New generation of women paddlers coming of age

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Coach and table tennis players of team China acknowledge the audience after winning the table tennis women's team gold medal match between China and Japan at London 2012 Olympic Games, London, Britain, Aug. 7, 2012. China won the match and claimed the gold medal of the event. [Wang Qingqin/Xinhua]

For those, who came to see a close game in table tennis women's final of the London Olympic Games on Tuesday, they may get a little disappointed. The match is intense, but by no means close.

Chinese women players dropped only two games out of 11, finished off Japan 3-0 in one and an half hour, clinching the country's 23rd Olympic gold medal in table tennis.

The achievements were made by a team of young players, two of whom, Li Xiaoxia and Ding Ning, were attending the Olympics for the first time. Li and Ding, aged 24 and 22, also won the gold and silver medals in women's singles in London.

Shi Zhihao, head coach of China's women's team, said the London Games showed that China's young table tennis players have successfully replaced the old ones.

"I am happy not only for their excellent performance, but also for the fact that they are young. I believe in the next four to eight years, Chinese players will become even more powerful," Shi said.

China's women's tablet tennis team suffered some setbacks after the retirement of a group of veteran players, such as Wang Nan and Zhang Yining. The two who won countless titles in table tennis retired after the Beijing Olympics.

Shi said many kept asking him what China should do after Wang and Zhang's retirement, especially after the 2010 Moscow World Team Championships when the Chinese women's team lost to Singapore.

"I always had the confidence that a new generation of leading players will emerge after the Olympics. Now they are here. Ding and Li are the core players (of the new generation)," Shi said.

Ding suffered an unexpected setback in the singles final and lost to Li after getting distraught with repeated service penalties and warnings from the umpire.

Shi said for him and the whole team, both Ding and Li are Olympic champions.

"Ding recovered from the singles and adjusted herself to the team event within just one day. It showed she is getting mentally strong and is able to lead the Chinese women's team," Shi said.

Despite the fact that China has won all possible medals in women's table tennis in London without many scares, Shi said the London Games is much more difficult than the Beijing Games, where it took away all three medals in women's singles, plus gold in team event.

The difficulties include the lack of experienced players and other changes the International Table Tennis Federation has made to the rules, such as the singles-first competition format and the reduce of players in the singles.

"As a matter of fact, there is almost nothing similar between the 2008 Games and 2012 Games. But our players faced all the changes and conquered them all. I'm really proud of them," Shi said.

Finishing second, the Japanese women also made history by winning Japan's first Olympic medal in table tennis. Singapore won the bronze medal after beating South Korea in three matches.

Both China and Japan had steamrolled all opponents with stunning victories since the start of the Olympic women's team table tennis tournament. The two Asian powers won all matches 3-0 before their final showdown.

The fast improvement of Japanese players, especially the young ones, over the past year has made many begin to question whether Japan will come to challenge China's dominance in the sport in the near future.

The most eye-catching player is Japan's 19-year-old Kasumi Ishikawa, who reached number 6 on the world ranking, surpassing star player Ai Fukuhara. Getting an Olympic silver medal at her Olympic debut will certainly boost Ishikawa's confidence.

"I'm casting my eye to Rio (2016 Olympic Games). In four years time I'd like to be stronger and have more power and beat the Chinese team," Ishikawa said.

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