Collecting information on one of the greatest all-round chopper-attackers ever, Liang Geliang, I recently happened upon an interview with him in German - in 1998 Liang (abbr. L in the interview) answered questions asked by trainer Volker Ziegler (abbr. V) and female defender Qianhong Gotsch (abbr. Q) who played in the 1.Bundesliga, which is the highest level in Germany (the original interview is at http://www.google.nl/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=i ... Kw&cad=rja
). I thought the interview was informative in various respects, very much worth to post here, so I translated most of it and wrote an introduction to it.
Liang Geliang (formerly spelled Liang Ko Liang) was born on the fifth of May 1950 in Guangchi province in the south of China. He was ten years old when his mother bought him his first bat, reputedly a pen-holder bat, but after finding a great teacher who guessed his all-round potential he soon switched to a shake-hand bat. Being inquisitive and restless, young Liang went after every possible technique and seems to have tried the impossible ones too. As a result, ultimately he could perform them all with great mastership, and made it into the national team. In 1971 he won his first title in a world championship (teams) using a medium pips-out rubber on his backhand and an inverted one on his forehand, in a chopper-attacker style; in 1975, when he had already changed to long pips, he won another world title (mixed doubles) being politically forced to use a double inverted bat in an all-out attacker style; after that, he played in his own modern defense style using long pips on his backhand, twiddling all the time, again winning championships. Lots of Chinese players, male and female, are proficient in different styles and quite comfortable using different equipment, but no one else ever accomplished this feat, or probably even thought of trying to do it, on the highest level. Liang was literally exceptional.
It was and is not uncommon in China for players to choose their equipment with meticulous care and assembling their own rubbers themselves, gluing top-sheets to sponges until they have hit on the right combination, but Liang was exceptional in this respect also: he would change top-sheets even during tournaments. And he made his own frame – probably several times over. In the '70s his bat was shrouded in mystery and many claimed he was able to produce his uncommonly loaded chops continuously because his frame was much heavier and faster than any European frame, but actually it wasn't – Liang, slender built and measuring 166 cm at the time (he is a bit shorter and a fair bit heavier these days), didn't like weighty equipment at all and built his frames with balsa. He wanted his bat to feel like a natural extension of his body. True to form, in 2008 when the Olympics had come to Beijing, Liang, now leading the table-tennis club attached to Beijing University (and coaching the University's team, which included members of the national selection) advertised with a newly developed bat which factually fitted the player's hand as a glove. Lightness is a key to him. He was (and still is, to a good degree) light on his feet, purposefully developed a chopping and looping technique with very short and light gestures, often seemed lighthearted, smiling away during matches, and apparently made light of his inevitable losses too – when an opponent scored exceptionally well, he would laugh out loud and sometimes go over to the opponent's coach and congratulate him. Being so light on his feet, he could, however, also quickly turn the other way, for instance when he would be suddenly dissatisfied with his equipment and started to work on it restlessly in order to make it better.
Fitting to his character he played a very complex style. On Youtube there is footage of a phenomenal match between him and Tibor Klampar – a video from the early eighties: rainy, grainy and faded, but making exceptionally clear how completely individual styles of play can be. Klampar, broad and tall and dark, stubbornly bringing up his long right arm again and again, alternating between impeccable patient looping and perfectly timed hitting, personifies absolute discipline with a deceptively languid grace; he is the fighting bull, when little lithe Liang is the capricious matador, swirling his red cape now here, then there, bewildering his big black enemy all the time and everywhere, bowing and grinning to the cheers, or maybe to death itself, for he often just narrowly escapes those relentlessly stabbing horns, dancing and dashing for dear life, whirling, spinning without end all over the court, tiring the beast out until, finally, he quickly comes in for the kill. Although I admire both of them, Liang is the one who really fascinates me. He beats Klampar because he doesn't ever tire of his dancing, nor of varying his dance – he simply cannot tire of it; or maybe he can get tired, but he just cannot stop, because it is what he is. With everything he does, it is the same. And he loves it, but not always, because it also has him make mistakes: he once lost three matches in a row on a tournament (the men’s team world championships against Sweden, in Sarajevo) because he had been tinkering with his inverted rubber again and didn’t get it right at all. Still, he appears to accept this.
