by Massimo Costantini, ITTF High Performance Elite Coach
On January 17-19, I had the good fortune to attend the All-Japan Nationals held in Osaka on 13-19 January at the Osaka Municipal Central Gymnasium. Some of you may remember the World TT Championships of 2001 held exactly in the same place.
After the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games, Japan is preparing to host only its second Summer Olympics – since the 1940 Games were not held due to World War II. Although the teams had already been set (Mizutani – Harimoto – Niwa for the Men, Ito – Hirano – Ishikawa for the Women), the National Championships were a great way to understand how the nation operates on the technical, tactical and organizational level.
Impeccably well organized, the Japanese machine worked very efficiently, and the show did not disappoint the tens of thousand of spectators that gathered every day to cheer on their idols.
The Japanese Championships have left an interesting legacy: a “young nation” with a long and glorious tradition. The Men’s Singles semifinalists were: Yukiya Uda (2001), Shunsuke Togami (2001), Tomokazu Harimoto(2003), Masaki Yoshida (1994); essentially the junior team plus one “adult”. For the women, Hina Hayata (2000), Kasumi Ishikawa (1993), Honoka Hashimoto (1998) and Mima Ito (2000) competed for a place in the Final. These players had an average age of 20 years for the males and almost 22 for the females; if we include the top 32 seeds of the draw, the average changes slightly to 24 for the men, and 21.5 for the women.
Sometimes statistics can show us how the world around us is progressing, or rather, understand the state of its “health”. In this case, it underlined the demonstration of youthfulness shown in Osaka, which served up sparkling, free and carefree table tennis full of fine techniques.
The 2020 Japanese champion who was awarded the Emperor’s Cup by the President of the Japanese Federation on the field, is called Yukiya Uda, a left-hander. In the final he prevailed over the more famous Tomokazu Harimoto in a match that had its epilogue in the most classic of ways: 3-3, 9-9, with Uda serving. In the semifinals, Uda faced Masaki Yoshida while Harimoto had a really hard time against Shunsuke Togami; the semifinals ended respectively 4-2 and 4-3.
Left-handed, with powerful legs and an excellent serve, unpredictable on both the second and third ball. He has a powerful backhand with a full arm almost as powerful as his forehand. So, if you think you would nail him on the backhand and see him defending passively, you would be wrong, because you would experience a counterattack of pure power, even executed from far away from the table. These Championships he played really well, always lucid and well-led by his father. In the quarterfinals he won over a great Kazuhiro Yoshimura 4-2 who, in the previous round, beat Yuya Oshima , the top seed of the tournament, in a beautiful match; as said above, in the following round again 4-2 in his favor against Masaki Yoshida, and finally the 4-3 triumph over Harimoto.
Actually, Uda led the match from start to finish, starting with a 2-0 lead, then 3-1, and finally the chance to close the match at 3-2 when he saw a match point fade. At that point, no one would have bet on him. In the stands, the collective mind was convinced they were witnessing a collapse in the decisive set, but that it was not. Uda showed maturity to the end, finally arriving at 3-3, 9-9 with his serve, and Harimoto trivially missing two straight openings from the forehand short corner of the table. Uda is already a world-class player and seeing him at even higher levels is only a matter of time.
By now we know this teenager in the way that he’s been playing for so many years, a “big old young man”. The first time I saw him play, followed and guided by his father, was in Örebro (SWE) in 2015, a couple of months before he turned 12, and he surprised everyone by beating Omar Assar, Jens Lundqvist and others by filling the venue with screams, almost like being in a playground full of children: a very unusual scene. Watching him is always a real pleasure. His grit and desire to win are extraordinary, he plays with a sense of anticipation and is never defensive. In a match you can count on the fingers of one hand the times he leaves the table to defend from afar. He is the synthesis of maturity and innocence at the same time. Having said that, this time something went wrong, and the incredulity of having missed the point that gave victory to his compatriot remains impressed in memory: for a few seconds he remained motionless, petrified, a rare if not unique image from this superb champion.
What didn’t work for Harimoto? The game he played.
We have gotten used to seeing Harimoto impose his rhythm of play on the second or third ball, the placement with down-the-line blocks and sudden performances like a smash, his rapid movements of the legs and then counterattack in speed, all strictly close to the table, and finally, the overwhelming winning mentality. In these championships, however, he was passive, discontinuous in the attack action and also in the counterattack action, often unprepared on his forehand, the one that does not forgive the opponents, not to mention his many unforced errors. The warning signs were already evident in the match against Togami, two years older than him. Harimoto couldn’t contain his compatriot’s speed, even on the occasion when he was down 3-1 and then finally make it 11-9 in the decisive game. After a few hours of that dramatic match, the trend was confirmed in the final against Uda, where he could not find his distinguishing mechanisms: he was passive in the block, especially on the forehand, and it almost seemed that if he could not win the point within the first 3 balls, then he did not succeed at all.
