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Table toppers look to better themselves

india Updated: Jul 27, 2008 22:30 IST
AFP
China

China's all conquering paddlers are gunning for total dominance in Beijing, planning to demolish all that come their way as they look to reassert their status as the sport's superpower.

With the Olympics being held on home soil for the first time and table tennis considered China's number one sport, national pride is at stake.

Anything less than gold in all four events will be considered, by millions of frenzied Chinese fans and also officials, a failure.

It's a burden for most countries to bear, but China, boasting of world's top four paddlers on both the men's and women's sides, have every reason to be confident.

Even a new system to be introduced at these Games — replacing men's and women's doubles with team events — has not dented their resolve.

"I feel that we can perfectly fit into the new system," said world number one Wang Hao at the recent China Open where they whitewashed the competition.

"In fact, our true enemy at the Olympics is not the new competition system but ourselves," the World Cup champion said.

China's most determined goal will be clinching gold in the men's singles — the only title they failed to win in Athens four years ago. They were stunned in the 2204 Games final when South Korean young gun Ryu Seung-Min outclassed Wang, then the youngest member of the Chinese team at 20.

It was an embarrassing defeat for China who had been aiming for a third consecutive clean sweep of gold medals, after success in Sydney and Atlanta.

Since the sport was introduced to the Olympics, in 1988, China have won all but five of the titles up for grabs.

Wang, now 24, and seemingly with nerves of steel, will be relishing the chance to make amends. The Asian champion will be backed up by Ma Lin, a four-time World Cup winner, and three-time world champion Wang Liqin.

The magical trio is considered unbeatable in the team event. They demolished arch-rivals South Korea 3-0 at this year's world team championships to send a clear warning to anyone hoping to shift the balance of power.

But China head coach Liu Guoliang has issued a note of caution, singling out European power Germany and South Korea as threats.

"Germany and South Korea are the strongest opponents of our team at the Olympics, especially at the men's singles," Liu said.

South Korea's Ryu will be hoping to defend his title, although he doesn't delude himself about the enormity of the task this time around.

"I am confident of defending my gold medal but winning an Olympic gold requires more than just confidence or your abilities," he said.

"Obviously China is the nation to beat at table tennis and I am trying to challenge them," added Ryu, ranked eighth in the world. Germany's Timo Boll, the European champion and world number seven, has recovered from a knee injury and stands in China's way while Vladimir Samsonov of Belarus is also a threat.

Samsonov, the world number five, has shown impressive form in the lead-up, beating China's formidable foot soldiers Ma Long and Chen Qi on his way to winning the Kuwait Open, and reaching the final of the Singapore Open before being thwarted by Ma.

On the women's side, China are expected to take a vice-like grip on proceedings, with world number one Zhang Yining on track to defend her Olympic crown.

Compatriot and veteran Wang Nan, the most decorated paddler in the sport's history with 20 world titles including two Sydney Olympic gold, will look to steal the limelight at her last Games.

And Guo Yue, the 19-year-old world champion, will be fired up at her second Olympics.

A host of Chinese exports representing other countries will be their biggest rivals, including Li Jiawei who heads the line-up for Singapore as the city-state look for their first ever Olympic gold.

Japan's team of pint-sized champions, led by 19-year-old prodigy Ai Fukuhara, will also challenge. AFP

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