Zhang Li, one of the greatest of all time (Photo: courtesy of Stefan Feth)
by Ian Marshall, Editor
Born in 1951 in Henan Province, the most decorated member of the Chinese women’s team throughout the 1970s; resident in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, surrounded by her family, Zhang Li passed away on Wednesday 13th February.
Although not a smoker and lived a healthy life, undergoing treatment for approaching three and a half years, she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer through a genetic mutation in September 2015.
Only 13 years old, she was selected for the provincial team, one year later she joined the national team, moving to Beijing. She made her debut at a World Championships in Nagoya in 1971 when 20 years of age, playing in an era when the tournament was staged every two years.
Later in 1973 in Sarajevo, alongside Hu Yulan, Zheng Huaiying and Zheng Minzhi, she secured a women’s team silver medal, before progressing to the women’s singles semi-finals. She was beaten by the champion elect, Hu Yulan. Two years later in Calcutta; then in 1977 in Birmingham and in 1979 in Pyongyang, she was a member of the Chinese team that won the women’s team title; the only member to be selected for all five World Championships between 1971 and 1979.
Notably, in Calcutta, it was only the second time when China had won the women’s team title; the one prior occasion being in 1965 in Ljubljana; a member of the outfit that won three in a row was ground breaking. It set the standard for the modern era.
Furthermore in Pyongyang, she won the women’s doubles title partnering Zhang Deying, having in 1975 and 1977 been the women’s singles runner up, losing on both occasions to DPR Korea’s Pak Yun Sun. It was a time when China was seeking to promote good relations with DPR Korea, friendship first was very much on the agenda.
Additionally in Calcutta, joining forces with Liang Geliang she was a mixed doubles bronze medallist losing to the Soviet Union’s Sarkis Sarkhayan and Elmira Antonian, the eventual runners up. Likewise in Birmingham in the women’s doubles event, partnering Ge Xinai, the pair experienced a semi-final defeat at the hands of DPR Korea’s Pak Yong Ok and China’s Yang Ying; the partnership also underlining China’s policy at the time of friendship and promoting good relations with DPR Korea.
Success at World Championships, additionally she enjoyed success at both the Asian Games and at the Asian Championships.
At the Asian Games, she competed in 1974 in Tehran and in 1978 in Bangkok, only two appearances but no less than seven gold medals; it is a record that no player can match and stands to this day. In 1974, lining up alongside Hu Yulan, Huang Xiping and Zheng Huaiying, she was a member of the gold medal women’s team; later in the tournament she won the women’s doubles title partnering Zheng Huaiying, before concluding matters by being crowned women’s singles champion.
Three gold medals in Tehran, in Bangkok it was a full house. She retained her women’s singles title, after earlier in the tournament having won women’s team gold alongside Cao Yanhua, Yang Ying and Zhang Deying, the mixed doubles with Guo Yuehua and the women’s doubles in partnership with Zhang Deying.
Additionally at the Asian Championships in 1974 in Yokohama, she won women’s doubles gold partnering Zheng Huaiying, whilst securing silver in the mixed doubles with her future husband Li Zhenshi. Also she gained the same colour medal in the women’s team competition.
Four years later in 1976 in Pyongyang, she won the women’s singles top prize, having been a silver medallist in the women’s team event and in the women’s doubles partnering Zhang Deying. Later in 1978 in Kuala Lumpur, she won women’s team gold, mixed doubles silver with Guo Yuehua, as well as bronze in both the women’s singles and women’s doubles events, again in the latter, she partnered Zhang Deying.
She retired in 1979 and married Li Zhenshi, winner of four World Championship gold medals. In 1981 their daughter Li Nan was born; from 1981 to 1983 she attended sports’ college before in the latter year becoming coach for the Chinese National Junior Team.
Additionally she was a member of the national Congress for five years, representing Henan Province; she became coach for the Chinese women’s team from 1985 to 1991, helping develop such players as Gao Jun and Liu Wei. Following the World Championships in 1991 in Chiba, the family moved to the United States; from 1991 to 1996 she became the coach of the United States women’s team. Later in 2008 she formed the World Champions Table Tennis Academy, the first full time table tennis academy in North America
She leaves behind husband Li Zhenshi and daughter Li Nan who is married to Stefan Feth, one of the United States national coaches, in particular the guiding hand of Kanak Jha, a player Zhang Li also advised. They have one son Mika Feth, in Chinese Li Yu Ming, the grandson bringing Zhang Li the greatest moments of joy in her later years.
An outstanding career, overall 26 medals in major international competitions; in particular, the record in the Asian Games underlines that fact. She stands alongside the likes of Deng Yaping, Wang Nan and Zhang Yining. She retired before table tennis was part of the Olympic Games; we can only surmise but surely had the opportunity been afforded, she would have been a gold medallist?
Humble, thoughtful, caring, selfless, a kind heart, her strength unparalleled; she is sadly missed.
In order to honour Zhang Li, donations are requested to be sent to Stanford Lung Cancer Research in her name to fund and bring awareness to this insidious deadly disease.
Stanford University: Make a gift in the name of Zhang Li
Zhang Li with her grandson, her pride and joy (Photo: courtesy of Stefan Feth)