Back to the Future: 2003 WTTC, Paris

The 2017 World Table Tennis Championships will start in about two months. National teams have already started to configure their line-up for the event and the bets are being placed.

It seems that the Men’s Singles Championship will be disputed by Ma Long and Fan Zhendong, with the consent of the rest of the Chinese National Team. The Women’s Singles competition will probably have a Chinese champion as well, her being Ding Ning or Liu Shiwen. In fact, the chances of having an all-Chinese podium are quite high.

And this is not a coincidence. History backs up this general opinion.

WTTC Recent history

Let’s take a look at the results from the ten World Championships which took place over the last 20 years:

Men’s Singles

Year & Place Winner Runner-up Bronze
1997 Manchester Jan Ove Waldner Vladimir Samsonov Kong Longhui, Yan Sen
1999 Eindhoven Liu Guoliang Ma Lin Werner Schlager, Jan-Over Waldner
2001 Osaka Wang Liqin Kong Linghui Chiang Peng-Lung, Ma Lin
2003 Paris Werner Schlager Joo Sae Hyuk Kong Linghui, Kalinikos Kreanga
2005 Shanghai Wang Liqin Ma Lin Michael Maze, Oh Sangeun
2007 Zagreb Wang Liqin Ma Lin Ryu Seungmin, Wang Hao
2009 Yokohama Wang Hao Wang Liqin Ma Lin, Ma Long
2011 Rotterdam Zhang Jike Wang Hao Timo Boll, Ma Long
2013 Paris Zhang Jike Wang Hao Ma Long, Xu Xin
2015 Suzhou Ma Long Fang Bo Fan Zhendong, Zhang Jike

Women’s Singles

Year & Place Winner Runner-up Bronze
1997 Manchester Deng Yaping Wang Nan Li Ju, Wu Na
1999 Eindhoven Wang Nan Zhang Yining Li Nan, Ryu Jihae
2001 Osaka Wang Nan Lin Ling Kim Yunmi, Zhang Yining
2003 Paris Wang Nan Zhang Yining Tamara Boros, Li Ju
2005 Shanghai Zhang Yining Guo Yan Guo Yue, Lin Ling
2007 Zagreb Guo Yue Li Xiaoxia Guo Yan, Zhang Yining
2009 Yokohama Zhang Yining Guo Yue Li Xiaoxia, Liu Shiwen
2011 Rotterdam Ding Ning Li Xiaoxia Guo Yue, Liu Shiwen
2013 Paris Li Xiaoxia Liu Shiwen Ding Ning, Zhu Yuling
2015 Suzhou Ding Ning Liu Shiwen Li Xiaoxia, Mu Zi

Names in red are the non-Chinese players. The next graphs make it easier to get some insights:


Using percentages instead of exact numbers, we have 80% of the medals obtained by Chinese players. Whereas, only 10% of the last 20 gold medals were won by non-Chinese players.

Chinese domination nowadays is even more substantial, as numbers in the last 5 championships (that is, the last 10 years), are even better for them. No single non-Chinese player has reached the finals during this time. In the Women’s Singles, not even the semi-finals.

The least successful championships for the Chinese in the last 20 years came in 2003. The Men’s Singles had many surprising results, ending up with a non-Chinese final and a single bronze medal for the Chinese National Team.

In this article, we will take a trip back in time to see what happened 14 years ago at the 2003 WTTC in Paris-Bercy. We will have a look at the most unexpected results, including the ones that prevented the Chinese players from continuing their domination of world table tennis history.

2003 World Table Tennis Championships

Seeding list

# Player Country
1  Timo BOLL GER
2 MA Lin CHN
3  Vladimir SAMSONOV BLR
4  WANG Liqin CHN
5  CHUANG Chih-Yuan TPE
8  KONG Linghui CHN
9  Kalinikos KREANGA GRE
11  CHIANG Peng-Lung TPE
12 RYU Seungmin KOR
13  OH Sangeun KOR
14  LIU Guozheng  CHN
16  Alexey SMIRNOV RUS
Timo Boll, number one seed at the 2003 WTTC
Timo Boll, number one seed at the 2003 WTTC. Photo: ITTF

Compared to the World Ranking nowadays, it seems impossible that we would find such a seeding list in the upcoming years: only 4 out of the 10 top players were Chinese.

