Zhang Jike returns the ball during his men's singles quarterfinal match at the ITTF Asian Championships in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, on April 15.[Photo/chinadaily.com.cn]
As the men's singles final got underway at the ITTF Asian Table Tennis Championships on Sunday, chaos briefly descended on the Wuxi Sports Center. A deafening roar erupted from the crowd, and hundreds of people leaped from their seats and surged across the stands, smartphone cameras at the ready.
But it wasn't the action on the table that sparked this electric atmosphere; it was the appearance of ping-pong poster boy Zhang Jike in the stands.
Zhang arrived in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, debilitated by injury and with little chance of winning the continental title, but the Chinese star and his legions of passionate fans were still the talk of the tournament.
The devotion of Zhang's tribe of—mostly young, female—fans is legendary in China. Just a few weeks ago, they had spent large sums of their own money to buy ads on big screens and newspapers across China wishing their hero a happy 29th birthday.
And ahead of the world number four's semifinal against Chinese teammate Fan Zhendong on Sunday afternoon, Wuxi Sports Center almost resembled a Zhang memorabilia store.
Zhang flags, Zhang posters, Zhang stickers, and even Zhang hair clips could be seen all over the stands, while one enormous red and gold Zhang banner stretched across almost an entire block of seats.
When the handsome star finally bowed out after losing to Fan 3-1, his interview with Chinese broadcaster CCTV5 could barely be heard over the singing of his fans, who were serenading him with his song, Xin Cang ("Inside My Heart"), which Zhang released as a single in 2016.
Zhang has been one of the world's top players for almost a decade, completing a career Grand Slam and winning gold at the London 2012 Olympics during a hugely successful career, but his foreign rivals were still taken aback by the Qingdao native's level of fame in China.
"I never realized that Zhang Jike had such a huge number of fans, although I had heard that he has a lot of fans," said An Jaehyung, South Korea's men's team coach.