When Ding Ning and Li Xiaoxia met in the women’s table tennis singles final, China was assured gold and the stage was set for a classic showdown.
The country winning the gold medal may have been no surprise, but Li caused a huge upset when she triumphed 4-1 over world champion Ding with an aggressive, focused performance at the ExCel.
In a fever-pitched final, Ding picked up a red card and was handed a one-point penalty for using her towel during a non-break period.
And illustrating the tension that can beset even the world’s greatest sportsmen and women, she picked up several other penalties in the match for failing to toss the ball high enough on her serve. As a consequence her play became timid and she lost focus in the face of Li’s power, and she faded towards the end of the final.
After 24 years of dominating the sport, introduced to the Gamess in 1988, Li represents the latest generation of Olympic women gold-medal winners in table tennis, China’s national pastime.
Born the same year that table tennis was admitted to the Games, Li started playing aged seven. Having developed into a fast and powerful right-handed attacker, she has been a member of the Chinese national team since 2001.
She was the 2008 World Cup winner and a substitute at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, where China swept the medals in the women’s singles and took the team gold.
But the Jiangsu Wuxi Shanhe Club player has long played second fiddle to Ding – she was known by her fans as ‘Miss Number Two’ – and most recently had to settle for a runners-up medal in the 2011 World Championships.
Despite their rivalry, she took the singles title at the Asian Games in 2010 and has one World Cup title to her name, along with several ITTF Pro Tour victories.
After her shock victory in London she said: ‘I’m very excited. This has been my dream since being 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,’ she added. ‘I think most of the people expected Ding to win, because she’s been winning well in the last few matches.
Li’s display, which she ranks as the best of her career, was all the more pleasing given she lost in the final of the World Championships to Ding in 2011.
But she said: ‘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 under the watch of the whole world and 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.’
Despite her win, the Miss Number Two tag is, unfortunately sticking; in the women’s world rankings published by the International Table Tennis Federation, Li is still in the second spot. But it surely won’t be long before she becomes Miss Number One.