Regarding the World Ranking in those days, it was only Peter Karlsson, who had a back injury, who missed the championship from the top 16. He was the 15th at that time but he withdrew after the draw had been done, so the tournament had one less seed.

The ITTF published this article about the expectations for the tournament. A short text extracted from it says:

BOLL (GER) against WANG Liqin (CHN) and Vladimir SAMSONOV (BLR) against MA Lin (CHN), this is the “set up” for the semi-finals in the Men’s Singles at the Liebherr World Championships starting on Monday 19th.

However, a lot of other players would like to “disturb” the seedings of the first 4 mentioned – and some of them are also capable of doing so.

And that was a good prediction, based on the results, as none of the four mentioned, and  top seeded players as well, reached the semi-finals.


Betting houses probably had a tough time then if they had the 2003 WTTC on their list. We will now take a look at the biggest upsets and most exciting matches of the tournament, including the path to the finals for the most successful players.

First round

The Round of 128 did not have any unexpected results. All the seeded players took on their opponents. Timo Boll started the tournament against Lin Ju, the Chinese-Dominican defender, winning 4-2. Ma Lin won 4-0 against Carlos Machado, Wang Liqin won 4-1 opposite Shu Arai and Vladimir Samsonov, 27 years old at that time, had an easy victory of 4-0 against Romanian Constantin Cioti.

However, Jan-Ove Waldner, 19th in the World Ranking at that moment, lost 4-3 against Greek, Konstantinos Papageorgiou.

Second round

The Round of 64 said goodbye to some of the seeded players, including number one seed, Timo Boll. An unlucky draw for him though, as he faced young Qiu Yike from China. The result: 2-4 (11-3, 11-7, 7-11, 12-14, 9-11, 10-12).

Petr Korbel beat Liu Guozheng, after an tight match: 4-3. Zoran Primorac lost against Lars Hielscher with quite a tight result: 3-4 (3-11, 8-11, 11-6, 11-5, 9-11, 11-8, 11-13). Ryu Seungmin, who would win an Olympic gold medal a year later, was defeated 3-4 by Fredik Hakansson. And last, but not least, Alexey Smirnov would go back to Russia after clashing with Joo Saehyuk, a rising Korean defender.

Oh Sangeun and Werner Schlager also faced defenders (Evgueni Chtchetinine and Koji Matsushita) in that round, both of them winning (4-2 and 4-0, respectively). Another interesting match from that round was the one between Kalinikos Kreanga and He Zhi Wen, which ended 4-3 for the Greek player.

Third round

Thirty-two players reached this stage, five of them from China, which was the most-represented nation at that moment. The ten remaining seeds got their slot for the next round. Only one of them, Chiang Peng-Lung, got to the seventh set, with a 4-3 result (14-16 in the last set) against Leung Chu Yan.

Fourth round

The Round of 16 proved that this World Championships would offer loads of excitement from that moment on. Qiu Yike and Kong Linghui defeated Adrian Crisan and Oh Sang Eun, both of them 4-2, scheduling a Chinese clash in the next round. Werner Schlager and Wang Liqin won, too, against Kim Taeksoo and Chiang Peng-Lung, both with a 4-2 result.

A classic European match took place between Vladimir Samsonov, seed number 3, and Kalinikos Kreanga, seed number 9. Kreanga won 3-4 (11-8, 6-11, 1-11, 15-13, 9-11, 11-7, 5-11) and qualified for the first time for the quarter-finals of the World Championships.

Wang Hao faced one of the two remaining defenders, Chen Weixing, in a tight match that was won 3-4 by the latter. Ma Lin, who won 4-2 against one of the unexpected players in that round , Fredik Hakansson, would be the only Chinese player from the lower half of the draw who would get to the quarter-finals.

