yuegu is the most dangerous to Chinese women in the singles event," said Chinese coach Li Sun.
Singapore is coached by another expat Chinese Liu Guodong, whose brother Liu Guoliang heads the Chinese men's team.
Li Sun's younger sister Li Jun now plays for Japan and another Chinese national team coach Li Xiaodong is the father of Li Qiangbing, who plays for Austria.
Qi Baohua, the elder sister of Qi Baoxiang, who coaches the Chinese second-string women's team, used to play for Hong Kong in the 1990s.
A dozen Chinese coaches are advising foreign teams in Zagreb. Better known among them are newly-named New Zealand chief Li Chunli, England head coach Liu Jiayi, Wang Dayong, the mentor of Belgium's former world No 1 Jean-Michel Saive, and Liu Yanjun, who guided Liu Jia to the European singles championship in 2005.
World champion out
In the opening day on Tuesday, Austria's 2003 world singles champion Werner Schlager suffered a double blow as the ageing star lost both his first round singles and doubles games..
The Chinese team jumped to a flying start in their first action day as the only surprise came from Ma Lin's opener against Poland's Wang Zengyi, in which Wang took one set from the world No 1 before losing 4-1.
Schlager, paired with Stefan Fegerl, lost the doubles game 4-2 to little-known Indian duo Sharath Kamal Achanta and Soumyadeep Roy.
An hour and a half later, the 11th-seeded Schlager lost his singles game 4-1 to Slovakia's Lubomir Pistej.
Source: China Daily