by Massimo Costantini, ITTF High Performance Elite Coach
Things went by the book for the first three days but there were signs of concern; on the third day, Tuesday 23rd April, Masataka Morizono and Yuya Oshima, the top seeds, experienced a shock defeat at the hands of the French pairing comprising Tristan Flore and Emmanuel Lebesson, an evenly balanced contest in which play swung one way and then the next.
- Men’s Doubles – Round Two (Last 32): Tristan Flore / Emmanuel Lebesson beat Masataka Morizono / Yuya Oshima 11-8, 7-11, 11-7, 13-15, 11-6, 6-11, 11-9
Both contenders sported left-handed and right-handed combinations, a classic in this specialty; the French pair prevailing by the minimal two points in the seventh game.
Three reasons for defeat
The reasons for the defeat of the top seeds could be identified as threefold.
Losing the first, the third, the fifth and obviously the seventh; this continuous chase wore out the nerves of the two Japanese who, in the final game lost three points on their serve, thanks to the French pair’s ability to change the game unexpectedly. In fact, their inventiveness and improvisation was always around the corner, every player needs to be aware of that fact.
Secondly, Oshima’s form was not brilliant; he only played the men’s doubles in Budapest. Even though he had just returned from a very high level Japanese National Championships, held two months prior, a tournament where only Jun Mizutani stopped his title race at the last hurdle, Oshima didn’t manage to find his full potential.
The third and last, aspect was having underestimated the French pair; in table tennis sometimes things are more balanced than they seem despite a difference in world ranking.
More worrying signals
Another victim of worrying signals was in the last 64 of the men’s singles, the second round; Kazuhiro Yoshimura, the no.42 seed, the brilliant brother of the equally brilliant Maharu, departed proceedings, he was beaten by the more celebrated Brazilian, Hugo Calderano, the no.7 seed.
- Men’s Singles – Round Two (Last 64): Hugo Calderano beat Kazuhiro Yoshimura 11-7,14-12, 7-11, 10-12, 11-5, 11-8
A six games defeat, for the first 45 minutes of the contest, matters were level at two games apiece. At that stage the Brazilian champion grafted the turbo to the rubbers, especially the backhand; he conceded only 13 points in the next two games.
Three days concluded; the next, Wednesday 24th April, should have been one of great celebration; places at stake in the women’s singles quarter-finals as well as the men’s singles last 16, the fourth round.
It proved somewhat the opposite for Japan. It was not sweet dreams at the end of the day as the lights were turned off, more a nightmare.
We recap the day in chronological order.
10:00 am – Table One
At the start of the day, the super tested mixed doubles partnership of Maharu Yoshimura and Kasumi Ishikawa, the top seeds, did not shine against the hometown pairing of Adam Szudi and Szandra Pergel.
The latter, supported by the local crowd, started the match in a decisive, clear manner, as often happens with home support, determined to prove their value to Hungary and the world.
- Mixed Doubles – Round Three (Last 16): Maharu Yoshimura / Kazumi Ishikawa beat Adam Szudi / Szandra Pergel (5-11, 14-12, 6-11, 11-6, 11-8, 12-10)
It was a match where the Hungarians could have led 3-0 but the strength of the Japanese, especially their attitude of never giving up, this is not an exaggeration, did not allow the Hungarians to realise their dream.
Japan, besides knowing table tennis by heart like no other, always experimenting with new ideas and solutions, has implemented mental discipline as an added element of strength to the already excellent value of their individual athletes: a well-functioning social system.
Thus, they managed to bring home the second game, even relax a little. Conversely, the hosts didn’t want to relax at all and, as often happens, they played with pomp and circumstance. They easily won the third game exactly as they had done in the first.
However, discipline plays a decisive role. Gradually the pair from the land of the Rising Sun not only recovered the disadvantage but accelerated and won the next three games in a row, notably the sixth, 12-10, by the minimal two point margin. In short, it was a well-balanced match but not sparkling on the Asian side.
The Hungarian duo paid in terms of responsibility for the victory, a feeling that sometimes becomes a burden and doesn’t let you see things clearly. Above all it doesn’t assure fluency of movements essential for the victory. On the other hand, beating the second seeds would have been a great result not only for the athletes and the nation they represent but also in view of an important path for the Olympic Games.
