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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — When 19-year-old American Yijun Feng played Spaniard Zhiwen “Juanito” He on Saturday, Feng entered the table tennis match with a slight but unusual advantage, despite being outranked and lacking comparable experience.
Decades ago, He and Feng’s 58-year-old coach, Massimo Constantini, were rivals.
“I used to get killed right away,” Constantini said of his matches against the 54-year-old He, one of the oldest athletes in Rio de Janiero.
All these years later, He still had it, handily beating Feng four games to two in the opening round of the Olympics.
Experience matters in table tennis.
Youthful strength, daring and stamina rule in many Olympic sports, but table tennis often rewards the deep experience that can only be won with hundreds of hours of practice and match-play. Older players thrive with a close, even devious attention to strategy, a determination to study and then exploit an opponent’s weaknesses and a gritty refusal to panic under extreme pressure.
Run down the list of players at the Rio Olympics and you’ll see the proof. While there are 16 and 15-year-old phenoms in the lower levels, the top ranks are mostly in their late 20s and 30s; a fair number of qualifiers are in their 40s and even 50s.
“You need a lot of concentration, rather than a lot of physical strength in this sport,” said 40-year-old Vladimir Samsonov, a former top-ranked player from Belarus. He is still in the top 10 and an outside medal contender in Rio.
“You definitely slow down after you hit 25, but experience counts for a lot in table tennis,” Samsanov said.
Older players can keep going because the game values skill and technique, according to Constantini, the U.S. coach and a former Olympian who played on the Italian national team until he was 37. He likens the game to a chess match.
Table tennis is often as much mental as physical; older players are good at slowing the pace of the game to take away a younger opponent’s speed and power, forcing errors with spin and trickery, and encouraging lapses in concentration with frustrating defensive tactics.
Older players have also benefited from a flurry of changes in recent years, including a bigger ball and games now played to 11 instead of 21 points. There’s also plenty of time to catch their breaths during and between games in the best-of-seven matches.
Earlier Saturday, 53-year-old Ni Xia Lian from Luxemburg faced Brazil’s Caroline Kumahara, 21, and a massively partisan crowd which erupted in thunderous cheers for every Kumahara point. Ni kept calm and won a 4-3 thriller.
“When the pressure is high, at 10-10, and you can feel the stress, the mature player is much cooler. It’s palpable,” Constantini said. “You can almost touch the feeling of calm because they have been there many, many times before.”
Samsonov, who is seeded seventh in Rio, no longer practices as many as eight hours a day, as he did in his 20s. He relies more on stretching and yoga, along with the knowledge that he has put in countless hours of practice over the years.
And then there’s Feng’s opponent on Saturday, He.
The left-handed Spaniard, who plays an old-school “penhold” style, is a master of the mental game, using his vast experience to deceive and fluster his opponents.
Feng, ahead of the match, repeatedly called He’s style of play “disgusting” because it’s so unpredictable and so at odds with the attacking style of many young players today.
In the end, Feng said the match came down to the Spaniard’s “legendary” serve, which, like that of many other older athletes, poses serious problems for younger players not used to such a wicked array of spin techniques.
The Spaniard shrugged after the match when asked how he has been able to maintain his skills for so long.
“I take good care of myself,” He said with a smile. “I don’t drink and I don’t smoke.”