When she was 9 years old, California table tennis prodigy Ariel Hsing was invited to play with Warren Buffett and his pal Bill Gates for the Omaha billionaire’s 75th birthday. Despite owning an impressively large paddle, Buffett was overmatched. "The only way I could have beaten her would have been if someone was holding her down," he told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year.
Though Buffett could surely afford to pay his minions to hold Hsing down while he pelted her with ping pong balls, he’s chosen a friendlier approach. “Uncle Warren” has invited Hsing—now 16 and a rising senior at San Jose’s Valley Christian High School—to take on all comers at several of Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meetings, where she shows the super rich the difference between ping pong and world-class table tennis. Last September, according to the WSJ, Buffett wrote Hsing a note promising, "I will come watch you in the Olympics—whether 2012 or 2016."
It will have to be 2016, as Buffett couldn’t go to London on account of his prostate cancer treatment. Nevertheless, Hsing has made Uncle Warren proud. On Saturday, the American teenager routed Mexico’s Yadira Silva in four straight games, 11-9, 11-8, 11-3, 11-5. (Olympic matches are played in a best-of-seven format, with each game going to 11.) This wasn’t a surprise—Hsing is ranked 115th in the world and seeded 46th in the Olympic tournament, while Silva is 233rd in the world and the tourney’s 59th seed. But Hsing’s second-round victory against Luxembourg’s 49-year-old Ni Xia Lian was a big upset. Ni, ranked 43rd in the world and seeded 19th in London, destroyed Hsing in the first round of the 2011 world championships. On Sunday morning, however, the American showed how much she’s improved recently, pulling out a tense six-game victory 11-9, 10-12, 11-9, 11-5, 10-12, 12-10.
As I watched Ni and Hsing trade forehands at 5 a.m. on Sunday, I agonized for Luxembourg’s table tennis star. I met Ni last year in Liechtenstein, at the end of my tour of Europe’s small countries. After she won the singles gold medal at the 2011 Games of the Small States of Europe, we talked about her amazing life and career. In 1983, the Chinese-born player won the world title in mixed doubles. Ni, who was also ranked No. 5 in the world in singles, left the Chinese national team just two years later for what she has mysteriously described as “external reasons.”
Upon her departure from China, Ni was recruited by Luxembourg to become the tiny nation’s Chinese table tennis hero in residence. Once in Europe, she dominated the continental competition, got married, and had kids. Eventually, her sister and two brothers joined her in Luxembourg, where they opened a restaurant and a hotel.
When I met her in Liechtenstein, Ni was tired. Nearing 50, she has already retired from competition twice. Both times, Luxembourg's Olympic committee begged her to come back, and Ni—grateful for her life since emigrating from China—has relented. "I feel sorry," she told me. "Without me, [the] team might not win."
Against Ariel Hsing, an opponent 33 years her junior, Ni tried to win with guile. Playing with a strap under her left knee, the Luxembourger kept the ball in play and waited for her more-aggressive opponent to miss. But on Sunday, Hsing’s forehand slams kept connecting. The American teenager, her hair in pink barrettes, twitched around energetically before each serve, fanned her face with her paddle to stay cool, and yelled out “Sa!” with each great shot. (She also squeaked out a meek “sorry” each time she won a point on a let.) On the other side of the table, Ni alternated between mussing her short hair worriedly and swiping her paddle back and forth through the air in frustration.
In the sixth game, Ni had two points to force a decisive Game 7. She lost them both, and then the next two points after that to lose the match. When it was over, Hsing didn't yell "Sa!" She smiled, shook her opponent’s hand, and raised her paddle to the sky to salute the crowd.
For Hsing, the competition is about to get a lot tougher. By winning her first two matches, she has advanced to the round of 32—that’s the main part of the women's singles draw, where the top-seeded players are rested and waiting. Later on Sunday, the 16-year-old will play second-seeded Li Xiaoxia of China. Considering that Li has twice finished second at the table tennis world championships, it would take one of the biggest miracles in Olympic history for Hsing—the lowest-seeded player remaining in the field—to continue her hot streak. But if she doesn’t win, she’ll surely be a better player in 2016. Who knows—maybe Uncle Warren will be in Rio to see her win a medal.
Update, 8:30 p.m.: Ariel Hsing did indeed lose to second-seeded Li Xiaoxia on Sunday, but the match was much closer than I anticipated. In the middle portion of her six-game defeat, the American looked like the better player, overpowering Li with her huge forehand. But after Hsing tied it up 2-2, Li eked out two close games to clinch the match. The final scoreline: 11-4, 9-11, 11-6, 6-11, 11-8, 11-9.
To this non-expert viewer's eyes, Hsing's unexpected surge in London at just 16 years old makes her a real player on the international table tennis scene. And it will hopefully make her a star in her home country—if she's not on every late-night show in America in the next month, then TV bookers are dumber than I think they are.
There's also a happy ending to another part of Hsing's story. Though Warren Buffett couldn't be there to see Hsing's remarkable run, the California teenager's other rich uncle was able to make it to London to watch her play. "Nothing short of phenomenal," her pal Bill Gates said after Hsing's valiant third-round loss. "She is amazing."