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China secure third straight table tennis grand slam

In the table tennis competitions at Rio 2016, China once again took a clean sweep of the titles on offer. While defending champions Li Xiaoxia and Zhang Jike were beaten in the singles, compatriots Ding Ning and Ma Long ensured that their crowns stayed in China. In the team competitions, the four singles finalists powered to victory alongside Liu Shiwen in the women’s team and Xu Xin in the men’s team.

In the women’s singles, top seed Ding Ning blazed through the competition on her way to the final. Having restricted her opponents to a handful of points in the early rounds, it was not until the semi-final that she lost a game, beating Kim Song-i (PRK) 4-1. Not to be outdone, 2012 gold winner Li Xiaoxia ensured that she did not drop a single game leading up to the final. In a particularly clinical semi-final win, Japan’s Ai Fukuhara won just nine points as Li sealed an 11-4, 11-3, 11-1, 11-1 victory.

But in the gold-medal match Ding was too strong. Having lost the 2012 final 4-1 after being penalised for several incorrect serves, the reigning world champion this time sealed a 4-3 victory (11-9, 5-11, 14-12, 9-11, 8-11, 11-7, 11-7).
“I think my experience in London made me more mature and more capable of overcoming challenges,” Ding explained afterwards. “I managed to put that sad memory behind me by getting to Rio. When I qualified for the final, I just told myself that I was going to fight to make my dreams come true. It was a difficult match. When it was over I just felt so relaxed, and that’s when I started to cry.”

When commenting on the tactical choices that had helped her turn the tables on her compatriot, Ding was full of praise for silver medallist Li: “I tried to be proactive at the start of the match and control the rhythm of each point,” she explained. “But, as you saw, Li is a really experienced player and plays shots of such high quality. At one point in the middle of the match it wasn’t going particularly well so I gradually changed tactics and strategy.”

“We’re both part of the Chinese table tennis team so we see each other as team-mates even in singles matches. Of course, in this situation we’re also rivals. Li Xiaoxia is the leader of the team. As she said, she had a few injuries last year, but she kept on going and kept playing at the highest level. I’ve learned so much from her.”
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Li admitted that she was ready to quit the game earlier in the year before reversing her decision. “For various reasons, I came back,” she explained. “I have no regrets. The Chinese table tennis players are all so strong and I just want to share my experience with them. Four years ago, I went into the Olympics with nothing holding me back. There was no pressure, I wasn’t expecting anything. Now, I have much more experience and I felt a weight on my shoulders. The team leaders have lots of responsibility.”

In the bronze medal match, Kim Song-i utilised her defensive style of play to devastating effect as she defeated Ai Fukuhura 4-1 (11-7, 11-7, 11-5, 12-14, 11-5). In doing so, she proved that a defensive player can still win medals in the aggression-oriented modern game.

Ma dethrones Zhang in men’s singles
On 11 August, the final of the men’s singles competition also saw the reigning champion give up their crown. This time, world number one and reigning world champion Ma Long took the title, overcoming London 2012 gold medallist Zhang Jike with an emphatic 4-0 (14-12, 11-5, 11-4, 11-4) victory.

The win saw Ma join an elite group who have achieved a career grand slam of world championship, World Cup and Olympic titles. “I’m very happy, not just to have completed the grand slam but to have become Olympic champion, that alone makes me so happy,” he explained. “I didn’t worry in the final, I just did my best and played with a sense of freedom. I’m delighted to have won, it’s a standout moment in my career.”
On the way to the final, Ma suffered a major scare in the fourth round when he lost the first two games against Jung Young-sik (PRK) before turning the tide to win 4-2 (6-11, 10-12, 11-5, 11-1, 13-11, 13-11). He was also taken to six games in the semi-final against the impressive Jun Mizutani (JPN).

