China’s Wang Looks To Make Up for Failure at Athens

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The New York Sun

When American sports fans think of athletes who choke under pressure, they might remember a missed field goal by Scott Norwood or botched ground ball by Bill Buckner.

Chinese sports fans think of Wang Hao.

Wang is the no. 1 ranked player in the world in table tennis, which is one of the most popular sports in China and a sport the Chinese have traditionally dominated, winning 18 of the 22 gold medals awarded since it became an Olympic sport. But Wang’s loss to South Korea’s Ryu Seung Min in the 2004 gold medal match was one of the four gold medals China didn’t win. It was a major upset, and it was a match in which Wang, quite simply, choked.

So as the men’s table tennis tournament begins in Beijing, there may be no athlete under as much pressure as Wang. Ryu and Wang are likely to meet again in Friday’s quarterfinals, and if Wang loses, he risks being forever saddled with the choker label — even though he already led China to a gold medal in the team competition on Monday, and even though he has gone 11-0 against Ryu since that 2004 Olympic gold medal match.

Because of the way they’ve been slotted in the men’s tournament, Wang and Ryu can’t both win a medal — one of them will be out after the quarterfinals. If they have a quarterfinal rematch and Ryu wins again, the 24-year-old Wang would have to wait until 2012 to have a chance at winning an individual gold and losing the choker label. When your sport’s biggest moments come just once every four years, you don’t get many chances at redemption.

If Wang advances past the quarterfinals and on to the gold medal match, he is likely to take on one of his countrymen, either the no. 2 player, Ma Lin, or the no. 3 player, Wang Liqin. A China versus China final would be, for the host country, one of the biggest events of the Beijing Games.

To American sports fans, the very idea of table tennis as a major sporting event can sound silly, but Olympic table tennis looks nothing like a leisurely ping-pong game. In the Olympics, the ball can travel as fast as 60 miles an hour, and the players usually stand well behind the table.

The sport is also quite different in the Olympics because of the way the players hold the rackets (and the fact that they call them rackets, not paddles). Most top players use what is known as the penhold grip, rather than the shakehand grip that is the way a recreational player would naturally pick up a racket. Wang, in particular, combines the penhold grip with a stroke known as the reverse backhand, lending him a unique style that gives opponents fits.

At least, it usually gives opponents fits. The exception came when Ryu soundly defeated Wang, four games to two, in the 2004 gold medal match in Athens. Wang knew that loss would stick with him for four years. This week he can finally put it behind him.

Mr. Smith is a writer for

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