10:00 am – Table Three
Also, at the same time, a “massacre” was taking place on table three. The further Japanese pair in the event, Masataka Morizono and Mima Ito, the no.4 seeds, overcame the equally strong pairing from the east, the Korea Republic combination of Jang Woojin and Choi Hyojoo, the no.4 seeds, it was a straight games carnage.
- Mixed Doubles – Round Three (Last 16): Masataka Morizono / Mima Ito beat Jang Woojin / Choi Hyojoo 11-7, 11-9, 11-3, 11-6
That was breakfast, what was expected for lunch?
11:00 am – Table Three
A first taste of an appetizer arrived in the women’s singles event at 11:00 am on table three; a beautiful contest between Canadian Zhang Mo, the no.21 seed and Miyu Hirano, the no.8 seed.
The young Japanese champion, the revelation of the 2017 Asian Championships, when one after another she had beaten the Chinese trio of Ding Ning, Zhu Yuling and Chen Meng to capture the title, didn’t play in her usual sparkling manner.
- Women’s Singles – Round Three (Last 32): Miyu Hirano beat Zhang Mo 11-6, 13-11, 11-13, 7-11, 11-4, 11-4
Notably, the match ended 4-2, so Miyu Hirano proceeded to the last 16 but the progress was not as smooth as usual; this was in large part thanks to the experience of the Canadian and above all her particular playing characteristic, short pimples on the forehand and regular smooth backhand rubber.
Hirano’s speed immediately made itself felt, aggressive as always and determined not to let Zhang play with her forehand, a stroke hard to manage for many high level players. The impression from the stands was of a very strong Japanese player with incredible technical skills but with a system of play that makes her to risk too much; she appears more confident and more determined when leading.
After a balanced situation, when Hirano gains a significant advantage, it becomes impossible to stop her, this happened Zhang Mo had to surrender twice with a score of 11-4.
11.00 am – Table Seven
In the second large hall of the Budapest Expo arena, also at 11:00 am on table 7, the stalwart defender Hitomi Sato, the no.12 seed, overcame her American opponent Wu Yue, the no.32 seed in straight games.
- Women’s Singles – Round Three (Last 32): Hitomi Sato beat Wu Yue 11-7, 11-7, 11-7, 14-12
Hitomi Sato proved safe and secure.
12.00 noon – Table One
At 12:00 pm on table one, the five act drama between Mima Ito, the no.6 seed and China’s Sun Yingsha, the no.24 seed, took place.
Earlier in the year, Mima Ito had dominated the national championships, winning three titles. In the women’s singles she had beaten 15 year old Miyuu Kihara in the final in five games; she had won the mixed doubles with her faithful partner, Masataka Morizono, the women’s doubles in harness with her lifelong colleague Hina Hayata.
Less than two months earlier, Mima Ito was undefeated in what is a super important competition. She is becoming the star of the stars, ready to take over another star, the much better known Ai Fukuhara, now retired but still in the hearts of all Japanese people.
However, Mima Ito’s popularity is boundless; the way she plays, the simplicity of her shots, clean, fast, deadly. She plays with a mix of spin and speed at supersonic speed, short pimpled rubber on the backhand, stinging half-volleys; if a less than wise opponent thinks of directing fast attacking strokes towards her backhand, they will receive a torpedo impossible to counter, simply suicidal.
Sun Yingsha created a masterpiece in staging the first big upset of the entire tournament. Some observers didn’t see it the same way, as Sun Yingsha is considered a top 10 player. However, judging by numbers it was the situation.
- Women’s Singles – Round Three (Last 32): Sun Yingsha beat Mima Ito 11-6, 11-9, 11-9, 13-15, 11-2
It may have appeared a match without great variations. Nothing could be further from the truth. The match was of an ultra-terrestrial rhythm, rapid changes of placement and above all continuous variations of spin and rapid acceleration both in the body and elbow, as well at extreme angles. Even in the simple situations such as a push, the password was to vary, a flat return, another with backspin, down-the-line, short, long, deep.