Harimoto was the center of media attention throughout the event. He had to be escorted from the field of play by the organizers, to avoid journalists and cameraman virtually “attacking” him. And then, of course, there are the fans, many of whom are teenagers just like Harimoto himself, who swarm around him like grasshoppers and attach themselves like magnets to catch a glimpse of Harimoto as the Japanese dream.
At times he looked like Flash Gordon compared to his opponents, including Harimoto: fast arm and legs, fluid trunk and never uncertain in converting control into his counterattack. He is perhaps one of the very few to play from the extreme of the backhand side and perform an incredible power with the forehand. I had already seen him on several occasions, most recently in Korat, Thailand for the World Junior Table Tennis Championships where he played really well and created a lot of problems to the usual opponents, the Chinese. I was able to witness him and his deadly speed first hand on several training occasions whilst on training stays with the Indian team, and it was and is impressive to see his speed of execution of the shot, a shot performed not too much with his arm, but still fast and deadly for his opponents. I noticed, and I may have said this in other situations, that the key is the usual: how can one be so fast in hitting the ball? The answer is to keep up the timing. The origin of a shot well done is the ability to execute it with the right timing, but it does not end there. After that shot, there are more and more, and the more you keep that rhythm and the more effective the shot becomes, that’s the secret of the skill. If you are not as fast as he is then you just have to hope that he makes a mistake.
In 2019, Yoshida lost in the round of 16 to Yuto Kizukuri , who then made it to the semifinals. This year Kizukuri started as seed No.2, and his path was interrupted in the round of 64. So, Yoshida played a great championship, round after round he gained more and more confidence in his skills, and many times he dared great attacks from the extreme of the backhand side, which is quite unusual nowadays. The dream stopped with Uda, and even though he won the first set, he could not find the right mechanisms against the left-handed player. Yoshida was always more and more out of balance on the forehand and was then being left vulnerable for the final blow on the backhand. The serve return was perhaps the key to his defeat, several errors directly to the net on a really loaded backspin serve. It may be a regret for a missed opportunity in the fifth game, but once again Uda kept his nerve.
The game and the technique
Before, I was talking about the game: sparkling, crackling. There are no shortcuts, everything is well set and planned: you open the rally, you talk about crazy speeds, legs are always fundamental (more than ever), lightning fast ball placements and you bring home the result with a consistent attitude from start to finish.
Personally, I measure a player’s technical skills on the ability to sustain the speed of the rally; in other words, if you are not able to think fast and act just as fast, you end up backing down and hoping for a silly mistake of the opponent. This aspect is crucial for the growth of a nation. You need a line of play, a collective way of thinking, a plan that will then define the technical contours of that nation. Let’s be clear, I’m not saying that you have to play an aggressive and risky game at all costs. Indeed, in some cases, the slowdown of an opening, perhaps with a high load of topspin, can induce the opponent to make mistakes on the counterattack and more effectively make him lose the rhythm of his game and lose the feeling of controlling the ball. In order to progress you need a great amount of technical consistency and the ability to apply the same, whilst overcoming the shortcuts of pure skill. It seems to me that Japan is going in this direction. This is demonstrated by 3 factors: 1) the National Championship that just concluded, 2) the tendency of the Juniors / U21 to make China worry as it happened in Korat (THA) at the WJTTC, 3) the evident technical approach that we can already witness in children like Sora Matsushima in the boys and Miwa Harimoto (Harimoto’s sister) in the girls.
The Empress Cup went to Hayata Hina who beat the more experienced Ishikawa Kasumi in the final stage with a dominating 4-1. The Champion beat Ito Mima in the semifinals (maybe the real final), while Ishikawa overtook Hashimoto Honoka.
The extraordinary strength of this girl is knowing how to win her matches point after point in different ways. Of course, she has her setting well organized, but she is capable of much more. She knows how to play the ball close to the table with rapid short shots, many times, even out of balance, she can give directions to her arm to surprise the opponent. As a left-handed player, she has made tactics over technique the winning weapon, and her adaptability is impeccable: she needs to play with consistency? No problem. She needs to be aggressive? Good, no problem and so on. Yes, Hina is like this. The only 4-3 in her favor was seen in the semifinals against Mima Ito. Otherwise, her matches were short, 4-0, maximum 4-1, all for the benefit of the organizers who saw the schedule of the matches completed in perfect Japanese punctuality.
Hina gave the impression of dominating these championships, unforced errors perhaps reduced to zero, ruthless as a killer. As I was saying, the semifinal reserved a few moments of thrill, even though Ito Mima made a comeback from 2-0 down to 2-2, then Hina managed to win the fifth set in a close game. At that moment Ito Mima had a really strong reaction, bringing back the tie with a straight 11-4. But in the decisive game Hayata started rocketing, Mima tried to catch her, but the gap was too wide and on 11-7 Hina let herself go on the field, at the edge of the table in a very long cry: she won her Olympic medal on that 19 January.
