BABA Mika: How Japan plans to end China's Olympic table tennis dominance

Japan's women's table tennis head coach BABA Mika aspires to win medals in all events at Tokyo 2020
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Japan is looking to do what they've never achieved before - win an Olympic medal in women's table tennis singles event

Head coach BABA Mika is at the helm of Japan;'s national women's table tennis team. Under her tutelage are ITO Mima, Japan’s ace player ranked third in the world; ISHIKAWA Kasumi, who won a silver and bronze medal in the women’s team event at the Olympic Games London 2012 and Rio 2016; and HIRANO Miu, who became Japan’s first medallist in 48 years, winning bronze in the women's singles at the Liebherr 2017 World Table Tennis Championships.

Baba, who is hoping to win medals in all events at Tokyo 2020, shared how they are planning to end People's Republic of China's domination in table tennis at the Olympic Games.

International matches amid COVID-19

How did you feel about the 2020 World Cup, the first international competition in eight months, and the 2020 ITTF Finals?

The long quarantine before the competition must have had a slightly positive or negative impact on the capabilities of all players, but I think it was great that an international competition was held. Competing with players from abroad allowed Japanese players, who had been away from matches for some time, to find out where they are in the world, see how much they have overcome their issues, and understand what challenges they need to tackle. It was also an extremely beneficial experience to navigate through international matches amid COVID-19 countermeasures including self-isolation and testing.

Under such circumstances, Ito gained a bronze medal at the World Cup.

Yes. I had been concerned because the quarantine was long, but once the matches started, I saw it didn't affect her. I don’t think the bronze medal came as a surprise to Ito. In a sense, what counts more than the result was the matches and how much she was able to overcome her issues. Despite the lack of opportunities to play in international matches for a while, I believe she succeeded in showing what she's capable of to a certain degree, so I feel relieved as her head coach.

Ito Mima won a bronze medal at the World Cup, the first international competition in eight months
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She was eager to try out her new serves and receive with backhand.

Ito always devises new serves and tries them out at every competition. She is also working on receiving serves to her backhand. The Chinese are always studying Ito's style to draw up a sophisticated strategy to beat her. Ito successfully tackled these well-prepared Chinese players in some matches, but not in others. By raising both her forehand and backhand skills to new heights, she can become a greater threat to her opponents, and if she hones her receiving techniques, she will be able to play much closer matches against the Chinese players and increase her chances of winning.

What is your view on Ishikawa?

Ishikawa defeated Republic of Korea’s SUH Hyowon in a well-fought match at the World Cup, but lost to the same player at the ITTF Finals. When playing back-to-back matches against the same player, the opponent usually changes her tactics in the second match and takes an aggressive approach because she has nothing to lose, while Ishikawa must have felt she could win again. In a sense, this sheds light Ishikawa's mindset before a game that she needs to address. At the World Cup, she won the first match, but was defeated by China’s SUN Yingsha. Ishikawa should build confidence through her wins, but analyse the matches she lost to understand what went wrong and which part needed more adjusting. If she can work on this, she will be able to gain more points, play better matches, win games, and ultimately win. Even if she loses a match, she should keep having a positive mindset to gain something from it. This way, she would be able to build on her experience.

Ishikawa Kasumi played at an international competition, restarting her path to the Tokyo 2020 Games
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China is making improvements

What was your impression of the Chinese players?

In August 2020, China held a mock Tokyo 2020 Games. Having seen their matches, I had the impression that they, just as I had expected, make a point of exploring new strategies and are working hard to fix their shortcomings whenever they lose or struggle against their rivals including Ito. Even though the Japanese players are improving, the Chinese players are also getting better. LIU Shiwen, the singles champion of the 2019 World Table Tennis Championships, hasn’t played any matches since the COVID-19 pandemic started, but CHEN Meng and WANG Manyu have made evolutionary changes in terms of techniques and their mindset. Their table tennis has become even faster now, and they give less time to their opponents. They have also created new serves, and are making every effort to perfect their styles.

