Table tennis-China eyes another clean sweep but challenges ahead

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FILE PHOTO: 2019 World Table Tennis Championships
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By Eimi Yamamitsu

TOKYO (Reuters) - China will be bidding for a fourth clean sweep of table tennis medals at the Tokyo Olympics and despite some mixed performances in the run-up to the Games it will be a major shock if their paddlers are not standing atop the podium yet again.

The Asian powerhouse has won 28 of the 32 gold medals awarded in the sport since it was added to the programme at the 1988 Games, including all eight women's singles titles.

Four of the five top ranked men in the world are Chinese, as are six of the top seven women.

Ma Long returns to defend his singles title with world number one Fan Zhendong also selected in the event. Rio women's champion Ding Ning has retired, opening the way for world number one Chen Meng and No. 3 Sun Yingsha.

In the singles events, hosts Japan look the biggest threat with world number two Mima Ito determined to end China's dominance in the women's singles and Tomokazu Harimoto hoping to make a splash in the men's.

Germany's Timo Boll and Dimitrij Ovtcharov will aim for gold in the men's singles but a podium place looks their best hope, while Taiwan's mixed doubles pair Lin Yun-Ju and Cheng I-Ching appears the most serious challenge to a Chinese clean sweep.

The build-up to the Games has not been plain sailing for China, however, with both Ma and Chen losing to team mates in domestic competitions. In the mixed doubles, Olympic-bound Liu Shiwen and Xu Xin also lost.

Of the five events that the six Olympic athletes played, they won only two.

However, Chinese table tennis association president Liu Guoliang said it was a "good thing" to make their mistakes before the Games.

"It will help us better plan the following training and make more specific plans in preparations for the Games," Liu told Xinhua News in May.

A newly introduced mixed doubles event will be kicking off the table tennis programme on July 24, with 16 pairs battling for the first gold.

(Reporting by Eimi Yamamitsu; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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