Playing with backspin, it seemed that Sun Yingsha wanted to change the play every point. Mima Ito gave the impression of wanting to study her opponent too much, who in the meantime was grinding points after points and arrived at 3-0 in no time. She then lost the fourth game 15-13. The last game ended with a peremptory 11-2. Mima Ito wasn’t able to impose her own game, she was always chasing, not so much the result but the general strategy and tactics put in place by the Chinese.
Too many times Mima Ito found herself waiting for her opponent without trying to anticipate in the terrain most congenial to her, speed. However, it didn’t go unnoticed that when Mima Ito had the situation in her hands, she became irrepressible, a real problem for China in view of the Olympic Games.
12.00 noon – Table Three
Also at 12:00 noon on table three, which many of us called “Tokyo TV Table”, Kasumi Ishikawa, the no.5 seed, overcame Poland’s Li Qian, the no.29 seed in just over 30 minutes, not giving too much excitement to viewers who admired her from the other side of the world.
- Women’s Singles – Round Three (Last 32): Kasumi Ishikawa beat Li Qian 11-7, 14-12, 11-3, 11-4
Just as Ishikawa celebrated her progress to the last 16, Mima Ito recriminated a negative result.
12.00 noon – Table Six
Disappointment for Japan but on table six there was major success. Miyu Kato, the no.18 seed, beat Chinese Taipei’s very strong Cheng I-Ching, the no.7 seed.
- Women’s Singles – Round Three (Last 32): Miyu Kato beat Cheng I-Ching 14-12, 8-11, 11-4, 8-11, 11-9, 11-5)
Judging by the result, it would seem a disappointing match for the Chinese Taipei player. Cheng I-Ching has a crisp, almost masculine, dare I say, game is both fast and powerful at the same time. Kato is a point machine, always responsive in perfect Japanese style in terms of determination and quality of game expression. She is a player who is maturing and improving more and more. She is not generally like her two most illustrious colleagues, Mima Ito and Miu Hirano, each one year younger.
At the end of this beautiful match there are two elements to note.
Cheng I-Ching would have liked to count more unforced mistakes from her Japanese opponent, mistakes that didn’t materialize; this is a typical attitude of players who consider themselves “superior” to others. They somehow expect their opponent to leave a few too many points on the table. I consider it a “natural weakness”, a bit like when the victim’s strongest predator is distracted because they feel confident to control the situation. It happens that the victim occasionally prevails.
The match was an uphill battle from the start for the Chinese Taipei’s number one; this fact along with Kato’s excellent consistency made Cheng I-Ching create an extra effort but it was not enough to progress the last 16, the fourth round.
1.00 pm – Table Three
At 1:00 pm on the “Tokyo TV Table”, another drama aired, the endless match between Jun Mizutani, the no.13 seed and Korea Republic’s Jeoung Youngsik, the no.21 seed.
Mizutani, bronze medallist at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and also the fresher following the achievement at the All Japan National Championships in Osaka, where he had won his tenth men’s singles title, was beaten in seven games. Significantly in Osaka at the moment of his coronation, he announced that in the future at the nationals he would only compete in the men’s doubles and mixed doubles.
- Men’s Singles – Round Three (Last 32): Jeoung Youngsik beat Jun Mizutani (7-11, 5-11, 11-9, 11-4, 11-4, 8-11, 11-8)
The career of Mizutani has been one of a myriad victories; the fourth day in Budapest did not go as he had hoped. After a respectable start against the Korean he won the first two games quite easily. As often happens, the third game of seven is the most important; either the opponent fights back, or such an advantage is created that it is rarely overcome.
Yes, rarely, because even at this level, being 3-0 behind one can only recover and win if both mental and tactical efforts reach their peak; this is only achieved by very few athletes.
Jeong Youngsik made a good start in the third, his serve was always short; he was very aggressive on the next ball. Mizutani always studies his opponent’s attitude, even if he knows them well. He won the opening game, the second game went smoothly, Mizutani controlled play in every way, the Korean was caught off balance too often, especially when he had to move from forehand to backhand.
