by Kabir Nagpal
1996 Atlanta: Deng Yaping v Chen Jing
A rivalry going back to their early cadet playing days, China’s Deng Yaping and Chinese Taipei’s Chen Jing – formerly of China – played out one of the most memorable finals in 1996 in Atlanta.
Coming into the 1996 final, both Deng and Chen had previously won the Olympic gold medal in Barcelona 1992 and Seoul 1988 respectively. In the crunch moments it was more than just a competition between two Olympic champions, it was the decider.
Starting off strongly, Deng took a 2-0 lead with a series of strong forehands pushing Chen into a corner on more than one occasion. However, the former Olympic champion came roaring back into the match winning the next two and levelling up for a crowd-pleasing fifth game decider.
Finally, with the match going full distance, Deng showcased incredible mental strength to completely remove any doubts about her supremacy on the day, winning the match 3-2 (21–14, 21–17, 20–22, 17–21, 21–5)!
2008 Beijing: Wang Nan v Zhang Yining
Another final which involved previous stakes and head to head history between the finalists was when Wang Nan faced off against Zhang Yining in an all-China final on home turf in 2008.
Wang Nan, the legend herself, had previously won the women’s singles gold in 2000 at Sydney and four years on, Zhang Yining had recorded her own gold at Athens. Both finalists in Beijing were one-all and this medal would essentially be a personal record decider.
Zhang, after losing the first game 8-11, found herself rallying her full strength to stay in the match as the points elevated on the scoreboard. Turning the game on it’s head, she secured a difficult win (13-11) which essentially changed her approach to the remaining games.
In a noticeable improvement from her previous win in 2004, Zhang was secure and calm on the backhand – something which proved critical as she defeated Wang 4-1 (8-11, 13-11, 11-8, 11-8, 11-3).
At the end of the final, as Zhang Yining waived to the crowd in gratitude, Wang Nan waived them farewell and retired with great dignity from international table tennis.
2012 London: Ding Ning v Li Xiaoxia
China’s Li Xiaoxia and upcoming ‘Queen of Hearts’ Ding Ning battled ferociously in what would be the first of their two consecutive Olympic Games finals.
For the top seeded Ding Ning, the match was to be her crowning glory but it all went sideways on the day. Her 24-year-old compatriot and opponent, Li was led 8-2 and 2-1 overall in the fourth game when Ding was shown a red card, having earlier received warnings and lost points as a result of her serving technique.
Quite obviously shaken by the decision, Ding could not continue with the same vigour and fire as before, losing the game 6-11 in the process. From there, Li capitalised and finished off the final game to record a 4-1 (11-8, 14-12, 8-11, 11-6, 11-4) win
“I was affected by the judge. After the first one (point penalty), I tried to keep cool but could not hold it after the second. The judge was too strict. I always serve the ball like this. I have done that for the last two years and, even from the first game of the Olympics, I have served like this.” Ding Ning
2016 Rio: Ding Ning v Li Xiaoxia
In a true story of redemption, a full rematch was coordinated by the magic of the universe as Ding Ning and Li Xiaoxia met again, four years later at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games women’s singles final.
Playing at the Riocentro Pavilion 3, Ding Ning banished the ghosts of past by emerging successful in a seven-game thriller of the highest quality (11-9, 5-11, 14-12, 9-11, 8-11, 11-7, 11-7).
“London made me more experienced. I was able to forget the sad memory of the defeat and focus on the match. Going into the final, I told myself just to fight for my dream.” Ding Ning
The early advantage went to Ding who was determined to seize the initiative, on more than one occasion, she used the “banana” backhand return of service from the forehand with forearm vertical and racket circumnavigating the ball.
Having secured an 8-1 first-game lead, Ding seemed to be in full control of the match as there was little input coming into the final from Li at the time. Points started to become fast-paced, lasting no longer than necessary; then came the response from Li, who recorded nine straight points in the second game on her way to an 11-5 win.
The ‘Queen of Hearts’ was already set to hit back, taking the long route and securing the third game and a lead at 14-12. This pendulum of games kept swinging up until the highly anticipated decider; Ding having the momentum after winning the sixth game 11-7.
Ding started by taking first three points of the decider, before Li called a ‘Time Out’, which helped her level matters to 3-3. The change of ends though, played in the favour of Ding who led 5-3, then 10-5 and held five match points. Li hit back with two consecutive points. Ding, sensing a need to pause, called a smart ‘Time Out’.
It proved to be a wise move. Ding immediately won the next point and added to her title of ‘World Champion”, now “Olympic Champion” champion.
“Four years ago, I had no burden and no expectations going into the Games. Now I have more burden as there are more requirements of me as the leader. I regret that I didn’t have more time to practice as the result might have been different. I did not have enough practice so I could not control the pace of the game. Congratulations to Ding Ning.” Li Xiaoxia