by Simon Daish
Vladimir Samsonov overcame an injury scare to reach his first ever Men’s Singles semi-finals at an Olympic Games, beating Dimitrij Ovtcharov 4-2.
Tensions were high heading into the match, with the encounter being the subject of talk since the draw was made on August 3rd that set up the potential tie between the Belrusian and German players. Game one of the match featured nothing out of the blue as Ovtcharov made the better start of the two players; game two however, is where events turned very interesting.
Both players were fighting it out hard, when Samsonov appeared to have picked up an injury. Complaining about pain in his ribs, Samsonov was allowed an injury time out. Upon returning, Samsonov (40) took control and won the end despite looking in clear discomfort. Ovtcharov was then involved in yet another high scoring game, having set an Olympic record for that very same reason the day before, and again just as he did in his last 16 match he lost it in deuce (19-17). The German player refused to give in and won game four, but it was Samsonov who against all odds prevailed (8-11, 11-7, 19-17, 4-11, 11-2, 14-12).
Samsonov spoke following the match about his injury problem, and stated he would need to visit hospital,
“It was a really strange match; after my injury, I couldn’t play a strong forehand topspin, so I had to change something, tactically I had to play a bit slower and more passively… I’m getting closer to a medal but the players I’m going to face are very strong and I will have to see how badly injured I really am, I need to go to the hospital; I have had problems with my ribs several times for the past six years, I really hope it’s not bad” – Vladimir Samsonov.
Zhang Jike (China) is also through to the last four of the Men’s Singles competition, following his resounding 4-1 defeat of Koki Niwa.
Japan’s Niwa was actually the more confident looking player at the beginning of the tie, and the 17th seed went 0-1 ahead, rather to the amazement of Liu Guoliang (China’s Head Coach). But that was the only result to cheer about for Niwa, as Zhang kept his hopes of defending his London 2012 title alive by winning four consecutive games (5-11, 11-4, 11-7, 11-7, 11-4).
Zhang admitted after the match that he had lost concentration in the opening game, “I made some mistakes in the first game; from the second game onwards, I began to perform normally”, he added “In the first game, I was affected by the match between Dima (Dimitrij Ovtcharov) and Vladi (Vladimir Samsonov); my match was scheduled to play at 5.00 pm but their match didn’t end until 5.30 pm… I kept telling myself to stay focused, it was hard to concentrate in the first game. I did not quite get into a rhythm at the beginning of my match, luckily I found it back later.”
The result means that Zhang Jike will face Vladimir Samsonov for the chance to reach the Rio 2016 Men’s Singles final.
China’s other representative in the Men’s Singles category Ma Long, heads the top half of the semi-finals draw as the number one seed brought Quadri Aruna’s (27th) wonderful journey in the singles tournament to an end with a dominant victory (11-4, 11-2, 11-6, 11-7).
Ma looked in control of the tie from start to finish, and required less than 30 minutes to put his name into the last four, “As an African player, it’s not easy that he made it to the quarterfinals stage. He was able to defeat Chuang Chih-Yuan and Timo Boll on his way to the quarter-finals also shows he’s strong and skillful.” When asked about his opinion on where Aruna’s strengths lie, Ma gave the following answer, “His forehand and footwork are great… I think also because he doesn’t play much internationally, so we are not familiar with his playing style and characteristics. That could have surprised his opponents, and they couldn’t react and adapt in time.”
Despite the disappointment of a 4-0 defeat, Aruna (Nigeria) can look back on his singles campaign at Rio 2016 with fondness after producing dramatic upsets and capturing the fans’ support.
“Ma Long is so much better, so much more faster; everything is just perfect about Ma Long, his speed is just too much for me,” Aruna followed up by saying that his dream of seeing a Nigerian player win a gold medal in Olympic Table Tennis could turn to reality one day, “I believe that it is possible, nothing is impossible to go there.”
Jun Mizutani will be Ma Long’s opponent in the semi-finals, as the Japanese player won his encounter with Portugal’s Marcos Freitas in six ends (11-4, 9-11, 11-3, 11-8, 10-12, 11-2).
“I am very relieved It was a hard match. There were errors but I (sic) very happy I could win the match,” said Mizutani after beating Freitas: “He was being very aggressive with the forehand. I had to analyse the match and make changes in that moment.”
Kim Song I put in another marvellous performance, as the DPR Korea player saw off Yu Mengyu (Singapore) to reach the semi-finals of the Women’s Singles.
The 27th seed (Kim) had to endure three matches prior to the last eight, while Yu (9th) had played one less entering the competition a round later. However, despite having the fresher legs, Yu struggled to cope with Kim’s defensive game.
Both players won alternate ends to start the tie, but to the surprise of her opponent it was Kim Song I who was picking up the points as she pulled out a two game lead (3-1). Yu tried to force her way back into the match by taking game five, but Kim continued to defend well and astonishingly won the sixth end to put herself through to the last four (11-8, 6-11, 11-5, 11-6, 9-11, 11-6). Kim is now just one round away from equalling fellow compatriot Kim Hyang-Mi’s appearance in an Olympic Women’s Singles final (Athens 2004).
“I am very happy, I am so proud that I could make such a good performance on the biggest stage, I was able to control the match which was key for me today… It is a great honour to play here and with the world’s best players,” – Kim Song I.
China’s Ding Ning awaits Kim Song I in the semi-finals, after the world number one women’s player overpowered Han Ying (Germany).
The opening game was a fairly close affair, but almost straight after Ding took the end, her opponent (Han) started to lose belief in her game. Ding then put on a masterclass to claim the next two ends before completing the victory in game four. But despite the the comfortable looking 4-0 scoreline, Ding said following the match that her fitness levels were severely tested by Han, “Playing against defenders is very taxing on stamina, my arm is really sore right now” Ding added, “I was trying to play aggressively; my strokes against defensive players are lethal, so I was prepared for long rallies.”
Ai Fukuhara (6th) is through to the bottom half of the semi-finals draw, as the Japanese player overcame Feng Tianwei the 2nd seed from Singapore, without losing a single game. Feng entered the match, but it was Fukuhara who made it to the Women’s Singles semi-finals (14-12, 11-8, 11-7, 11-5), bettering her last eight finish obtained at London 2012: “I still feel like I’m in a dream… It’s the Olympic Games, upsets are normal.” Fukuhara continued, “Feng is much stronger than me in terms of skills, I would be happy to win half of our encounters. But Olympics is such a big match for me, I have to go all out to play her. And that is the only thought I had in the match.”
Next up for Fukuhara is the reigning Olympic Women’s Singles champion Li Xiaoxia. Seeded 3rd, Li won 4-0 for the third match in a row, but her quarter-finals victory was even more special due to the fact that it was against the 7th seed Cheng I-Ching (Chinese Taipei). Li stated that she surprised herself with the whitewash result, “I didn’t expect to win so easily against her. In her match yesterday, she was leading 3-0, and won 4-3, so I think she’s in good form in Rio, and I was ready to play full 7 games with her”.