A true great of Chinese table tennis
China’s Li Xiaoxia experienced every emotion during her storied table tennis career. Victorious in the women’s singles at London 2012 and a world No1, she was beaten to the gold at Rio 2016 by compatriot Ding Ning, the player she had defeated in the final four years earlier. After collecting four Olympic medals and nine world titles, Xiaoxia announced her retirement from the sport.
Born in 1988, the same year as table tennis first appeared on the Olympic programme, Li took up the sport at the age of seven. Developing into a fast and powerful right-handed attacking player, she was called up to the Chinese national team in 2001. A World Cup winner in 2008, she was a substitute at the Beijing Games that year, where China swept the medals in the women’s singles and also took the team gold.
A member of the Jiangsu Wuxi Shanhe club, Li played second fiddle to Ding Ning for long periods of her career, and was known as ‘Miss Number Two’, a nickname that stuck even more after she lost out to Ding in the final at the 2011 World Championships. Even so, Li had already proved she was a winner by that time, having taken the singles title at the 2010 Asian Games, while also claiming a World Cup title in 2008, not to mention several ITTF Pro Tour victories.
The two rivals came face to face in the singles final at London 2012, having both cruised through the earlier rounds and with both intent on succeeding compatriot Zhang Yining, the gold medallist at Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, as Olympic champion. Such was China’s domination of the sport in fact that they had provided every women’s singles champion since Seoul 1988.
In a fever-pitched match, Ding picked up a red card and was handed a one-point penalty for using her towel outside a designated towel break. And illustrating the tension that can beset even the world’s greatest sportsmen and women, Ding was penalised on a number of other occasions for failing to toss the ball high enough on her serve, causing her to lose focus as Li powered to the title in five sets (11-8, 14-12, 8-11, 11-6, 11-4).
A personal high
Speaking after her stunning win, Li said: “I’m very excited. This has been my dream since I was a little girl. I dreamed of being an Olympic champion. We are the same level, but today I performed better than I expected. This is the best I’ve ever played. I think most people expected Ding to win, because she’s been winning well in the last few matches.”
Ranking the victory as the best of her career, Li added: “Today I matched her level. I was determined to win and I didn’t back down. After all, the Olympics is a chance of a lifetime. I’ve gone through pains and hardships to pursue the dream. But I finally conquered myself. This demonstrated that persistence brings success. I dreamed of participating in the Olympics. I wanted so much to step into the Olympic venue with the whole world watching and to prove myself.”
Asked how she would comfort Ding, who was left distraught by her final loss, Li said: “We are all excellent players. I believe she will recover soon, because next is the team event. It’s time to show our teamwork.” Li and Ding did just that, joining forces with Guo Yue – a gold medallist in the doubles at Athens 2004 and the team event at Beijing 2008 – to win yet another Olympic table tennis title for China with a 3-0 defeat of Japan in the final.
World No1 at last
Li built on those achievements the very next year, defeating Ding in the semi-finals of the ITTF World Championships in Paris and then beating another compatriot in Liu Shiwen in the final. She collected another gold in partnering Guo Yue to victory over Ding and Liu in the doubles final.
As well as completing the coveted Grand Slam (World Cup, Olympic and world championship titles), Li also climbed to the top of the world rankings. She followed up by winning team titles in Tokyo in 2014 and Kuala Lumpur two years later to take her collection of world championship medals to 16, nine of them golds. A series of injuries then checked her progress, prompting her to even consider giving up the game for good.
“I came back for various reasons,” she would later say at Rio 2016. “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.”
Another Olympic final
She capped her comeback from injury by reaching the singles final at Rio 2016. Facing her on the other side of the net was her old adversary Ding, who this time prevailed 4-3 in a seven-set epic that saw momentum sway one way and then the next.
Paying tribute to her the vanquished Li, Ding said: “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.”
Li, Ding and Liu then went on to retain the team title, winning all their matches 3-0, with Germany their victims in the final. After contributing to a second consecutive Chinese Olympic clean sweep and winning a fourth Olympic medal, Li revealed that she had played her last competitive match.“All good things come to an end. Thanks to my country for nurturing me,” she said on retiring. “I have also done my best to repay my country, completing my final task for the national team. It’s with some reservations that I retire but it’s for a better future. Life can’t be always sweet and I’ll face my retirement with a smile. Thank you table tennis for everything that the sport has gave me.”