Being able to accept - and adapt - came in Liang with a fundamental humility which, however, never got in the way of his personal pride. Liang always knew how good a player he was, yet he didn’t think it beneath him to play in the 1990s for the SV Adelsried in the Regionalliga in Germany, which is a fair bit below the level of the Bundesliga. He was paid for it, of course, and even at that level the Germans pay pretty well, but it seems to me Liang could as easily have capitalized on his enormous fame in China.
With this kind of humility came loyalty. Liang married once, never left his wife, and obeying Chinese policy had one child with her, a daughter. Before that he participated in the to China so very important “ping-pong-diplomacy” in the 1970s, and even a few years ago, when he came to the USA to celebrate this historical feat, he cheerfully repeated the Chinese slogan: “Friendship first, competition second,” apparently really meaning it, too. He bowed to authority – Chinese authority, and to custom – Chinese custom, but he never lost himself.
V: Liang, with what kind of equipment and in which style did you play your first world championship?
L: In 1971 in Nagoya I played with two red rubbers, one of them being what would be called today a medium pip. When the opponent served, I defended; when I served myself, I looked for opportunities to attack.
In this tournament I learned a lot from watching other players, e.g. Eberhard Schöler, and tried to make his skill my own. But I tried to execute the defensive techniques with shorter gestures.
V: After that, you played as an attacker with inverted rubbers in Sarajevo in 1973.
L: I did that for political reasons. Mao’s influential wife, Chiang Ching, had denounced my style, calling it “unfriendly” using “low-life” pips. So, a half year before the WC I changed my style to attack.
V: That makes one think of the contemporary discussion about the possible ban on long pips, because they are said to be quirky, unattractive and unfair.
L: There’s nothing quirky about long pips. Everyone who has come to understand their principle, knows what is going on. It is the problem of the defender, then, to make it work. It is fun (and has always made fun to me) to try out new things with pips. And there are a lot of things you can do with pips…! Anyhow, as an attacker I lost three singles in the team-match against Sweden. I simply hadn’t had enough time to make the transition.
V: The Swedes became world-champion, but you won a title nevertheless: in the mixed doubles.
L: I did, with Li Li.
Q: Li Li? She was for over a year my trainer in China!
L: Still, I was so sad I could have died, because I wasn’t to play against Sweden at all. But other players in the team feared the strong Swedes.
V: In 1975 in Calcutta China won back the title, though, and you were allowed to defend again.
L: Yes, I was allowed to play defence. And now there were long pips and I had two bats: one black on both sides, one red. That attack-intermezzo had taught me a lot. Now I was able to vary tactically still more. When I wanted to I could keep up all-out attack for a whole match, which completely unnerved my opponents.
V: Do you think it is still possible, nowadays, to win a world’s as a defender?
L: But I never won a world’s in singles myself. In 1977 in Birmingham I wasn’t allowed to win against the Japanese Kono, whom I’d beaten five times straight in the Asian Games, and in 1979 in PyongYang it was the same against Ono [see footnote; K.]
. Still, I don’t think a player has a chance just defending. He has to be able to play modern defence, that is, he has to be able to attack as well as defend. He must not return passively, without taking ever the initiative; he has to be active, make his mark on the game, dominate it. He has to play with great variety, varying spin and placement, and place accurately. I mean especially varying placement long and short.
V: He has to be able to do it all.
V: And he has to be able to choose to do the right thing in the right situation as well.
L: Exactly. And he has to have great stamina… and above all he has to be able to think the game through, always, to make a plan and keep to it with a very clear mind.
V: What does this mean for the training and development of defenders?
L: A defender has to learn technically and tactically twice the amount others have to learn, he has to work at himself twice as much, train twice as much. He has to be able to attack and defend. In fact, he has to learn three times as much, since he has to learn also to combine attack and defence.
V: This means that the development of a defender takes longer, and he will reach the peak of his performance…
L: …at a later age, the success comes later, but it lasts longer too - (laughs) as with me. This has to do with the fact that experience is of the greatest importance for defence.
Q: That is good news for me, my best years are still to come, then. Starting tomorrow I will train more.
L: No, being a defender you shouldn’t do too much, you must not get tired.
V: Doesn’t that contradict the fact that defence asks for three times as much training?
L: No, I mean before competition defenders, because they are “players”, must not be tired. They must not be flat and worn-out, above all not in the head. A good bodily condition makes it possible for them to train hard yet to recover quickly. But before competition they must have an eagerness, an appetite to really play.
V: What kind of child should be taught defence? How does one recognize a defender’s talent?
L: They should be quick, not too big, not too small. And agile, yes, a natural physical coordination is quite important, without it they will never be great. And courageous, because they need courage to attack. It is hard to describe, they have to possess a feeling for this style of play, the little something extra which makes a defender.
V: They should be “talents”, then, and not children who are declared to be defenders because the trainer thinks them unfit to be attackers?
L: One has to have a lot of talent to be a defender, not just have long pips on the backhand.
V: You yourself use quite characteristic frames, with relatively thick handles. What advantages do they have?
L: The balsa-frames I built myself are light-weight and offer great feeling, one is able to play stop-blocks and short defence with ease with them. But they also offer great speed, when you want it. As for rubbers, I use Friendship rubbers.
V: At what age should children start to play with your equipment?
L: When children begin playing with long pips sooner, they will develop a feeling for them sooner. It is like with computers.
V: Any tips for trainers who want to help develop defenders?
L: The trainer (but also the aspiring defender) has to be able to fight. For it is a long and difficult road, on which the trainer has to be able to motivate the player to go on. The trainer has to have a goal and has to explain it to the player. This goal has to pass over into the player, it has to become his own long-term goal. Because of that, they have to go for a long-term relationship from the beginning.
V: Long-term is a key-word for your career, too. You are still active and when one is watching your elegant, cat-like movement, one is hard put to believe you are 48 years old. Do you have a secret?
L: One just has to keep listening to one’s body, stay active, but not overdo it, so nothing will get cramped. I have for 14 years practised Chi Gong daily. That is something extraordinary, which I have learned from my trainer. It also helped me to get quickly over the knee-injury I sustained at my car-accident. I am always fit, never ill. In combination with table-tennis, perhaps these special physical exercises are the secret to my agility.
V: Are Europeans able to learn this?
L: Of course they are. But it takes 5 to 6 years to perfection.
Q: As a somewhat advanced defence player I would be interested to learn how attack and defence can be combined.
L: Defence is there in order to seek out opportunities for attack, and to prepare attack. This means that whenever I am forced away to defend, I have to ask myself: when will the chance to attack reappear, how do I get that chance?
Attacking, one should not go for the all-out winner, but rather concentrate on good placement, staying patient, that is, be able to carry out a series of attacking strokes.
Defending strokes should not be executed long, but short, in order to be able to recover and react as quickly as the situation demands.
As a rule, you should more often turn to defence when the opponent serves, and to attack when you yourself serve.
Q: How is one to cover the critical areas: middle and elbow?
L: That is hard to put into words. But when you do not stand parallel to the table, but a bit at an angle instead and always with your best side – backhand or forehand – to the centre of the table, the middle is less open to attack. You have to be quick on your feet, though, in order to compensate the resulting weakness at the far left and far right.
Q: Thanks for your advice, it is of great value to me.
V: Liang, thank you very much for this conversation.
footnote: Liang is said to have lost his matches against Kono and Ono on purpose, obeying Beijing directives which were politically motivated, again - the Chinese thought it necessary to keep good relations with their economically booming neighbour and didn't want to seem greedy to the rest of the world. Nowadays, things have changed...