by Simon Daish
Runners up last year when the Team World Cup was hosted in London and seeded second for the men’s event this time around, expectations surrounding Japan were very high heading into the group phase of the tournament.
However, against the odds, a shock 3-1 defeat was experienced against last year’s hosts England; an early set back to bring the nation’s sky-high ambitions down to earth.
The opening match defeat left Japan in a desperate situation, requiring a win in their second group stage fixture against a more than capable adversary in Austria. Lose again and nothing short of disaster awaited.
Little margin for error, hosts Japan were out to gain their respect back against the Austrians, a feat they achieved with devastating effect as the trio of Tomokazu Harimoto, Koki Niwa and Maharu Yoshimura guided to the home team through with a 3-1 victory.
Relief but daunting test to come
Emotions of sheer relief reverberated throughout the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium as Japan avoided an unimaginable group elimination. However, there was little time for celebration as the focus quickly shifted towards the quarter-finals and another difficult challenge, Germany being the opponents.
Everyone who follows the sport closely knew to expect a gruelling match and so when European champions Germany struck first with Patrick Franziska and Timo Boll’s doubles success against Koki Niwa and Maharu Yoshimura (7-11, 11-2, 11-5, 11-5) the key for the hosts was to keep their composure – the night was still young!
Before long 16 year old superstar Tomokazu Harimoto pulled Japan back into the tie with his fantastic outing against former World no.1 Dimitrij Ovtcharov (11-8, 9-11, 11-8, 11-2). Then, despite carrying huge pressure on his shoulders, Maharu Yoshimura tapped into the energy emitted from the home crowd to claim a mighty upset, toppling one of the all-time legends in Timo Boll by a 3-0 score-line (11-7, 11-9, 13-11)!
From the back foot, all of a sudden Japan found themselves 2-1 in front and just one win away from a place in the last four. However, Germany refused to give up the fight as Patrick Franziska made life difficult for Tomokazu Harimoto in the fourth fixture of the evening, saving three match point opportunities in game four, going on to hold game point himself. Harimoto remained calm and collected to cancel his opponent’s advantage and soon after, buoyed by the support of the Tokyo crowd, the teenage ace roared to victory (7-11, 11-7, 11-7, 14-12).
Joyous scenes followed as Harimoto ran towards his teammates and coaching team, high fiving each and everyone of them. All the while, the local fans erupted into rapturous applause. The atmosphere was electric – Japan was through to the semi-finals on home soil! The defeat at the hands of England now but a distant memory.
It just so happens that members of the Japanese Rugby Union team, that captured the hearts of fans across the globe at the recent 2019 Rugby World Cup, were present in the hall. Just as they inspired millions with their performances on the pitch, they too appear to have inspired a memorable victory for Japanese table tennis.
Acting as a dress rehearsal for the 2020 Olympic Games, with twists and turns at every corner and celebratory scenes like none other, Tokyo has really embraced the ZEN-NOH 2019 ITTF Team World Cup so far. If Tokyo 2019 is anything to go by, then we’re are in for a treat when Tokyo 2020 comes to town!
Show-stopping contest to come
Many would have expected to see hosts Japan take on reigning champions China in the gold medal match but the two table tennis behemoths will meet one round earlier in an epic semi-final clash.
China head into the encounter as overwhelming favourites having beaten Japan in 23 out of their 24 head-to-head meetings on the international stage. In fact you have to go back to the 1957 World Championships in Stockholm to find Japan’s one and only victory over Team China in the men’s team category.
Nonetheless, you can be sure to see a mighty fine battle unfold on Saturday afternoon and with all the amazing stories to come out of the event so far, maybe, just maybe, there could be a twist in the tale for the home crowd to celebrate.