Ma Long and Liu Shiwen lead prestigious line of winners at Agricultural Bank of China 2019 ITTF Star AwardsLiu Shiwen (centre) alongside ITTF President, Thomas Weikert (left) and Nittaku General Manager, Mr Hiromitsu Takabayashi
Ma Long and Liu Shiwen – this year's World Champions in the men's and women's singles – were crowned Male and Female Table Tennis Stars at the Agricultural Bank of China 2019 ITTF Star Awards, held on Wednesday 11th December in Zhengzhou China.
The annual celebration brought together players, coaches, special guests and ITTF staff and officials from all over the world to acknowledge the greatest achievements in international table tennis over the past year, and nobody could deny that the seven category winners, listed below, have been simply outstanding:
Ma Long – Male Table Tennis Star, presented by DHS
Liu Shiwen – Female Table Tennis Star, presented by Nittaku
Lily Zhang – Breakthrough Star
Thomas Schmidberger – Male Para Table Tennis Star, presented by Tinsue
Giada Rossi – Female Para Table Tennis Star, presented by Stag
Bladimir Diaz – Star Coach, presented by Butterfly
Xu Xin & Fan Zhendong – Star Point, presented by Stiga
Widely considered the greatest men's player of all time, China's Ma Long clinched his third consecutive men's singles crown at a World Championships – as well as the men's doubles title – in Budapest in April, just one month after coming back from a seven-month layoff through injury. In March, he returned to the ITTF World Tour to win the men's singles title in Qatar, a stunning achievement after such an absence from international play. Later in May he succeeded in China, winning on home soil for the eighth time; moreover, this was his 28th men's singles title on the ITTF World Tour to set a new all-time record, surpassing Belarusian legend Vladimir Samsonov.
This has resulted in a well-deserved third Male Table Tennis Star award for Ma Long, 31, who admitted that he never thought he would be celebrating the title again since achieving the feat in 2015 and 2016. In a wonderfully delivered speech in English, 'The Dragon' had the following to say:
"First, I want to thank the ITTF for giving me this honour. I'm really happy. I never thought I could win this title again. For the last year I know what I have been through and what I have done. I have fought against my injuries for so long, but I'm feeling much better now. So, here I want to show my appreciation to my team, my family and my fans who have supported and helped me a lot. Although I face many challenges right now, I will always have a golden heart. Table tennis means everything to me, so I will keep fighting and I will pull out all the stops," said Ma Long
Liu Shiwen was crowned Female Table Tennis Star for the second time in her stellar career, after winning it in 2015 in Lisbon, following an exceptional 2019 for the Chinese 28-year-old. After 10 years of trying and at her sixth attempt, in April she won the won women's singles gold at the Liebherr 2019 World Championships in Budapest, where she also added the mixed doubles title alongside Xu Xin. In October in Chengdu, she emerged successful at the Uncle Pop 2019 Women's World Cup, winning the event for an unprecedented fifth time; her first success being a decade earlier in 2009 in Guangzhou. Then in November it was also success in Tokyo, where she was a member of the Chinese outfit that won the women's title at the ZEN-NOH 2019 Team World Cup.
"I am so happy to win the Female Table Tennis Star award again. It is a big recognition of my whole year's efforts. I experienced a lot in 2017 and 2018. It is really hard to imagine that I could make the breakthrough to win the World Championships and Women's World Cup this year. I want to thank my team for helping a lot in my training and competition. Our ultimate goal is for Tokyo 2020, so let me leave further thanks until then," stated Liu Shiwen
23-year-old American Lily Zhang was rewarded for an exceptional 2019 with the Breakthrough Star Award. It was her display at the 2019 ITTF-Pan American Championships that ignited her incredible campaign, capturing four gold medals in Asuncion. Thus she became the first player to achieve the feat in the tournament's three-year history. However, it was the outing at the Uncle Pop 2019 ITTF Women's World Cup that really caught the eye as she guided the United States to its first ever semi-final appearance at the prestigious event. Zhang's fantastic year on the world stage is further endorsed by her progress in the women's world rankings. She has risen 69 positions to a personal best of no.26 in December.
