Puerto Rican table tennis sisters look up to Venus, Serena

LIMA, Peru (AP) — Table tennis champion sisters Adriana and Melanie Diaz often get compared to Serena and Venus Williams — and they love it.

The Puerto Ricans won the table tennis gold medal in doubles at the Pan American Games in Lima on Tuesday, and Adriana qualified for Tokyo 2020 in singles when she beat American Yue Wu in Wednesday’s final. On the last point, she raised an index finger in the air and blew kisses into a television camera, while the loudspeakers announced that she had qualified for the Olympics.

“We’ve had many days filled with emotions,” said 18-year-old Adriana, who wore gold earrings shaped like table tennis paddles.

“Yesterday, we had a great time. Today is one of the best days of my life.”

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With lightning-quick smashes and looping topsin serves, Adriana beat Wu, who took the silver medal. She would have met her 23-year-old sister in the final if Melanie had not lost to Wu in an intense match that came down to a deciding sixth game. Melanie earned bronze along with Bruna Takahashi from Brazil.

Puerto Rico had the home-crowd advantage at the arena in Lima. Salsa and reggaeton played from the speakers. In a corner near the table, the Diazes’ father-coach watched every point during their games. In the stands, his wife cheered for their daughters with dozens of fans who waved the national flag and who broke into chants after Adriana’s victory.

Melanie said she had to contain her emotions after she lost her match. She hoped to play the final against Adriana. She had to be the supportive older sister and set an example.

“I couldn’t let her see me sad, because she was going to get sad,” Melanie said about Adriana who competed in the Rio 2016 Olympics at the age of 15. “I needed to be strong. I yelled out as much as I could to support her from the stands.”

With their popularity back home, they are sometimes compared to the tennis-playing Williams sisters.

“We’ve often been compared, like the two sisters who are growing up together for the sport that they always worked and dreamed of,” Adriana said. “That feels amazing. Serena is a legend, and so is Venus. Any comparison to them makes me proud.”

Puerto Rico is best-known for baseball, but table tennis is growing on the Caribbean island. The International Tennis Federation recently praised the Universal Pan America Cup, a paid three-day event that gathered more than 10,000 people to watch table tennis in Puerto Rico.

“We never thought that table tennis would have this boom,” Melanie said. Her sister is also delighted by the competitive growth of the sport, which is hugely popular in Asia and Europe.

“Our national sport is baseball … but people are now watching table tennis. They’re back home now watching table tennis on TV. And that’s something that you never saw before. It’s amazing.”

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