SPORTS

Li Xiaoxia wins women's singles Olympic gold for China in table tennis; upsets Ding Ning

08/01/2012 07:50 EDT | Updated 10/01/2012 05:12 EDT
LONDON - Nobody seemed particularly happy with China's first table tennis gold medal at the London Olympics.

The gold-medal winner Li Xiaoxia called it her "dream since being a little girl," but she was mostly subdued after her upset victory over teammate Ding Ning on Wednesday.

She raced to the stands to get a Chinese flag and waved it around for a few moments, but the celebration didn't last long. Afterward, she was short with emotional words — both with Chinese and non-Chinese reporters — and kept the stern, serious face she had while playing Ding.

"Today I performed better than expected," she said. "I would like to thank my parents. They have sacrificed a lot to make my dreams come true."

Asked when she would celebrate, she said it would have to wait until after the upcoming team competition.

After that?

"I don't know. I haven't thought about it," she said.

Ding was the emotional one; talkative, upset and pleading her case.

Usually upbeat and open, Ding cried afterwards and suggested Italian referee Paola Bongelli may have cost her a gold medal. Winning golds in pingpong confers immediate celebrity status in China, and 22-year-old Ding — the pre-match favourite — knew she missed out with as many as 500 million Chinese watching at home on TV.

"I didn't do very well," she said. "I had an obstacle today, not only from the opponent but from the umpire."

That's how China's expected sweep of four gold medals in table tennis began: complaining about the officiating in a match against a teammate before a 6,000 sellout with half the fans carrying red and yellow Chinese flags.

Feng Tianwei of Singapore defeated Kasumi Ishikawa of Japan 4-0 for bronze. Feng was born in China and was recruited to play in Singapore when it became clear she would not make China's team.

The men's final is Thursday, with the semifinals coming first featuring Zhang Jike of China against Dimitrij Ovtcharov of Germany, and Wang Hao of China against Chuang Chih-Yuan of Taiwan.

The two Chinese are favoured.

China has now won 21 of 25 gold medals since the game was introduced in the 1988 Olympics and is widely expected to win three more in London.

This gold may be remembered for the wrong reasons.

Bongelli penalized Ding three points — two for an illegal serve — and one for using a towel when it was not authorized. Two of the point deductions came in the critical fourth game with Ding trailing two games to one and trying to rally.

Behind 2-6 in the fourth game, Bongelli penalized Ding for failing to toss the ball correctly before serving it. The toss is supposed to go straight up, and the Italian referee said she was tossing it at an angle. The penalty made it 2-7.

Angered, Ding went and grabbed a towel. That cost her another point, since towel breaks are allowed only every six points.

That made it 2-8. Ding lost the game 11-6, and the fifth 11-5 and it was over.

"The umpire felt her serve was thrown back too far," said Adham Sharara, the president of the International Table Tennis Federation, who put his arm around Ding to comfort her and promised she could win in four years in Rio de Janeiro.

"It is a judgment call," Sharara said. "The umpire allows some sort of tolerance. She (Ding) felt the umpire was too strict. This happens sometimes. Umpires can be very strict and the players should adapt. When two players from the same country play each other, the umpire should be more lenient. If I were the umpire, I would maybe be a little more flexible."

In truth, Li didn't need help to beat Ding, who is the defending world champion. Ding had beaten Li 6 of 10 times in official matches — and had won 6 of the last 7. Ding also beat Li in last's year world championship final.

Li had the momentum from the start, playing close to the table and attacking aggressively. She pinned down Ding and kept her from ranging wide and lashing winning shots from strange angles, as she had done reaching the final.

Li represents the new generation, a 24-year-old who follows in a long line of Olympic women gold-medal winners in what is China's national pastime. She follows sports icons Zhang Yining, who 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.

Li has been known in China as "Ms. No. 2," partly for matches she has lost to Ding including the final in last year's world championship. That's no more.

She was asked several times if the victory erased her No. 2 status.

Li's reply was muted and a throwback to a time when Chinese athletes seldom spoke to reporters.

"There is no second, everyone is first," she said.

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

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