Undoubtedly, the key moment of the match was in the third game at 4-1 for Mizutani. The Korean, advised by Kim Taeksoo, started to open the rally with backhand flicks even from the forehand side; this disorientated Mizutani who couldn’t attack the third ball as he would have liked. He found himself suffering, Jeong Youngsik hammering his backhand down-the-line and crosscourt made his opponent lose control.
The fourth game was one way, a fast start from the Korean, 5-0 then a few points here and there until the game ended 11-4. Rather differently, the fifth game was spectacular. It saw the Japanese leaping left and right but he just could not contain the aggressiveness of the Korean who, apart from the first balanced points, took off and won 11-4.
Immediately Mizutani responded to secure the sixth, 11-8; a game in which Mizutani lost the first three points. Unforced errors from Jeoung Youngsik allowed him to recover. It was a recovery made not only possible by Jeong Youngsik’s mistakes but by a changed strategy; Mizutani became more and more aggressive, unbalancing the Korean.
Both were now prepared for the final battle. A nervous start with simple mistakes on both sides, the burden of victory or defeat began to take its toll. Two strong points from the Korean contributed to Mizutani’s attitude of almost giving up, who in the middle of the last game was letting go, giving way to his Asian colleague’s imminent victory.
Mizutani saved three match points but had to admit defeat and depart in the last 32, the third round, an unfamiliar place for the Japanese ace.
2.00 pm – Table Three
Defeat for Jun Mizutani, next on table three Tomokazu Harimoto, the no.4 seed, faced Portugal’s left handed Marcos Freitas, his nation’s leading player and the no.23 seed in Budapest. Tomokazu Harimoto prevailed in a most imposing manner.
- Men’s Singles – Round Three (Last 32): Tomokazu Harimoto beat Marcos Freitas 11-8, 14-12, 11-7, 11-7
The match did not raise any particular points of interest, Harimoto playing aggressively from the first minute to the last. The young Japanese star did not give the slightest chance to the experienced Portuguese champion, a straight games success was the outcome.
4.00 pm – Table Three
At 4:00 pm on the “Tokyo TV Table”, another prominent name from the Land of the Rising Sun, Masataka Morizono had to give way to super champion, Germany’s Timo Boll, the no.5 seed.
- Men’s Singles – Round Three (Last 32): Timo Boll beat Masataka Morizono (11-3, 11-9, 11-7, 11-8)
Masataka Morizono, the no.38 seed, recorded a mere 27 points in the four games required; for his part, Boll scored point by point with the extreme ease that sets him apart, he showed his class.
5.00 pm – Table Three
Shortly afterwards at 5:00 pm, Koki Niwa, the no.8 seed, sparkled against Poland’s top player, Jakub Dyjas, the no.65 seed.
- Men’s Singles – Round Three (Last 32): Koki Niwa beat Jakub Dyjas 11-7, 11-8, 11-9, 1-11, 14-12
Playing against Koki means preparing for a headache; unpredictable, inscrutable, icy-faced, inexpressive at maximum power and yet possessing a truly unprecedented quality of play. A phenomenon; this time beyond his coldness he also showed flashes of strong determination. He knew what was at stake and not to underestimate a strong opponent like Jakub Dyjas.
One of the characteristics of Koki Niwa, at least as far as I am concerned, is his lightness and also his almost systematic loss of the first game. In Budapest it didn’t happen, he won the first game 11-7 against Jakub; then the propulsive thrust of the Japanese slightly ebbed. Nevertheless, he won the second game 11-8 with exchanges always on the edge of spectacular.
In the third game, Jakub dominated far and wide, showing great technical skills. The Pole has one of the best backhands in circulation, one that would make a predecessor, Kalinikos Kreanga of Greece, so happy. He led 9-7, Niwa directed his attacking strokes towards the forehand of Dyjas; then the Pole had to play another forehand from close to the table, he did not have enough time to react and execute a quality return
It meant four points in a row for Koki, the possibilities for Jakub were reduced. In the fourth game, Koki took a coffee break and secured just one point. The fifth witnessed many unforced errors from both players. Once again, the Polish player suffered on his forehand; trying to play backhands, he was late executing his forehand.
Koki Niwa was always in the lead, Dyjas fought valiantly, saved two match points, Niwa celebrated.
