Defending world champion Zhang Jike and teammate Wang Hao — the silver medallist in the last two Olympics — reached the men's quarterfinals on Monday. For the women, favourites and top seeds Ding Ning and Li Xiaoxia also have themselves in positions for an eventual scrap over the gold medal.
Zhang trailed 2-3 but rallied to defeat Vladimir Samsonov of Belarus 4-3. Wang had an easier time beating Gao Ning of Singapore 4-1.
Ding defeated Jiang Huajun of Hong Kong 4-1, and No. 2 Li defeated Park Mi-young of South Korea 4-1.
Two upsets shook the men's side.
No. 3 Jun Mizutani of Japan was knocked out by 4-0 by Michael Maze of Denmark. And No. 4 Timo Boll of Germany, a player many considered the main threat to China, lost 4-1 to Adrian Crisan of Romania.
Zhang avoided narrowly avoided the same fate.
"I was prepared for a very tough match, and even to fall behind," Zhang said. "I was still a little bit nervous. Trailing 2-3 I decided to just go for it. If I lose it doesn't matter. The pressure is very high and Samsonov made me feel very uncomfortable."
A failure to win all four golds will be seen back as a flop by 1.3 billion Chinese who call the game their national pastime. The numbers say it all — China has won 20 of 24 gold since pingpong entered the Olympics in 1988.
Chinese officials have acknowledged there is stress on players, since the governing body of the sport has limited entries to two players per country in singles. Four years ago in Beijing there were three, and seven or eight can enter in the world championships.
"I think there's no pressure because the champion is going to be Chinese," Zhang said, sounding more confident than arrogant.
Wang Hao may be feeling more tension, particularly since he's been the losing finalist in the last two Olympics.
"It is very difficult for the Chinese players to play here," Samsonov said. "They have only two players playing, and they have so much pressure. It is not easy but I think now he (Zhang) will relax and play better."
The happiest player Monday was probably Maze, a bronze medallist in 2004 who has had two operations on his right knee.
"It's been two years of hell," he said. "It's good to be back."
Zhang and Ding are the new faces of the Chinese game.
The 22-year-old Ding, in particular, steps into historic space occupied by three iconic female players who have each won four Olympic gold medals.
Zhang Yining took four gold medals in the last two Olympics. Wang Nan won hers in three Olympics — 2000, 2004, 2008. And Deng Yaping started the string with four in 1992 and 1996.
"I'm not so sure I can be like the others, but I'm trying," Ding said after reaching the quarterfinals. "I know Zhang Yining very well. I train with her and I have learned so many things from her."
Ding is the new breed of Chinese athlete. She likes to talk, smiles and laughs easily and even lets reporters test a few words of Mandarin. She does the same in English.
And she seems frank.
"Of course I really want to win the gold medal," she said. "But even if I don't win the medal, I have a long career in front of me and will have more chances."
Then she added: "If I get silver I will feel a little bit disappointed."
The women's quarterfinals feature all eight players representing Asian nations, or have a China-born player representing an adopted country.
It's: Ding Ning vs. Ai Fukuhara of Japan, Feng Tianwei of Singapore against Kim Kyun-gah of South Korea, Kasumi Ishikawa of Japan facing Wang Yuegu of Singapore, and Li Jiao of the Netherland playing Li Xiaoxia of China.
The men's quarterfinals are: Zhang Jike facing Jiang Tianyi of Hong Kong, Dimitrij Ovtcharov of Germany against Michael Maze of Denmark, Adrian Crisan of Romania against Chuang Chih-Yuan of Taiwan, and Seiya Kishikawa of Japan playing Wan Hao of China.
Follow Stephen Wade at https://twitter.com/StephenWadeAP