Fans go wild for table tennis test event

Table tennis’s finest gave a capacity crowd at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium a taste of the non-stop, high-octane action fans can expect at next year’s Olympic Games, with the Team World Cup – a Tokyo 2020 test event – coming to a thrilling conclusion on Sunday. 

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Japan has risen to No.2 in the men’s and women’s International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) world team rankings, and both squads gave the noisy, excited crowd plenty to cheer throughout the five days of the 2019 ITTF Team World Cup.

But, in a sign of the scale of the challenge facing the medal-hungry host nation, they were unable to stop China from claiming yet another men’s and women’s double team triumph.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium has hosted a wide range of top-class sporting events throughout its long history, not least the gymnastics and water polo events at the 1964 Olympic Games; but few can have matched the fervour generated by the thousands crammed in to watch the world’s best table tennis players battle it out.

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Japan’s 19-year-old Mima Ito is one of the rising stars of the game, and she sent her compatriots’ heartrates soaring when she surged into a 2-0 lead against China’s Sun Yingsha in the second match of the women’s final. But the Japanese teenager, who grabbed a team bronze medal at the Olympic Games Rio de Janeiro 2016, could not quite get over the line, despite having three match points in the fifth game, a fact she struggled to come to terms with after the contest:

Olympic and world champion Liu Shiwen, who also won the 2019 ITTF Women’s World Cup, made sure there was no such drama elsewhere as she steered China to a straight-games doubles win before doing likewise in her singles match. That was enough to secure a ninth successive world team crown for China’s women. With six Chinese women ahead of her in the world rankings, Ito knows she has plenty to do if she and her compatriots are to deny the defending champions a fourth Olympic team title in a row next year.

Japan’s men did not quite match their female counterparts, but a run to the semi-finals ensured that they will look ahead to Tokyo 2020 with plenty of confidence. It was China who proved too much for them too, powering to a 3-0 win to advance to the final.

The Republic of Korea showed that it will, however, be far from a foregone conclusion that the Chinese men will grab another Olympic team gold next year. The No.4 seeds shocked the 10-time Team World Cup winners by recovering from a 2-0 deficit to claim the opening match in the final.

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China’s world No.1 Fan Zhendong restored order with a comfortable straight-games victory in the second match, but had to sweat as in-form Korean Jeoung Youngsik threatened another upset in the third. Belying his relatively lowly world ranking of 21, Jeoung surged into a 2-1 lead against Liang Jingkun and was up in the fourth, before the world No.7 fought back to take it 11-8 in the fifth.

Zhendong made sure there were no more hiccups, completing a second 3-0 win, before his thoughts turned to matters Olympic.

“They made it a huge challenge for us, both for me and for the rest of my team, but luckily we made it in the end. For sure, I am really looking forward to coming back here next year,” Fan said. “I learned and analysed lots of things from this whole tournament.”

Despite China’s extended success, there were signs everywhere of table tennis’s continued global growth. While the Republic of Korea and Chinese Taipei carried the flag for the rest of Asia, securing a silver and a bronze and two bronzes respectively, the USA and England had plenty to celebrate. Led by Kanak Jha, the USA men’s and women’s teams reached the quarter-finals for the first time; and a Liam Pitchford-inspired England followed up 2018’s bronze medal with another last-eight appearance.