Dignity in defeat
Gao and Li put up gallant fight against Chinese giants to earn creditable doubles bronze
For a while, a wild upset was on the cards.
The Singapore pair of Gao Ning and Li Hu drew first blood against the overwhelming favourites in the semi-finals of the Asian Games men's doubles competition at the Suwon Gymnasium in Incheon yesterday.
Alas, it was not to be.
The table tennis goliath did as goliath does, flexed its muscles, turned on the power, and forced the underdogs into submission.
Gao and Li were eventually beaten 4-1 (11-13, 11-8, 11-5, 11-8, 11-9) by the two top-ranked singles players in the world of table tennis - China's Xu Xin and Fan Zhendong.
But they weren't bullied.
They will return home with a bronze medal - the Republic's first-ever in this event at the Asian Games - and new-found confidence.
Said coach Yang Chuanning: "The men won their first Asian Games medal, and this is one of their best performances so far.
"We did well against China. If we had won the second game, things would have gone better with two wins from the start. We would have had a chance."
In the face of the undisputed lords of the sport, it is almost preposterous to think they stand a chance.
After all, China have won 111 of all 336 table tennis medals in the history of the Asiad.
But, against all odds, Gao and Li seized the first set yesterday.
Winning the opener 13-11, the Singapore pair even led 8-5 in the second but couldn't close it out, eventually losing 8-11.
The Chinese stepped on the gas and won the next three games 11-5, 11-8, 11-9.
Gao said: "We won the first set, so it is a pity that we lost in the end. If we had gone 2-0 up, we would have had a better chance against China.
"Our performance was not bad. We might have lost, but there was dignity in defeat, not disgrace."
"(In the match) China are better, in terms of technique and ability, but this match felt special because it's the Asian Games," said Li.
"We played well because we've been training hard together for three to four years."
Coach Yang wants his charges to build on their good showing in Incheon.
He said: "The performances of our young players - Li Hu and Chen Feng - at this Asian Games was outstanding. Overall, our performances have been satisfying.
"When we go back, we'll work on developing our young local players, and spend more time and effort on them.
"First, we will have more training, and we will work on preventing injury and illness, especially in our older players, and get them to recover as soon as possible."
But key to the future of the sport is youth, he added.
"The most important thing is to nurture our young players - and we have seen hope," said Yang.
With two bronze medals secured in the men's doubles and women's team event, Singapore are assured of another bronze in the women's singles.
That makes three bronzes from the Asiad, in the men's doubles, women's team and women's singles, with a chance to turn that last bronze into a silver or even gold.
Feng Tianwei, the last Singaporean athlete to fly the flag at the Asiad before it comes to a close in the evening, will face China's Zhu Yuling in the semi-finals at 10 this morning.