by Wade Townsend
Ai Fukuhara made her World Championship debut in 2003 in Paris. ‘Ai’ means love in Japanese so it was only destiny she would find herself stepping on to the world’s biggest stage in the City of Love. The soon to be queen of Japanese table tennis made the quarter-finals, and while she lost to Zhang Yining it was a match that changed everything. Why? Because she was only 14 years old at the time.
Thousands of parents were watching at home, and they all had the same idea; start ‘em early. Fourteen years later we are now living in the age of the Japanese kid genius.
Tomokazu Harimoto, Miu Hirano, Mima Ito, these are just kids, rugrats, little rascals. Where’s the hair on their chest (ladies excluded)? They are ankle biters that somehow made a move for our jugular.
Did they all take too higher dose of manga and anime? Watching kids running off to fight evil has been their childhood. Sailor Moon, Gohan, Ash and trusty sidekick Pikachu. They get these grand ideas of adventure and world domination through battles of cuteness. Japan is a Peter Pan culture of idolised adolescence. It’s a child’s world and the Lost Boys are going to give you a beating on the table. Stay young, stay kawaii.
In 2016 Miu Hirano got pumped listening to the candied beats of J-pop autotune, stepped out on to the court and added a World Cup to her name. To borrow a phrase from the great sports commentator Sid Waddell; “When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer; Miu Hirano is only 16.”
What they have going for them? They can’t vote, gamble or enjoy any of the distractions we are endowed through adulthood. They don’t have home loans or heartbreak. But they have flexibility and fearlessness. Sure their muscles aren’t there, but these kids have got the muscle that counts; big hearts.
Yet they are a pre-speed glue generation. They never breathed the sweet fumes of the gluing table, that social space where there was a Mean Girls level hierarchy. Do they know we used to play to 21 points? They don’t have nostalgia for 38mm balls.
Am I just a disillusioned Millennial, jealous of Generation Z; they don’t know how good they have it. They never knew the stigma of ping pong. Comic book movies are in vogue and table tennis is thriving in this new world of nerdom. The tech industry has turned the table tennis hall in to a hipster haven where doing a reverse serve will win you a decent amount of social cred. Fashion flows to where the money is, and nerds have inherited the earth.
So why is table tennis unique? Why are children taking over? Chess has the child prodigy, but they can sit at the table with the big boys using booster seats. Table tennis isn’t so kind. Mozart was composing from the age of five, but the classical boy genius was dealing with a less physical field. What about other sports? Wasn’t Tiger Woods, a child prodigy? He was pretty good at golf, but he wasn’t competing with the men when he was 13 was he? Sorry Tiger, compared to our table tennis tots you’re just a wannabe prodigy.
That’s right, our sport is special. Compared to basketball or tennis, table tennis is an equaliser. Physical prowess will ultimately lose to skill.
In our sport you just need to be able to see over the table, the net is optional.