HE'S 24, AND HE'S ALREADY THE best in the world. He's handsome and
given to wearing snazzy clothes. He likes the money. Last year he
bought a seven-room apartment and a car. He enjoys bombing around
town with his gorgeous, movie- star girlfriend. It's a good thing
they have a car; when they walk the streets, they are mobbed.
And we mean mobbed, for these are the teeming streets of
Guangzhou, the sixth-largest city in China, with three million
people. The man behind the wheel is Jiang Jialiang, and his stature
as a Western-style sports hero comes from being in the right place
at the right time with the right stuff. His slightly cocky style
captivates a public in the thrall of its new romance with free
expression. And he plays the right game: table tennis. No wonder
Jiang was selected from among 7,500 Chinese athletes to deliver the
welcoming address at last year's national games.
In China, where some citizens can now get rich, Jiang has gotten
very rich. He figures to prosper all the more if, as expected, he
wins in Seoul. The Communist Party paid him 7,000 yuan for winning
the 1987 world championship in New Delhi. That's $1,880 American, a
princely reward by Chinese standards. Jiang's apartment in Guangzhou
cost him a staggering 80,000 yuan. In a city where almost everybody
goes by bicycle, he travels by car. Then there's his girlfriend, Wu
Yufang, who won China's best actress award in 1985. She was the
reigning star of Chinese cinema when Jiang spotted her in Beijing in
'86. ''We fell in love at first sight,'' he says. ''Then we became
Jiang first picked up a paddle at age seven, and two years later,
in 1973, he was selected to attend a sports spare-time school. ''At
the time, it was the rule that only one child could remain at home,''
says Jiang, who has six siblings, ''and the others had to volunteer
to go out to the border regions. My parents thought that if they did
not let me go to sports school, I could end up as a peasant digging
the fields.'' Still, Jiang's mother, Feng Shunqing, wasn't happy to
see her son leave home. ''When he left, I cried a lot,'' says Feng.
''But the country needed him.''
Jiang's five-hours-a-day training led to continuous improvement.
He rose quickly in the rankings, and his daring, hard-hitting style
made him a feared player before he was out of his teens. When he was
20, he was an odds-on favorite to win the 1985 world championships.
''In England they guess who will have the big chance, and they bet,''
says Jiang with a sense of wonder. ''In 1985, I'm the one. They bet
on me.'' Jiang won't say whether he placed his own wager with the
London bookies. If he did, he won.
In the finals of last year's world championships, Jiang was down
21-14, 11-6 to Sweden's Jan-Ove Waldner when they played a remarkable
point. ''One of my best ever,'' recalls Waldner. ''He was smashing
high balls; I was chopping low in return. It went on forever.''
Waldner finally hit a winning short chop that sent Jiang sprawling.
Everything was going his way.
Then Jiang steeled himself. He mixed up his shots. He changed
pace, served long and short. The match turned abruptly. Jiang was
dancing on his toes between points, like a boxer. He went on to win
14-21, 21-18, 21-11, 24-22.
''When it's a big match, Jiang's the best -- he has the best mind
for it,'' says Waldner. ''He can change against every player. He can
change after one game. With the forehand, he hits very hard. And he's
so quick; he can run and play forehand all the time. He's great at
Adds Waldner's coach, Glen Ost, ''You get to 19-all, and you still
think you're behind. He must win 90 percent of the games that go
''Funny, though,'' says Waldner. ''When the Chinese come out into
the world, he's the best by far, but he loses at home all the time.''
Jiang's lack of success in China has caused consternation, if not
among his adoring young followers then certainly within the country's
table tennis establishment. For instance, in June, Jiang played South
Korea's Yoo Nam Kyu in the team competition of the China Open. The
match was held at the Guangzhou Indoor Stadium. Yoo had been a
nemesis, defeating Jiang in the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul and at this
year's Asian Championships in Nagiita, Japan.
On this day, Jiang trailed 18-14 in the second game after having
lost the first, but he rallied to win the match. Acclaim rained down
from hometown fans, but not from China's table tennis officialdom.
''I hope after this he'll train and get ready to play,'' Xu Shaofa,
coach of the Chinese team, said sternly. ''He's always up and down.
He can't be the Olympic champion playing like that. Too many
mistakes.'' After Jiang lost in the singles flights of the Open and
again in the World Cup in Wuhan, China, the next week, Xu barred the
press from talking to his star player.
Jiang doesn't know why he plays better on the road, but he admits
he's more relaxed outside China. ''I get tired lately,'' he says. ''I
feel it, and I feel pressure. Some days I really don't want to play
table tennis, but I know I have to play. I am the world champion, I
must overcome the tiredness. I'm playing better now than ever, but
I'm older, and my spirit isn't as good as before. It's a stage, and I
think I can handle it. That mental spirit -- I think it will come at
Jiang's malaise sounds familiar enough: Money plus the good life
plus the movie star equal pressure and, in some quarters, resentment.
''I like fame, but it also means trouble,'' says Jiang. ''Some people
expect nothing but wins. There is no privacy. People look and say,
'That's him!' Sometimes I want to do the private things and I cannot.
Everyone expects things of me.''
As a Western-style sports star, Jiang is in a difficult position.
His coaches are from the old ask-what-you-can-do-for-your-country
school, but his fans are more of the me generation. He must play for
both worlds. By comparison, the pressure of 19-all is nothing. Jiang
welcomes 19-all, particularly when he's playing outside China. That's
when all the fatigue and pressure drain away and he hits that
forehand harder and harder.