by Ian Marshall, ITTF Publications Editor
En route to the penultimate round 28 year old Zhang Jike had enjoyed a relatively smooth journey, for 40 years of age Vladimir Samsonov he had been required to survive six games duels on three occasions.
In round three he had been tested by Sweden’s Kristian Karlsson (9-11, 11-7, 8-11, 11-5, 11-7, 11-8), one round later by Great Britain’s Paul Drinkhall (11-9, 11-6, 11-8, 15-17, 7-11, 11-8) before overcoming Dimitrij Ovtcharov in a dramatic quarter-final affair (8-11, 11-7, 19-17, 4-11, 11-2, 14-12).
The latter duel had taken its toll, medical help being needed as Vladimir Samsonov experienced pains in his ribs; however, a hospital check found there was no major damage and although a little sore Vladimir Samsonov was more than fit to play.
Under pressure, both had their own reasons to feel the importance of the duel; Zhang Jike because he is the higher seeded player and defending champion, Vladimir Samsonov because is this last chance to win the elusive medal?
The early stages of the contest never really ignited; both aware of the value of a good start. Zhang Jike won the first game; in the second, leading 7-6 Vladimir Samsonov called “Time Out”. It was not bring the effect Belarus desired, after saving game points, Zhang Jike prevailed.
Tension; that emotion could be seen in the reactions of Liu Guoliang, the head coach of the Chinese Men’s Team sitting courtside advising Zhang Jike.
Usually he remains unmoved throughout a contest, he was on his feet like a jack-in-the-box when Zhang Jike won a point.
I think I played pretty well in the semi-final. It was a close match but I think I’m faster and had an advantage. Tonight I hope that I can play better and win; one more match to play. The previous matches are fought for my country; the final will be for myself. Zhang Jike
A chance had been missed by Vladimir Samsonov in the second game, or more precisely Zhang Jike had responded when crisis loomed.
In the third game, Vladimir Samsonov had three chances, he led 10-7; again, living on the knife-edge, Zhang Jike responded.
Chances begging; in the fourth game the chances were taken; seemingly that ignited Zhang Jike. He established a 6-2 lead in the fifth; Liu Guoliang called “Time Out”, no doubt as a precaution to keep his charge on track.
Leapt in Joy
The words of wisdom seemingly worked, Vladimir Samsonov fought but Zhang Jike maintained his lead to secure a minimal two point success for the fourth time.
Zhang Jike walked quietly to shake hands; Liu Guoliang jumped for joy; tension released.
Of course I am disappointed; it was very close in the second and third games. I had my chances. In the last game I was waiting for Zhang to make a mistake but he did not. I’m going to relax now and prepare for the bronze medal match. I hope to win tonight. Vladimir Samsonov
A place was duly secured; for the first time in what is now six Olympic Games, starting in Atlanta in 1996, Vladimir Samsonov had experienced a straight games defeat.
On all other occasions he had bowed out in full distance duels; however, in Rio de Janeiro a medal was an option; that had not been the situation in Atlanta, Sydney, Athens, Beijing or London.
The bronze medal match against Japan’s Jun Mizutani awaits; for Zhang Jike he faces colleague Ma Long for the biggest prize of all, Olympic Games gold.