09 Mar 2017

Twelve men, twelve women, 3,000 spectators, one day and a million yen prize up top for the winner.

by Wade Townsend

With Mizutani, Niwa, Matsudaira and Harimoto all unable to make it out of the group stage, the Men’s Singles semi-finals provided the sell-out crowd in the Yoyogi National Gymnasium with a surprising lineup.

First up, Takuya Jin and Maharu Yoshimura. The pair didn’t take long to get in to the match and were quickly breaking balls with their hammering forehands.

It looked all to be going Yoshimura’s way. He was calm and cool throughout, not making a sound but racking up points.

Then halfway in the third game Jin tried to dominate the table, at least vocally. He gave the vocal chords a workout and tried to muster at least some form of comeback. Jin was swinging big and the veins were swelling to sizes that would make a martial arts anime character proud.

He was able to get one game on the board. But that one game seemed to cost him. Jin had run out of steam.

Yoshimura took 8-0 lead in the fifth game. There was no coming back for Jin. Maharu Yoshimura quietly crept in to the final without a sound.

The other semi-final matchup was Kaii Yoshida and Jin Ueda.

Ueda, the Mizutani slayer, quickly took a 1-0 lead. Yoshida rallied his way in to deuce in the second game. However a backhand down the line from Ueda left Yoshida gawking as it flew past, while Yoshida could only let an expletive fly. An overkill attempt at a backhand winner from Yoshida went sailing to the barrier, giving Ueda a 2-0 lead.

Yoshida took the third 11-8, using his serves to get out of sticky situations and kept his composure in the fourth to level the score 2-2.

Then came a moment of controversy at 4-1 in the fith. Ueda slowed the rally down signally clothes contact with the ball from Yoshida. After Yoshida returned the ball Ueda didn’t continue play and let the ball go; but the umpire hadn’t called the point. Discussion ensued.

Ueda seemed to make the more convincing argument or at least used a Jedi mind trick. Unimpressed Yoshida gave a sarcastic applause, but let the matter be.

But don’t poke the bear. 5-1 soon become 6-6. Yoshida had channeled his anger in a positive way, and Ueda only found three points after the clothes debacle. A super backhand from the back of the court with more topspin then a pengrip backhand can generate without defying the laws of physics gave Yoshida the game.

The match found its way in to a seventh game. Kaii ws the more animated of the pair, and took the first three points. But his animation turned antsy when his 3-0 lead turned in to 3-6 down. He was even biting his fingers, but that hardly helped.

Ueda made some high heavy topspins which Yoshida failed to smother with his backhand. Jin Ueda took the seventh 11-7 and moved in to the finals of the Japan Top 12.

Ishikawa is back on top in Japan with the Top 12 title. (Photo: Monthly World Table Tennis)

In the women’s half other than a clash between Mima Ito and Miu Hirano which sent Hirano packing, the group stage of the women’s event went according to expectations.

The semi-finals were a balanced setup of defence versus attack. Honoka Hashimoto versus Mima Ito in one half and Hitomi Sato up against Kasumi Ishikawa in the other.

The two defenders also appeared in the 2017 All Japan Championships semi-finals and have been putting in a consistent performance over the last twelve months. However the gap between them and Japan’s top ranked women is still large.

Other than a momentary lapse in concentration from Mima Ito in which she dropped one game in deuce, neither defender ever looked like pushing their opponent. Is it a matter of experience? Or perhaps new techniques are still needed before the defensive player can truly compete with the new plastic ball? Either way both Mima Ito and Kasumi Ishikawa made it through to the final without working up a sweat.

When the pair made it out on to the court for the final it was clear that this was the match the crowd had been waiting for. Loud cheers came from the audience as the herd of media huddled around the players.

Ishikawa raced to 11-3 win the first game. She pummelled Mima’s backhand. Ball after ball on to the corner. Then once Mima’s feet had cemented to the ground Kasumi would send a ball wide to forehand; Mima couldn’t even get her bat to the ball.

The tactic continued in the second game a Mima attempted to make pivots around the backhand corner  but without much success. Kasumi was using her wingspan to her advantage; the table must have felt a metre wider for Mima. The score was once again 11-3. It was gearing up to be one fast final.