Made in 1993, perhaps the “oldest” of all the over 200 participants. We know her very well, she is an expert like few others, determined, solid, a mainstay in the top 10 of the world since September 2011. She made it to the final by beating Hashimoto, a defensive player, in the semifinals. Despite an initial uncertain 11-13, Ishikawa won the other 4 sets in agility. The final, on the other hand, was an uphill battle. She failed to contain Hayata’s continuous variations and was fatally slow in converting the control followed by the counterattack.
The “fury of the Rising Sun”, she was the tournament’s favorite, the undisputed idol of home fans, but this time she stumbled into a burning defeat. Although with her legendary speed, “almost lightning speed”, Ito couldn’t contain Hina’s attacks from her backhand and rolling towards her far away forehand. The following shot, even if of good quality, was not enough to make Hina think hard. In fact, the next placement of the ball was straight on Ito’s backhand, and at that point, with the previous and the next unbalance, she put back a really easy ball for Hayata who scored the point. And when Ito set the game in the opposite way, i.e. receiving the attack from the forehand, then the imbalance was on her extreme backhand side and the situation was reversed. But every time the game developed at the center area of the table, Ito was uncontrollable, she played that ball right-of-the-bounce in that short area of the table as if it were the most natural thing in the world. We’ll see in the future and especially in Tokyo 2020 if she can make History for her and for her country.
Honoka is a fine and elegant defensive style player. The semifinal was too difficult for her against Ishikawa where she lost 1-4. Born in 1998, she is an exceptional defensive player, sometimes insists too much on chopping the ball, to rely on the opponent’s mistake. Her attack is not always as sudden as you would expect from a defensive player, it is an attack that breaks the rhythm, that changes the pattern. She relies on her confidence not to make mistakes, ever. And she succeeds, she succeeds on many occasions both in this national and in international scenarios.
What about Miu Hirano?
The rising star, so nicknamed for her incredible results in 2017 when she amazed the whole world by winning the Asian Championships, putting all her Chinese opponents in their place by overtaking Ding Ning, Zhu Yuling and Cheng Meng.
She left the tournament very quietly after losing badly in the round of 32 to Kyoka Idesawa (2002), a player already noticed during the World Junior Championships in Thailand last November. It was clear from the start that this match would go badly for Hirano. Idesawa’s double combination of pimples out (one that slows down and creates backspin, the other that always speeds up generating a mixed effect depending on how she hits) was creating a lot of problems for her game. First of all, she was not able to take advantage of her opponent’s speed (one of the best qualities of Hirano) and therefore was not able to find her rhythm to impose her shots, it was a one-way match all in favor of Idesawa.
Anyway, good job for Idesawa who I am sure will be heard about in the near future.
The game and the technique
As I said above, Hayata is a player who puts more technical/tactical initiatives on the table and therefore generates an unpredictability factor all to her advantage. In a panorama like the Japanese one, where the speed of the ball is extremely high, with short and sudden strokes, solutions like Hayata’s can find a really fertile ground. The undisputed “boss” of the speed is Mima Ito. This is her strong point, and it is really difficult to keep up. However, personally, observing her game and the way she systematically loses points, I would also see some implementation of slower shots for two reasons: 1) to avoid playing in only one way, 2) to create more and different opportunities to score the point.
However, the facts that impressed me the most are the style of play and the age of the players. There were 3 defensive style players who reached the quarterfinals: that is Hitomi Sato (1997), Honoka Hashimoto (1998), and Ojio Haruna (2005). We had a generational divide, so to speak, with the Sidney generation (Mima Ito, Miu Hirano , Hina Hayata ), and the Athens generation (Miyuu Kihara, Satsuki Odo and the slightly younger Ojio Haruna). Leading the charge for a prospective Beijing generation is Miwa Harimoto, and it remains to be seen if others will follow.
Three interesting facts
- The draw for the choice of the service is made in a completely friendly and informal way: rock-paper-scissors. Photo and video recording were permitted only during the warm-up. After that, the organizers walked between the stands and encouraged spectators to stop filming or taking pictures, and everybody obeyed.
- The ritual of exchanging rackets before the ball is presented (interesting to note how the players know each other’s rackets perfectly and continue to exchange them to check thoroughly).
- These All-Japan Nationals are a must-see destination for any coach still wanting to learn something new.
Meet the medallists!
Gold: Yukiya Uda
Silver: Tomokazu Harimoto
Gold: Hina Hayata
Silver: Kasumi Ishikawa
Gold: Mima Ito/Masataka Morizono
Silver: Miyu Nagasaki/Tomokazu Harimoto
Gold: Mizuki Oikawa/Kohei Sanbe
Silver: Shunsuke Togami/Akihiro Miyakawa
Gold: Mima Ito/Hayata Hina
Silver: Saki Shibata/Satsuki Odo
Gold: Kazuki Yoshiyama
Silver: Sora Matsushima
Gold Satsuki Odo
Silver Haruna Ojio