After Sun’s backhand block sailed off the table at match point to deliver Chen Meng the Olympic gold medal, an elated Chen let out a loud cho-lae and immediately went over to hug coach Ma Lin. Chen then went over to give a disappointed Sun a hug, and the gold and silver medalist of the Olympic table tennis women’s singles event took a picture with the Chinese flag.
After dropping the first game, Chen was able to come back with extremely solid play as she took the match 4-2 (9-11, 11-6, 11-4, 4-11, 11-4, 11-9). After the match, Chen said, “Now that the match is finally over, I feel like I can finally laugh. “
“Now I feel normal, like I just finished a match, but during the match I was so nervous.”
“I may not have looked that nervous [compared to Sun Yingsha], but I was very nervous, because I have given so much, and she has given so much, everyone really wants the gold. But during the match, I maybe executed better than her, and I think my mentality is more experienced than her too.”
“I think Sha sha played okay today, and I played okay too. To be honest, I don’t think today’s match was pretty to watch, because outside of the first and last game, which were 11-9, the other games were not close, and in the middle we had a lot of errors and mistakes. I think either result [win or lose] of today’s match was reasonable, but in the end I think I was more experienced.”
A gracious Sun said she was satisfied with the result too: “I think I played okay today. Even though I lost, everything I did during my preparations and training, I was able to execute today. Perhaps my skills are just a bit short.”
“I played pretty aggressively the first game, but something about my rhythm just didn’t feel quite right in the next two games.”
“I really have no regrets. I played well, but Meng is better than me…If if I did have regrets, it’s that I didn’t win the finals, but really I gave it my all. I played my own style and to my level, and I have tried my best. The road ahead is still very long. I hope I will also realize my dream!”
Ultimately, the stable Chen held a slight edge on pushing quality and consistency and a small but noticeable advantage on the ever-present backhand-backhand rallies. Sun tried to disrupt things with faster and more aggressive off-the-bounce attempts at winners, but each time it felt like Chen simply took a step back, stuck her racquet up, and blocked back almost everything Sun threw at her.
Sun, who had until the finals not dropped a single game, was still able to push Chen to her limit. Although it felt like Chen was strongly favored to win starting roughly around when she won a critical long rally at 6-4 in Game 5, the outcome of the match never felt determined until Sun’s final block landed out.
Both players exchanged crisp serve and return play and backhand-to-backhand rally play as they opened up the game tied 6-6. Sun then won a very long rally after she was able to get one very quick off-the-bounce winner with her backhand that wide to Chen’s backhand. On the next point, Chen pushed deep to Sun’s backhand, Sun spun the ball up, and Chen missed the forehand counterloop to go down 8-6.
Chen closed the gap to 8-7 with a backhand opening to Sun’s elbow followed by a hard wide backhand roll to the corner. Sun was then able to land a cross-court forehand winner against a long push from Chen on the next point. Chen missed a down-the-line roll on the next backhand-backhand rally to go down 10-7.
Chen was able to save two game points with some impressive blocks, including a saved net ball to make it 10-9. On the third game point, the two players engaged in a long backhand-backhand rally, in which Chen saved a net ball before getting a net ball of her own. Sun fished the net ball up, and Chen missed the step-around kill against the high ball to give Sun the first game 11-9.
Despite pushing a serve in to the net on the second point of the game, Chen was able to open an early 3-1 lead thanks to two strong openings and a won backhand-backhand rally following a long fast serve to the elbow by Chen. However, Sun was able to win four points in a row off of two strong openings and two missed openings by Chen, giving Sun a 5-3 lead.
Chen answered with a five-point streak of her own off of quality push play and her staple backhand-backhand game to go up 8-5. Sun was able to take a point back by killing a slow roll by Chen to make it 8-6, but two quality attacks and Sun’s second missed push of the game gave Chen the next three points to take the game 11-6.
Chen built an early 6-3 lead as she maintained her slight edge over Sun on the backhand-backhand rallies and pushing consistency—Sun made two pushing errors and Chen made none. Chen missed a step-around forehand on the next point against a well-placed backhand spin from Sun to the elbow to make it 6-4. However, Chen was able to win the next five consecutive rallies to take game 3 at a comfortable score of 11-4.
