by Kabir Nagpal
The world’s top table tennis players will grace the Olympic Games in Tokyo 2020, when the competition begins 25 July and concludes on 7 August. Keeping that in mind, we have started our preparations to make sure you know exactly who to follow.
Will defending Champions China do it again?
Since table tennis was first introduced in the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, China has won 28 out of 32 possible gold medals.
The defending champions from Rio 2016, Ma Long and Ding Ning, will have their sights set on a repeat performance in Tokyo. Both veterans of the sport have been in glorious form of late, if not entirely able to convert said glory in every tournament.
Ding Ning has been the prime example, with her impressive showings over the past month resulting in two silvers (Korea and Australian Open) and a bronze (T2 Diamond), but no gold across the World Tour and T2 Diamond competitions. Similarly for Ma, having started with two huge wins at the Doha and China Opens he has slightly faded away over recent weeks.
Other expected Chinese elite are Xu Xin and Fan Zhendong, both of whom have had very contrasting starts to 2019. While Xu has been winning tournaments left, right and centre, the former World #1 has hit a downward spiral since the start of the year. Unable to crack the final hurdle at the World Tour events, Fan’s fans are hopeful for a quick turnaround in his fortunes.
For the women’s single’s hopefuls, 2019 world champion Liu Shiwen and current World #1 Chen Meng are both looking highly pumped up for the Olympic Games. Having had the taste of an Olympic Games gold in 2016 with her Chinese national team, Liu is sure to be in the mood for another crack at the singles. Similarly, given the form Chen is in, it will take no more than a minor miracle for her to miss out on a ticket to Tokyo.
Can hosts Japan make home advantage count?
Hosts next year, Japan already have a slight upper hand with six automatically qualified athletes-three men and women, with one athlete each competing in the singles and newly-introduced mixed doubles event. If the 2014 Tokyo World Championships are any evidence, their home advantage may make them the toughest side to beat!
The local fans truly lifted the Japanese women’s team to the silver medal in 2014, following on from the example they set in 1983 at the same venue when they brought home another silver. Their youthful brigade of Tomokazu Harimoto (16) and Mima Ito (18) will be hoping for such a support again as they are expected to qualify and carry on their in-form performances of 2019. After taking the silver medal at the Youth Olympic Games, Harimoto made his ambitions very clear:
“I will do my best to become world number one, world champion, and Olympic champion. I hope table tennis fans support me on my path towards these aims.”
With him quickly being called the “Mozart” of Japanese table tennis, Harimoto may well be carrying the hopes of an entire nation.
Europe’s finest: dark horses or serious challengers?
In the time of legends like Timo Boll from Germany, one would find it rather surprising that the only ever European gold medalist has been Sweden’s Jan-Ove Waldner who took the men’s singles title in 1992 Olympic Games.
Timo himself claimed he wished to make a final effort for the gold at Tokyo, immediately after winning the European Games:
“I don’t feel like the favourite, everybody is very motivated to qualify for the Olympic Games and everyone will be well-prepared. The levels of the players are becoming more equal or closer together, there won’t be easy games from the first round on.”
Fighting hard to join Boll in Tokyo is Patrick Franziska who has outperformed fellow German and former world no.1 Dimitrij Ovtcharov in recent ITTF World Tour events. On current evidence, the battle to join Boll in the singles competition will be hard-fought. Finally, it would be prudent to mention Swedish sensation Mattias Falck who has repeatedly shown his class across the 2019 ITTF World Tour, and is expected to keep the European flag flying high.
Amongst the European women, the entry of a 55-year old China-born Luxembourgian qualifying for Tokyo 2020 has come out as a surprise. Ni Xialian defied odds by winning bronze at the European Games in Minsk, booking her 5th ever ticket to the Olympic Games.
With such a compelling lineup, the question remains if Europe’s finest can bring an end to Asia’s Olympic domination in the sport when 2020 comes.
Experimenting partners: Mixed Doubles’ pairings unpredictable
For the first time at the Olympic Games, a mixed doubles event will be contested in table tennis, adding another opportunity to claim glory. In anticipation, athletes have been experimenting with different partners over the course of this year. In the CTTA president Liu Guoliang’s own words,
“The significance of mixed doubles is increasing in terms of the Olympics preparation. We have dispatched our best mixed doubles combination for the table tennis world here”.
Following their leader, Xu Xin and Liu Shiwen have been at it since the start of 2019, winning the 2019 Korea Open with style. For the hosts, Maharu Yoshimura and Kasumi Ishikawa will want to exact a bit of revenge on home soil against the aforementioned Chinese pairing after losing the 2019 World Championship to them.
Hong Kong’s Doo Hoi Kem and Wong Chun Ting are hot on the trails of getting the spots for Tokyo 2020, after two consecutive wins in Korea and Australian Opens in the past month. Patrick Franziska & Petrissa Solja remain the only pair to have successfully qualified for Tokyo. The German duo secured a mixed doubles gold at the 2019 European Games, and are the best hope for a medal their continent has. South Korean hopefuls Jeon Jihee & Lee Sangsu will have to reignite their 2018 form when they won the Open Down Under if they want to make the Olympic Games.
Asian and European teams to clash again
Finally, for the team events only Germany and hosts Japan have currently secured a place at the Olympic Games. With qualifying very much on right now in Asia, it will be a very close battle for the remaining spots. China are the expected team to qualify next, having won both men and women’s team events in Rio.
Certain dark horses are visible in India, Hong Kong and Korea Republic-with India recently winning three golds at the Commonwealth Championships in Cuttack. There are encouraging signs that all of these national teams could well challenge the status quo of the top three in table tennis.
This is a testament to the extremely competitive level in Asia with every athlete – no matter their ranking – stretching every sinew in their body for a chance to play at the world’s greatest showcase for table tennis.
It may be an entire year until the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, but you can stay up to date on all the action and potential permutations ahead of the event from the world of table tennis right here at ITTF & itTV!