Underdog Aussies notch up landmark day in table tennis
Justin Han of Australia serves against Mawussi Agbetoglo of Togo during their men's singles preliminary round match on day of table tennis competition at the London Olympics. Photo: Getty Images
Being an Olympian means so much to William Henzell, he turned his life upside down 18 months ago to ensure he did it once more with feeling. "Not just come along for the ride, but try and have days like this."
On Saturday he vindicated the upheaval, toppling an opponent who had beaten him three times in the past seven months and furthering his reputation as a man for whom the rankings are irrelevant when he steps out in green and gold beneath the Olympic rings.
Henzell's 4-1 triumph over the headbanded Hungarian Adam Pattantyus completed a watershed day for Australia in table tennis — the first time four different players have won matches at an Olympics on the same day. His happiness for the team only momentarily distracted his singular focus.
"It means so much to me is the simple reason — the focus I'm able to have on these events makes the difference," world No.130 Henzell said of his habit of taking down more fanced rivals. His decision to leave his job in IT with Slater and Gordon and move to Austria, training full-time and playing league, may already be vindicated, but he isn't done yet.
"I said quarter-final is my dream to make, (and) in this sort of form I don't think that's out of the question," he said of Sunday's meeting with Joao Monteiro, the Portuguese ranked in the 30s. He has beaten him in training, and now turns his steely gaze on doing it for real.
Table tennis moves so fast that falling behind can spell irreversible decline. Yasmin Hassan Farah's London Olympics was over in 14 minutes on Saturday morning, more than enough time for yawning spectators with Hey Jude still ringing in their ears to take a wrong turn in the cavernous Excel Arena and not find their seats until the hapless 18-year-old was already packing her bags for Djibouti.
"If you just lose two percent of intensity, you could lose five or six points in 30 seconds, it's that fast," said Henzell, who trailed 6-9 in the first set and was inspired to dig in and take it 13-11. "The momentum swings very quickly. Any time you've got a lead you've got to hold onto it."
This reality made Australia's banner day especially pleasing, as Lay Jian Fang and Justin Han both put a toe on the slipperiest of slopes by dropping the first set before hitting back.
Experience helps, but isn't a cure-all. Han is a 20-year-old at his first Games, so could be forgiven a jittery start. Jian is 39 and contesting her fourth, yet found herself momentarily rattled by the occasion. "First set I'm so nervous, even leading the point 6-2, I still don't know what I'm doing," she said. A blur of little white balls later, she was a set down.
Such moments are when Australia's head coach Jens Lang earns his keep. Coaches occupy the only front-row seats in table tennis, and have one minute between sets to calm their charges and realign their bearings.
"Certainly I can't show to the players that I'm a little bit concerned," Lang said. "When they come to the sideline, I have to calm them down, they need to have faith and trust in me. I have to build confidence, that's my biggest task. Giving some tactical advice, strategy of course, but a lot happens in the mind."
In Han's match, where he fell behind to Mawussi Agbetoglo of Togo, the coach saw a young player who was doing everything right, but would lose two or three points in a row and be visibly stressed. A simple, "dude, just relax, you're doing fine" brought him back.
Miao Miao opened her fourth Olympics with an even bigger upset than Henzell's, overcoming Czech Dana Hadacova _ a player ranked 112 places above her — 4-2. Tan and Miao's second round matches were scheduled for Saturday night, with the other Australians back in action on Sunday.
Expectations are measured, yet clear. "It doesn't matter if it's China or if it's Korea or just like now Brazil, we want to challenge them to the max," Lang said.
The Chinese are an irrepressible force, and short odds to add to the 20 of a possibly 24 gold medals won at the Olympic table. Further Australian progress will demand even greater triumphs over the odds, but Lang is confident they can come. "Absolutely _ and especially in this environment."