On the morning of Monday 30th July 2012, the talk of the town was Ariel Hsing, on the previous evening, 16 years old at the time, she had given China’s Li Xiaoxia a torrid time in their third round meeting in the Women’s Singles event at the London Olympic Games.
In fact, the Killerspin player, came as near as anyone to beating the eventual gold medallist.
No other player extracted more than one game from the champion elect; Ariel Hsing extracted two and at one stage stood level at two games all.
It was a relieved Li Xiaoxia who departed the arena; it was a relieved group of Chinese coaches, officials and supporters who also departed the ExCeL Exhibition Centre on that English summer evening.
It was a performance that suddenly brought Ariel Hsing to greater attention than previously possessed. It endorsed the fact that she had a strong claim to be considered the First Lady of the United States; perhaps not in the White House but certainly in the home of table tennis.
In Guangzhou, at the forthcoming World Team Classic to be staged from Thursday 28th to Sunday 31st March, Ariel Hsing is the First Lady of the United States; she leads the American Team, lining up alongside 23 year old Judy Hugh and 16 year old Erica Wu.
They are the ninth seeded team in the competition and their goal is to reach the quarter-finals; to upset the seeding in the first stage of the tournament.
A total of 12 teams with three teams drawn into each group, the teams finishing in first and second places in each group advance to the last eight; whatever the draw, the United States will be the lowest seeded team in each group.
However, the efforts of Ariel Hsing at the London Olympic Games, suggests the last eight goal is very much within the sights of the Americans.
Undoubtedly the memorable match was her contest against Li Xiaoxia; it rather overshadowed two earlier fine performances in London’s ExCeL Exhibition Centre.
In her opening contest she beat the more experienced Mexican, Yadira Silva in four straight games before dispatching the most experienced of all, Luxembourg’s Ni Xialian.
Accepted in London, Ni Xialian was past her best being 49 years of age but her close-to-the-table pen-hold grip style of play is conducive to longevity and it is style that Ariel Hsing was no doubt facing for the very first time in her career.
Furthermore, the big stage was nothing new for Ni Xialian. She had played in both the Sydney and Beijing Olympic Games and had World titles to her credit; world titles 12 years before Ariel Hsing was born!
Ariel Hsing was born in 1995, at the World Championships staged in Tokyo in 1983, Ni Xialian won the Mixed Doubles title with Guo Yuehua and alongside Cao Yanhua, Geng Lijuan and Tong Ling, secured Women’s Team gold.
One has to return to the era not of Ariel Hsing’s parents or grandparents but to her great grandparents to find a time when American women were challenging those who possessed World titles.
In the years immediately prior to the Second World War and immediately after, the United States was at the forefront.
Ruth Aarons was crowned Women’s Singles World champion in Prague in 1936 and the following year in Baden; also in 1936 they were the silver medallists in the Women’s Team event and gold medallists in 1937. The war years halted international sport but when hostilities were over the success continued, in 1947 in Paris, it was bronze in the Women’s Team competition; in 1949 in Sweden it was gold.
Now over 65 years later the sights are different but there is an exciting generation of players emerging from the United States and surely Ariel Hsing underlined a point in London last July; if you can still be there in the latter stages of a game, whoever your opponent, you have a chance.
It may sound an obvious comment but it is especially relevant against the stars of China. They are superb players, outstanding, they are the best but even the best can feel the pressure.
Against Ariel Hsing in London’s ExCeL Exhibition Centre, Li Xiaoxia felt the pressure, to her credit she coped but that has not always been the situation; as Li Xiaoxia fought against Ariel Hsing my mind went back the to 2004, the Galatsi Stadium at the Athens Olympic Games.
On that occasion, Niu Jianfeng suffered, soon after so did the reigning Olympic champion; in the second round of the Women’s Singles event, Niu Jianfeng recovered from a three games to one deficit to beat Germany’s Elke Schall, before losing in the third round in four straight games in opposition to DPR Korea’s Kim Hyang Mi.
One round later, in the quarter-finals, Wang Nan, the Sydney 2000 champion, was beaten by Li Jiawei. Also, who will ever forget the Men’s Singles final when the occasion proved too great for Wang Hao.
Playing the Chinese stars, if they gain an early lead, confidence grows as with all players but they have an added advantage; their technical level is so high they go from strength to strength in rapid fire time.
No doubt that high technical level helps a great deal when it’s close but when the pressure mounts, even the super human are human.
In Guangzhou, the task for the United States is to apply the pressure.
They have a young team, a team that is learning and learning quickly, a team that is capable, capable of causing an upset, Ariel Hsing, the first lady has set the example.