Triumph over adversity: MIZUTANI Jun ready to seize golden opportunity

After missing out on the singles event, Japan's Mizutani is going for gold in the mixed doubles in his Olympic Games swansong; table tennis starts 25 July at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium.

MIZUTANI Jun is competing at his fourth Olympic Games after securing a place in the Japanese table tennis team for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

Beginning his Olympic career at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008, Mizutani went on to compete at London 2012.

Then, at his third Olympic Games in Rio in 2016, he became the first Japanese table tennis player to win an individual bronze medal and he also led the men’s team to the silver medal by winning all his matches.

“A medal in the singles was my dream and a medal in the team event was everyone’s dream,” 30-year-old Mizutani said, with a big smile.

He claimed his first title at the All Japan Table Tennis Championships in 2007, aged 17, making him the youngest player to win the tournament at the time. He has since won numerous other titles both in Japan and abroad.

Having won many titles and accolades, achieving his Olympic dreams by the age of 27 and being ranked fourth in the world in 2017, Mizutani was the height of his career. His high profile was attracting people to table tennis.

But, while in January 2020, Mizutani booked spots in the men’s team and mixed doubles events at the Tokyo 2020 Games, he missed out on a place in the singles competition.

It will not come as a surprise that, as a record 10-time men’s singles champion in Japan, Mizutani was disappointed about missing out on a spot in the individual table tennis competition in the Olympics.

But Mizutani was able to put this setback behind him because he has been selected to play as part of the men’s team and in the mixed doubles.

For the mixed doubles, Mizutani is paired with ITO Mima, and he has high hopes for the partnership. In fact, he believes that they can win the gold medal.

Both Mizutani and Ito were born and raised in Iwata-City, Shizuoka Prefecture. Left-handed Mizutani and right-handed Ito make an outstanding pair whose playing styles complements each other.

With his extensive experience and all-round versatility, Mizutani can effectively bring out Ito’s strength - her aggressive and outwitting moves.

“She is growing better every time I see her, so rather than worrying about her, I should work hard on myself,” explains Mizutani, laughing.

“To win the gold medal, we must defeat a Chinese pair. Beating opponents better than us takes aggressive offence. We will need to be forceful and stay on the offence.”

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Olympic highs followed personal lows

As someone who has been at the forefront of Japan’s table tennis community for many years, Mizutani was always confident that he could “persevere with rough patches”.

However, in 2018, Mizutani hit a rough patch but something wasn’t quite right.

In the 2018 All Japan Table Tennis Championships final, he was defeated by 14-year-old HARIMOTO Tomokazu. This meant that Mizutani failed to secure a fifth consecutive title.

“Winning used to be a matter of course” for Mizutani, but his results were declining.

“When I was younger, I was confident that I could pull through difficulties, but after turning 30, I gradually lost confidence, even in my own style of table tennis.

“I started feeling anxious on many occasions, including being afraid of injuries.”

A big part of the anxiety was caused by a condition with his eyes.

In March 2019, Mizutani revealed that he had hardly been able to see the ball in the past year, which shocked the world.

Although he had no problems in his everyday life, Mizutani could not see the ball when lights shone brightly on the table-tennis table and the surrounding environment was dark.

Part of the problem may have been attributable to lighting, but the root cause was unknown. To keep playing under this condition was difficult beyond one's comprehension.

"It’s not that I can’t see the ball at all, but it glitters a little, meaning I can’t see how it’s rotating," explains Mizutani.

"This prevents me from predicting the trajectory of the ball, whether it will come farther towards me or fall short, so I can’t receive it at the centre of my racket, which triggers many errors.

At the time, Mizutani’s eyesight was only 20 to 30 percent of his peak level.

He addressed the problem by honing his skills to foresee the trajectory of the ball, enhancing his reflexes to make instant decisions upon capturing sight of the ball, and wearing sunglasses during matches.

“To tell the truth, I haven’t been able to come up with a solution. I just follow my senses,” added Mizutani, laughing.

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Triumph over adversity

Despite suffering with his eyes, Mizutani claimed his 10th title at the 2019 All Japan Table Tennis Championships. He also accomplished major results in the domestic pro league, including earning the most valuable player (MVP) title.

However, the selection race for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 national team continued to be a struggle.

With two singles spots per country, Harimoto, who was ranked higher in world rankings, secured Japan’s first spot. The remaining ticket was to go to either by Mizutani or NIWA Koki.

Initially, Mizutani was ranked second among Japanese players. But due to competitions being suspended because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Mizutani was unable to gain additional points.

"All the matches had a critical impact on our selection race. At times, I got close to winning against high-ranking players, but then I became too conscious of winning and was upset in the end. I regret those narrow defeats."

To gain points, Mizutani needed to keep competing. However, he repeatedly lost in the early rounds of competitions, which undermined his confidence.

“Maybe I should have stopped competing for a while and concentrated on rebuilding my skills,” he reflected.

“I was afraid to compete for fear of losing again. When you’re in a bad condition, you tend to be affected by immediate results, failing to look ahead.

“I could have done better if I had taken a fresh look at my style of table tennis from a long-term perspective.”

Mizutani’s eyesight has recovered to about 60 per cent of his peak level. While continuing with his treatment, he needs to improve on aspects that he can control.

Despite having concerns, he has reset himself by doing basic training drills and is regaining his confidence.

“Now that I lose more often, each victory feels more exhilarating,” Mizutani said philosophically.

“When I’m overjoyed, I feel glad about being a table tennis player. I hope to savour as many wins as possible.”

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That said, this Games will be Mizutani’s last. He has announced that he will retire from front-line competitions after Tokyo 2020. For him, this home Games will be the grand finale of his 27-year table tennis career.

By accumulating wins, his ultimate dream as a long-time player - the gold medal - will come in sight.

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Table tennis will be held 25 July to 7 August at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium.