Zhuang Zedong – three consecutive World Championships singles titles & a key role in Ping-pong diplomacy

Before the successful run of Ma Long, there was a Chinese international who dominated the World Table Tennis Championships in the 1960s.

Zhuang Zedong was a member of the talented Chinese generation that managed to break the dominance of Japanese, Hungarian and Czechoslovak table tennis legends. Until the 1960s, the players from these countries were winning gold medals in singles and team events. In 1959, Rong Guotuan managed to win the first singles title for China, beating Hungarian veteran Ferenc Sido in the final. It marked the shift in the course of table tennis history.

For the next three World Championships, the Chinese team dominated most of the events, and Zhuang Zedong was unbeatable in the singles event. In 1965, he won three gold medals out of four possible, only coming short in the semi-finals of the mixed doubles event.

Zedong had a very modern technique for the time, being able to attack from both sides and generate great spin with shorter strokes than most of his opponents. However, the Cultural Revolution that began in China in 1966 set his career on pause. Ongoing internal clashes left Chinese table tennis players isolated, and they could not take part in the 1967 and 1969 World Championships.

Even after a six-year absence from major international tournaments, Zedong proved his quality again in the 1971 World Championships in Nagoya, helping the Chinese team to win the gold medals in the team event and overcoming the biggest rivals – the Japanese team. However, this was the last major tournament for the 31-year-old World champion.

Unfortunately, Zhuang Zedong did not have a chance to win more titles during his athletic prime, but he was still able to become only the second player in history to win three consecutive singles titles in a row (first was Viktor Barna with four consecutive titles from 1932 to 1935). 54 years later, Ma Long repeated the achievement of his renowned compatriot.

The impact on table tennis history by Zedong went beyond his achievements. In 1971, the accidental meeting with the American player Glenn Cowan at the 1971 World Championships laid the foundation for the future meetings of Chinese and American politicians. Now, these events are known as Ping-pong diplomacy. Ironically, Zedong was in favor as long as Mao Zedong was in power. After the leader of the Chinese Communist Party died in 1976, Zedong fell out of favor and was imprisoned for four years.

Like most of the Chinese table tennis legends, Zhuang Zedong’s career largely depended on the political landscape in China. While modern-day stars enjoy more freedoms and opportunities to earn a comfortable life, Zedong’s gold medals did not bring him much comfort. Some of his teammates, like Rong Guotuan, faced an even more tragic fate.

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