Chen Meng (left) claimed the singles titles at the 2020 ITTF World Cup and 2020 ITTF Finals
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Strengths of Ito, Ishikawa, and Hirano

Could you once again share with us the strengths of the Japanese team players, who are up against the formidable Chinese team?

・ITO Mima

Her main characteristic is her capacity to remain relaxed in any match. The Tokyo 2020 Games will naturally put great pressure on athletes, but she can wait in excitement without feeling nervous. She is also able to use her skills more aggressively to overwhelm her opponent even when driven into a corner in a close match. That’s why she can defeat Chinese players in many matches. I believe this is a wonderful asset she has. She is capable of hitting back a ball in diverse approaches and techniques, with versatility and unpredictability that makes her opponents insecure. I've been with her for a long time, so I know that she is a very hard worker. After every competition, she goes to great lengths to overcome her issues to have a better performance. She then tries out her new approach at the next competition, where she again finds some more agenda to work on and repeats the process. With every competition, she achieves progress, which is remarkable.

Ito delivers diverse attacks using versatile techniques
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Having competed in a host of large-scale international competitions, Ishikawa has a wealth of experience, which is one of her strengths. She knows how to fight at big events like the Olympic Games and World Championships, so I can trust her to play well. Even in a close match or when she is [lagging] behind, she can motivate herself and get the courage to be at her full potential. The semi-finals at the 2018 World Championships women’s team event against the combined Republic of Korea team is a good example. The match against KIM Song I, turned out to gruelling tight match, with the final game reaching one deuce after another. Despite Kim scoring with repeated edge ball and net ball, Ishikawa persevered with a strong mindset, and finally clinched the match. This match clearly shows how capable she is of reaching a maximum performance in critical circumstances. On the technical front, she is capable of making outstanding third ball attacks and consecutive attacks, which is typical of left-handed players.

Ishikawa is equipped with a wealth of experience and shines when facing adversities
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Watching her in matches and practice, I can see that she has a high level of basic technique. As head coach, when I first saw her practise, I was surprised at the quality of each of her shots and the outstanding way she contacts the ball. Her backhand technique, which is especially extraordinary in terms of the level of spin, speed and quick hits, enables her to deliver premium quality shots. She is certainly the world’s top-tier player. She is currently working to swiftly adjust her skills in matches to gain points. She also made significant progress in the doubles in 2019. With her improved receiving skills and stronger attacks, she overwhelmed the opponent pair at an international competition, producing tangible results. She also has explosive power, as seen at the 2017 ITTF Asian Table Tennis Championships, where she consecutively defeated three top Chinese players (DING Ning, a Rio 2016 gold medallist, ZHU Yuling, and CHEN Meng), as well as at the World Championships in the same year, where she took a bronze medal. We look forward to another display of her explosive power at the Tokyo 2020 Games.

Hirano has exquisite technique and explosive power
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Aiming to get off to a good start to win a medal in all events

How do you plan to take on the Tokyo 2020 Games?

At Tokyo 2020, our goal is to win medals in all events — the singles, mixed doubles and team. No Japanese woman has ever gained a medal in the singles. I truly hope that we can defeat as many Chinese players as we can to fulfill the long-standing dream of Japan’s table tennis community, and win medals.

What will be the key to winning against China?

To conquer China, the key will be to get off to a good start in all matches. We also need to draw up a thorough strategy on tactics and techniques tailored to each opponent based on in-depth analyses. For this, we should strengthen our efforts to deal with issues while also reinforcing our advantages. In the team event, the first doubles match will be the key. If we can win this, we will be able to put pressure on China. The second match will be played between ace players. [Note: The rule is that the second match must be played by the player who did not play in the doubles. The singles player in the second match will therefore play in two singles matches.] If we are one match ahead, the Japan team can take the upper hand in the second match. We hope to maximise the pair’s synergy in doubles, going beyond simply combining the strengths of two singles players. The entire team will join forces and fight in unity to conquer China.

Baba believes it’s important for a head coach to grow together with the players
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