31 Dec 2019

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again; it was to some extent the story for Japan’s Mima Ito in 2019 but perhaps more pertinently, it was a year of consistency, step by step progress.

Most certainly wherever she played, she was very much the player in focus, the player to challenge the very best.

by Ian Marshall, Editor

On the ITTF World Tour, she made a total of 11 appearances, the first of the year in Hungary being the only omission, the tournament clashing with the Japanese National Championships, an event of high prestige for those from the Land of the Rising Sun.

She finished the year in second place on the women’s singles standings, behind China’s Sun Yingsha; in order to gain such a high finish a player must be consistent, Mima Ito was very much the model of consistency. It also reflects that she was by some distance the main challenger to Chinese excellence.

Style of play

Severe on the first three attacking strokes; the backhand using short pimpled rubber has somewhat confounded the logic that since the table tennis ball increased in size to 40 millimetres and is a made of plastic, the ball will travel slower. Thus the such a style resigned to history. Significantly, the leading Chinese players of the year, He Zhoujia apart, all use the smooth reversed rubber on both sides of the racket.

Notably, in the guise of 15 Miyuu Kihara, the style continues, the suggestion that as rubber technology has evolved, the difference from when the ball was 38 millimetres and made of celluloid is somewhat minimal, in fact can be counted as negligible.

It is how the player uses the racket that is important. Mima Ito uses the racket very well, she is the world expert; it is those fast backhand attacking strokes which have caused adversaries nightmares.

Later rounds

Most impressively in Qatar and Korea Republic she reached the quarter-finals, the semi-finals in China, Australia and Bulgaria. She was the runner up in Hong Kong, Sweden and Germany; eventually in Austria the winner.

The only occasions when she did not reach the last eight came somewhat surprising on home soil in Sapporo and later in the year in the Czech Republic. In Sapporo she experienced a first round exit at the hands of Singapore’s Yu Mengyu, a player she had earlier beaten in Hong Kong and was later to overcome in Bulgaria; in the Czech Republic she suffered in round two when opposing China’s Chen Xingtong.

Meanwhile, at the Grand Finals, it was a penultimate round exit at the hands of China’s Cheng Meng, the champion elect; earlier in the year at the Liebherr 2019 World Championships in Budapest, she had also experienced defeat at Chinese hands when losing in round three to Sun Yingsha.

Notable wins

Defeats at against prominent Chinese names but in 2019 no player did better when facing highly world ranked adversaries from the nation accepted universally as the super power of the sport.

On the ITTF World Tour, most creditably in China she beat Wang Yidi and Ding Ning; in Sweden she accounted for Wang Manyu and Sun Yingsha; in both Germany and Austria she overcame the rapidly improving Qian Tianyi.

Equally, in 2019 she enjoyed women’s doubles success; partnering Hina Hayata she was a semi-finalist in Qatar, the runner up at the Liebherr 2019 World Championships.

Partnership formed

However, it is the mixed doubles partnership she formed with Jun Mizutani that bears the greater significance.

They came together at the ITTF World Tour Shinan Korea Open in Busan; they reached the final losing to the tried and trusted Hong Kong partnership formed by Wong Chun Ting and Doo Hoi Kem. Later they won in Australia, they were the runners up in the Czech Republic and Sweden, quarter-finalists in Germany and Austria.

Most creditably, they finished the year in fourth place on the standings; thus they reserved a place in the Agricultural Bank of China 2019 ITTF World Tour Grand Finals in Zhengzhou where they finished in runners up spot.

More than a match

A place in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games guaranteed being the host nation, the defeat at the Grand Finals and in Sweden suggests that they are more than a match for any pair. On both occasions they stretched Xu Xin and Liu Shiwen, the reigning world champions, to the limit.

On each occasion, the pairs met in the title deciding contests. On each occasion the result went in favour of Xu Xin and Liu Shiwen by the minimal margin; a full distance five games result was the outcome in Stockholm (8-11, 11-8, 13-11, 3-11, 11-9), it was the same in Zhengzhou (9-11, 6-11, 11-3, 11-8, 11-9).

Lease of life

Moreover, have the results given the now 30 year old Jun Mizutani a new lease of life? On the 2019 ITTF World Tour, in men’s singles events he never advanced beyond the quarter-finals.

Reaching the quarter-finals in Qatar, Hong Kong and Bulgaria was no mean performance but he has eight career ITTF World Tour men’s singles titles to his name; twice he has prevailed at the Grand Finals, in 2010 in Seoul, four years later in Bangkok.

However, on the men’s world rankings in 2019 he dropped from no.10 in January to no.14 in December; for Mima Ito on the counterpart women’s listings, she advanced from no.7 to no.4; the highest status of her career.

A climb of three places, it may not appear big steps but make no mistake they are major strides. Consolidate and in 2020 and who knows what riches may lay in store.

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