Harimoto Tomokazu has taken his first steps toward a return to normalcy, the Japanese table tennis prodigy playing in an event for the first time during the global pandemic era.
"It was my first match in half a year and I was nervous from start to finish", the 17-year-old Harimoto openly said following Monday's (16 September) one-day exhibition featuring Japan's Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games hopefuls like Harimoto, Ishikawa Kasumi and Niwa Koki.
"In practice everyone hits everything hard but it doesn't work that way in matches. Practice alone isn't enough.
"It's comforting to be able to hit live balls again. I got rid of more than half the concerns that had built up in the last six months". - Harimoto Tomokazu
The event, held in Tokyo without fans, was a much-needed relief pill for the Japanese paddlers who had not competed since the Qatar Open in March, when the sports world came to a grinding halt with the outbreak of the coronavirus.
Rio 2016 bronze medallist Mizutani Jun was also scheduled to take part before pulling out at the last minute after not feeling well.
With table tennis set to reopen at home and abroad from November, Monday was the perfect time to shake off the rust and a rare opportunity to take on players of the opposite gender.
World No. 4 Harimoto, for one, faced Ishikawa for the first time since he was in elementary school.
"She hits the ball so cleanly", Harimoto said of the 27-year-old Ishikawa, who will be a teammate at Tokyo 2020.
"It was a great new experience. (The women) have more spin on their serves and play with a pace that isn't in the men's game".
With the T.League season starting 17 November, there is a need for Japanese table tennis, as well as the rest of the sporting community, to demonstrate that they can carry on amid COVID-19 ahead of the Games next summer - and Monday was just the start.
"It was great to be able to play with a bit of tension in the air", Ishikawa said. "It was a first step, a new beginning for table tennis and I enjoyed it".