Sun came into the game 4 using a new shovel serve from the forehand corner. It was quite effective, as Chen missed three of her first four serve returns, giving Sun an early 5-1 lead. Sun was able to expand that lead to 7-2 with the help of a net-ball, and a confident Sun was able to take control of the next several backhand-backhand rallies to go up 10-4. Sun rushed a winner and missed to cut it to 10-5, but Chen missed a forehand flick against a high push from Sun on the next point to give Sun the fourth game 11-5
Whatever advantage Sun had gained through the new shovel serve in game 4 seemed to completely vanish in game 5 as Chen controlled the serve return with quality short pushes and deep pushes to Sun’s backhand and elbow. Although it felt like Chen was blocking all the would-be winners that Sun was throwing at her, Sun was able to keep the score close at 6-4.
At 6-4, the two engaged in a long rally with Chen grunting hard on the last three to five shots of the game before she eventually was able to grind out the point with a pretty down-the-line backhand roll. This gave Chen Meng a 7-4 lead and all the momentum in the game as she cruised to an 11-4 victory after this point.
Chen’s hot streak continued into the first point of game 6 as she blocked back several hard loops from Sun before eventually landing a down-the-line forehand winner. Sun was able to take the next point, but missed a push and then a rushed winner to go down 3-1, prompting her to call time-out.
Chen was able to win a backhand roll-to-roll rally on the very next point to go up 4-1, but a combination of nice winners and backhand-backhand rallies from Sun narrowed the lead to 5-4. Chen then attempted to step around on a shot to the elbow twice—once for a cross-court winner and once for a down-the-line winner—but missed both, giving Sun her first lead of the game at 6-5.
However, Chen was able to regroup and level it back to 7-7. At this point, the nerves may have gotten to both players as Chen missed a push and Sun missed two half-long openings, resulting in a 9-8 advantage for Chen. On the next point, Sun hit several hard loops to Chen, but Chen was able to block everything before Sun rushed a forehand into the net, giving Chen a 10-8 advantage.
Sun saved one match point with a deep push to the elbow that Chen looped out to make it 10-9. Sun tried the same play on the next point, but this time Chen was able to execute an opening to Sun’s elbow. Sun blocked the ball out, giving Chen the game 11-9, the match 4-2, and the Olympic gold medal.
One of the more interesting side-notes in the viewership experience is seeing who spectates the game. While a crowd of Chinese athletes (table tennis and non-table tennis) including an alone and depressed Liu Shiwen came out for the Sun vs Ito semi-final, the stands were quite empty for the China vs China final. The spectators mostly consisted of Chinese coaching staff (e.g. Ma Lin, Li Sun, Liu Guoliang) and two Chinese players—Wang Yidi and Wang Manyu—sitting together. Behind Ma Lin sat an alone and very studious-looking Miu Hirano, who will likely be facing one of the Chen and Sun in the women’s team final.
Chen noted her quarter-final match against Doo Hoi Kem as a scary moment for her in the Olympics: “Because in the process, I ran into a lot of difficulties, especially in the quarter-finals…Afterwards I watched the video and I saw Ma Lin jump around, and I feel like he was even more excited than me…I am very thankful to the coaching staff. If it weren’t for their support that day, I probably would not be able to stand on the podium right now.”
More on Ma Lin, “Coach Ma was very excited, even more excited than me. Especially because I think he had a lot of pressure after losing in mixed doubles… But after winning gold, I feel like we can relax for the next couple days [until the team event].”
When asked what she was going to do after the match, Chen laughed and said, “I don’t know yet. I still have unwashed laundry…maybe admire my medal. It’s pretty heavy.”
The players will not have much time to celebrate as the team event starts in a couple days.
The women’s singles event ended up largely playing to expectations, with the heavy favorite Chen Meng taking gold, Sun Yingsha taking silver, and Mima Ito taking bronze.
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