SOCHI, Russia — The curling world has been waiting for years for China’s men’s team to fulfil its rich potential.
It just might happen at the Sochi Olympics.
The Chinese finally made a breakthrough at international level by beating Britain 6-5 in a winner-takes-all last game of the round robin to reach the Olympic semifinals on Monday.
China skip Liu Rui, arguably the star player in the tournament so far, thrust his clenched right fist into the air when his rock settled in the button for the winning point in the 10th end.
Given his statistics over the past week in Sochi — he’s shooting at 88 percent accuracy — it was never really in doubt.
"The Chinese guy was on fire there," Britain skip David Murdoch said of Liu. "It is tough when you are up against a skip who is making everything."
The defeat bumped the British into a tiebreaker against Norway, which lost 5-3 to Denmark to miss out on advancing directly to the playoffs. Sweden and Canada already had qualified on Sunday.
The tiebreaker will be played Tuesday.
Liu has been part of a China rink that has been on the circuit for the past decade. The players’ technique and dedication has never been in question but their strategy and big-game temperament certainly has, making them fall short in the top tournaments.
In their first appearance at an Olympics — in Vancouver in 2010 — the Chinese placed eighth, and they have never made the podium at a world championship.
The transformation from underachievers to gold-medal contenders can be put down in large part to the hiring of Canadian curling great Marcel Rocque for the final year of the Olympic cycle.
"You know what, my boys think they can run with anyone now, which is a big part of their success, believing they are as good as the top in the sport," said Rocque, a three-time world champion.
"I have worked a lot between the ears."
China’s emergence hasn’t surprised its rivals.
"They have been good technically, good shooters, for four or five years and now they have some Canadian coaching help," Norway player Christoffer Svae said, "so now they are starting to get a grip of the game tactically. They are coming fast."
The turning point in the China-Britain game came in the eighth end when Murdoch was short with a routine draw to the button that would have earned his team a point. The Chinese stole a point, putting them ahead 5-3.
Britain scored two in the ninth but China had the hammer in the last end and Liu handled the pressure well in his last shot.
Murdoch is taking inspiration from the feats of Britain’s best-known curler, Rhona Martin, whose team won women’s gold in 2002 after coming through a tiebreaker with a 5-4 record.
"We are still in this," he said, "and a certain curler from GB won coming from this spot before."
Norway’s players, who won a silver medal in Vancouver, watched the conclusion of the China-Britain game on TV. There was barely a reaction when Liu nailed his final shot, but there was relief inside Svae.
If Liu had have missed, Britain would have won and Norway would have been out.
"Right now, we are just happy we’ve got another chance," Svae said. "We will have to play better than we have done so far."
The tournament will lose some color if Norway, famous for wearing flamboyant pants during games, loses the tiebreaker. Against Denmark, they donned pants described as "red and blue splash," but it was Denmark skip Rasmus Stjerne Hansen who stood out with 98 percent accuracy stats.
"If we lose in the tiebreaker," Svae said, "we might have to dress up the Chinese."
Norway beat the British in the round robin but lost to them in last year’s European championship.
Canada will play China in the semifinals and Sweden will take on the winner of the tie-breaker.
Also Monday, Germany lost 8-7 to Russia to finish in last place at 1-8. Switzerland won 6-3 against the United States.