Completing this round, Chuang Chih-Yuan and Joo Saehyuk competed for the chance to face Ma Lin. The Korean defender kept up his winning streak by defeating the 5th world-ranked player from Chinese Taipei, with a quick 4-1.


Eight players reached this privileged round of the tournament. The spectacle started with a Chinese duel between Qiu Yike and Kong Linghui. The latter’s experience prevailed, easily defeating his opponent 1-4 (1-11, 9-11, 11-4, 1-11, 8-11).

An epic match would follow: Werner Schlager against Wang Liqin, World Champion at that time. The Austrian player overcame a 1-3 result, saving 4 match balls in a row when being 6-10 down to win 4-3 and reach the semi-finals.

Kalinikos Kreanga versus Chen Weixing would follow. The Austrian defender did not have a chance, losing 4-0.

The last quarter-final was played between Ma Lin, second seed and Bronze medal winner at the previous World Championships, and Joo Saehyuk. A thrilling match would end with a 3-4 result for the Korean defender, who confirmed that everything was possible at that tournament.

The ITTF reflected the general feeling in this article, while Joo Saehyuk said the following after his match:

It’s good for defenders here in Bercy. The tables, the big hall, the court mat all seem to help but playing Ma Lin was very difficult, he plays with so many variations of spin.

Only one of the six Chinese players who had started the competition reached the semi-finals. A feat not repeated since.


After such results in the previous rounds, nothing was unexpected. In the first match Kong Linghui faced Werner Schlager. The never-ending Austrian fairytale would not stop there. The very last set of the match ended 12-14 for Schlager, winning 3-4 (9-11, 11-7, 10-12, 8-11, 11-8, 11-7, 12-14). Kong Linghui had a match point ball at 12-11 in the seventh set, but he missed the service.

Schlager’s words made for a perfect brief of his achievement:

I’ve beaten two of China’s best players in the last two days, it’s fantastic; the match was very close, it’s been a very tough event, Kong Linghui’s a great player and although we fought hard against each other we are still good friends.

The second semi-final was played between Kalinikos Kreanga and Joo Saehyuk. The last time they had played before that match, Kreanga had won in straight games. This fact just reinforces the exceptional performance that the Korean player put in that day. It was only the second set that the Greek player would win, finishing with a 1-4 (5-11, 11-3, 7-11, 8-11, 10-12).

Yoo Nam Kyu, the Korean National Team coach, explained how his fellow had managed to reach the World Championships final:

The improvement in his play in Paris is that he has taken his chance, when he’s had the opportunity to attack, he has attacked very positively and very strongly.

The Final

Werner Schlager, 2003 World Table Tennis Champion
Werner Schlager, 2003 World Table Tennis Champion. Photo: ITTF

Werner Schlager versus Joo Saehyuk. One of the most memorable matches in the history of table tennis. Mainly because of the way both of the players got to that match. The Austrian player defeated two Chinese players in the quarter-final and semi-final rounds, having match balls against both of them and winning 4-3 in both of the matches.

The Korean defender was not even in the seed list. In fact, he was the 61st player in the World Ranking. The last defender who played a World Championship Final had been Eberhard Schöler, 34 years earlier. Moreover, he managed to defeat Smirnov, Chuang Chih-Yuan, Ma Lin and Kreanga, ranked 2nd, 5th, 9th and 16th.

Schlager had been very consistent throughout the whole tournament. He even faced one defender, Matsushita, with an easy victory.

The result: 4-2 (11-9, 11-6, 6-11, 12-10, 8-11, 12-10) for Werner Schlager, who became the 2003 World Champion.

His words after the match reveal its importance for him and for table tennis history, serving as a good summary of the whole tournament:

My goal was the quarter finals and perhaps a medal if everything went my way, this is just unbelievable, playing and winning in front of a crowd of 10.000 people, all going crazy, it is like a dream. Players from over a hundred and thirty countries entered the tournament, over a billion play the sport in China and I’m world champion; it’s a dream come true!


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