LONDON -- A teenager from the South Bay threw a sweet little topspin into the Olympics here Sunday.
Ariel Hsing, a 16-year-old student at Valley Christian High in San Jose, spent her morning in East London upsetting a former world table tennis champion in a second-round match of the women's singles competition.
She then spent her evening playing the tournament's second-seeded player straight-up and equal for the first four games of a best-of-seven match -- only to lose the final two games in wickedly tight fashion as her proud parents looked on agape from the stands.
"That," said her father, Michael Hsing, "was unreal."
"That," said her mother, Xin Jiang, "was a thrill."
That, above all else, was utterly and fabulously unexpected.
"On paper, I know it was supposed to be no contest," Hsing acknowledged after her loss to Li Xiaoxiao, of the dominant Chinese team. "I mean, I'm ranked 115th in the world or something. She's No. 2."
You'd never have known it from watching the match. Keep in mind, the USA has never won an Olympic medal in table tennis. Keep in mind, too, that Hsing initially learned to play in her parents' garage and has been schooled largely by local coaches while attending school as a regular student. She has never been sent away to a table tennis academy to immerse herself in the sport, as happens in China and other nations.
This was no basement pingpong game. Li won the first game, Hsing the second. Li won the third game, Hsing the fourth. One forehand-to-forehand rally between Hsing and Li seemed to go on for 10 seconds, an eternity in table tennis, until Hsing finally won the point.
"That was such a confidence builder for me," Hsing said of the sequence. "People have said my forehand is not as good as some of my other shots. So when I was able to do that, I was like, 'If I can do this, my forehand must not be that bad.'"
No. Not bad at all. Even in the decisive sixth game, the score was a dicey 7-7 before Li showed her superiority by steering the ball into Hsing's weak zones and winning four of the next five points to clinch the match. The packed house of 7,000 applauded both women loudly for the entertaining show.
Oh, and did we mention? When Hsing walked off the floor, she was greeted by Bill Gates, the Microsoft gazillionaire. Gates has known her for seven years, ever since a Bay Area friend of investor Warren Buffett set up a game between a 9-year-old Hsing and the two big-business moguls as a fun interlude at an investors' meeting.
"Great job," Gates told Hsing. "You were so close!"
Later, Gates explained that since their initial "competition," he has faced Hsing numerous times across the table in friendly situations. And when asked how many points he's won against Hsing, the answer was brutally honest.
"Zero," Gates said. "I mean, when she's trying. Also, my serve is actually illegal, so if I'd win off that, it shouldn't count, anyway."
So to sum up: Hsing's first trip to the Olympics saw her shake up the table tennis establishment, draw applause from fans all over the globe and be consoled in defeat by one of the world's richest men, who is one of her biggest fans.
Other than that, Hsing is just your normal, average San Jose kid who will begin her senior year at Valley Christian next month.
The only difference, of course, is that she will have better stories to tell her pals about what she did over summer break.
"A lot of people at my school know what I do and were telling me good luck before I left and were so supportive," Hsing said. "But you know, I don't think some people understand the magnitude of all this. Some of them are like, 'Oh, I could probably beat you.' And I'm like, 'I wouldn't really bet on that.'"
Her performance Sunday certainly raises questions -- happy ones -- about her future. Hsing's morning victory over the 44th-ranked player and onetime world champion, 49-year-old Ni Xia Lian of Luxembourg, was only a mild eyebrow-raiser because of Ni's age. But the match against Li had some wondering if Hsing could be a legitimate medal threat in four years at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
The catch: Hsing is a fine student and has ambitions of attending Stanford (the recommendation of Gates and Buffett will likely help). Her original plan was to delay college for a year after her high school graduation to play the pro table tennis circuit abroad, and then get down to scholastic business. Her parents, both Silicon Valley computer engineers, approve that idea. Yet if Hsing has true medal potential for the next Olympics in 2016 ... well, her professional interlude and intense training might have to delay college longer.
It 'could happen'
The kid not only has talent, she has charisma. When she hits a great shot and wins a big point, Hsing shouts the word "Sa!"
What is that about?
"You know, I'm not really sure," said Hsing, who speaks both English and Mandarin, owing to her parents' heritage. "Some people in this sport will yell 'yes!' or 'cho!' which is a like a Chinese word for 'shot.' I probably shouldn't say this ... but I guess it's because 'sa' is kind of like the word for 'kill!'"
Hsing explained this with embarrassment, which was rather cute, considering that athletes in other sports blurt out far nastier words. You have to remind yourself she's still basically a kid. An exciting moment for her Sunday, she said, was running into a judo gold medalist from South Korea on a bus from the Olympic Village and being allowed to hold the athlete's medal for a few minutes.
"When I did that ... it was so heavy," Hsing said. "But you know, I was like, 'Yes, I can feel this,' and 'I can see this could happen.' ... I'll definitely be back in four years."
Stanford may have to wait. Or else adopt table tennis as a varsity sport.
Contact Mark Purdy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5092.