By James Francis
Tomokazu HARIMOTO defeated ZHAO Zihao (CHN) (11-6, 12-14, 11-5, 13-11, 13-15, 11-4) to get his hands on the men’s singles gold medal after CHEN Xingtong overcame HE Zhuojia (11-4, 7-11, 12-10, 11-6, 11-4) in an all-Chinese women’s singles final.
The results wrapped up an exciting six days in eastern Europe, which produced a first ever international title for mixed doubles pair Mima ITO and Jun MIZUTANI (JPN).
Meanwhile, JEOUNG Youngsik and LEE Sangsu (KOR) sealed gold in the men’s doubles, as GU Yuting and MU Zi (CHN) were crowned women’s doubles champions.
HARIMOTO BACK ON TRACK?
The youngest ever winner of an ITTF World Tour Grand Finals last December in Incheon, Korea Republic, Tomokazu HARIMOTO had not won on the ITTF World Tour yet in 2019 as his world ranking fell from third to fifth.
Ever the determined competitor, the 16-year-old was a confident and consistent performer in Panagyurishte, dropping just five games en route to the men’s singles title, as he out-thought and out-fought his opponents, one by one.
Entering the event as top seed, and with so many of China’s star players absent, anything other than a gold medal would have been seen as a missed opportunity for Harimoto, who saw off Marcos FREITAS (POR) in straight games (11-8, 11-9, 11-4, 11-8) to set up a showdown with ZHAO Zihao.
Nobody had managed to deal with the Chinese 22-year-old’s electric speed from the qualification rounds up until the final, however Harimoto simply had too much for the world no.110, who had threatened to maintain his nation’s perfect streak in the men’s singles competition on the 2019 ITTF World Tour following impressive victories over higher-ranked opponents, Simon GAUZY (FRA), Darko JORGIC (SLO), Dimitrij OVTCHAROV (GER) and Quadri ARUNA (NGR).
“I feel very strong mentally and, even though I lost a couple of games during the final, I managed to fight and never gave up. I kept going and ended up winning. I’m not going to take things easy now. I’ll keep pushing on to reach new heights.” Tomokazu Harimoto
MISSED OPPORTUNITY FOR MIMA ITO?
Going into the final day, 2nd seed Mima Ito (JPN) would have fancied her chances of silverware as the highest ranked women’s player remaining. The 18-year-old was leading CHEN Xingtong 3-2 in their rollercoaster semi-final, before the Chinese 11th seed fought back to claim the most hard-fought of victories (6-11, 11-4, 11-7, 9-11, 9-11, 11-6, 11-7).
Awaiting her in the final was 20-year-old chopper HE Zhuojia (CHN), who had defeated compatriot WU Yang earlier in the day. The key moment of the final came in the third game when He fought back from 8-3 down to level at 10-10 but Chen staved off the comeback to take a confidence-boosting 2-1 lead in the match, and the 22-year-old pressed on to get her hands on her fourth career women’s singles title on the ITTF World Tour.
ITO & MIZUTANI – OLYMPIC FORMULA?
Bronze in Korea and silver in Australia, Mima ITO and Jun MIZUTANI always seemed destined to win mixed doubles gold in Bulgaria, as they made it third time lucky in only their third ever appearance as a pair in an international event.
The Japanese duo defeated MA Te and WU Yang in Saturday’s final (11-8, 12-10, 9-11, 11-9) after a landslide semi-final victory over compatriots Tomokazu HARIMOTO and Kasumi ISHIKAWA the previous day (11-2, 11-3, 11-6). How important could that result be in the decision-making behind Japan’s mixed doubles partnership at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games?
KOREANS SEAL CONSECUTIVE GOLDS
JEOUNG Youngsik and LEE Sangsu (KOR) made it two men’s doubles titles in as many ITTF World Tour events. The pair followed up on victory at July’s Australian Open with gold in Bulgaria, where they fought back from behind to defeat Yukiya UDA and Kazuhiro YOSHIMURA (JPN) in the final (4-11, 11-4, 11-9, 11-8). A proven formula on the men’s doubles circuit, this was their sixth success in total on the ITTF World Tour.
Meanwhile in the women’s doubles, unseeded pair GU Yuting and MU Zi (CHN) blew away their 5th-seeded opponents Miu HIRANO and Saki SHIBATA (JPN) in just three games (11-7, 11-6, 11-5).
“QUADRI BALBOA” LIGHTS UP BULGARIA!
Saturday night entertainment saw most sensational scenes play out in Panagyurishte, as 10th seed Quadri ARUNA (NGR) stunned 4th seed Jun MIZUTANI (JPN) to reach his first ITTF World Tour semi-final since 2017, also in Bulgaria!
Trailing 1-2 on games, Aruna went on to show the sort of fighting spirit that Rocky Balboa himself would have been proud of! The Nigerian saved two game points in game four before going on to recover from 4-9 down to win game five. Mizutani responded well to claim game six, forcing a decider: 9-6 down, the Japanese heavyweight refused to give up the fight and held two match point opportunities. However, Aruna showed nerves of steel, saving both points before going on to finish the job (8-11, 11-9, 6-11, 12-10, 11-9, 4-11, 13-11). This was an unforgettable night for Nigeria, for Africa and for the world of table tennis as a whole.
MOVING ON TO OLOMOUC!
The ninth event of the 2019 ITTF World Tour will see a number of star players battle it out for honours at the Czech Open in Olomouc.
Qualification rounds will take place between Tuesday 20th and Wednesday 21st August, before the main event between Thursday 22nd and Sunday 25th August.