Finding his way through the maze

Dane confident Chinese can be beaten in table tennis

As inevitable as the Kenyans dominating the steeplechase, the Chinese are the undisputed masters in the table tennis arena. The whole world expects their men to dominate in London just like they did four years earlier in Beijing, where they made a clean sweep of the medals. The whole world bar one man: Denmark’s Michael Maze, who yesterday dispatched the Japanese third seed in straight sets to storm into the quarter-finals. He’s the comeback kid on a mission and fears nobody.

After winning bronze aged 22 in the doubles at the 2004 Olympics, the table tennis world was at Maze’s feet, but then his career began to unravel. There were question marks about his temperament, and he struggled to remain injury free – he was, figuratively speaking, trapped in a maze of his own creation. But over the years, he has matured, increasingly taking a philosophical approach to his sport.  “I am older and wiser now,” the opening page of his website tells you. “And time and again, I am confirmed in the fact that freaking out doesn’t matter.”

Maze, who's half English through his father, bounced back in 2009, winning the European singles title and making the quarter-finals of the World Championship – the closest he has ever come to success on the world stage – but then two operations on his right knee threatened to end his career. It was perilous, but once you’ve looked into the abyss, you’re not easily spooked.

This has been his comeback year and it has already been a monumental one for Maze. His Russian side UMMC enjoyed a phenomenal run in the sport’s European Champions League, producing some miraculous fightbacks to make the final, before falling at the final hurdle. And then came his last 16 win against the Japanese number three seed Jun Mizutani.

“It's been two years of hell,” Maze proudly told yesteday evening. “It's good to be back. I am very pleased that my mind and body are in good condition. It now appears that my chances in the London Olympics are really good.”

Earlier in the day he had been dismissive about the invincibility of the Chinese players – this year, due to the introduction of new rules, there are only two, despite the nation filling the top four places in the world rankings.

“I think there is a good chance we will see one of the Chinese players lose before the final,” he predicted after his last 32 win against Greek veteran Kalinikos Kreanga. “They play under great pressure anyway. But here on European soil and with only two players in the competition, there is much more pressure on them. They have almost nothing to win and we have nothing to lose.”

And his prediction nearly came true yesterday when the top seed, China’s Zhang Jike, was taken to a deciding set by Vladimir Samsonov of Belarus. Nevertheless, China has won 20 of the 24 Olympic titles contested since the sports introduction in 1988.

Maze heads into his quarter-final clash against Dimitrij Ovtcharov of Germany tonight (scheduled to start at 22:00) as the slight underdog. He has already played him three times this season, beating him just once, and bookmakers rate Ovtcharov the 10/1 third favourite to take gold, with Maze next on their list at 25/1 (both Ladbroke’s).