LONDON, England (AFP) — Olympic champion Zhang Jike suffered a shock defeat as China survived a couple of unexpected wobbles before beating Germany 3-1 to reach the final of the men's team event yesterday.
Zhang lost in four games to Timo Boll, the former world number one, but China recovered to beat Germany 3-1 and emulate their women, who reached their final by beating South Korea 3-0 in the morning.
Few visualised such a setback for Zhang, who only four days earlier had added the singles gold medal to his world title.
Instead he found it impossible to contain the left-handed loops and hits of Boll from positions all over the table, and the German's 8-11, 11-8, 11-9, 11-8 victory ignited the match.
It put Germany and China level at 1-1, and when Boll and Bastian Steger took the first game in the doubles which followed, there was a hint of possible defeat for China, who not only hold the Olympic team title but have captured 18 out of 26 world team titles.
"For 20 or 30 minutes I was a little bit nervous," said coach Liu Guoliang.
"But I actually thought the doubles was the more important match. We have three players all of a similar standard and they have two, and we needed to get Ma Long into action against their number three."
Ma, a former world number one, comfortably wrapped up the match for China with an 11-3, 11-5, 11-7 victory over Bastian Steger, the world number 23.
However, in the opening encounter Ma had appeared to be slipping into trouble too, before a slice of luck helped him overcome Dimitrij Ovtcharov, the Olympic bronze medallist.
Ovtcharov should have reached game point at 10-9 for a two games to one lead, but somehow missed a smash against a ball which bounced up invitingly only about three feet from the net.
"Ninety-nine times out of a hundred I would have hit that for a winner," admitted Ovtcharov.
"It's very important to win those close games, and I didn't handle that today, sadly. It could have been 2-0 to us."
After that glaring error he fell away calamitously, losing 12 points in a row and the match 10-12, 11-5, 11-9, 11-1.
He would have lost all 13 in succession had not Ma generously served into the back of the table on the penultimate point.
China's recovery was aided by some atonement for Zhang Jike, who returned to form a doubles partnership with Wang Hao, the three times Olympic silver medallist.
They recovered from losing the first game against Boll and Steger, crucially to put China 2-1 up.
China will play the final against South Korea, who beat Hong Kong 3-0.
Earlier, China's head coach blasted his rivals, claiming a stronger work ethic will guarantee his players remain top of the international pile.
Shi Zhihao saw his women's team reach the Olympic final with a 3-0 win over South Korea and will tackle Japan in the title match.
China have already captured the men's and women's singles gold in London.
"China players work for three or four hours every day. Europeans only work for one, or one and a half," said Shi. "China works harder than anyone else."
His opinion was backed up by Monday's events as women's singles champion Li Xiaoxia enjoyed a 11-6, 11-6, 12-10 win over Seok Ha-Jung in the opening game against South Korea.
Seok, a top-20 player, was actually born in China and learned her table tennis alongside Li in Liaoning province.
Li's win was followed by two crushing performances.
Ding Ning, the world champion who lost the singles final to Li, clinched an 11-8, 11-7, 11-7 win against Kim Kyung-Ah.
Ding and Guo Yue, the only Chinese player remaining from the team which won the gold medal at the Beijing Games four years ago, beat Seok and Dang Ye-Seo 11-6, 11-5, 11-8, with a minimum of fuss.