BEIJING — Ai Fukuhara got off to a winning start to her singles campaign in the Beijing Olympic table tennis competition Wednesday, cruising past the third round with a five-game victory.
Fukuhara, who is ranked 12th in the world and had early round byes, beat Melek Hu of Turkey 11-6, 11-8, 11-7, 9-11, 11-5 to set up a meeting with world No. 1 Zhang Yining of China in the fourth round Thursday.
Fukuhara started strongly to take three straight games before her pace slowed and she squandered five consecutive points in losing the fourth. But the popular 19-year-old, the most well-known Japanese athlete in China, quickly regained her rhythm to seal the victory at the Peking University Gymnasium.
“I was able to play in a relaxed manner,” Fukuhara said. “I’ve known her since I was an elementary school student. But I had once defeated her in South Korea so that made me feel a little pressure (to win) today.”
Earlier in the day, Japanese compatriot Haruna Fukuoka beat Nanthana Komwong of Thailand 11-9, 11-7, 11-9, 11-5 in the women’s second round.
Zhang advanced easily, needing only 25 minutes to beat Belarus’ Viktoria Pavlovich in straight games.
Zhang dominated her 34th-ranked opponent with speedy returns and near-flawless execution but insisted she had to work hard.
“When she chops at the ball, the shots are long and have a lot of spin and she doesn’t hit them high. It’s difficult to hit them hard,” Zhang said after the 11-7, 11-2, 11-7, 11-5 win. “It’s like picking the bones out of a piece of fish, you have to be patient until you get the chance to attack.”
None of the other teams in the Olympic competition threatened China’s path to the team gold, which it won Sunday.
But, Zhang said the singles event — where the loser of a match is eliminated — would be a challenge.
“The team competition was only a good beginning,” she said. “This singles competition will be very tough. We’ll definitely face some difficulties. So we can only take it one match at a time.”