HANGZHOU: North Korea thrashed South Korea 4-1 in women’s football while India battle Pakistan in hockey later Saturday as fierce rivalries took centre stage at the Asian Games. The men’s and women’s 100m sprint titles will also be contested on the athletics track in Hangzhou, where rain fell on and off throughout the day. With the Games approaching their halfway point, hosts China have raked in 108 gold medals, far ahead of the rest, with Zhang Zhizhen doing his part on Saturday by winning the men’s tennis crown.

North Korea, back in major international competition for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, clinched a fourth gold of the Games when Ri Song Gum set a world record in the women’s weightlifting 49kg class. She lifted a combined 216kg (92kg snatch, 124kg clean and jerk), one kilo greater than the previous mark, held by China’s world champion Jiang Huihua. Ri jumped with joy and punched the air in celebration, then was emotional on the podium.

There were more beaming North Korean smiles soon after when they soundly beat the South in a feisty encounter in the women’s football quarter-finals. South Korea, led by the English coach Colin Bell, included players who featured at the recent Women’s World Cup, where they went out in the group phase.

The neighbours, who are still technically at war, were locked at 1-1 when South Korea forward Son Hwa-yeon was sent off for a second yellow card close to half time. North Korea made the most of their numerical advantage to score three times in the second period for an ultimately comfortable victory, their players celebrating wildly at the full-time whistle. They play Uzbekistan in the semi-finals.

North Korea's Ri Song Gum

Unfriendly neighbours

In tennis, 60th-ranked Zhang made a slow start and fell 4-1 behind in the first set of his final against Japan’s Yosuke Watanuki. But with the home crowd roaring him on, the 26-year-old from Shanghai battled back to win 6-4, 7-6 (9/7) and become the first Chinese men’s singles tennis champion at the Games since 1994. “It’s been a very, very tough week, not just this match, but very tough for the whole week actually, from the first match onwards,” said Zhang. “But I’m super-happy that from the beginning of the first match, step by step, I’ve played better and better tennis.”

Rising Chinese star Zheng Qinwen won the women’s singles title on Friday for a home double. Another title winner in the tennis on Saturday was India’s Rohan Bopanna, the 43-year-old former Grand Slam mixed doubles champion. He and Rutuja Bhosale roared back to defeat Taiwan’s Liang En-shuo and Huang Tsung-hao after a super-tiebreak, 2-6, 6-3, 10-4, for mixed doubles gold. Asked how he would celebrate, Bopanna said: “I’m going to watch the India-Pakistan hockey match. “I can’t think of a better moment to go support India.”

Arch-rivals Pakistan and India face off in a men’s hockey group match in what is sure to be a fierce encounter between more neighbours with fraught ties. India already got one over Pakistan on Saturday, defeating them 2-1 in the final of the men’s team squash competition. Philippines pole vaulter EJ Obiena cruised to gold in an Asian Games record on Saturday—and then said he missed not having record-breaker Armand Duplantis to compete against. Obiena has been one of Swedish world record-holder Duplantis’s closest rivals this year, finishing second behind him at last month’s world championships in Budapest. And no one could come close to Obiena in Hangzhou as he took gold in 5.90m -- 25cm clear of his nearest challengers.

Duplantis has dominated pole vault in recent years and improved his world record to 6.23m earlier this month at the Diamond League finals. Obiena said competing against him “brings out the best in me”. “It doesn’t mean it’s easier to win—it’s easier to compete when he’s there,” he said. “It doesn’t make it easier when he’s not here, it’s just different.” Obiena said being able to dominate like Duplantis gave him a taste of “what he feels most of the time”. But he also said he felt like “a villain” for beating home favourite Huang Bokai to the gold. Huang instead earned silver.

“It’s hard because for the first time I felt like it wasn’t mine,” he said. “I felt like I was taking the medal from someone else.” China still had plenty to celebrate on the second night of athletics action, with Xie Zhenye and Ge Manqi giving the country a 100m sprint double. Xie powered home to take the men’s title in 9.97sec, ahead of Thailand’s Puripol Boonson on 10.02 and Malaysia’s Muhammad Azeem Mohd Fahmi on 10.11. The 30-year-old Xie claimed the first Asian Games individual gold of his career, having been part of China’s title-winning 4x100m relay team in 2014.

He was also part of the China team that won bronze at the Tokyo Olympics two years ago. Other gold medals will be won on Saturday in sports including diving, shooting, table tennis and eSports. Diving is expected to be dominated by the home nation’s world-class squad. The drizzle could be a factor in the outdoor sports. As well as the 100m titles, five other golds will be snapped up on the second day of track and field. -- AFP