(Updates with Bill Gates’s appearance, comments.)
On a per capita basis, Ariel Hsing probably has the wealthiest fans of any athlete at the 2012 Olympic Games. The 16-year-old U.S. table tennis player is a favorite of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. She calls them both “uncle.” As the Wall Street Journal reported in May, Hsing first met Buffett when his longtime bridge partner Sharon Osberg suggested he invite her to his 75th birthday party in 2005. Since then she has attended a pair of annual Berkshire Hathaway (BRK/B) shareholder meetings in Omaha and vanquished any paddle jockey, including Bill Gates, who would challenge her. So far, she has done the same in London.
On Saturday, Hsing swept her first match against Mexico’s Yadira Silva in front of a surprisingly raucous crowd of 6,000. “Not very enjoyable,” her beaming father, Michael, said afterward. “Too much pressure.” In case there was any doubt, the play bears little resemblance to unfinished-basement-variety Ping-Pong. The ball sprays off the table at such random-seeming angles that you might mistake it for the Higgs boson. (Ping-Pong physics zinger!) And the 5-foot 5-inch Hsing looks ferocious crouching before a serve and slowly revealing the ball as if she’d made it appear in her hand by magic.
On Sunday morning she defeated Xia Lian Ni of Luxembourg in front of another packed house at the ExCeL center. “She was very lucky,” said her mother, Xin Jiang. Hsing lost badly to Xia Lian at the world championships last year. Reuters reported that while Buffett’s health would keep him from coming to London, he would be watching on TV .
Hsing’s opponent had a billionaire fan of her own on Sunday. Henri, Grand Duke of Luxembourg, and his son and heir apparent, Prince Guillaume, were in attendance (and seated directly in front of me). The Grand Duke (olive windbreaker) and the prince (navy jacket) cheered, “Allez, Ni!” throughout and let out a groan as she lost match point. Xia Lian is one of 11 athletes at the Games from the tiny European Grand Duchy. (The Grand Duke’s aide-de-camp told me he couldn’t comment. “Not even for the Luxembourg press.”)
Gates showed up Sunday night for Hsing’s match against China’s Li Xiaoxia. Decked in a sherbet-orange sweater, navy baseball cap, shorts, and a couple days’ gray stubble, Gates met Hsing after the match in front of photographers and about a dozen reporters. “Good job,” he told her before the two hugged. “So close.” Hsing took two games from Li. “She’s world No. 2,” Hsing said by way of explanation.
As for Hsing, Gates said, “I played her when she was nine. Now she’s playing with the world’s best.” How many points had he scored off of her? “Zero,” Gates replied. “And my serve is actually illegal. I beat her once with an illegal serve.” In the area behind the stands, he greeted her parents, who thanked him repeatedly. “That was really amazing,” he told them.
For those counting at home, among Buffett, Gates, and the Grand Duke, that’s about $115 billion worth of fans for a table tennis match.