China's dramatic decline

A. VINOD

A rude shock. That was what China suffered in the table tennis competitions of the 14th Asian Games. Fancied to clinch all the seven gold medals, in the same manner in which they had swept the boards in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and at last year's World championships in Osaka, the Chinese returned home disappointed with only three gold medals.

Wang Liqin, the men's gold winner.-REUTERS

The Chinese chief coach, Cai Zhenhua, himself a former world champion, could hardly contain his frustration. "The results are worse than I could ever have imagined. Our team is facing its biggest ever crisis in years. This could also produce an unfortunate mental crisis to our players, especially the younger lot," he said.

Although he did not blame the new 11-point rule or the new two-serve system, introduced for the first time in the Asian Games, Cai Zhenhua blamed himself for not implementing novel methods to match the rule changes. "The Chinese team is still using the old tactics to prepare for the competitions, particularly in the doubles. Since the new rule changes were implemented, the South Koreans have brought the doubles competition into a new era and have surpassed us by quite a distance. We have to go home, learn from what happened here and turn this bad phase into something good."

What seemed like a chain reaction as the Chinese stumbled upon hurdle after hurdle started off with the shocking loss of the Chinese women, led by World No. 1 Wang Nan, to an unheralded North Korea in the team event final. And as the days progressed, the humiliation became more acute as the Chinese failed to even figure in the final of the men's and mixed doubles and lost their hegemony over the women's doubles title, beaten by the hosts, the South Koreans.

Zhang Yining, the women's champion.-AFP

In the event, the performance of the Chinese men, who helped their country to win two golds, was far better than that of the women. One of these golds came from the team event in which they had a smooth sailing all through including in the final against South Korea.

Beginning its campaign with a 3-0 whitewash over Qatar, after receiving a walk-over from Kuwait in the preliminary league, China had a similar scoreline against both Japan in the quarterfinals and Hong Kong in the semifinals. The South Koreans, as they made it through to the final, were also unchallenged by Mongolia and North Korea before they put it across Qatar in the quarters. However, in the semifinals, the home team was taken the full distance by Chinese Taipei and it was Ryu Seung-Min's twin successes which finally helped South Korea to set up a clash with China.

However, with Ma Lin, Kong Linghui and Wang Liqin continuing to be invicibile, China retained the title with a 3-0 margin. Ma Lin had a 11-7, 9-11, 11-8, 11-4 win over Kim Taek-Soo, while Kong Linghui and Wang Liqin defeated Rye Seung-Min (7-11, 5-11, 11-9, 11-2, 11-5) and Oh Sang-Eun (11-1, 6-11, 9-11, 11-8, 12-10) respectively as the Chinese made the reverse singles redundant.

In the race for the men's singles title, the Chinese were in for an early shock following the failure of Ma Lin to even make it to the quarter-finals. But, the Chinese flag was kept flying by Wang Liqin as he struck the gold with an easy 11-4, 12-10, 13-11, 11-7 victory over Chinese Taipei's Chuang Chih Yuan in the final. The Taipei paddler made the final with an effortless 11-6, 17-15, 11-4, 11-4 win over the former world champion Kong Linghui in the semifinals after Wang had disposed of Oh Sang-Eun 11-6, 9-11, 11-8, 11-5, 11-6 in the earlier semifinal.

South Korea's silver medallists (left & right) Kim Taek-Soo and Oh Sang-Eun and gold medallists Ryu Seung-Min and Lee Chul-Seung wave bouquets on the podium.-AFP

The men's doubles final was an all-South Korean affair after Lee Chul-Seung and Ryu Seung-Min, the eventual winners, and Kim Taek-Soo and Oh Sang-Eun had stopped the Chinese pairs of Ma Li and Kong Linghui (11-6, 11-5, 5-11, 11-4, 11-8) and Wang Liqin and Yan Sen (11-8, 11-6, 12-10, 11-6) respectively in the semi-finals. The title-round clash between the two Korean pairs was a ding-dong battle before Lee Chul-Seung and Ryu Seung-Min prevailed over their compatriots 11-7, 3-11, 11-9, 5-11, 11-7, 3-11, 13-11.

