09 Dec 2019

The tears said it all; after securing the point that clinched the women’s singles title at the 2019 ITTF Challenge Plus Benemax-Virgo North American Open in the Greater Toronto city of Markham on the evening of Sunday 8th December, tears welled in the eyes of Japan’s Kasumi Ishikawa.

Politely, she shook hands with her worthy opponent, followed by the officials, before sitting quietly in the chair courtside, her head buried in her towel as emotion took over.

by Ian Marshall, Editor

Memories of the London 2012 Olympic Games came flooding back, when on Sunday 5th August in the ExCeL arena, partnering Sayaka Hirano at the semi-final stage of the women’s team event, the duo had beaten Li Jiawei and Wang Yuegu (11-3, 13-11, 11-4) to secure a 3-0 win for Japan against Singapore and a place in the final. Tears flowed in torrents.

More significantly, after a wait of almost a quarter of a century, Japan had clinched its first ever medal in the table tennis events at an Olympic Games, the sport having been introduced in 1988 in the Korean Republic capital city of Seoul.

The emotion was understandable, it was success at the greatest show on earth; so why a similar response in Markham?

Overcame compatriots

Undoubtedly, the 2019 ITTF Challenge Plus Benemax-Virgo North American Open is most valuable tournament and good to see such an event taking place in Canada. However, it is not a world title competition, it is not an ITTF World Tour tournament, it is the next level.

Quite simply, Kasumi Ishikawa had justified her top seeded status and had endorsed the fact she is very much at the vanguard of her country’s quest for major honours. On the concluding day of play she had beaten compatriots, Miyu Kato, the no.4 seed, in the semi-final (11-6, 7-11, 11-6, 15-13, 11-8), Miu Hirano, the no.2 seed, in the final (11-9, 11-8, 1-11, 14-12, 6-11, 12-10).

Playing teammates is fraught with danger; ranking, past results count for naught, all are accustomed to each other’s styles and strengths; it takes an extra degree of focus to succeed in such contests. In Markham, Kasumi Ishikawa was mentally strong, single minded, a player with a definitive goal; no doubt one of the reasons for the emotion when the final point was won.

Mature display

Moreover, she gave a most mature display, she was rock solid; she withstood the barrage of uninhibited attacking play from her younger adversaries.

Significantly, in the third round and quarter-finals she recorded straight games wins in opposition to most dangerous opponents in the guise China’s Zhang Qiang, the no.27 seed (11-7, 11-4, 11-9, 11-9) and qualifier, Wang Xiaotong (11-3, 11-6, 13-11, 11-6).

Accepted her top seeded position suggested that she should win but more than once a non-seeded Chinese player has upset the apple cart. In Markham, colleagues Hina Hayata and Saki Shibata both fell to Chinese qualifiers; Hina Hayata, the no.5 seed lost to Guo Yuhan (12-10, 9-11, 12-10, 11-9, 5-11, 13-11); Saki Shibata was beaten by Yang Huijing (11-13, 11-5, 11-8, 8-11, 11-8, 9-11, 11-6). There were no such travails for Kasumi Ishikawa.

Drought ended

Furthermore, Kasumi Ishikawa brought to an end a period of some 16 months without a women’s singles title at an open international tournament, her most recent success being on the ITTF World Tour in August 2018 in the Czech Republic. One of the effects of the drought being that she is now listed at no.10 on the women’s world rankings; one year ago in December 2018, she occupied the no.3 spot.

In Markham, Kasumi Ishikawa struck gold but more importantly she proved herself; in recent years much focus has been directed, most understandably, to the successes gained by Mima Ito, Miu Hirano and Hina Hayata, all born in 2000.

Equally, there is any even younger group spearheaded by Miyu Nagasaki, Miyuu Kihara and Haruna Ojio attracting attention; all are major contenders for places in the Japanese first team, all are biting at the heels of Kasumi Ishikawa.

Experienced both scenarios

It is a situation that once applied to Kasumi Ishikawa, in her teenage years she caused upset after upset.

Third place in 2007 in Hanoi in the Asian Cup when only 14 years old; on her World Championships debut in 2009 in Yokohama, when only 16 years old, she caused a sensation. She trailed Hong Kong’s Tie Yana by three games to nil, was down 3-7 in the fourth and won (8-11, 8-11, 5-11, 12-10, 11-9, 11-5, 11-8); she reached the quarter-finals losing to China’s Zhang Yining (11-4, 7-11, 11-4, 11-4, 11-7), the champion elect.

Now in 2019, Kasumi Ishikawa is 26 years old, the senior member of the team, she is the player who must respond to the rising generation to keep her place in the first team. She is the player with experience; in the major tournaments on the international calendar that factor could well prove vital.

In Markham she responded in style; also, she has received a major confidence boost, add the experience and could those factors make the vital difference at the impending Agricultural Bank of China 2019 ITTF World Tour Grand Finals? Time will tell but for Kasumi Ishikawa the signs are positive.

Play starts in Zhengzhou on Thursday 12th December.

Challenge Series Grand Finals 2019 Grand Finals 2019 North America Kasumi Ishikawa

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Day 3 - 2019 ITTF Challenge Plus Benemax-Virgo North American Open