by Simon Daish
Sweet Revenge for Ding
The reigning world champion has turned Olympic champion, after Ding Ning put her nightmares from the final in London 2012 to rest, with a sensational 4-3 victory over Li Xiaoxia in Rio de Janeiro 2016.
Li went into the final having won all four of her Rio 2016 matches in straight game whitewashes, including her semi-finals victory over Ai Fukuhara. Ding would have shared the exact same record had it not been for Kim Song I who lost 4-1 in their last four tie, stealing a consolation game in the process.
Much to the bemusement of the two finalists, proceedings didn’t go exactly according to plan as the match ball shattered about half way through the warm up. But a replacement ball was found almost straightaway and the players were soon ready to begin.
Ding made a great start to the opening game at the Riocentro – Pavilion 3 moving 9-3 in front, however, Li managed to claw herself back into the game taking five consecutive points to close the gap. All of a sudden, Ding looked under all sorts of pressure and fault served at 10-8, but she held on to go 1-0 ahead (11-9).
Game two saw Li continue to build on the form seen towards the climax of the 1st end, as the 28-year-old powered to a comfortable 5-11 win. The next end went to deuce with Ding edging over the line (14-12), but yet again Li drew the tie level by taking game four (9-11) with everything still to play for.
Both players were really going at each other with attacking end-to-end rallies, and the crowd support was growing louder by the minute. Li then took the lead in the final for the first time as she began to find her peak performance levels, to move 2-3 up after her (8-11) win in game five. However, the response from Ding was perfect as she won the sixth game (11-7) to give herself one more end to try and capture the gold medal.
The final game summed up the entire match in a nutshell: full of drama, suspense and a crackling atmosphere. Ding won the opening three points, but Li called a time-out before going on to make the scores equal at three apiece. Players then changed ends at 5-3 in Ding’s favour, and with every point she won, Ding’s roaring celebrations became more and more apparent.
Ding then felt the need to call her one and only time-out after Li had closed the difference to three points (10-7). Just as Li’s time-out had given her the necessary boost earlier in the game, Ding’s helped her achieve the ultimate goal by winning the next point to take the match (11-9, 5-11, 14-12, 9-11, 8-11, 11-7, 11-7) and etch her name into the Olympic history books as the Rio 2016 champion.
Tears followed for Ding Ning, the painful experience of four years previous was now redeemed and the new Olympic champion was in a state of understandable shock after the match.
“This is unbelievable, I can’t believe that I am Olympic champion. I have waited so long for this, it is a dream come true… I think it was difficult for my Coach, Chen Bin. I have so many titles, but I have never hugged him after my victories. Tonight, it’s all beyond words.” – Ding Ning.
Ding added that she had already moved on from the defeat to Li in the final of the last Olympic Games prior to the 2016 final, “London made me more experienced. I was able to forget the sad memory of the defeat and focus on the match. Going into the Final, I told myself just to fight for my dream.”
“Playing two defenders in a row before the match indeed had an impact on my shoulders, but I did it finally!… I called the time-out, because it was the decider, and I wanted myself to stay firm. At that last moment, it was a contest of determination,” concluded Ding.
Sadly following the result, Li Xiaoxia announced that Rio 2016 would be her last Olympic appearance, “I can’t keep up this high level training. My body is not getting any younger.” Li continued, “I tried to retire at the start of the year but they asked me back because they needed me. I will come back again if they need me but the current team is very strong so I think they will be ok.”
“This was a great opportunity for me to return to the Olympic Games,” said Li. “I had a lot of injuries at the start of the year physically and internally. In 2015 I was hospitalized for pneumonia. I had a lot of thigh troubles. For me right now, the training is too much to handle… I regret that I didn’t have more time to practise as the result might have been different. I did not have enough practice so I could not control the pace of the game. Congratulations to Ding Ning.”
Kim Stuns Fukuhara in Bronze Medal Match
DPR Korea’s Kim Song I won the Women’s Singles bronze medal on her 22nd birthday, after she beat Ai Fukuhara of Japan in emphatic style.
Entering the final as the 21st seed, Kim went into the tie as the underdog with Fukuhara sitting in 6th position. Kim was looking to win her country’s fourth Table Tennis medal and the first at an Olympic Games since 2004. Fukuhara, on the other hand, was aiming to become the first Japanese Table Tennis player to win a singles medal.
The two players had never come up against each other prior to the match, but with Kim’s solid defence and Fukuhara’s aggressive shot selection, the stage was set for an exciting encounter.
Game one saw both Kim and Fukuhara make a positive start to the match, but about half way through Kim began pulling away from her opponent and took the opening end (11-7) on a net cord. The 2nd end again saw Kim Song I catch Fukuhara out with the mixture of her defending and counter attacking play, winning by the same score seen in the previous game to move into a 2-0 lead.
Momentum was starting to sit firmly in Kim’s court, and the DPR Korea player completely controlled game three claiming five points in a row to move 9-1 up; surprisingly, no time-out was called by Fukuhara or her coach as Kim cruised to the win (11-5).
Requiring just one more end, the finish line was in sight for Kim and she didn’t show any signs of backing down as Kim won a 43 shot rally early in the game. However, Fukuhara raised her performance looking for the first attack in the rallies and it paid off as the Japanese player stole the game in deuce (12-14).
The question then being asked was whether Ai Fukuhara could build on her win in game four, but a missed smash at 7-4 down dampened her mood and Kim Song I capitalised on it, clipping the edge of the table on the final point to seal the bronze medal (11-7, 11-7, 11-5, 12- 14, 11-5). Kim became emotional following her victory and was proud of what she had achieved:
“Although I only won the bronze medal, I am very happy. I want to present this medal to our great supreme leader.” – Kim Song I.