Return to Athens, Paris disappointment set aside
One year earlier at the Liebherr 2003 World Championships in Paris, there had been a desperate disappointment for China’s Zhang Yining; in the final of the women’s singles event against a colleague, Wang Nan, she had fought back from three games to nil deficit only to lose in the deciding seventh.
Fast forward, one year later at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games in the Galatsi Stadium, it was a very different story.
She won the women's singles title without ever being extended the full seven games distance, beating Li Chunli, Lau Sui Fei, Tamara Boros, and Kim Kyungah to book a place in the final; in fact, she only lost two games throughout, one to Lau Sui Fei and one to Kim Kyungah, otherwise, there were no reverses.
Equally in the final, she was dominant, beating the surprise finalist Kim Hyang Mi to capture gold.
“I'm happy”, was perhaps the understatement of the tournament from Zhang Yining at the press conference following the women's singles final. “My dreams have come true, a great deal of physical and mental preparation went into winning this gold medal; our shirts drip with perspiration during training, today was the reward, I feel so lucky to be here at this very special moment.”
There was no luck. Zhang Yining was consistent throughout, her forehand her undoubted strength; when any hint of a crisis loomed, as it did against Tamara Boros in the first three games of their quarter-final encounter, she remained focused, her well-honed technique enabling her to win when the pressure intensified.
The event had been littered with surprising results. Kim Hyang Mi of North Korea, who hadn't competed in the Liebherr 2003 World Championships in Paris, nor the Liebherr World Team Championships in Doha earlier this year, reached the final.
Attacking quickly from the backhand with medium length pimples she caused her opponents a host of problems. Unseeded, she beat Maria Fazekas in the round of the last 64 before accounting for Mihaela Steff, in six games and then in the last sixteen, on table number one, away from the television cameras, the number three ranked player in the world, Niu Jianfeng.
The good form continued in the quarters. She beat a very impressive 21-year-old, Zhang Xueling of Singapore before accounting for the latter's compatriot Li J ia Wei in a match that went the full distance.
Notably, earlier Li Jia Wei had caused a major shock in beating the defending champion, Wang Nan, in five games in the quarters and when she stood level at 8-alI and three games to one ahead against Kim Hyang Mi, it seemed that a place in the final beckoned, especially after winning the third game 11-0!
“It was my mistake, the strategy was wrong, especially in the third game”, explained the North Korean coach, Ri Hyong “After that game, we adjusted the tactics and finally she won.”
It was a tough experience for the Singapore player, so close to gold or silver but at the end of the day, she could only reflect on what might have been. Moreover, it would appear that the reverse affected her in the bronze medal match against the defensive skills of Kim Kyungah.
“I was very stressed from yesterday and I didn't play as I would have liked”, said a thoughtful Li Jia Wei. “Furthermore Kim Kyungah puts a great deal of backspin on her returns and I couldn't attack as powerfully as I wanted, I'm very sad about the result.”
Kim Kyungah had enjoyed a very successful tournament, her technique a model for any aspiring defensive player to emulate; in the women's singles, she had reached the penultimate stage without alarm, her ability to attack quickly when the opportunity arose being the feature of her play that showed the most improvement.
Wenling Tan Monfardini was her first victim, the Italian being beaten in five games whilst Japan's, Ai Fukuhara, lost by the same margin in the round of the last 16 as did Hong Kong's Tie Yana in the quarters.
The difference against Zhang Yining in the semi-final was quite simply the fact that the Chinese player's forehand was too strong and too consistent, one of very few players in women's table tennis who could actually penetrate the Korean defensive wall.
Success for Zhang Yining; in Athens, the legend was born.