Tie's trauma turns to gold
Alvin Sallay in Pusan
They were ready-made in China. But Tie Yana and Cheung Yuk played their hearts out for adopted home Hong Kong yesterday and created history by winning the SAR its first Asian Games gold medal in table tennis. The mixed doubles pair clawed their way back from the very edge, first trailing by three games and then saving two gold medal points, to defeat hosts South Korea 4-3 in a thrilling final.
Earlier they had dispatched the world's top pairing and outright favourites, Wang Nan and Wang Liqin of China by an identical margin in a gripping semi-final that silenced a large band of mainland fans at the Ulsan gymnasium. But the crowd got behind Hong Kong later and at the end they were shouting 'China, China' during a remarkable fightback that left opponents Ryu Seung-min and Ryu Ji-hae in a daze.
For Tie, it was her second coming. Just a week ago she was banned from the Games after her eligibility was questioned. Ordered to return home, Tie was given a last-minute reprieve after the Hong Kong Olympic Committee appealed on the grounds she had never represented China at the highest level.
The Olympic Council of Asia, having made its point that members had to stick to the three-year eligibility rule, relented and allowed Tie to stay despite her having arrived in the SAR only seven months ago. What a blessing that decision turned out to be.
'It was tough today. This is my first time representing Hong Kong at a big event like this and there was big pressure on me,' said Tie. She refused to comment on her last-minute reprieve. 'Ask the coach,' she said.
Hong Kong Olympic Committee president Timothy Fok Tsun-ting said it was time to forget the past. 'That is all behind us now. That was a little hitch. To put all those problems behind and come out and play like this shows a lot of character,' said Fok.
The 23-year-old Tie and the left-handed Cheung - a former Guangdong provincial player - combined inspirationally to carve out a landmark win for Hong Kong. First they saw off Pakistan, 3-0, in the first round. Then they saw off Japan, also 3-0. Both those early matches were best-of-five games. The semi-finals and final were in a best-of-seven games format. First up were China featuring reigning Olympic and World champion Wang Nan and Wang Linqin, who is also the current Olympic champion in the men's doubles.
Hong Kong quickly dispelled any notions they were just making up the numbers as Tie and Cheung won the first two games 11-7, 11-7. The Chinese came back strongly to take the next three games 12-14, 11-13, 8-11 and go ahead. But showing great maturity and courage, Tie and Cheung, won the next game 11-8 to level the scores at three games apiece. Then they won the decider 13-11 to stun the mainland Chinese pair.
China coach Cai Zhenhua partly blamed the defeat on an injury which Wang Nan is carrying. She injured her back earlier and apparently had still not recovered fully from it. 'She is still not at her best. But I hope she will get better for the singles and doubles,' said Cai. He might well have been ruing the day China allowed a star-in-waiting like Tie to shine in another constellation.
It was magnificent stuff. Beating the world's best does not happen every day. The pony-tailed Tie and Cheung, who turns 21 later this month, had no time to soak in the joy of that memorable victory for less than an hour later they were back in the fray, fighting for gold. Initially it seemed they were a bit overawed by finding themselves in the final. They slipped behind 3-0, including a tense first game where they failed to convert four game points. But with defeat looming, the Hong Kong duo suddenly sparked to life.
'When we were down 0-3 all I thought about was that if we could only bring our game up to our normal level then we would be OK,' said Tie. 'The pressure was on us but as long as we were patient and played together we knew we would be alright.'
'I told the players to play a bit more cautiously instead of going all out in attack. I thought we played the first three games well but after losing them we had to change tactics. Even at that stage I knew we could win,' said Hong Kong coach Chan Kong-wah.
The pep-talk worked. Hong Kong won the next three games to push the tie into a decider. Luck was also on their side as a number of net-cords went their way. But mostly, they created their own luck, especially when facing two gold medal points at 10-11 and 11-12 in the sixth game. Somehow Tie and Cheung found the nerve to hang in there.
Tie and Cheung converted their first match point to win an amazing final. The score says it all: 12-14, 5-11, 10-12, 11-8, 11-7, 14-12, 11-3. Hong Kong had risen from the dead. An experience Tie will by now be very familiar with.