Two paddlers stood at opposite ends of the table yesterday at the Riocentro Pavilion 3. Both table tennis veterans, both former world champions - one with the Chinese class of 1983, the other earning a historic title with Singapore nearly three decades later.
Many had expected Feng Tianwei to stroll through the third-round singles match but the Singaporean ended up having to claw her way into the fourth round of the Olympics.
She was made to sweat but eventually prevailed 8-11, 5-11, 11-8, 11-5, 11-4, 11-5 against Luxembourg's Ni Xialian, booking a place against Austria's Liu Jia in the evening (7.30am Singapore time today).
Up against an opponent she described as "one of a kind" in the world, the Singaporean said there was little she could do before the match to prepare.
"There's no one else in the world who plays like her," said Feng, the second seed and world's fourth-ranked player, who is playing in her third Olympics.
"She has a very unique playing style so I was completely oblivious to what she might bring. All I could do was get on court, and adapt as I went along."
AN UNKNOWN PROPOSITION
She has a very unique playing style so I was completely oblivious to what she might bring. All I could do was get on court, and adapt as I went along.
FENG TIANWEI, on Ni Xialian's playing style being like no one else's in the world.
Ni, who at 53 is playing her fourth Olympics, is no minnow despite hailing from Luxembourg. She was a two-time world champion even before Feng was born, winning a team and a mixed doubles title with China in 1983, before she got married and moved to Luxembourg.
Just when it looked like Feng would claim the first game easily on the back of an 8-4 lead, Ni took the next seven points, the second game and the momentum in the match.
Said Feng, 29: "I was a little tight as it was my first match, so I couldn't really find my rhythm. My opponent played really well and was very bold too, so it was quite a challenge for me."
Paddlers who use the penhold grip like Ni are a dying breed these days, especially in the women's game.
The fact that the Luxembourger plays with her left hand compounded things for Feng, who is known to be troubled by lefties and defensive players.
But the Republic's top paddler is also known for the fight she displays in matches, staying cool to find a way to victory.
Said Feng: "I didn't get flustered when 0-2 down and just played it one point at a time instead of (thinking about) the consequence of the result. So in that, I think I handled it quite well."
She will take several lessons from the tricky opener as she takes on another left-hander in Liu.
"When I was playing Ni, it occurred to me that there are many things I can learn from a player like her," she said, without elaborating.
"It's going to be very tough matches from here on. I just want to play to my potential, and give everyone a good match to watch."
Team-mate Yu Mengyu was due in action in the fourth round too, playing South Korean Jeon Ji Hee later in the afternoon.
Gao Ning's loss to Briton Paul Drinkhall of Britain in a seven-game thriller marked the end of the men's campaign. The Singaporean was beaten 7-11, 6-11, 11-3, 3-11, 11-9, 11-9, 8-11.