By Will Koulouris
SYDNEY, July 7 (Xinhua) -- Ahead of his appearance in the men's final of the ITTF World Tour event on the Gold Coast on Friday evening, Vladimir Samsonov sat down with Xinhua for an interview about his thoughts on the game of table tennis.
The 41-year-old Belarusian veteran of six consecutive Olympic Games, renowned for his longevity in the sport, said it is very difficult to compare his career with players from China, as the talent level in China is vastly higher.
"I would have probably stopped playing already a long time ago, because the Chinese team is so strong, and you always have to compete not only against players from other countries, but also against Chinese players," Samsonov said.
"We have a different situation in Belarus. For many years I have been number one, and I'm still the best player, and that is why I also play in international competitions."
The mercurial Samsonov was ranked in the top ten of the sport for a continuous period between 1996 and 2011, is currently ranked number 12 even at his advanced age, and when asked where the secret to his continued success lies - the "Tai Chi Master" as he is known in China - was able to give a number of important reasons, including his playing style.
"I think my style of playing is kind of helps to play for a longer time period. I have strokes that are very hard, very powerful. My family has always helped me a lot, they have always supported me, they still support me playing table tennis," Samsonov said.
One of his goals that has kept him motivated for so long has been his chase for an Olympic medal that has so far managed to elude his grasp, and the challenge of finally achieving these goals is something that will see the elder statesman of the sport continue to play competitively.
"There are still goals, I always have goals that I still haven't achieved. They kept pushing me to practice hard and to stay professional. It's an Olympic Games medal, I've always wanted to win an Olympic Games medal," Samsonov said.
"I always wanted to win more, and that's why I guess I also try to push myself, I'm still trying to push myself to continue, and to practice hard, and to concentrate on the game."
Having played the sport since he was six years of age, and winning European Youth Cadet titles at a time when his own nation was still a part of the Soviet Union, age has wearied Samsonov as can be expected, and he said he has made a number of changes to his training regimen as he has gotten older.
"You have to take care of your body, its very important, and now I guess I need more rest than I did twenty years ago. I have to be really careful about what I'm eating, I have to do more, let's say stretching, I need more time to recover," Samsonov said.
However, the crafty player does admit to eating ice cream on occasion during competitions, but said that he always makes sure that he dials it back during training for upcoming events.
"Especially during competition I'm more relaxed regarding food, but during the preparations, if I feel that I have gained too much weight, I try to come back, I try to be more strict," he said.
With the hiring of a new interim chief executive, the ITTF is on the cusp of a new era in table tennis, with a shift towards marketing and commercialisation, and Samsonov believes that the key to future success for the game is the development of new stars, stars that can hopefully transcend the sport itself.
"I think what we really need is, we need more stars, more personalities. We have players like Zhang Jike, Ma Long - they are real stars and are really huge in China and some Asian countries - but we have to make them international stars, that's what we need," Samsonov said.
"That's what I think what tennis has, basketball, or football, there are athletes that are known worldwide, and people they go to watch them. Maybe even less the sport, but they want to see these stars."
This shift could also potentially be combined with a number of new rules to make the game more entertaining for the fans, according to the Belarusian legend, who suggested one such way that he feels would have an immediate impact on the game.
"There is still potential in table tennis, and the game can be more interesting for spectators, we often have rallies that are too short," Samsonov said.
"Many games they have serve, then one or two touches, and then the rally is over. So I think it would be more interesting for the spectators to see longer rallies in table tennis. This is one of the things that we should think about for the future."
In the lead up to his appearance in the final of the Seamaster ITTF World Tour event on the Gold Coast, Samsonov said his preparation will be business as usual, and he will even find time for a nap in the afternoon.
With his calm, and methodical approach, Samsonov has been one of the biggest stars of the last 20 years in the game - but still manages to keep up with the times - and told of his use of the popular Chinese messaging app, WeChat.
"In China everybody is using WeChat. I have some Chinese friends, and for example T2, it's a new format, a new league. There are four teams - and the team captain is Jiang Jialiang - and almost everybody in our team speaks Chinese, and then we have a group chat on WeChat," Samsonov said.
"I can't speak it (Chinese), but today it's quite easy to use Google translate, and in the chat, and I translate but I have no idea what is written. So I always hope there is no misunderstanding, but until now everything looks like everything is fine."
Samsonov will face off against Simon Gauzy of France, in the men's ITTF World Tour final at 20:15 (AEST), a competitor 19 years his junior.