Jan-Ove Waldner: When the Feeling Decides

By Jens Fellke;

Book Review by Ken Muhr

Being a bit of a "Waldner is the greatest" advocate and having witnessed both times he became world singles champion – the extravagant profligacy of his talent at the "Magic Ball" Worlds in Dortmund 1989, and his awesome and ruthless efficiency in Manchester 1997 – I could not resist the above pocket-sized (despite having 237 pages) illustrated paperback I picked up from the Donic stand at the 2003 World Championships in Paris. Now published in (very good and readable) English from the original Swedish in 1997, but updated with an "After Manchester" chapter, the book gives a fair description of Waldner’s career, plus the book contents, on its back cover:

"Following his second singles World Championships victory in 1997, Jan-Ove Waldner of Sweden was considered by many the World’s Number One table tennis player of all time. In China, he is spoken of as "The Evergreen" because of his remarkably long stay at the very top of the sport. His top-level competitive time period extended from 1982, when he reached his first singles final in the European Championships in Budapest, to 2000, when he not only carried team Sweden to a World Championships victory in Malaysia but also reached the singles final at the Olympic Games in Sydney. His career is by no means over; his next goal is the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

In "Jan-Ove Waldner – When the Feeling Decides" (previously published in Swedish, German and Chinese), the Swedish author and journalist Jens Fellke charts the extraordinary rise of a living legend from Mascot to Master. Covered is Waldner’s road to the national team, the fierce competition with the Chinese, an account of his development towards table tennis supremacy, and a description of his many contributions as a major innovator in the sport.

The book furthermore offers an analysis of the many characteristics that make Jan-Ove Waldner a unique table tennis player and of the factors contributing to his long reign among the World’s elite players. In a special chapter, Jan-Ove himself gives practical and tactical advice to young players who aspire to reach the top."

The first chapter, "Nocturnal Anecdote," describes a novel gathering at Waldner’s Stockholm apartment, with his friends Bjorn Borg, the legendary tennis player, and the footballer Tomas Brolin. The next chapter argues cogently that Waldner’s "position as the world’s best table tennis player in history is indisputable." Interesting to note that Swedish sports journalists in 1997 voted Waldner the second ranking Swedish athlete of all time, behind only Borg.

As a child prodigy from a stable and supportive family background (his older brother, Kjell-Ake, was also a good player) Jan-Ove was small for his age and shy, but fiercely competitive at all sports. Apparently in table tennis he was temperamental (not a good loser) in competition and not particularly disciplined at practice routines, preferring to play around inventing shots and strange spins (particularly in service), and backing off to lob to give himself time. However, this helped him hone his extraordinary touch/feel for the ball and ability to adapt, although sometimes he seemed more content to put on a show than to win! There are plenty of charming pictures of the precociously talented youngster in the book.

He made steady progress in Sweden, but a trip (with Eric Lindh) to train in China in the Summer of 1980, when Waldner was 14, seems to have been a turning point in his playing development, with more powerful attack and strong practice discipline. "There, I learned the importance of hard training." (He has a lot of respect for China, actively supporting the successful Beijing bid for the 2008 Olympics. "China is my second homeland.")

A paragraph from the book regarding the first China trip, gives telling indicators why Waldner became such a great player:

"Jan-Ove notices how the Chinese emphasize the service execution, which is being practiced separately. He absorbs, imitates and integrates new concepts with his own playing style. He learns how to use the "chop" serve and to cover the point of ball impact with his body. In game play, he often takes a beating initially. However, without frustration, he analyzes the losses and figures out remedies that he tries out in the next game. A few days later, at a rematch, he controls the play, finds the other player’s weaknesses, and usually comes through as the winner."

His main practice partner in the early years, Mikael Appelgren, gives the lie to Waldner’s perceived laziness. "We practiced enormously hard. Often we played for about four hours and were so exhausted that we hardly made it into the shower afterwards. Those who claim that Waldner is lazy are totally out of touch. You can’t become number one in the world if you are lazy. On the contrary, he is energetic and stubborn. Each time he is beaten, he is looking for revenge immediately."

Lack of space means I must resist saying more about the chapters charting J-O’s career, and outlining aspects of his personality, including his golf addiction. Fans and coaches might value most the long section on "Questions and Answers (from the great man himself)," the analysis of the special characteristics that make the player in "The Perpetual Innovator" chapter, Waldner’s 10 "Tips for Future Champions," and the huge amount of statistical and records data in the appendix.

So I rate this 2003 book (ISBN 91-88541-98-3) a good read and highly recommended.


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