Wang Hao can't turn the tables

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

BEIJING – Four years ago, Wang Hao hung his head in shame. He'd done the unforgiveable, lost the gold medal in table tennis to a Korean. China's stranglehold on the sport was lost.

"You made a lot of Chinese have their dreams broken," his coach told him Saturday, in case Wang needed a reminder.

At the time, it was even worse. If a nation could stop dead due to sporting shame, this would have been what did it. An apoplectic Chinese media ripped him to shreds, demanding answers for his wilting under the stress.

"I was under enormous pressure," he mumbled then, an answer not nearly satisfactory for Chinese fans.

For four years Wang used that humiliation to drive him in training, to focus his pursuit of redemption. You think USA Basketball had something to prove?

So here he was now, 24 and back in the gold medal game. It was Saturday night, prime time in Asia, a packed house on the west side of Beijing. Outside, tickets were going above face value; inside, the king of Sweden was leading the cheers.

This may wind up being the most watched sporting event of these games, the table tennis championship held in this table tennis-mad nation. Giant televisions were set up across Beijing, Shanghai and other cities, for crowds to watch from the street.

One billion viewers, perhaps, they were saying.

A table tennis prodigy from Changchun, a railroad town in northeast China, Wang is famous for his attacking style, his big, clubbing shots and his at-times tabloid personal life.

He is constantly making headlines. When he was a junior player, he entered a major pro tournament in Cairo just to get some experience. He won it and became a huge star.

Away from the table, he most famously took up with a female team member back in 2004. That's prohibited in China. It got her spiked from the team, but not him.

He was too talented for China to lose. They thought he'd win the gold in Athens. They needed him.

And of course, he didn't win. The Korean did.

So he regrouped and spent the last four years building to this very moment. He was ranked No. 1 in the world since last fall. He had few weaknesses. He was in his prime. This was supposed to be Wang's moment, at last.

His opponent he could beat. It was fellow countryman Ma Lin, an aging 28-year-old from Shenyang best known for never being able to win the big one. In polite conversation he was called "the king without a crown." In more direct assessments, fans and media took time to question his mental capacity and aggressiveness.

Ma had a weak backhand in the pen grip that elite players use, so he invented this reverse backhand style that, while effective, was more than a little odd. There was just something about the guy. One time he was playing and his shoe ripped. He had to borrow one from a female coach.

He won, but in a woman's shoe?

Who could fear this guy?

"Everyone from the outside would talk about my unstable psychological state," Ma said through a translator. "Every time they talk about these short points, I felt a psychological stinging."

For Wang, this was almost as good as it could get. Yes, Ma is crafty and difficult to draw into a power game. Yes, Ma had beaten him twice this year. Still, Ma would crumble, he'd tire, he'd be no trouble in a best-of-seven-set match.

Then Ma took the first set, 11-9. Then the second by the same score. The overflow crowd here was going wild. There would be no loser for the Chinese, thanks to a bronze victory by Wang Liqin. No matter what, this would be a glorious night.

"You can only see one color national flag raised to the roof," said the coach of the Chinese team, Liu Guoliang. "This is perfect ending for Chinese national table tennis team."

Yes, no Korea to ruin things. No Sweden, just its king. On this night for China, though, Wang wanted a night for himself. Four years he waited for a chance.

Wang won the third set, 11-6

This is when Ma would fall. This was why he was that crownless king. He'd fail to capitalize. He'd retreat.

Wang paraded around his side of the table, momentum on his side.

"The Olympic Games is the games of the bravest," said Liu, the coach – and yes, all these guys seem to speak in Confucian ways.

Ma turned out the bravest. Ma didn't crumble. Ma won out, 11-7 and 11-9. At the end, when pulled into a long rally he made two lunging, impossible saves and then watched Wang slam it into the little net, Ma pulled his shirt over his head in disbelief.

Soon after he sat in his chair and wept into a towel as the fans sang the Chinese national anthem.

"For many years I won the silver medal," Ma said. "Every time I won a silver medal, I thought I was closer to the target. Because of the pain I withstood in the past, I could harvest great joy today."

Wang would withstand more pain. He said little after the game, retreating to a hallway behind the stands while Ma did a victory lap, waving the Chinese flag while crowded by photographers.

For Wang, losing to another Chinese player meant this would not be a national embarrassment. It would be a personal pain.

He didn't know what had happened.

"I believe in terms of myself and Ma our play was level," he offered. "The only thing I did not do so well, I did not control some of the critical points in a subtle way."

What else could he say? He spent most of the press conference, once again, with his head bowed. Both Ma and the coach tried to cheer him. They declared him the favorite in the 2012 London Games.

Four more years to redemption?

The coach finally spoke directly to him, in front of everyone. He reminded him of the crooked journey of Ma, of the hardships, of the mocking, of the psychological stingings, of the need for defeat to lead to victory.

"I think you have your own dream you have not yet realized," the coach said.

Wang nodded.

"You need to realize your dreams."

A billion people watching on TV probably agreed.