Ranking and technical levels suggested it should have been a comfortable win for Niwa; it was not an easy victory.
6.00 pm – Table Three
Following at 6.00 pm, no need to advise the table number, with a spring in the step, in the women’s doubles Japan’s Hina Hayata and Mima Ito, the top seeds, beat Chinese Taipei’s Chen Szu-Yu and Cheng I-Ching, the no.27 seeds.
- Women’s Doubles – Round Three (Last 32): Hina Hayata / Mima Ito beat Koki Niwa beat Chen Szu-Yu / Cheng I-Ching (11-8, 11-7, 11-2, 11-8)
A place in the quarter-finals was reserved.
6.00 pm – Table Six
At the same time their colleagues, the Japanese defenders Honoka Hashimoto and Hitomi Sato, the no.3 seed, confronted the Korea Republic top spin attacking partnership of Jeon Jihee and Lee Zion, the no.9 seeds. They succeeded, emerging the winners in contest where the four games to nil score line was somewhat harsh on the opponents.
- Women’s Doubles – Round Three (Last 16): Honoka Hashimoto and Hitomi Sato beat Jeon Jihee and Lee Zion 11-9, 11-8, 12-10, 12-10
Not an easy match; at first sight, it may appear to have been a walkover for the Japanese pair, securing a straight games victory, each game was close. In fact it was a very balanced contest.
6.45 pm – Table Three
Another Japanese drama aired at 6.45 pm in the last 16 of the men’s doubles, the third round. Tomokazu Harimoto and Yuto Kizukuri, the no.16 seeds, faced the Chinese super power combination of Liang Jingkun and Lin Gaoyuan, the no.8 seeds. The Chinese duo dominated from start to finish.
- Men’s Doubles – Round Three (Last 16): Liang Jingkun / Lin Gaoyuan beat Tomokazu Harimoto / Yuto Kizukuri 11-6, 11-7, 13-11, 9-11, 11-2
Once again, the third game proved to be crucial in the final outcome. In fact, after losing the first two games quite comfortably, in the third game the Japanese duo was unable to take advantage of a moment of weakness by Lin Gaoyuan. During the game he made several errors both in terms of returns and placements.
Maybe Kizukuri was not up to the level of the other three, the technical differences were seen. Harimoto and Liang Jingkun were practically two extraterrestrials. Despite a game point of 11-10 the two young men from the land of the Rising Sun lost the third 13-11.
In the fourth, the Japanese started well, dominated to the end. The Chinese managed to save three game points, Liang Jingkun always having to recover the ball from below the table height, Lin Gaoyuan being very weak in the service response, especially when receiving returns executed with backspin.
The fifth game had no story, the Japanese lost their fighting spirit, it was surrender.
7.45 pm – Table Three
Play on the non-stop “Tokyo TV Table” continued mercilessly with the mixed doubles quarter-finals; Masataka Morizono and Mima Ito, the no.4 seeds, faced Germany’s Patrick Franziska and Petrissa Solja, the no.12 seeds. The verdict went in favour of Europe.
- Mixed Doubles – Quarter-Final: Patrick Franziska / Petrissa Solja beat Masataka Morizono 13-11, 11-8, 3-11, 11-13, 15-13, 11-8.
It was an amazing result for the two Germans who secured their medal by progressing to the semi-final in an extremely balanced match. The Germans took the lead 2-0, they played simply. It seemed that Petrissa had the task to control the ball, not to risk and leave the giant of the Bundesliga team, Saarbrücken, to play the role of the executioner.
Unquestionably, his backhand was devastating, especially receiving from Ito, he anticipated well, he played with high technical quality, creating angles to great effect. On many occasions, he left Morizono gasping for air when playing wide to the forehand. Mima Ito was not comfortable, nervousness was evident. She didn’t want to lose.
Conversely, the calm approach of the Germans “we have nothing to lose” made the difference; an excellent match on their part, led by a careful Jörg Rosskopf, an authentic bench giant.
8.30 pm – Table One
The last acts of a busy day, the last 16, the fourth round of the women’s singles event.
On table one, China’s Wang Manyu, the no.3 seed, faced Hitomi Sato, the no.12 seed; past results favoured Wang Manyu who had won all four of their encounters on the international stage between 2014 and 2018, losing just six of the 22 games played.
