PARIS – Japanese teenager Ai Fukuhara finally met her match in world No. 1-ranked Chinese Zhang Yining, losing in straight sets 4-0 in the women’s singles quarterfinals on the fifth day of action at the World Table Tennis Championships on Friday.
The 14-year-old Fukuhara, the youngest-ever member of the national team, was the first Japanese to reach the quarterfinals in 14 years as she defeated world-class opponents one by one but was overwhelmed in less than 20 minutes by Zhang 11-2, 13-11, 11-3, 11-4 at the Bercy Sports Center.
“I feel some regret and also feel like I just don’t know how to react in this situation,” said Fukuhara, who is ranked 91st in the world. “It was like I was a pitcher who, no matter what balls he throws, gets home runs hit off him.”
Fukuhara, who was Japan’s last hope to capture a medal at the world meet, promised to improve her game next time around.
“Today I wasn’t able to get my hands or feet moving but after another year, I want to at least be able to play out a game with her (Zhang),” she said.
Fukuhara, who is called “Ai-chan” in Japan, overcame world No. 12 Li Jia Wei of Singapore 4-2 in the second round and outdueled Austria’s Jia Liu, ranked 44th in the world, 4-1 in the third round. She beat South Korean Lee Eun Sil 4-2 to advance to the quarterfinals.
Japan Table Tennis Association executive director Koji Kimura said Fukuhara is being considered to compete at the Asian Championships in Beijing next April, which will serve as a qualifier for seeds at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Fukuhara, who turned pro in 1999 as Japan’s first female table tennis player to do so, took up the sport at the age of 3 and has been a household name since then due chiefly to ample TV coverage of her as a little girl training hard while crying.
Two players banned
PARIS (AP) Two table tennis players from Yemen and Saudi Arabia were banned from international competition for the rest of the year after refusing to play an Israeli.
Israel’s team at the world championships in Paris protested after Hani Al-Hammadi of Yemen and Nabeel Al-Maghahwi of Saudi Arabia did not show to play Gay Elenski in qualifying matches this week.
Elenski was declared the winner. Israel’s delegation protested that the two players’ actions were an “unacceptable political demonstration,” the International Table Tennis Federation said Friday.
As punishment, the two may not play in any ITTF competition for the rest of 2003, the statement said.
The Saudi did not explain his actions to the federation. The Yemeni said he was tired and cited transportation problems from his hotel.
“We cannot prove anything about their reasons for not playing, but what we do know is that they broke our rules,” federation president Adham Sharara said.
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