By Yoo Jee-ho
RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug. 15 (Yonhap) -- When South Korean table tennis player Jeoung Young-sik faced China's Zhang Jike in the men's team semifinals at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics Monday, hardly anyone in the house figured Jeoung would put up much of a fight.
After all, Jeoung came in ranked 12th in the world, while Zhang, the 2012 individual gold medalist and 2016 silver medalist, is world No. 4.
The heavy underdog, however, pushed Zhang to the brink of defeat. Though Zhang ultimately won 3-2 (13-15, 13-11, 9-11, 11-8, 11-4) and China beat South Korea 3-0 to reach the final, Jeoung said the near-upset was a major confidence builder for himself.
"I watched a lot of his matches to study his techniques and learn from him," Jeoung said. "This was my first match against him. But over the past year of preparing for the Olympics, I've moved up the world rankings. As I play these Chinese players more and more, I get the feeling that I could actually beat them once in a while if I can get a little better."
Jeoung won the first game after the two went to a deuce. Zhang came back to win the second game, but Jeoung was up to the challenge, winning the third game despite blowing a late lead.
South Korean table tennis player Jeoung Young-sik hits a shot against Zhang Jike of China during the men's team semifinals at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics on Aug. 15, 2016. (Yonhap)
Jeoung then went up 8-7 in the fourth game, three points from a stunning victory. Zhang proved why he's won individual medals in back-to-back Olympics, digging deep into his bag of tricks to stave off the loss and take the fifth game with ease.
"I felt we were a similar type of players. And my strategies worked early on," Joung said. "But Zhang figured out ways to exploit my weaknesses, in ways that I didn't expect him to. I didn't have an answer for that."
This was Jeoung's second brush against a Chinese player in Rio. In the round of 16 in the individual event, Jeougn actually won the first two games against the No. 1-ranked Ma Long. Jeoung later admitted he got too carried away by the emotions -- and the possibility that he could actually beat Ma, the eventual gold medalist here -- and he dropped the next four games in a row.
Jeoung said he came mentally prepared for Monday's event.
"I beat myself up for losing to Ma Long the way I did," he said. "I knew what I wanted to do to stay within myself. I never lost my cool today and I executed everything I wanted to mentally. So I don't really have regrets."
Jeoung, 26, said Zhang's combination of technique and savvy made the difference in the end.
"I just think the Chinese players are extremely smart," he said. "At critical junctures during matches, they have so many different options they fall back on, and it's really hard to predict how they're going to come at you. I felt I had to get better to be able to beat them."
Given China's dominance in table tennis, it may seem like a Chinese victory is a foregone conclusion anytime South Korea faces it. Jeoung said he'd like to see it changed.
"Honestly, the sky is really the limit, and if we keep at it, there will be upsets," he said. "I am not really at a position to say it, though, because I've never beaten the Chinese. Hopefully, I can win a few matches and tell other players, 'China can be beaten.'"