Return to Athens: gold for Ryu Seungmin
On the very first occasion when table tennis was introduced to the Olympic Games, in Seoul in 1998, Yoo Namkyu won the men’s singles title; in 2004 in Athens for a second time, a Korean pen-holder stood on the top step of the podium.
Ryu Seungmin who started play the no.3 seed behind Wang Liqin and Ma Lin, one place ahead of Wang Hao, struck gold.
The champion elect started his path to victory with a comprehensive win over Japan's defensive ace Koji Matsushita, succeeding in four straight games; his powerful forehand proving too strong for the classic backspin play of the experienced Japanese star. It was an impressive performance and it took Ryu Seungmin into the round of the last 16 where he was to face the only player who was to extend him the full seven games distance, Chiang Peng-Lung.
It was a tough encounter with the Chinese Taipei pen-holder's forehand attacking strokes often the equal of those of Ryu Seungmin. One penholder beaten, the man from Seoul then faced another in the guise of Leung Chu Yan of Hong Kong. The latter was in splendid form having beaten the reigning European champion, Vladimir Samsonov, in seven games one round previously; similar to Ryu Seungmin the man from Hong Kong relied heavily on speed and made a good start. He won the first two games before the Korean recovered to win the next four and thus book his place in the semifinals.
The semi-final opponent was to be Jan-Ove Waldner, a match greatly anticipated by the crowd; in fact in the road outside the main entrance to the complex several people stood with placards aloft on which was etched the phrase: “We want tickets please.
Ryu Seungmin won the first game, Waldner levelled but there were to be no more Swedish miracles. The Korean won a close third and from then on he was dominant; Ryu Seungmin maintained the pressure, he was too fast, Waldner had to be positive; in so doing he made mistakes.
“He was more aggressive and faster than me; faster than I expected him to be”, said Waldner. “He deserved to win today, I moved real slowly, I made errors returning service and couldn't win three or four points in a row to establish a lead. I also lost some really decisive points.”
Ryu Seungmin's adversary in the final was to be Wang Hao, the player who until his showdown with the Korean had never lost a singles match in the Galatsi Olympic Stadium; earlier in the year he had won the men's singles title at the Greek Open on Sunday 1st February 2004 in uncompromising fashion.
Wang Hao had been very impressive en route to the final. A pen-hold grip player, his backhand topspin played across court when close to the table from the reverse side of the racket proved a match winner time and time again. Also, using the same side of the racket his return of service with a varying mixture of sidespin and topspin from the backhand caused endless problems for his adversaries; the now greatly used “banana” return of service was born.
Combine these features with outstanding footwork and a powerful forehand and there was a player against whom everyone he faced was under the most intense pressure.
The vastly experienced German, Jörg Rosskopf, succumbed in round three in five games as did the Dominican Republic’s Lin Ju, a backspin player with a strong forehand topspin stroke who had earlier beaten Ryo Yuzawa, Alexei Smirnov and JeanMichel Saive. Meanwhile, in the quarter-final the speed of Chuang Chih-Yuan was more than matched by the young Chinese star; Wang Hao was in dominant mood and at the penultimate stage never gave Wang Liqin time to settle. He looked confident, attacked quickly and was like a middle weight boxer ready for the final round. (To be continued here)