If Zhang Yining defends her women's singles title at this Beijing Games, the 26-year-old will join the likes of her idol and table tennis legend Deng Yaping, who won two Olympic singles crowns.
Zhang Yining [sina.com]
"Of course I'm going for gold," said the Beijing native recently. "I've always wanted to take the Olympic title on home soil."
Zhang is used to the pressure. At the 2004 Athens Games, Zhang was the only Chinese paddler in the semifinals after teammates Niu Jianfeng and Wang Nan were knocked out of the previous rounds.
Under great stress to defend country's reputed dominance of the sport, Zhang thrashed Kim Kyung-ah of South Korea in the singles finals. A day earlier, Zhang partnered Wang to clinch the doubles title.
With five World Championship titles, two Olympic crowns and numerous other international victories under her belt, Zhang is the strongest paddler in the women's singles.
Many expect the singles match to be fought between Zhang and teammate Guo Yue, the defending world champion who has also been tipped as the next leader of the Chinese women's team after Zhang.
In Beijing, Zhang will team up with Wang and Guo to form the strongest squads in women's table tennis and ensure the first Olympic team title.
"All of us are very strong singles players but we need to improve our doubles skills," Zhang said.
"Wang and Guo are both left-handers and I have paired with both of them before. We have made great progress in the doubles."
Taking up the sport at 5 under the encouragement of her uncle, Zhang soon displayed great passion and talent for it. At 9, she was selected for Beijing's famed Shichahai Sports School, "the cradle of world champions". She made the national team at 14, took her first title at the 1998 Malaysia Open and has never looked back.
Zhang has led the world women's singles ranking since 2002. The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) regards her as "the most successful player, male of female, in the singles event in the history of the ITTF Pro Tour" with more than 25 titles. She is also the third woman to win a Grand Slam, following in the footsteps of compatriots Deng and Wang.
Dubbed the "poker-faced killer", Zhang is known to exasperate opponents by keeping her emotions under wraps on the court.
She seldom smiles or talks in public as well and used to be famous for her three "nevers" - never sporting long hair, never wearing skirts and never putting on makeup.
Still, she has won the hearts of millions in the country with her achievements and simplicity.
"I am not a hip person," she said.
"But to promote the sport as the ITTF encourages, I have begun to wear dress and makeup during interviews."
(China Daily August 7, 2008)