"Wow, this is very unexpected. I just want to say thank you so much to everyone who has been supporting me. Thank you so much to my sponsors, Joola especially for taking a huge chance on me this year. Thank you to my friends and my fans who have really been there for me and lifted me out of some dark times this year and, most of all, thank you to my family who have been there since day one and sacrificed almost everything to give me even this opportunity to pursue my passion. I just feel super grateful and super humbled to even be nominated amongst this incredible group of athletes; it has been just such a rollercoaster of a year. Thank you so much to ITTF and to everyone out there," added Lily Zhang
Zhang becomes the first American to receive an ITTF Star Award and is only the second player based outside of Japan to collect the Breakthrough Star award. She follows India's Manika Batra who succeeded last year.
Germany's Thomas Schmidberger and Italy's Giada Rossi were unveiled as the respective Male Para Star and Female Para Star for 2019. A class 3 athlete, Schmidberger received his award following a truly exceptional year at continental and global level. In action at Para Open events in Italy, Poland and Egypt, the German not only emerged as the class 3 singles champion at all three competitions but on each occasion also collected team titles. He then followed suit at the 2019 ITTF European Para Championships in Halmstad, earning class 3 singles and team gold. In October 2019, Schmidberger was rewarded with his place at the top of the class 3 world rankings and now ends the year with another accolade to his name.
"Hey table tennis family. I want to thank you all, as it's a big honour for me to win this prize. I'm currently in Düsseldorf as I have an important training competition already for Tokyo next year; this is the reason why I can't be with you this evening. I wanted to thank you, have a good evening and goodbye," said Thomas Schmidberger
World no.1 on the women's class 2 rankings list since October 2019, Giada Rossi's year has also proved profitable, enjoying title success after title success. Not only did Rossi secure class 2 gold at the Para Opens in Italy and the Netherlands, but she also added the class 1-2 gold medal on offer in Czech Republic. However, Rossi's standout moment of the year came at the 2019 ITTF European Para Championships, winning the class 2 singles trophy, whilst also collecting class 1-3 team bronze in Halmstad.
"Thank you very much. I'm very happy and honoured to be here and I would like to thank my family for always being by my side and for supporting me in my dreams. I want to dedicate this important award to my coaches for the work that we do together every day and for supporting me and for helping and motivating me to always do my best. So, thank you very much because I'm very happy and proud to be here," – Giada Rossi
Bladimir Diaz received the Star Coach award, as recognition for his key role in much of Puerto Rico's wonderful recent successes in the world of table tennis, becoming the first coach hailing from the Americas to collect an ITTF Star Award. Diaz guided daughter, Adriana, to success at the Universal 2019 Pan America Cup, as well as later in the year in Lima to women's singles gold at the Pan American Games, where the trio of Adriana and Melanie Diaz alongside Daniely Rios joined forces to win the women's team title.
"I just want to say thank you to my family and I want to dedicate this award to all the people in Puerto Rico. Thank you very much and keep enjoying this wonderful evening," – Bladimir Diaz
The piece of magic happened at this year's ITTF World Tour Japan Open, when Xu and Fan faced Germany's Qiu Dang and Benedikt Duda. Starting with a basic return, the point pushed both Fan and Xu off the table and led them to quickly exchange positions before Xu threw the textbook out of the window. He whipped an innovative curved sliced return that Fan just somehow avoided. Qiu was on the receiving end. Completely in awe of what he saw, he hesitated... point to China.
So, Xu Xin and Fan Zhendong, the current world no.1 and no.2 in men's singles, were stood together on the podium for an award that they had both won individually in 2018 and 2016 respectively. They are the first doubles pair to be crowned Star Point winners since the formation of the Star Awards in 2013.
Xu Xin's night got even better when he also scooped the very first "Best Dressed Award" on offer at an ITTF Star Awards event, as fans voted his eye-catching attire the most fashionable of all attendees who had shown off their glitz and glamour from the red carpet entry to the official ceremony itself.