by Ian Marshall, ITTF Publications Editor
At the Rio 2016 Olympic Games it was a totally different German line-up. Han Ying and Shan Xiaona joined forces with Petrissa Solja; for Japan there was one change, Mima Ito replaced the now retired Sayaka Hirano.
In a gruelling contest that lasted some four hours, Germany, the no.3 seeds, beat Japan, the no.2 seeds by three matches to two; a contest that finished in controversy.
Leading 10-9 in the vital fifth game of the fifth and deciding match against Ai Fukuhara, a return from Han Ying clipped the edge of the table; impossible to return. The point was queried by Japan, as to whether the ball had hit the side. Correctly the decision stood, it is a point of fact not a point of law, it is the decision of the umpire. It was delight for Han Ying, she had won in five games (7-11, 11-9, 11-4, 5-11, 11-9). It was desolation for Ai Fukuhara.
“I am sorry for letting my fans down. They supported us so well.” Ai Fukuhara
An electric atmosphere, proceedings commenced with Petrissa Solja facing Mima Ito; the contest set the tone for the engagement. The selection demonstrated the trust that the respective coaches, Germany’s Jie Schöpp and Japan’s Yasukazu Murakami had in the players who were the two youngest in the respective teams.
Mima Ito is 15 years old; Petrissa Solja is seven years the senior but in the Olympic arena, for a 22 year old placed in such a situation, a heavy responsibility is being carried on young shoulders.
The decision went in favour of the more senior player by the narrowest of five game margins (5-11, 11-4, 8-11, 11-6, 12-10) after, in the fifth game, Petrissa Solja had taken a “Time Out” when trailing 2-5 and Mima Ito had done the same when leading 9-8.
Playing consistently, directing her top spin stokes to the middle and to the forehand of Mima Ito, not playing to the backhand the side of the racket which has short pimpled rubber from which the Japanese starlet attacks with venom, Petrissa Solja established a 10-9 lead.
The first match point was saved but not the second, Petrissa Solja leapt in the air and screeched, her doubles partner, Shan Xiaona, standing courtside jumped even higher!
One day earlier for Petrissa Solja it had been despair when losing to Hong Kong’s Doo Hoi Kem (margins (9-11, 11-3, 9-11, 11-9, 14-12) one day later it was unbridled joy.
“We all played with our hearts. We are super happy and can’t believe it. They were favourites going in. My head is spinning and I can’t speak, my thoughts are everywhere. We needed a bit of luck to have a chance.” Petrissa Solja
Success for Germany in five games, in the next encounter, a contest full of long rallies both mentally and physically exhausting, Kasumi Ishikawa gritted her teeth and fought for the Land of the Rising Sun.
Eventually, she overcame the superb defensive skills of Han Ying (6-11, 9-11, 11-6, 11-6, 11-8).
Two full distance five games duels, the third contest, the doubles was no different. Shan Xiaona and Petrissa Solja beat Ai Fukuhara and Mima Ito (11-6, 10-12, 7-11, 11-9, 11-7) but did Yasukazu Murakami, the Japanese National Coach sitting courtside, make a decision he may now live to regret?
In the fourth game with Ai Fukuhara and Mima Ito leading 9-7, he called “Time Out”; Ai Fukuhara and Mima Ito lost the next four points and then the fifth game.
“Before we came here we wanted this medal so badly. When we saw the draw we knew it was possible. We played perfectly.” Petrissa Solja
Germany in the ascendancy, matters were soon levelled; Kasumi Ishikawa overcame the pen-hold grip fast attacking style of play exuded by Shan Xiaona in three straight games (11-2, 13-11, 14-12).
The outcome lay in the hands of Han Ying and Ai Fukuhara. On the ITTF World Tour in 2013 when they met in Germany, Ai Fukuhara had won, as she had in 2015 in the Czech Republic.
However, on their most recent meeting in Austria later in 2015, the verdict had gone in favour of Han Ying.
“I told myself that I am not allowed to think of a medal and just focus on each ball and focus on the game. Now I want to have the medal of the right colour.” Han Ying
In Rio de Janeiro it was success for Han Ying in five tension packed games, a place in the final was booked; moreover a first medal for Germany in a Women’s table tennis event at an Olympic Games was assured but only just. The margin of victory could not have been loser.
— ITTF World (@ittfworld) August 15, 2016