by Ian Marshall, ITTF Publications Editor
A total of 12 meetings on the international stage prior to the duel in Rio de Janeiro, all had gone the way of Ma Long, the portent was not in favour of Jun Mizutani who, like Ma Long had first come to our attention at the first ever World Junior Championships staged in 2003 in the Chilean capital city of Santiago.
On that occasion both Jun Mizutani and Ma Long departed proceedings at the hands of Korean adversaries; 14 years old at the time, Jun Mizutani was beaten in the second round by Cho Eonrae, one round later, the quarter-finals Lim Jaehyun ended the exploits of a 15 year old Ma Long.
Again South America
Now 13 years later the two talented young men who, despite defeat, had attracted the attention in the South American city were once again in action in the same part of the world but on the Atlantic coastline not the Pacific.
Impressive in prior conflicts, Ma Long had torn into Jun Mizutani directing a tirade of forehand fierce attacking strokes towards his adversary’s backhand, forcing a retreat. Playing two or three steps away from the table is an exciting technique, against most it works; not against the relentless power of Ma Long.
Character with Steel
Just as we had seen last October at the Liebherr Men’s World Cup in the Swedish city of Halmstad it was a very single minded, totally focused Ma Long who entered the arena.
The beaten semi-finalist in three consecutive World Championships before winning in 2015 in Suzhou, there is now an extra degree of steel in the focus of Ma Long; there is determination to be acknowledged as the best player of the modern era.
Split Second Quicker
In Riocentro Pavilion 3, Ma Long was the quicker out of the blocks; he won the first two games. The scores looked comfortable but the difference was a split second, less than it took time to blink; that split second was the difference in timing the ball, Ma Long was that fraction sooner.
Ma Long is known for his powerful forehand, against Jun Mizutani, in the rallies he demonstrated that his backhand was equally lethal; furthermore, once in a rally he moved into automatic pilot.
In both the first and second games Ma Long had made the better start, in the third game Jun Mizutani, to his credit, stood his ground; at 5-all it was parity but there was to be no more success.
My preparations were good, and I won the first three games very comfortably but he started to make changes to his game in the fourth. I was not used to it initially and I panicked a little. The fifth game was crucial, I was too eager to win, to initiate attacks to end the points and that caused many errors on my side. The main strength of Mizutani is that no matter how far behind he is in the game, he stays calm and plays his game, you seldom see him making mistakes. Ma Long
The spirit of Jun Mizutani never wilted, he was just being overpowered; in the fourth game he gained reward for his splendid attitude. He went ahead 7-3, Ma Long closed the gap to one point at 8-7; Jun Mizutani called “Time Out”. He did not surrender another point.
Viciously attacking the forehand of Ma Long, the fourth game was secured. Was a recovery possible?
Jun Mizutani was outstanding, his level was rising, he fought for his life; he won the fifth game after Ma Long called “Time Out” when leading 7-5.
I am very happy as this is my first Olympic final. It was a difficult match particularly in the last three games; making the finals is extremely meaningful to me as this is the dream for all athletes. Ma Long
It was table tennis at the highest level, the top spin rally that took Ma Long to 3-1 in the sixth game raised the roof. Most importantly in the context of the match it created a two point lead for the top seed.
It was a telling point, Ma Long built on the advantage, the sixth game and a place in the final was secured.