World number one Ma Long of China earned a spot at the Rio Olympics after eliminating Fan Zhendong at the Asian qualifiers in Hong Kong Thursday in a dramatic showdown between the compatriots.
The 27-year-old star overpowered Fan four games to one in the finals, bringing him one step closer to his first Olympic medal for men’s singles.
Ma was overlooked for the London 2012 singles event despite being considered one of the best table tennis players in the world at the time.
But he is now bouncing off a stellar 2015 during which he bagged the World Championship, World Cup and World Tour grand finals titles.
“The Olympics is different from the other competitions so mentally I need to work harder,” he told AFP after the match.
He said the four-yearly event was the most important in his sporting career.
Ma is among 10 table tennis players — five men and five women — to earn a spot at Rio 2016 after the first stage of the Asia qualifiers in Hong Kong, which saw one male and one female player selected from East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia and Middle Asia.
A Chinese quartet consisting of the world’s top four men competed, but number three Xu Xin was stunned by Taiwan’s unheralded Chuang Chih-yuan in the quarter finals while reigning Olympic singles champion Zhang Jike, ranked fourth in the globe, was beaten by Ma in the semis 4-2.
Another six men’s and six women’s singles places will be up for grabs in the second stage of the qualifying event kicking off Friday and open to the remaining players.
Xu told AFP the Chinese team would not be competing in the second stage but are hopeful for their share of further Olympic spots to be allocated in May based on world rankings.
– ‘Perfect end’ –
Among the women, it was China’s reigning Olympic singles champion Li Xiaoxia who came out on top Thursday, triumphing 4-0 over Japan’s Kasumi Ishikawa.
At number five Li is one spot behind Ishiwaka in the world rankings, but the 28-year-old showed no mercy in the final match.
She is now set to defend her title at the upcoming Rio Games, which she said would likely be “the perfect end” to her table tennis career.
Earlier in the qualifiers there were some shock upsets among the female players, with 19-year-old Hong Konger Doo Hoi Kem defeating China’s world number one Liu Shiwen in a nail-biting match that ended 4-2 and marked Doo’s first ever victory over a Chinese player.
She went on to knock out South Korea’s feisty Jeon Jihee but was beaten by Li in the semi-finals.
Another teenager, Japanese Ito Mima, aged just 15, overpowered world number two Ding Ning, also from China, but had to bow out in a semi-final contest with Ishiwaka due to injury.
In Southeast Asia, Singapore dominated the entire first stage, with Feng Tianwei, ranked seventh globally, nabbing an Olympic place among the women and fellow Singaporean Chen Feng being selected for the men.
In the South Asia group, only India was involved, with Soumyajit Ghosh selected for the men’s Olympic singles and Manika Batra for the women’s.
Qatar’s Li Ping and Lebanon’s Mariana Sahakian were respectively successful in the men’s and women’s qualifiers for West Asia, while in Middle Asia it was Nima Alamian and Neda Shahsavari — both from Iran.
Table tennis has been part of the Olympics since the 1988 Seoul Games but has been dominated by China.
The Asian giant sealed its second straight clean sweep of all four table tennis gold medals for the second Games running in London 2012.