History prevailed in a contest that took over an hour.
- Women’s Singles – Round Four (Last 16): Wang Manyu beat Hitomi Sato (9-11, 11-4, 11-9, 8-11, 11-4, 11-9
Wang Manyu started badly, losing the first game thanks to the effectiveness of her adversary’s defence.
Maybe Wang Manyu felt safe and risked too much. In the next game, the Chinese 2018 Asian Games Champion became wiser, displaying her wisdom as the match progressed. A six games win was the outcome in favour of Wang Manyu. Always she had been always able to trouble the very strong Sato by alternating quick shots with those played soft and slow.
8.30 pm – Table Three
A glittering match was the order of the evening on table three between Miu Hirano, the no.8 seed, and Hong Kong’s Minnie Soo Wai Yam, the no.30 seed. It was fireworks from start to finish; it looked like New Year’s Eve. The decision went in favour of Miu Hirano.
- Women’s Singles – Round Four (Last 16): Miu Hirano beat Minnie Soo Wai Yam 11-8, 11-6, 8-11, 7-11, 11-4, 11-7
Nothing was spared, the match was won not by the player with more power or more speed but the one with more consistency.
9.20 pm – Table Four
The concluding matches of the day, at 9.20 pm on table four, Miyu Kato, the no.18 seed, faced her second Chinese Taipei player of the day. She opposed Chen Szu-Yu, the no. 20 seed; moreover she won comfortably.
- Women’s Singles – Round Four (Last 16): Miyu Kato beat Chen Szu-Yu 11-6, 11-7, 11-7, 11-7
Kato had really shown that she can definitely aspire to be in the world top 10; progress to the quarter-finals was a real surprise for her and for Japan; a country which continues to churn out one talent after another.
9.20 pm – Table Three
At the same time as Miyu Kato opposed Chen Szu-Yu, Kasumi Ishikawa, the no.5 seed, faced Hong Kong’s Doo Hoi Kem, the no.11 seed, a tough nut to crack.
Alas things didn’t go well for Ishikawa; she experienced a quarter-final exit, Doo having one round earlier beaten his compatriot Lee Ho Ching, the no.28 seed in the previous round (12-10, 7-11, 11-8, 7-11, 11-7, 11-5).
- Women’s Singles – Round Four (Last 16): Doo Hoi Kem beat Kasumi Ishikawa 11-6, 11-6, 7-11, 11-9, 4-11, 6-11, 11-9
Ishikawa’s match was an uphill struggle throughout. She lost the first two games, thus making things more complicated from the very start. In the third game she fought back but then went down again in the fourth, losing 11-9.
Determined, Kasumi Ishikawa made a brave recovery, securing the fifth and sixth games comfortably. She gave the feeling to both crowd and coach that she was in control; in fact, she totally dominated the start of the seventh with her decisive attitude and tactical authority. She even managed to gain a five point lead but saw her ticket to the quarter-finals disappear like ash in the wind. Doo hit her hard at 9-9, eventually, eliminating the no.5 seed.
A match to remember in a contest where there was little to choose; from a technical point of view, Ishikawa showed on many occasions that she didn’t have good fluidity in her transition from forehand to the middle when the ball was directed to the elbow of her playing arm. It was the same with the opposite scenario when the transition started with the backhand. Left handed, the playing arm went too wide in order to have a good and long lever optimal for strokes away from the body but not close to the body.
The element didn’t go unnoticed by good coaches as they all tried to exploit her most evident weakness in perfect manner. Doo exploited it well. Another technical and tactical aspect was the stance at the table of the Hong Kong player. Undoubtedly, one of the best skills Kasumi Ishikawa possesses is the way she creates wide angles and controls the two-winged attacking strokes of her opponent across the diagonal.
Well, that closes the curtain on the Hungexpo stage with a day full of events that will make the annals of table tennis; for Japan a negative balance with five heavy defeats from nine athletes in the men’s and women’s singles but there was a sweet taste.
Two pairs progressed to the women’s doubles quarter-finals, one pair was assured of a mixed doubles medal.