Then came a chance at 8-8 in the third. Ishikawa served long out wide, it was almost an ace but just retrieved by Ito. It proved to be a turning point. 9-11 to Mima, closing the gap 2-1.

As the fourth game got underway it become clear that it was all about timing on backhand corner for the young challenger. Find the right timing and the short pimples can be a wall. A little off your timing and you struggle. Ishikawa was once again on sending ball after ball to Mima’s backhand, hardly varying the position. But with the pimple backhand misfiring it was deja vu and Ishikawa took the fourth 11-4.

It was clear that this was Ishikawa’s game to lose. And she made a decent effort at doing just that in the fifth game, completely misfiring on every stroke and gifting Ito the game 4-11 Mima.

So once the sixth game came around Kasumi decided to let off some steam. It was the first time she had used her voice all match and it was only at one all. The audible outburst kickstarted her engine and also the crowd.  One member of the audience took it upon himself to be Kasumi’s cheerleader; “One point! One point!” “Don’t mind!”. Japan’s number one woman charged in to the lead and didn’t look back. The winner’s cheque had her name on it as she took the final game 11-6.

Jin Ueda survived a tough draw to take the title. (Photo: Monthly World Table Tennis)

When the women’s final had finished a third of the crowd left the stadium. While in the rest of the world it is usually the men’s games that attracts the larger crowds, in Japan it is the opposite. The women are the superstars and can be seen staring in advertisements on any of the trains in Tokyo. So with a downsized audience the men’s finalists took the court.

With the biggest names not making it out of the group stage, going in to the final Yoshimura was at least on paper the favourite; an All Japan champion with a higher world ranking, thats where the smart money was.

And yet Ueda managed a 10-6 lead. But was it nerves, choking or just smart play from Maharu, the lead evaporated to 10-10. Once the score was at 14-14 the crowd knew that this was going to a be a classic deuce game.

At 17-16 up Ueda had had enough and decided a timeout was in order. Frustration was clearly growing after so many game points. Without a coach in sight Ueda turned to an energy drink for inspiration. But it was another missed opportunity and the score was tied once again.

Another chance for Ueda, 18-17 and the first sign of frustration from Yoshimura. He let out a cry of  dislike for the point. But then luck was on his side. He was gifted a net that was somehow retried by Ueda, but Yoshimura sent a backhand smash winner right at his opponent’s face. Another game point saved and Yoshimura was left apologising for both the net and the headshot smash.

But all good things must come to an end. Yoshimura’s serve went long, giving Ueda a simple opening and another chance at taking the game. This time he didn’t falter an took the game 20-18.

Then came another pivotal moment in the third. Ueda was moving across to the centre of the table to serve. The change of angle gave the challenger a 10-8 advantage. Once again it was Yoshimura’s serve that was his downfall. At 10-9 down he served half long to the forehand, not a great idea. 11-9 to Ueda.

There was some fourth set deja vu with Maharu once again playing catchup. A 9-5 lead for Ueda turned in to 9-10 down. Closing out games had been a problem for Jin the entire day; fortunately luck was on his side. In deuce, Ueda missed the centre of his racket, sending an uncontrollable top edge winner.  With a miraculous running backhand winner Ueda took the game and control of the match.

The fifth game was pure cruise control for Yoshimura and the players were back at their corners in no time. When they came back things would be different.

Quickly it was 7-4 to Ueda. How was he continuing to get the advantage? Jin’s weapon of the day had to be the long forehand push in to the backhand. It was fast and disguised, camouflaged behind his short push, and what had proved successful against Mizutani, Yoshida and now paying dividends in the final.

Yoshimura was displaying a boxer’s attitude.He kept getting knocked down but was on his feet and dancing on toes. It was a positive display that hopefully the junior players were taking note of.

At 10-6 down, Yoshimura had a problem with the ball being wet. The break in play worked for a while, as Yoshimura clawed back two points. But it was just delaying the inevitable. Ueda won the next point and after a stellar and consistence performance was now the surprise Japan Top 12 champion.

Final placings:

Men
1st Jin Ueda
2nd Maharu Yoshimura
3rd Takuya Jin & Kaii Yoshida

Women
1st Kasumi Ishikawa
2nd Mima Ito
3rd Hitomi Sato & Honoka Hashimoto

General News Kasumi Ishikawa Mima Ito Maharu Yoshimura Jin Ueda