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Fantastic Four battle each other for Olympic table tennis berths
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Chinese coaches are scratching heads over lineup for the 2008 Olympic table tennis tournament.


Wang Hao, Ma Lin, Wang Liqin and Ma Long, ranked first to fourth in the world, lived up to expectations by sweeping the men's singles semifinal berths at the year ending ITTF Pro Tour Finals on Saturday.


Ma Lin will take on Ma Long with Wang Liqin facing Wang Hao Sunday afternoon.


"We haven't decided on the men's team for the Beijing Olympic Games," said the Chinese men's team head coach Liu Guoliang. "I think all these four players have a chance."


A maximum three Chinese men's players and as many women will make it to the 2008 Olympics.


A Chinese table tennis association official who asked not to be named told Xinhua that Liu and his assistants tend to give a second chance to Wang Hao, who lost the men's singles final to South Korean Ryu Seung Min in the Athens Olympics in 2004.


Wang had beaten Ryu six straight times before the Athens Games and has beaten the South Korean 10 times in a row since, including a 4-1 victory in his Pro Tour Finals opener on Thursday.


Wang Hao has been in good form in 2007, grabbing the world's top ranking from Ma Lin in October and having beaten reigning world singles champion Wang Liqin seven straight times this year.


Wang Liqin, three-time world singles winner, is a heavy favorite for an Olympic berth despite his struggling form in the second half of 2007.


"Wang Liqin lost a few matches this year because he has been trying new style and tactics," said Liu. "I believe he will find top form."


In a less certain situation are Ma Lin and Ma Long.


Ma, who lost his first world championship final to Liu Guoliang in 1999 and lost his second to Wang Liqin in 2005, suffered lousy luck once again as he squandered a huge lead to lose the 2007 championship game to Wang Liqin.


Ma desperately needs an Olympic appearance to crown his career.


Ma Long, who represents a new generation of Chinese table tennis, plays a technically solid game. But his uninspired loss to South Korean defensive player Joo Se Hyuk in the 2007 world championships has cast a long shadow.


"Laurels and world rankings don't matter much when we select the Olympic team," said Liu Guoliang. "We only send players who have reached top form to the Olympics."


On the women's side, the world's top four ranked Zhang Yining, Wang Nan, Guo Yue and Li Xiaoxia will vie for three Olympic tickets.


The 29-year-old Wang, triple Olympic gold medalist and the oldest of the four, has postponed her retirement for one more shot at the Olympic Games.


"The world top five are all Chinese and it's very difficult to choose three Olympic players," said the Chinese women's team head coach Shi Zhihao.


(Xinhua News Agency December 16, 2007)

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