SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Table tennis player Zeng Zhiying left China all alone for an adventure in Chile in 1989.
As her native country boiled with street protests that led to the Tiananmen Square massacre that year, she remained in the north of the South American nation, near the Atacama desert, working to make the sport grow there.
About 34 years later, the 57-year-old Zeng — or Tania, as Chileans call her — is no longer by herself. She has a family and millions of fans cheering for her at the Pan American Games in Santiago.
Zeng became famous overnight in the Andean nation after she beat Dominican Eva Peña Brito by 4 sets to 2 in her first match in the women's singles tournament. She lost the first two sets, but she managed to turn the match around in front of raucous fans screaming for her.
“I came to watch the table tennis grandma,” said Chilean fan Gustavo Ibarra, 14, before Zeng's round-of-16 clash with American Lily Ann Zhang on Tuesday. “Everyone in this country wants to see her win. She is just so humble.” Zeng has two children, but no grandchildren.
Chile's President Gabriel Boric is another one of the table tennis player's new fans watching her on TV.
“Tremendous!,” Boric wrote on his social media channels after the Chinese-Chilean's victory on Monday.
Zeng has lived most of her life in Iquique, a city near the Atacama desert 1,800 kilometers (1,118 miles) north of Santiago, Chile's capital. After teaching the sport to local children for years, she started a business and made it her main source of income until recently.
Playing table tennis as a professional only crossed her mind during the COVID pandemic. She quickly made it to Chile's national team and now hopes to be part of it for the Paris Olympics next year. Zeng is currently among the 150 best women tennis table players in the world.
“I am fighting with all I have, and the supporters are there for me now. I feel very confident. Competing at such a high level is a new thing for me,” Zeng said Tuesday. “I win. I lose. Some things come a little off. But people support me the same. I really wasn't expecting any of this.”
“I came here because the table tennis association of Arica, in the north, invited me. Then I moved to Iquique, and made my life there. I am Chilean, no doubt,” said Zeng in a fluent Spanish she learned in soap operas. She now she prefers to watch Turkish TV series when at home.
As she arrived to play U.S.' Zhang on Tuesday, a big roar was heard at Chile's Olympic training center, where table tennis competitions are taking place. Zeng was no match for the American, who won 4 sets to 0 (11-7, 11-6, 11-4 and 11-5), largely thanks to her higher speed and intensive footwork.
The two had faced off before, with the 27-year-old Zhang also winning that encounter.
“It is an inspiration that a 57-year-old player is here with us, giving her best,” Zhang said after the match.
While Zhang calmy went back to preparing for her next matches, Zeng was busy outside giving autographs.
“I will be upset for a little bit after this defeat. But life goes on,” she said. “This sport is still the greatest thing for me. I am happy every day I am still in it.”
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