by Simon Daish
Mind set on gold from word “go”
Eyes were fixed on Ding Ning in the build up to the Games – seeded first for the women’s singles draw expectations surrounding the then 26-year-old were high.
There are no easy matches on the Olympic stage and Ding was presented with an uphill challenge from the start of play, however, calmness personified she opened her account in style with straight game successes against Romania’s Elizabeta Samara (11-5, 11-8, 11-5, 11-2) and Hong Kong China’s Doo Hoi Kem (11-3, 11-5, 11-4, 11-4). Two players seeded in the top 20 brushed aside, Ding added another convincing win to her record, toppling German fifth seed Han Ying (11-8, 11-5, 11-3, 11-7) to reach the last four.
One of the stars of the show in Rio, Kim Song I was next in line and the DPR Korea player put up a commendable effort but couldn’t find the answer to halt Ding (11-5, 9-11, 11-6, 11-3, 11-9). Another ticket to the Olympic final sealed, but just as was the case in London, Ding would face a very familiar foe in Li Xiaoxia.
Flashbacks to London 2012 disappointment
Colleagues in the Chinese national team and members of the trio which collected women’s team gold at London 2012, Ding and Li were well acquainted and well deserving of their mutual respect. Two of the sport’s finest competitors and a head-to-head tie which carried baggage on this very stage.
Rewind four years prior to the events in Rio and the two Chinese icons engaged in one of the fieriest contests the Olympic Games has ever seen. Ding’s five game defeat on the day was a result which would continue to gnaw away at her for years after, now an opportunity to avenge her London 2012 disappointment had arrived and she wasn’t willing to go through the pain all over again.
Reaching the Olympic summit
Two players who are more than capable of over powering their opponents, it was perhaps apt that the ball shattered in the warm-up! When the tie eventually commenced fans were treated to exciting action right from the start: down 9-3, Li clawed her way back into the opening game with five points on the bounce. Ding then went on to fault serve on a game point opportunity but held on to squeeze in front.
Li responded straight away with a commanding display in game two and from that point onward the match was nip and tuck. Both players continued to give it their all and having trailed 1-0 at one point in the tie, Li managed to gain the lead and closed to within one game of retaining the title.
A bustling atmosphere filled the Riocentro Pavilion, the crowd couldn’t take their eyes off the battle and they would be rewarded further still. Levelling the final at 3-3 Ding roared louder with every point she added to her tally and at 10-7 ahead, she was nearly over the finish line. An error from Li off the service return sealed destiny (11-9, 5-11, 14-12, 9-11, 8-11, 11-7, 11-7), Ding Ning was the 2016 Olympic women’s singles champion!
Emotional scenes followed the conclusion of the match as the scale of Ding’s achievement began to settle in:
“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.
The result also marked the end of an era as the former champion confirmed her departure from the Olympic Games:
“This was a great opportunity for me to return to the Olympic Games. I had a lot of injuries at the start of the year physically and internally. In 2015 I was hospitalized for ammonia. I had a lot of thigh troubles. For me right now, the training is too much to handle. I fulfilled my task and made the final… Congratulations to Ding Ning!” Li Xiaoxia
Standing atop the medals podium in Rio, Ding not only collected the women’s singles gold medal but also etched her name in the prestigious and exclusive list of Grand Slam champions.