by Ian Marshall, ITTF Publications Editor
First into the lion’s den for Japan was Koki Niwa; for China it was Ma Long.
German Result Repeated Not Hong Kong
At the 2012 Asian Olympic Games Qualification Tournament staged in Hong Kong, Koki Niwa had sensationally beaten Ma Long but on the other six occasions when they had met on the international scene, the Chinese star had prevailed.
Notably earlier this year in January Ma Long had overcome Koki Niwa in four straight games in the second round of the Men’s Singles event at the ITTF World Tour German Open in Berlin.
In Rio de Janeiro it was the same outcome as in Berlin, a straight games result was the verdict but not without a moment of trepidation. In the second game Koki Niwa led 9-4; Ma Long pressed the accelerator, he won the next seven points with Koki Niwa taking a “Time Out” at 9-7.
Ma Long was in the ascendancy, at 8-5 in the third game he elected for a rather cautionary “Time Out” as faster than the speed of sound rallies delighted the packed gallery of fans in the tiered seating. He surrendered just one further point, a straight games win was secured (11-6, 11-9, 11-6).
“I feel very happy because things didn’t go so smoothly tonight; this team gold medal feels a lot heavier than the singles gold medal I won. The scariest moment was the doubles, because Xu Xin had just lost a big second match, so there was only five minutes for him to rest and think about strategy. He did very well to win it. The gold medal is not only achieved by these three players on the court, it is also due to all the supporters from China and the whole Chinese table tennis team, so we feel very proud.” Ma Long
Japan trailing, eyes turned to Jun Mizutani to fulfil the role of saviour; at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, in my view, the 27 year old has played at a new level, the best of his life.
He faced Xu Xin, a player against whom he does not have the best of memories. At the 2010 Asian Championships in the Indian city of Lucknow, Jun Mizutani led Xu Xin 10-7 and 11-10 in the deciding game of their contest in the final of the Men’s Team event; Xu Xin saved all four match points and won the match.
Earlier this year on the ITTF World Tour in Kuwait, in the deciding game of their Men’s Singles quarter-final clash, Jun Mizutani led 10-4, only for Xu Xin to win the next eight points, to steal the victory.
In Rio de Janeiro, the recovery act was not performed; in fact it was Jun Mizutani who arguably completed a fight-back. He won the first two games, lost the next two and with the crowd enthralled by the quality of the rallies, trailed 7-10 in the decider. Incredibly to the cries of “Nippon, Nippon, Nippon”, he won the next five points(12-10, 11-9, 3-11, 7-11, 12-10). Retribution for Lucknow and Kuwait was gained.
“I am very happy that we won the gold medal. We achieved the goal that we set ourselves; though unfortunately I lost my individual match. Mizutani was very aggressive and fought very hard. When I reached match point I became more cautious and reserved, which allowed him to win. The doubles was very crucial. Although Zhang Jike twisted his waist in the previous match, he seemed to have forgotten his pain in this match.” Xu Xin
In earlier rounds for the doubles, China had always selected Xu Xin and Zhang Jike, the reigning World champions; Japan had always chosen Koki Niwa and Maharu Yoshimura. In the final it was the same.
Thus in the whole of both the Men’s Team and Women’s Team events, no coach had ever changed the doubles line-up. Did we not think that was an intriguing option when the system was devised? The coaches at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games clearly thought otherwise.
Memories of Suzhou
A history of recovery, Xu Xin and Zhang Jike also possessed a history of recovery when facing Japanese pairs.
At the quarter-final stage of the Men’s Doubles event at the Qoros 2015 World Championships in Suzhou, Xu Xin and Zhang Jike had trailed Masataka Morizono and Yuya Oshima 8-10 in the deciding seventh game. They won the next four points to steal victory.
“My back injury worsened after the team semi-finals, affecting my sleep and I can’t run much. It was my great desire to win and to perform well in the team event that kept me going.” Zhang Jike
There was to be no dramatic repeat in Rio de Janeiro but there were some nervous moments for the Chinese supporters after Koki Niwa and Maharu Yoshimura captured the opening game. However, the next three games went to Xu Xin and Zhang Jike (4-11, 11-6, 11-9, 11-5).
Ma Long Secures Victory
The balance was now heavily in favour of China; into the arena came Ma Long to face Maharu Yoshimura.
Ma Long made no mistake, he beat Maharu Yoshimura in three straight games (11-1. 11-4, 11-4) China celebrated, the title had been retained.
“They did great, every one of them played well, and we are very touched by this victory. These 12 days at the Olympic Games felt like years to us, the pressure is immense. Ma Long, Zhang Jike and Xu Xin have given in so much for this, and they finally got what they deserved. Every time there are comments that we are unbeatable, it adds on to my pressure. I have to keep myself clear in the mind, because any loss of concentration could cause us to fall.” Liu Guoliang
Add Xu Xin
The win meant that in Men’s Table Tennis events at an Olympic Games, Xu Xin became the 14th Chinese player to win gold.
Overall in male competitions, China has now won a total of 13 titles with 24 gold medals being presented.
They have won the Men’s Singles title on four occasions. Also they won the Men’s Doubles title on all five occasions the event was staged.
Now they have won the Men’s Team gold medal on all three occasions the event has been held.
In 2008 when the competition was first staged it was Ma Lin, Wang Hao and Wang Liqin; now in 2016 it is Ma Long, Xu Xin and Zhang Jike; the dynasty continues.