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Child prodigy Fukuhara keen to prove she is all grown up
(China Daily)
Updated: 2008-08-09 08:49

Nineteen-year-old Ai Fukuhara is used to the labels - child prodigy, genius table tennis girl, pint-sized champion.

A professional table tennis player since she was 10, and a member of the national team at 11, Fukuhara has long been Japan's darling of the sport.

A fluent Mandarin speaker, her enormous popularity extends to China, where she spent two years playing in the nation's cutthroat super league competition, and was mobbed by fans upon arrival this week at the Beijing airport.

But four years after she wowed the crowds in Athens aged 15, Fuhuhara is back at the Olympics, and keen to prove she has grown into a world class player.

"I was only 15 at the Athens Olympics, and now I am 19, I feel I have improved a lot both mentally as well as the skills of my game," said Fukuhara, who carried the Japanese flag during yesterday's Opening Ceremony.

"I want to apply what I learned at the Athens Games to the Beijing Games," she said of her performance in Athens where she finished in the last 16.

Japan, whose team includes four-time national champion Sayaka Hirano, faces an immense battle in its campaign to win a medal in the singles competition.

With the Olympics on home soil, table tennis considered the national game here, and thousands of fans expected to cheer on their heroes, China is expected to thrash all in its path.

But Japan is hopeful of success in the team competition, introduced for the first time at this Games, after finishing third at the recent team World Championships on the men's and women's side.

Seeded 5, Japan's women are steeling themselves for tough early games after drawing South Korea in their group, a team they beat for third at the championships.

"Sooner or later we will face South Korea, they are very strong and good at attacking so we will be fully prepared for them. If we reach the finals we must remember to remain calm," coach Kinji Kondo said.

When competition starts next week, Fukuhara can expect a warm welcome from the mostly Chinese crowd, a legacy of her work to promote closer ties between the two countries at the sporting level.

"I have so many friends here so I'm glad for them that the Olympics is being held in China, I want to show them how much I have developed as a player," she said.

A goodwill ambassador for the two countries, Fukuhara played a friendly round of ping-pong with Chinese President Hu Jintao during his visit to Japan in May, as the cameras snapped away.

During the final day of the Japan Open, she took a collection box through the crowd, seeking donations for the thousands of victims of China's earthquake disaster in May.

But her charm and seemingly sweet nature - the cherub-faced Fukuhara is almost always smiling off court - belie an aggressive and sometimes emotional attitude during matches.

Standing just 1.55m, she sometimes cries out after winning big points and pumps her fists, in moves reminiscent of the world's top tennis players.

Ranked 12 in the world, she has not captured a major title since the Austrian Open in doubles last year. But at a press conference here this week, Fukuhara was clearly primed for these Games.

"In the team competition, we face South Korea, Spain and Australia. We have developed tactics to face them and we will bring our training to fruition to give our best performance."

"I will try my best," she added, smiling.

AFP

(China Daily 08/09/2008 page36)