06 Mar 2017

Twelve men, 3000 spectators, one day and a million yen prize up top for the winner.

by Wade Townsend

On Saturday 4th March the Yoyogi National Gymnasium opened its doors to a sellout crowd for the Japan Top 12. Four groups of three players, with only the top finisher progressing to the semi-finals. It was a pressure cooker situation that would inspire some physics defying play.

The morning had barely got underway when the tournament found its first casualty.

Kenta Matsudaira  was 3-6 down in the first game against Jin Ueda, when he went for a half-long ball with his forehand. He whiffed the ball but not the table; his thumb had had a run in with the corner.

At the sight of blood he left the court, took a seat and was immediately attended to by a medic. The thumb was iced, bandaged and Kenta was back on the court ten minutes later.

From 3-7 down Matsudaira managed to take the first game in deuce.

But with the score levelled at a game a piece and three all, Kenta was having bandage problems. He removed the gauze and carried on. But a couple of points later Matsudiara abruptly forfeited the match and withdrew from the tournament, leaving 3000 disappointed fans.

Was it more than just a cut thumb? Health and safety may dictate rounded table edges in the future.

On the court next door Koki Niwa was being unusually passive against Yuto Kizukuri. The junior was sticking to his guns and playing aggressive yet consistent table tennis. No flair from Niwa was going to upset Kizukuri’s rhythm as he managed to chip away at the scorecards and find his way in to a fifth game.

At 9-8 in the fifth both barriers and Niwa were knocked down. It was a loop to loop rally that covered the entire court. But it was Kizukuri who sent Niwa rolling along the ground as he pushed his opponent wide to the backhand. A time out followed.

With no coaches on the bench, it was a minute of self-help for both players. Niwa appeared to be the Tony Robinns of table tennis and levelled the score at 10-10.

Then came a moment were Koki Niwa would either look a genius or a fool. A backhand serve. Kizukuri seemed surprised as Niwa prepared to make the the serve, adjusting his stance and looking fidgety. The ball was tossed, the bat swung, it was going long wide to Kizukuri’s forehand; the junior hadn’t prepared for this scenario.

But it was a little too wide. The serve missed the table, giving Kizukuri the advantage. He seized the chance and won the match, leaving Niwa with an almost impossible task of making it beyond the group stage.

At the other end of the hall Tomokazu Harimoto was discovering he can’t out ‘choolee’ Takuya Jin. It was Simba’s meow versus Mufasa’s roar. Every time the cadet lost the point his body would droop like a puppet who’s had its strings cut. Jin simply had more power and was dominating the court with his forehand; he won in three straight games.

Next up for the Harimoto was 2017 All Japan finalist Kazuhiro Yoshimura. Yoshimura took the lead by keeping the ball short and finding the angle wide to Harimoto’s forehand, the obviously weaker side.  But then the game changed. Yoshimura opened with his backhand and took a step away from the table looking to play loop to loop rallies. He may have been comfortable, but comfort isn’t always your best option.

Harimoto punished him, keeping close to the table and making his trademark bullet backhands counters. Yoshimura couldn’t cover the court quick enough three metres away from the table and lost 11-6 in the fifth.

As Harimoto was giving a lesson on backhand play, Kaii Yoshida was teaching Koki Niwa a thing or two about forehands. Serving and finding forehands on every inch of the table Yoshida took the first game in deuce.

In between games Yoshiida munched on an energy bar, but he wasn’t going to need it. Physically superior on court and seemingly a titan amongst men, the pengrip pro made it a short lived tournament for Niwa.

Koki Niwa used to be full of surprises, but now even his trick shots are expected and covered by his opponents. Yoshiida won the third game 11-6, leaving the audience wondering if Niwa has ran out of tricks up his sleeve.

The match a barrier across was taking a little longer. Jun Mizutani was on the court for the first time that day. Little did everyone know it would also be his last.

Mizutani was up against Jin Ueda, who had previously destroyed Kenta’s thumb with a deft half long push. His short play remained on point. He tangled Mizutani up in the short game, and disguised long pushes out wide to both wings.

If he handled Mizutani’s magician serves then he always looked favourite for the point. Soon Ueda found himself with a 2-1 lead.

By the end of the fourth the pair were in a deadlock for who could dominate the back of the court. Mizutani wasn’t taking his chances fishing and was looking for topspins off both sides of the racket. Ueda was throwing his powerful legs beneath the ball loading it up with heavy topspin. The crowd couldn’t be happier.

But Mizutani was always playing catchup. Despite the nervous play from Ueda he was able to maintain the lead.

The match was over. The crowd applauded and both Ueda and Mizutani waved to the audience. It was a quick exit from Mizutani but like always he put on a show.

With the number one seed out of the event Maharu Yoshimura and Yuki Hirano were playing for more than just top of the group, they were now play for a rare chance at making the knockout draw without Mizutani in sight.

Hirano took to the court wearing skins under his shirt, making him look like Steve Jobs in his black turtleneck. Yoshimura was bounding on the spot like a prize fighter. It was a swingy match played almost entirely three metres from the table.

After exchanging sets the players found themselves at 6 all in the fifth. Backhand misses and long serves from Yoshimura put Hirano in to a 9-6 lead. But a three point lead is easily assailable and the score was quickly 9-9.

Then came a chance. Hirano had 10-9 and a simple ball. He pivoted around the backhand corner and let rip; but he had made beautiful contact with the air and nothing else. Hirano inspected the racket, but no hole could be found. 10 all.

What followed could best be described as a momentary lapse of reason from Yuki Hirano. Yoshimura made one short serve with his rubber like arm and Hirano went for a flick of high ambitions that never looked good. It seemed to be played out of frustration rather than tactic. The next rally he hooked an early forehand wide, sending the ball flying off the table. 12-10 to Yoshimura and a place in the semi-final secured. One more spot remaining.

Both Yoshiida and Kizukuri had dispatched of Niwa, making for a surprise semi-finalist. Yoshida’s style may be a  relic, but he never looked in trouble against the so called new and improved style. Kizukuri looked like he needed a few extra kilograms of muscle before he can mix it with the likes of Yoshida.

It was another 3-0 win for Yoshida and salute to his player’s box was in order.

The stage for the semi-finals was set. Takuya Jin against Maharu Yoshimura and Jin Ueda versus Kaii Yoshida.

The rest of the world should take note; no athlete representing Japan at the Liebherr 2017 World Table Tennis Championships progressed past the group stage.

Stay tuned for the review of the finals.

Tomokazu Harimoto Jun Mizutani Maharu Yoshimura Koki Niwa Jin Ueda Kaii Yoshida Takuya Jin Yuki Hirano