LONDON (Reuters) - American Ariel Hsing’s Olympic table tennis campaign ended in defeat on Sunday but the teenager was hailed as “amazing” by supporter and Microsoft founder Bill Gates who embraced her after she came off court.
The 16-year-old, ranked 115 in the world, threatened to cause a major upset as she twice pegged back China’s second seed Li Xiaoxia before eventually falling to a 4-2 defeat.
American billionaire Gates had sneaked into London’s ExCel Centre to watch Hsing, who affectionately refers to him as “Uncle Bill”.
Before the match Gates joked that he had never won a point off Hsing by using “legitimate means” since the pair first met seven years ago at a party to celebrate tycoon Warren Buffet’s 75th birthday.
“I only found out he was here when someone told me a minute ago and it took me by complete surprise,” Hsing said after fighting her way through a melee of photographers and reporters.
“I was just really happy to see him and I really appreciate him coming over. He is such an important person and him coming to watch is the most important gift he could give.”
Even though she lost, Gates witnessed a coming-of-age performance that marked Hsing out as a potential future medalist and had the crowd rocking in the aisles.
“I do think I was a little bit on fire today,” Hsing said.
“I would give it a 10 out of 10, or maybe 9.9 as I wasn’t quite there, but I have never played this well in a tournament.”
Gates enthused about his young charge.
“Ever since we (he and Buffett) first played with her we have supported her ever since,” he said.
“I first played against her when she was nine and now’s she has gotten so much better and is playing with the world’s best.”
He then turned to her and said: “You were amazing.”
Hsing seemed to take the attention she was getting in her stride even if the media scrum that greeted her as she spoke to Gates caught her a little off guard.
“It was pretty blinding with all the flashes but it was really great and I‘m glad we got our picture together,” she said.
As she travelled to the match, Hsing caught a glittering glimpse of what she wants to achieve.
“I saw the Judo girls on TV and the North Korean girl who won a gold was actually on the same bus as us,” she added.
”I felt her gold medal. It was in my hand and at that moment it felt so close, so when I went out there I really wanted it.
“But I will have to wait for Rio in four years’ time.”
Reporting by Toby Davis; editing by Justin Palmer