A new week, another Olympic event. But first some excitement. All week I’d been constantly refreshing, hammering, the London 2012 ticketing website, desperately trying to buy athletics tickets. Something. Anything. By Monday, I’d almost given up, my obsessive checking hadn’t worked. But at 10am some tickets appeared (this had happened before, but to no avail), I added them to my basket and requested them. For once, the overly cached awful website didn’t fail at that step, at the “requesting…” spinning page it succeeded too, and on the “reserving…” step it also worked. Adrenaline pumping, I had 1m30s to buy these tickets, the fastest online purchase I’ve ever made. Success! Two athletics tickets on Wednesday night, including Usain Bolt in the 200m semi finals. We’d be inside the stadium, we’d see people winning medals and we’d see the Olympic torch. Awesome!
Back to today’s event though. And that evening I met my mum in London and travelled to the Excel Arena for some men’s table tennis action, specifically the team semi-final. A sport I was desperate to see in the original ballot, I’d purchased the more expensive seats, we couldn’t have been much closer to the table.
Outside the arena an exhibition showcased the history of Table Tennis, a glass enclosure held paddles from an early Olympic games, and on large boards the sport was explained. A big screen showed highlights of the earlier semi final.
Inside we found our seats, next to the friends and family area, beneath the media folk. Today’s match, South Korea vs. Hong Kong China. Korea were the favourites, inevitably the majority were rooting for Hong Kong China. Table Tennis team is best of five matches, with a team of three. Two singles matches, a doubles match and then another two singles. Each match is the best of five games, first to eleven.
The first match, Peng Tang (HKG) vs. Seungmin Ryu (KOR), was incredibly close. Serve, ping, pong, top spin smash, smashed return, point won. Every now and then the rally grew insane, both players edging away from the table, getting further and further back, smashing the small plastic white ball at each other, with incredible skill and accuracy. “Oooh”, “aaah”, the crowd gasped, as each player would do something extraordinary to return.
This match went to five games, 11-7, 4-11, 6-11, 11-8. The final game stood poised at 9-9, the two best players poised to take their team 1-0 up. Serve, smash, and Korea were 10-9 up. Then a long rally, bam, saved, bam, saved, smash, return, then a delicate return shot from Korea, which just clips the net and drops the right side, match won, and Seungmin Ryu roars in celebration.
A short break, a warm up and on to the second match. Tianyi Jiang (HKG) vs Saehyuk Joo (KOR). This now became about one man, Saehyuk Joo, no matter how hard Jiang tried, Joo combatted perfectly. This player was clearly on another level, an enthralling defensive style. His tactic was simply to return every shot with unimaginable back spin and accuracy, taking the power from the ball. Jiang tried harder and harder to win points, smash following smash, but calm and collected, Joo stooped low to return a deft, perfectly poised shot, floating the ball back, until, inevitably Jiang made a mistake. Korea took this match easily, 11-3, 11-6, 11-8.
And to the doubles. With Korea 2-0 up the support for Hong Kong China grew, and huge roars for “HONG KONG” ran out amongst the crowd. Every point won was met with loud cheers. The doubles match was frenetic, players alternating shots, serving cross-table, once more with incredible rallies. Hong Kong took the first match, 11-5, but lost the following two, 6-11, 2-11. In the fourth, Hong Kong pulled it back with a nervy edgy 13-11 victory. But it wasn’t enough, and Korea closed out the match 11-9, winning the bout 3-0 overall.
Mum and I made the journey home, taking the DLR back to Bank, with a genuinely funny driver and receptive carriage of cheering international sports fans. At one point the train stopped, and the lights went out. “Wasn’t me”, the driver announced. Then the subdued crappy train back to Brighton, another late night.