American 16-year-old Ariel Hsing certainly impressed her friend Bill Gates — she calls him ”Uncle Bill,” — who slipped into the venue at the ExCel arena almost unnoticed to watch her play in the third round of Olympic table tennis.
With Gates sitting in the bleachers on Sunday wearing a peach sweater and blue baseball cap,Hsing nearly pulled off one of biggest upsets in Olympic table tennis history,pushing one of the gold-medal favorites in women’s singles — China’s Li Xiaoxia — to the limit before losing the best-of-7 match in six tight games — 11-4,9-11,11-6,6-11,11-8,11-9.
”Nothing short of phenomenal,” Gates said,posing for photos afterward with the young Californian. ”She is amazing.”
Gates got to know Hsing through fellow billionaire Warren Buffet,who met her at his 75th birthday party — when she was 9 _ and invited her several years later to show off her skills at shareholders meetings of Berkshire Hathaway. Asked if he’d ever won a point against Hsing,Gates replied: ”If I get any points,it’s only because she let’s me. I did get one with an illegal serve.”
Of course,she has also warmed to Buffett,calling him ”Uncle Warren.”
Buffett had said before he would not be able to attend,but chances are he was watching on television _ and cheering.
The high-pressure match before a 6,000 sellout _ many chanting U-S-A and others screaming China,China in reply _ suddenly established the San Jose,California,high school student as one of the world’s top players. Asked to rate her play,she first said ”10 out of 10.”
”I’ve never played this well in a tournament,” she added. ”Well,maybe only like 9.9. … I do think I was on fire.”
Earlier Sunday,Hsing set up her match with Li by upsetting 1983 world champion and two-time European champion Ni Xia Lian of Luxembourg 4-2.
Hsing played three strong matches in two days. That,and her friendship with Gates and Buffett,has given her instant fame and much needed publicity to table tennis in the United States,where the game in viewed mostly as rainy day recreation.
It also makes her a real contender for gold in four years in Rio de Janeiro.
”This was my third match and I just really went for it. I really wanted this match,” Hsing said of her match with Li. ”I learned I just need to go for my shots. If I just let go and play the way I should play,them I’m pretty close with her.”
Hsing,who will play later in the team event with fellow 16-year-old teammates Lily Zhang and Erica Wu,said she was inspired when she had a chance to touch a gold medal won a few hours earlier by a North Korean athlete.”I felt her gold medal,” she said. ”I felt how heavy it was in my hands. I told myself: ‘I’m so close,I’m still in the running for a gold medal.”’
U.S. women’s team coach Doru Gheorghe was also impressed.
”That proves that she can make it to the highest level internationally,” Gheorghe said,hinting she may need to travel and practice a bit more. And she may need to miss more classes at Valley Christian High School in San Jose,California,where she’ll be a senior.
Hsing got some of her talent and love for pingpong from her parents,who emigrated to the United States two decades ago. Her father Michael is from Taiwan and her mother,Xin Jiang,is from China.
China overwhelms the game and has won 20 of 24 gold medals in table tennis since it was introduced in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. China-born players are on many national team,and other Asian nations like Japan,South Korea,Singapore and Hong Kong are strong.
Sunday’s women’s third-round matches featured 16 seeded players. Of the 16,15 advanced to the fourth round. The only upset was Tie Yana of Hong Kong,who was beaten 4-2 by Elizabeta Samara of Romania. Of the 16 players advancing to the fourth round,14 are from Asia.
No. 1 seeded Ding Ning of China,the defending world champion,won easily 4-0 against Daniela Dodean of Romania. Despite barely beating Hsing,No. 2-seeded Li Xiaoxia will be a favorite to reach Wednesday’s final and probably face Ding. The men’s final is Thursday,with men’s third-round matches set for Monday.