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Olympic Games: nothing left to chance, but can China find right answer?

Thursday 03 June

Chen Meng, Liu Shiwen and Sun Yingsha is China’s selection for the women’s team event at the forthcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, play commencing in the Metropolitan Gymnasium on Sunday 1st August.

An impressive line-up but a selection with a notable difference to those which have gone before; there is no left hander on duty.

It is the first time in a quarter of a century that in a women’s event at an Olympic Games, China has not fielded a left handed player when doubles has been on the menu.

The last time a pair comprised only of right handers appeared was in 1996 in Atlanta when, in the final, Deng Yaping and Qiao Hong accounted for the right handed Liu Wei who partnered the left handed Qiao Yunping.

Later, in 2000 in Sydney Li Ju and Wang Nan accounted for colleagues Sun Jin and Yang Ying in the gold medal contest, Wang Nan and Sun Jin being the left handers.

Fast forward to 2004 in Athens, Wang Nan partnered Zhang Yining to gold. At the semi-final stage, in a competition were pairs from the same National Olympic Committee were drawn in the same half, they accounted for Guo Yue and Niu Jianfeng, eventual bronze medallists.

Four years later in Beijing, the team event replaced the doubles, in the three editions to date, as many left handers as right handers have appeared in the Chinese selection. In three Olympic Games, only six players have appeared, the left handers being Ding Ning, Guo Yue and Wang Nan, the right handers Li Xiaoxia, Liu Shiwen and Zhang Yining.

Not a bad formula, China has never surrendered an individual match in the women’s team event at an Olympic Games!

However, following the policy that the preferred option is the left hander partnering the right hander, undoubtedly favoured by China, the situation does restrict selection options.

In 2008, Zhang Yining always played in the doubles, she was the only right hander. She partnered Guo Yue against Croatia, Austria and in the final when facing Singapore; opposing the Dominican Republic and in the penultimate round Hong Kong, she combined with Wang Nan.

Selection changes, in 2012 in London, there was just one change. In the opening round against Spain, Ding Ning partnered Li Xiaoxia; from that moment forward Guo Yue and Li Xiaoxia joined forces.

The decision was hardly surprising, Guo Yue and Li Xiaoxia had proved themselves one of the best partnerships that ever lived. They had been crowned world championships in 2009 and 2011, owned 11 ITTF World Tour titles and had twice prevailed at the Grand Finals.

Notably in both Beijing and London, the Chinese team comprised two left handers, it meant the right hander would always compete in the doubles. In Rio de Janeiro in 2016 it was different, lining up alongside Li Xiaoxia and Liu Shiwen, Ding Ning was the only left hander. She played in every doubles match and always with Liu Shiwen.

Now in Tokyo, all right handers, there are three options but there is no established pairing. The only combination that has enjoyed ITTF World Tour success is that of Chen Meng and Liu Shiwen, they won in 2015 in Chengdu and 2019 in Sapporo.

The choice lays in the hands of Li Sun, the national coach; nothing left to chance, but will he make the right answer?

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