BACK & FORTH: China loves Japan's 'Porcelain Doll'

Aug. 14, 2008, 8:12 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) AP reporter Anita Chang is covering table tennis during the Beijing games and blogging about the rapid-fire action at Peking University Gymnasium.

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THURSDAY, Aug. 14, 2008

Some of the most exciting pingpong here has been played when the gymnasium is nearly empty.

During the early round of team competition, which is a best-of-five format, the top-ranked Chinese can beat their opponents in 45 minutes. After the team leaves the floor, so do many of the fans. But some of the best games are those bitterly fought contests that stretch past the two-hour mark.

Today, Spain and Japan's women's teams battled for nearly three hours in a crucial contest that would help decide who could advance to the next round.

The matchup for the fifth and deciding match was one of the most thrilling to watch so far in this competition. Ai Fukuhara and Galia Dvorak are both quick-attacking players, and they sped along the ends of the tables stabbing at the ball with vicious forehands and backhands.

Hopefully those two will face off again in the singles event.

Even though China and Japan have decades of bad relations between them, 19-year-old Fukuhara is one of the most popular players in China, mostly for her adorable looks that have earned her the nickname "Porcelain Doll." She carried the Japanese flag during the opening ceremony.

Her popularity also stems from the fact that she trained in northeast China for many years and learned to speak fluent Mandarin - with the region's distinctive accent. It would be similar to a French girl moving to the U.S. and speaking English as though she had lived in Boston all her life.

During matches, the 5-foot-1 Fukuhara is all business, clenching her fist in front of her chin after every point. But she's also known to be emotional, earning her the No. 2 spot on a list of "Top Ten Sports Hotties Who Love to Cry" on the popular Chinese online forum mop.com. Maria Sharapova was voted No. 1.

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WEDNESDAY, Aug. 13, 2008

Imagine watching a pingpong game in your basement, following the tiny ball as it bounces back and forth, back and forth. Now, multiply that by eight. Then add 16 of the world's best athletes, who are capable of slapping the ball to speeds of 60 mph or more.

That's Olympic table tennis. It's exhausting to watch!

Today is Day 1 of the competition. Table tennis is the national sport of China, so this will be one of the most fun and most Chinese events of the Beijing Games.

The Chinese fans at the Peking University Gymnasium are really into it. Of course they cheer for the home team with shouts of "Go China!" but they'll cheer like crazy for any exciting back and forth.

"Waah! Waah!"

The tricky part is figuring out which of the eight tables they're directing the cheers at.

The stands have been pretty full, though I was surprised at the many clumps of empty seats. When I went out for lunch, I saw about a half-dozen scalpers under a pedestrian bridge leading to the spectator's entrance. One guy had six tickets and was selling them for 5,000 yuan (about US$730) each! "Some people are thinking about it," he told me.

Something I noticed not directly related to table tennis: The official song, "Beijing Welcomes You," which is being played over and over in the city. I felt like I had truly arrived at the Beijing games when they began blasting it over the loudspeakers before the matches began.

It's one of those horribly catchy songs that stays in your head all day. It was sung by many famous singers from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. If you watch the music video, you will see how organizers of the Beijing Olympics want the world to see the city.

Check it out: http://v.youku.com/v-show/id-XMzg4MDA5MDg=.html.

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