Can China repeat table tennis sweep in London?
Updated: 2012-07-10 13:18
BEIJING - Will China win all four gold medals on offer in table tennis in London? The answer seems apparent. Given the country's supremacy in the sport, anything but gold would be a shocking defeat.
However, China's table tennis team officials are playing down public expectations. "We are confident in our players. But to win all four gold medals is much more difficult than people expected," said Huang Biao, China' s national table tennis team manager.
China has won 20 of 24 gold medals available since table tennis was introduced into the Olympics in 1988. Four years ago in Beijing, it took away all six medals in the men's and women's singles, plus gold in both team events.
However, this time around, China cannot do it again.
The International Table Tennis Federation has altered its rules for the London Games, allowing only two players from one nation to enter singles, eliminating the possibility of another 1-2-3 finish for Chinese men and women. The third qualifier can only compete in team event.
The federation also changed the competition format for the London Olympics - singles comes before team event.
The changes have increased variables for China's gold quest. Liu Guoliang, head coach of the men's table tennis team, said the singles-first format poses "unprecedented challenges" to Chinese players.
China is an overwhelming favorite to win both team events. It won almost all team events in two decades, losing only once to Singapore's women's team in the World Team Championships in Moscow in 2010.
"If our players have already pocketed one gold medal (in team event), then it will be easier for them to get another in the singles event. Now the competition format is reversed, and our pace is changed. The players will have huge pressure," Liu said.
In London, the singles will follow a knockout format. Chinese players do not need to play preliminary rounds. They will qualify directly to the third round. Any slip in singles will increase pressure in the team event.
Current world No 1 Zhang Jike and twice Olympic silver medalist Wang Hao will compete in men's singles. Current world No 2 Ma Long will join them in team event.
A right handed dynamic attacker, the 24-year-old Zhang is the reigning world champion and World Cup champion in 2011. He is widely seen as a gold medal favorite for the London Olympic men's title.
Wang, 27, was eorld champion in men's singles in 2009. He twice let slip gold medals at Olympic men's singles, losing to South Korea's Ryu Seung Min at Athens 2004 and his teammate Ma Lin at Beijing 2008.
Both Zhang and Wang are thirsty for an Olympic gold medal in order to earn a Grand Slam, which would place them within the league of such legendary players as Jan-Ove Waldner and Liu Guoliang.
Liu said Zhang is currently the best among the three Chinese players, but Wang is much more experienced.
"Both Zhang and Wang are strong contenders for the gold. But competing at the Olympics, mentality is the most important. Only when they handle pressure properly and conquer themselves, can they perform at their best," Liu said.
The Germans are believed to have their best chance at a medal in the men's team event with Timo Boll and Dimitrij Ovtcharov leading the way. A left-handed player and Olympic veteran, Boll is seen as the biggest threat to China's dominance in the sport in London.
Since the Beijing Olympics, the German team has been the biggest rival of the Chinese men's team, team manager Huang said. "Although they finished runners-up at Beijing 2008, they have demonstrated their strength."
The Japanese men's team is led by seasoned player Jun Mizutani, the only non-Chinese among the top five players on the current world rankings. The South Korean team is comprised of veteran players Joo Se Hyuk, Oh Sang Eun and Ryu Seung Min. Both of the two teams are not to be taken lightly.
In the women side, Singapore is still China's biggest opponent. In the recent World Team Championships, Singapore's Feng Tianwei, Wang Yuegu and Li Jiawei have proven their abilities to withstand unimaginable amount of pressure.
For the upcoming Olympics, it will be the same lineup for the Singaporean team, Feng and Wang in the singles and Li for the team event.
The Chinese women's were represented by Ding Ning, Li Xiaoxia and Guo Yue, with Ding and Li in singles and Guo in team event.
Born in 1990, Ding, who won the women's singles title at both last year's worlds in Rotterdam and the World Cup, has improved her world ranking from No. 3 to No. 1 over the past year. She is seen as China' s best shot at gold in women's singles in London.
Shi Zhihao, head coach of China' s women's table tennis team, said Ding has been improving fast over the past year.
"Ding really enjoys the sport and competition. She is optimistic and cheerful by nature. I believe she has the potential to become a great player like Zhang Yining," Shi said.
Chinese table tennis legend Zhang announced her retirement in Beijing in April last year. With four Olympic gold medals, nine world championships and four World Cup wins, Zhang was considered one of the greatest female players in the history of the sport. Her retirement has raised the question of who can step in as her successor.
Huang said China's women's team has realized the changeover with the rising of young players. The women's team has two Olympic rookies, so does the men's team.
"The cut-throat competition at the Olympics is more intense than any other events. If the young players can pass the test, then the next Olympic Games (Rio 2016) would be much easier for China' table tennis team," Huang said.