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China in position to sweep table tennis medals

Aug. 22, 2008, 5:40 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) The finals of women's table tennis will be an all-China affair, after top-ranked Zhang Yining defeated Singapore's Li Jia Wei on Friday to dispatch the only non-Chinese player still remaining in the competition.

Zhang and Wang Nan compete in the gold medal match later Friday. Wang, a veteran playing in her third Olympics, advanced after beating young teammate Guo Yue 3-11, 11-8, 4-11, 11-7, 11-3, 11-6.

"It won't be an easy match. We all know each other so well. It will definitely be exciting and it will definitely be tough," Zhang said.

It will be a showdown between two of the best athletes in table tennis - Zhang is playing for her fourth Olympic gold medal and Wang will be competing for her fifth.

Guo will play Li for the bronze, setting up the possibility of an all-China medals sweep in the event. The Chinese men and women have already won gold in the team competition.

A medals sweep is also possible in the men's singles event, after the Chinese rolled over their competition Friday in the quarterfinals to set up another semifinal round with only one foreign athlete.

Zhang seemed tired at the beginning of her match against the sixth-ranked Li, being played on the 10th day of the Olympic table tennis event. But Zhang took control gradually and Li's game slowly unraveled as she fired more and more misplaced shots. The final score was 9-11, 11-8, 12-10, 11-8, 11-5.

Li, who advanced into the semifinals after defeating No. 23 Wang Chen of the U.S., said she was pleased with her performance against her former teammate.

Li was born in China; she and Zhang attended the same sports schools between the ages of 5 and 15 and played on the Beijing city team together before she left for Singapore.

"In the semifinals, there's three Chinese players and one from Singapore. For me, it should be considered a success. No matter if I play Guo Yue or Wang Nan, it will be a difficult match," Li said.

Wang, wearing the blue China uniform, and Guo, dressed in the black China uniform, faced off in a game that featured a generational shift in the Chinese table tennis team. Wang is turning 30 later this year and preparing to retire from table tennis; Guo is 20 and playing in her first Olympics.

No coaches were on the bench for the all-China semifinal. Guo initially had the upper hand, foiling Wang with searing cross-table topspin returns. But Wang never wavered and Guo began hitting the ball too hard and sending her returns flying off the table.

"I think she started out playing well but later on she started having some problems," said Wang, who seemed relaxed throughout the match, smiling and talking to herself after losing points.

Guo wiped away tears afterward. "I lost entirely because of inexperience," she said.

The three players on the Chinese men's team head into the semis following big wins over quarterfinal opponents who could hardly keep up with the top-ranked athletes.

"It's the Great Wall," said the lone non-Chinese to advance, Sweden's Jorgen Persson. "But look at the history of the Olympics. In the five gold medals (in the men's singles event), two are Chinese, two are Korean and one is Sweden. So they are strong, but it's breakable."

Persson will play world No. 1 Wang Hao, who the Swede admitted will be hard to handle. World No. 4 Wang Liqin will play No. 2 Ma Lin, who advanced after defeating South Korea's Oh Sang Eun, 11-3, 11-5, 11-9, 12-10.

Oh has been the only player so far in the Olympic competition to cause any problems for the Chinese. The Korean took Ma to five games during the team event, but lost 3-2.

"I prepared for a lot of difficulties because his level of play is close to mine," Ma said. "He had been playing very well, from singles and teams he's only lost two games, both to me."