SPORTS

It's Ding Ning vs. Li Xiaoxia - Chinese vs. Chinese - for Olympic gold table tennis

07/31/2012 04:08 EDT | Updated 09/30/2012 05:12 EDT
LONDON - One thing's for sure, China will win its seventh straight Olympic gold medal in women's singles on Wednesday.

Will it be 22-year-old Ding Ning, or her 24-year-old teammate Li Xiaoxia?

No matter the winner, it will mark the beginning of a new generation. And they'll follow some of the most famous names in Chinese sports, icons as well known in China as Barcelona star Lionel Messi among football fans.

The game is China's national pastime, and 500 million Chinese are expected to watch the gold-medal duel on TV — the first in what is expected to be a sweep of all four gold medals in the sport.

Zhang Yining took four gold medals in the last two Olympics. Wang Nan won hers in three Olympics — 2000, 2004 and 2008. And Deng Yaping started the string with four in 1992 and 1996 and was a highly visible spokesperson for Beijing's 2008 Olympics.

"I'm not going to feel pressure because the medal is already guaranteed for our team," said Li, who is known in China as "Ms. No. 2."

Ding is the defending world champion, and defending world cup champion and will try to add Olympic gold.

Ding has won six of 10 official matches against Li, and defeated her in the final last year of the world championships. Ding has won six of their last seven.

"I will not be concerned by the underdog name," Li said. "I am going to prepare myself, but when we have played it is true I have usually lost."

Ding and Li are opposites.

The 22-year Ding is left handed, out-going and likes to talk. The 24-year-old Li is more reserved and cautious, and plays from the right side. Both are tall attackers with lots of topspin and looping shots. Ding, in particular, is an acrobat who nearly drops to her knees to hit shots from strange angles.

"We are quite close," Ding said. "It's good the Chinese people will have some much interest in us. But I will just try to concentrate. Anyway, the outcome is unpredictable."

China has owned table tennis, almost from the second it was introduced in the 1988 Olympics. Of the 24 gold medals, China has won 20.

China swept all the singles medals four years ago in Beijing in men's and women's singles. This prompted the ITTF — the governing body of table tennis — to limit entries to two in singles, which guarantees a non-Chinese player will a medal in each singles.

Kasumi Ishikawa of Japan and Feng Tianwei of Singapore will play on Wednesday for bronze.

Japan is a table tennis power, but has never won any Olympic medal in the sport.

Feng was born in China. Like many China-born players, she sensed too much competition and emigrated to Singapore.

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Follow Stephen Wade at https://twitter.com/StephenWadeAP

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