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China's women into team final - looking for No. 3

By STEPHEN WADE,

AP Sports Writer

Updated August 6, 2012

(AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

LONDON (AP) China is close to a third Olympic gold medal in table tennis, and many back home expect nothing less.

China's women reached the final at the London Olympics on Monday, defeating South Korea 3-0 in the team event.

The Chinese have already won two gold and two silver medals in the singles, showing lopsided superiority with some opponents saying they're demoralized simply having to face China.

Japan is next up in Tuesday's final, a match between a country that has never won an Olympic medal in table tennis, and China, which has won 22 of 26 gold medals in the games and is expected to run the total to 24 of 28 by taking both team events in London.

The Japanese women may pose the first real threat to China, led by gold medalist Li Xiaoxia, silver medalist Ding Ning, and Guo Yue, who forms the top doubles pair in the world with Li.

"I feel like the match (with Japan) is going to be a nervous match," Li said. "Every match can be difficult and we prepare for the worst."

The pressure seems to be off the Chinese women, who are more talkative after finishing singles, which eventually pitted Li against Ding for gold.

"In the singles, you have more pressure than the team events," Ding said. "In singles, that pressure builds up on you. With three on a team, you can trust your teammates so there is less pressure."

Japan's women upset Singapore 3-0 on Sunday, beating a group composed of all China-born players. The same three took the silver medal four years ago in Beijing.

Japan's approach will be the same. A medal is already guaranteed, which will be a first in a sport that has deep roots in Japan.

"We had nothing to lose, so we just went for it," said Sayaka Hirano, who teams with Ai Fukuhara and Kasumi Ishikawa.

Japan has a vibrant mix.

Ishikawa is a 19-year-old left-hander in her first Olympics. At 23, Fukuhara is Japan's best-known player, in her third Olympics. Hirano is 27, playing in her second Olympics.

Fukuhara is one of Japan's most famous female athletes, as popular as soccer star Homare Sawa, who led Japan to the World Cup title last year. Fukuhara also speaks Mandarin and is popular doing interviews on TV in China.

She knows Chinese ways and has trained in China. But that doesn't matter to Ding.

"I have a good relationship with other players, and even though some like Fukuhara speak Chinese, I don't treat them differently on the court. On the court, I treat them as competitors. We can be good friends off stage."

Two men's semifinals are later Monday: China vs. Japan and Hong Kong vs. South Korea. The winners meet in Wednesday's final.

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Follow Stephen Wade at http://twitter.com/StephenWadeAP.

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