by Wade Townsend
The underdog and the dragon
Japan is looking to Jun Mizutani to collect an individual medal for the nation on day six. The country is currently empty handed after Ai Fukuhara lost her bronze medal playoff. On top of this, it’s the first Olympic semi-final appearance for Japan in men’s singles — there’s a lot of pressure for a good performance.
However, it is going to be tough for Jun as he is up against number one seed Ma Long. The world number one is looking for perfection on day six and has his eyes firmly set on the top of the podium. Ma leads their head to head 12-0. In fact, not since 2009 has Mizutani been able to get more than a single game on the board. But it’s the Rio Olympics, anything could happen.
When Mizutani is on the table spectacular rallies are never far behind. He will happily go to the back of court to fish the ball in to play, but today that wont be enough; Ma Long is simply too solid off both wings. Mizutani will have to put his magic serves to use and be aggressive, looking to pivot early around the backhand corner and make some big forehands. If Mizutani gets stuck playing backhands he will quickly find himself in the bronze medal playoff. Ma Long’s game is perfectly suited to deal with the Japanese threat and if he keeps his head calm he should see himself comfortably in to the final. That is unless the magician Mizutani is keeping a few tricks up his sleeve…
Hurdles to history
There was talk Zhang Jike would crash out early in Rio after poor performances on the World Tour. Did China make the right selection? It appears so. But he still has one more hurdle to overcome before the critics will be silenced, and that comes in the form of Vladimir Samsonov .
For the first time in his Olympic career Vladi is in medal contention. The most successful player ever on the World Tour, combined with a silver and bronze at World Championships, he has spent more than two decades at the top of the game. Today a gold is certainly not out of reach for the 6ft 3in Belorussian.
However, the numbers aren’t on Vladi’s side — Zhang leads their head to head 4-0. The two faced off in the quarterfinals of London 2012 and Zhang Jike won there 4-3. It should be noted that Samsonov has only ever been knocked out of the Olympic Games in matches that have gone the full distance. Every Olympic loss has been a tough pill to swallow for Vladi. Meanwhile Zhang is defending champion and chasing immortality in a double grand slam.
On the table this is going to be a beautiful game to watch and perhaps promises to be the best men’s match so far. Expect to hear Zhang Jike roar from the beginning and be the most athletic man on the court. Samsonov is will equipped to absorb the barrage of attacks he is likely to face, but will also need to be playing a strong counter game if he is going to get enough points on the board. This match will be a career defining moment for both players and should not be missed.
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