With the opening ceremonies less than 24 hours away, we will conclude our Olympic previews here at TSHQ with a preview of what is undeniably the coolest professional sport at the Games. That’s right, it’s ping pong.
Okay, so the official name is table tennis because, well, it’s tennis that you play on a table. Ping pong is just an onomatopoeia that sounds really cool and is what everyone but the professionals call it. But aside from having an awesome name, ping pong is just plain fun and ridiculous to watch. Don’t believe me? Check out some of these clips on Youtube, here and here. It is a sport built on footwork and rewards offense, but it is always the defensive plays that leave you amazed.
Just a bit on how the game is played. There are two tournaments-a singles tournament and a team tournament. And, of course, there are men’s and women’s tournaments in each of these. Each match is divided into games to 11 (win by 2), with the server alternating after two serves. In singles matches, they play best-of-7. Team matches are a bit more complicated. A team is made up of three players. There are five total matches. 2 singles matches, then a doubles match, then two more singles matches if necessary. No player on each team may play more than 2 matches (unless the team has only 2 players because one got hurt or disqualified). In team matches, though, each individual match is only best-of-5 games, not best-of-7.
The team tournament is a normal, straight-up, knockout draw with no byes. The singles draws are a little more complicated. The top 16 seeds get byes until the round of 32, while the next 16 seeds get byes into the round of 64. The tournament theoretically has a 64-player draw, but in reality there is a bit more than that and a preliminary round is held to whittle the field down to 64. The round of 64 is officially the first round, even though several players will have already played matches before that.
Table tennis debuted at the Olympics in 1988. Originally, there were singles and doubles tournaments. However, in 2008 the doubles was replaced with the team tournament. China has had a stranglehold on this sport since its inception. They have only failed to win 4 of the 24 gold medals in this sport’s Olympic history, with 3 of those tournaments won by South Korea. The only European (or non-Asian) to win the gold here was Jan-Ove Waldner of Sweden in 1992. China has never failed to win the women’s singles tournament or the men’s doubles/team tournament. China took all 6 medals in the singles tournaments in 2008, but the rules now limit each country to two competitors (they were allowed 3 in 2008) so that feat will not be repeated.
Timo Boll is viewed as Europe’s great hope to break that stranglehold. Boll is World #7 on the men’s side but is widely recognized as being on a caliber of taking down the world’s best. Boll is the #4 seed in this tournament because 3 out of the top 6 cannot play as they are all from the same country as the top 2 (I’ll let you guess what country that is). However, keep an eye on another German man. Dimitrij Ovtcharov is not as consistent as Boll, but he has defeated each of the top 4 seeds here in the past. If he can play at his peak, he can definitely be a spoiler. Zhang Jike of China is the #1 seed, reigning World Champion, and slight overall favorite to win the men’s tournament. On the women’s side, China’s Ding Ning and Li Xiaoxia are prohibitive favorites to take the top 2 medals.
On the team side, it doesn’t look like anyone can beat the Chinese women, though the Singapore team is one to watch out for. Singapore has a relatively easy draw and their probable semifinal against Japan looks like it will be a good one. The American women’s team (the men didn’t qualify) drew Japan in the first round and would be a great story in the US if they can pull off that upset, but that is almost definitely too tough a task. On the men’s side, the best chance to knock out China will actually occur in the semifinals, I think. That is where they could meet the Germans, whose team of Boll and Ovtcharov (and Bastian Steger) has a chance of finding lightning in a bottle and shocking the Chinese.
Make sure to check out all of our continuing Olympic previews and our coverage during the Games themselves here at TSHQ by following this link.