Zhang, meanwhile, had no such difficulties as he strolled to a second consecutive Olympic final. And, despite giving up his title, he was not overly disappointed. Instead, he was keen to talk up the quality of table tennis produced by two of the game’s leading lights: “This will be a special memory for our athletes and for everyone who has been involved in this match,” he said. “Ma put on a great performance, particularly in the first game. He’s won this title and I give him my sincere congratulations for winning the grand slam.”
In the bronze medal match, world number six Jun Mizutani ran out a 4-1 winner (11-4, 11-9, 6-11, 14-12, 11-8) against world number nine Vladimir Samsonov (BLR). “It’s been my dream to win a medal since I was a kid,” Mizutani explained afterwards. “I know Vladimir Samsonov very well. I’ve come up against him plenty of times in the past so I know how he plays. I made sure to stay in the match and kept battling. The Chinese players are the best because they don’t have any weaknesses. They’re so strong both mentally and technically.”

Clinical win for China’s women
In the women’s team competition, China asserted their dominance once more. Li Xiaoxia, Liu Shiwen and Ding Ning did not lose a single match as they eased past Brazil, DPR Korea, Singapore and finally Germany in the final on 16 August. For Germany, the silver medal they secured by defeating Japan 3-2 in a four-hour marathon in the semi-finals was their first ever medal in women’s table tennis.

In a one-sided start to the final, Li Xiaoxia and Liu Shiwen used booming smashes and prodigious spin shots to overcome Han Ying and Petrissa Solja of Germany without dropping a game in the opening singles matches. Germany’s Shan Xiaona and Petrissa Solja showed more resistance in the doubles match when they took the third game but Liu and her partner Ding soon regained control to complete a resounding 3-0 victory (3-0, 3-0, 3-1).
“Losing that game made the competition a bit more exciting, but of course I never want to lose any games,” Liu said.  

Despite the lop-sided manner of the defeat, Germany’s Han Ying was nevertheless proud of her nation’s display: “Skills-wise the gap between us and China is simply too big, so this is the first time I’ve not felt pressure while playing a match,” she said. “In the end, it was just about enjoying table tennis.”

Finally, the bronze medal match saw an exciting encounter between Japan and Singapore with Ai Fukuhura, Kasumi Ishikawa and Mima Ito eventually overcoming Yu Mengyu, Feng Tianwei and Zhou Yihan 3-1. Fifteen-year-old Ito became the youngest-ever Olympic table tennis medallist.

China’s men complete clean sweep
On 17 August, Ma Long, Zhang Jike and Xu Xin rounded off the Rio 2016 table tennis by sealing China’s fourth gold in four events. In the final of the men’s team competition, they were pushed hard by the young Japanese team, eventually sealing a 3-1 victory.

Men’s singles gold medallist Ma breezed through the opening match 3-0 against Koki Niwa while Japan’s Jun Mizutani surprised Xu Xin in the second singles match. After Mizutani took the first two games, the Chinese penholder went on a strong run to win two games and have three match points at 10-7 in the fifth and deciding game. But Mizutani rallied and won five points in a row to secure a 3-2 victory and level the match.
Japan’s momentum continued into the doubles contest where Maharu Yoshimura and Niwa won the first game 11-4 and threatened a shock result. In the end, however, Zhang Jike and Xu refocused to secure a 3-1 win. Ma then took centre stage again and blew away Japan’s last hope Yoshimura with a brilliant 11-1, 11-4, 11-4 performance to seal China’s third successive clean sweep at the Olympic Games.

“I feel very happy because it wasn’t at all easy tonight,” Ma explained. “This team gold medal feels more substantial than the singles gold I won. The scariest moment was the doubles because Xu Xin had just lost a big second singles match and there was only five minutes for him to rest and think about strategy. He did very well to win it.” 

Xu Xin, meanwhile, was impressed with the fight that Japan put up: “They are really strong, and they are always improving,” he said. “Aside from their top player Jun Mizutani, the other two players are still very young and in four years at the Tokyo Olympics they will be even more dangerous to us.”
Singles bronze medallist Mizutani, who won the second match of the final, looks set to mount a serious challenge to China on home soil: “Competing in the finals of the Olympic Games at this stage and performing like that against China may be even more valuable to us than the gold medal,” he said. “This gave us a great deal of confidence and I’m looking ahead to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games with the idea that we can beat the Chinese team.”

In the bronze medal match Germany overcame Republic of Korea 3-1, with a neck injury not enough to stop Timo Boll from winning the doubles match with partner Bastian Steger and then his singles encounter against Joo Saehyuk 3-0.
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