The Chinese women were ruthless as usual before they choked against the North Koreans in the team final. And between themselves, the lead players Wang Nan and Zhang Yining dropped only four sets as China demolished whatever little opposition that Pakistan, Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong offered in successive rounds - all by 3-0 margins - before meeting Singapore again in the semifinals. Here again, the Chinese came through with ease with the same scoreline.

North Korea's march to the final was somewhat trickier as it found itself in trouble against Japan in the semifinals before winning the closely fought tie 3-2.

And against China, the North Koreans looked as if they were in for a thrashing as Zhang Yining easily beat Kim Hyon-Hui 11-9, 11-9, 11-5 in the opening singles of the rubber.

But thereafter, things changed dramatically as Kim Hyang-Mi produced an upset 11-7, 11-8, 11-6 victory over Wang Nan and Kim Yun-Mi came past Li Nan with a sensational 9-11, 11-9, 11-5, 11-13, 11-9 win. The North Koreans then pulled off what had looked to be impossible initially as Kim Hyon-Hui, recovering from her straight set loss to Zhang Yining, came back to stun Wang Nan (11-8, 6-11, 11-7, 13-11) for the second time the same evening. The World and Olympic champion looking unusually subdued was no longer the fearsome player that her rivals dreaded, though the injury that she had sustained in late August could be one of the reasons which led to her poor showing.

South Korea's Lee Eun-Sil and Seok Eun-Mi bagged the women's doubles crown.-AFP

For all that, Wang Nan still had a comfortable cruise to the final of the women's singles as she gained immediate revenge over Kim Hyon-Hui (11-4, 13-11, 11-5, 11-6) in the quarterfinals and then accounted for Singapore's Li Jia Wei (11-5, 11-8, 12-10, 11-8) in the semis. Zhang Yining, in contrast, had to put her best foot forward to even get past the quarter-finals as a determined Aya Umemura (Japan) took the World No. 2 to full distance with some powerful smashes.

The Japanese player, in fact, had a three-set lead before her Chinese rival clawed herself back into the match and booked a berth in the semifinal. Zhang who won the cliff-hanger at 9-11, 9-11, 5-11, 11-8, 11-9, 14-12, 11-7, however, was hardly challenged by South Korea's Ryu Ji-Hae (11-8, 11-7, 11-8, 11-6) before she crossed the semifinal hurdle.

Hong Kong's Cheung Yuk and his partner Tie Ya Na were the surprise champions in mixed doubles.-AFP

The final, as such, was a well-contested affair with Wang Nan and Zhang Yining pushing themselves to attain victory but here again after having negated the early advantage gained by her rival, the World No. 1 was unable to seal a deserving win. Zhang, the usual bridesmaid, was suddenly the bride herself as she won the lengthy tussle 11-7, 11-6, 7-11, 12-14, 11-8, 6-11, 11-9, gaining the required two match points by smashing weak returns from her illustrious team-mate and rival.

However, Zhang's dream of completing a golden double was never to materalise as she and Li Nan were beaten by the South Korean combine of Lee Eun-Sil and Seok Eun-Mi 9-11, 8-11, 11-8, 7-11, 11-8, 11-9, 12-10 in the doubles final. If this defeat was a great shock to the Chinese contingent, more was in store for the Asian behemoth in the mixed doubles where its standard-bearers, Wang Liqin and Wang Nan and Ma Lin and Li Nan were stopped at the semifinal stage itself.

And here, it was combine of Cheung Yuk and Tie Ya Na which prevailed as it gave Hong Kong its first ever Asian Games gold from the sport with a hard-fought 12-14, 5-11, 10-12, 11-8, 11-7, 14-12, 11-3 win over South Korea's Ryu Seung-Min and Ryu Ji-Hae in the final.

Wang Nan had returned home with as many as four golds from Bangkok four years ago. But this time the tally was only two silvers and two bronzes. This poor show in turn was also to reflect in China's eminently forgettable run in the tournament.