“I expect that we can have an encounter in Rio.” These were the words of world No. 1 Ma Long in an interview before the Games discussing his desire to meet Zhang Jike in the gold medal match in Rio.
And what an encounter it was.
Ma shocked the table tennis world, sweeping his countryman and reigning Olympic champion Zhang to claim gold. Many predicted that Ma would beat Zhang to win gold, but few would have wagered it would happen in straight sets.
It also served as a form of revenge for Ma, who was omitted from the Chinese singles delegation in London in favor of Zhang.
The first game of the match offered little indication of what was to come. Tied on five different occasions, Ma and Zhang each had game points with a chance to take an early lead. But it was Ma who answered the call to the tune of a 14-12 win.
The narrow win seemed to galvanize Ma. He took game 2 easily at 11-5, then used a 6-0 to break open a tight game 3.
Down 3-0 and demoralized, Zhang offered little resistance as Ma edged ever closer the gold medal. With six championship points at 10-4, Ma ripped a forehand that Zhang couldn’t get a paddle on.
Just like that, the man born in Ashan was an Olympic champion. He threw his paddle in the air. He formed his hands into a heart and pointed to the crowd. And then he found his compatriot, shook his hand, and the pair walked together with a Chinese flag draped between them, a symbol of friendship and unity.
Table tennis action gets back underway tomorrow with the first round of the team competition, where Ma and Zhang will look to defend their London gold. You can stream all those matches live on NBCOlympics.com.
Table tennis has been an Olympic sport since the 1988 Summer Olympics. In the 28 years that followed, Japan watched China, South Korea, and even North Korea take home medals in singles while their nation’s trophy cabinet lay bare.
It is barren no longer.
Jun Mizutani defeated Belarus’s Vladimir Samsonov four games to one to claim the bronze medal, vanquishing the demons of his disappointing London Games.
Mizutani jumped out to an early lead in game 1 to take the opener 11-4. He won the second game in a back-and-forth tussle. Samsonov was up 4-1 early before Mizutani rallied back to take a 7-5 lead. After the Belarusian won four straight to go up 9-7, Mizutani responded with a 4-0 run of his own to take a commanding 2-0 lead.
Samsonov won game 3 easily, and looked set to even the score in game 4. The Belarusian served thrice for game point, and thrice Mizutani denied him. Facing his first game point at 13-12, the man from Japan made no mistake, his backhand lob clipping the table to take the game.
In the fifth, Mizutani wasted no time contemplating the weight of the occasion, taking an early 7-3 lead and never looking back. When Samsonov’s return nestled in the net, Jun Mizutani was an Olympic medalist.
The singles action concludes tonight with the men’s gold medal match, streaming live on NBCOlympics.com.
After an instant-classic in the women’s final Wednesday night, Thursday’s men’s singles gold medal match will be another all-Chinese affair after Zhang Jike overcame Belarus’s Vladimir Samsonov in five games.
Zhang will now have a chance to defend his London gold medal when he takes on his countryman Ma Long at 8:30 ET PM.
The match was certainly closer than the scoreboard would indicate. Zhang took a tight game 1 11-9 after throwing away a five point lead early in the bout. Game 2 was even more tightly contested; Zhang fought off two game points from Samsonov before ripping a vicious forehand to take a 2-0 lead.
Game 3 marked the high water mark of the contest. Zhang had to make his most impressive comeback yet as he won five straight points at 10-7 down to take the game 12-10, staking himself to an intimidating 3-0 lead.
Samsonov would rally back to avoid the shutout with an 11-6 win in the fourth, but Zhang would not be denied. The two seed won six of the first seven points of the game and held on late to take the game 11-9 and the match four games to one.
Zhang now can look ahead to this evening’s gold medal match where he faces teammate Ma Long. Zhang was the victor when the two met in this year’s Kuwait Open, but it was Ma who came out on top when the pair met in the semifinals of the Asian Olympic Qualification Tournament. The rubber match in Rio will have the highest stakes of them all.
The men’s singles tournament resumes with the bronze medal match at 7:30 PM ET, with the final to immediately follow. You can stream both matches live on NBCOlympics.com.
Ma Long was excluded from the Chinese table tennis contingent in Beijing, despite having beaten two members of the delegation in the build up to those Games. He was kept out of London again as teammate Zhang Jike got the nod instead.
Now at his first Olympics in Rio, Ma is not throwing away his shot.
The world No. 1 looked for all the world to already have one hand on the gold medal though three games, but had to withstand a ferocious comeback from Japan’s Jun Mizutani to eventually take the contest in six sets Thursday morning in the first men’s table tennis semifinal.
Ma, who won his first World Championship in 2015, now has the chance to claim Olympic gold this evening. He’ll face the winner of the morning’s other semifinal between his countryman Zhang Jike and Belarus’s Vladimir Samsonov.
The top seed took each of the first three games of the match at 11-5, using a commanding late run in every set to take a commanding 3-0 lead.
Mizutani would get on the board in game 4, winning five of the first six points to keep Ma at arm’s length. The man from Japan then came back from four points down in a thrilling game five to put all the pressure back on Ma.
But it was Ma who would have the last laugh, leaning on his powerful forehand to take the match with an 11-5 win to book his place in the semifinals.
The action continues this morning from the Riocentro with the second men’s singles semifinal streaming live on NBCOlympics.com.