[Table Tennis] [FID Japan Table Tennis Champion League] Comeback Victories by Takahashi and Ito !
The "FID Japan Table Tennis Champion League " took place December 2–3 at the Hiranuma Memorial Gymnasium in Yokohama City, Kanagawa prefecture. A total of 145 men and women from 30 different prefectures gathered to attend the heated competitions.
There were two league competitions each with men's and women's categories. The Champion League was a round robin format featuring the top twelve athletes and top eight female athletes of the FID Japan Table Tennis Championships held in June. There was also an Open League available to anyone, consisting of a round robin preliminaries with six to seven contestants and a finals tournament between the top two.
Toshiya Takahashi returns to the top throne among a three-athlete rivalry
On the second day, the men's Champion League was a competition between three athletes that attended the Asian Para Championships in August.
These three were Koya Kato, ranking 9th in world and champion of the Table Tennis Championships held in June, Takeshi Takemori, ranking 9th in world and Japanese representative at the Rio Paralympics, and Toshiya Takahashi, ranking 13th in the world and this event's champion. They are all age 24, born in 1993. They were also gold medal partners in the team event at the Asian Para Championships . Of the three athletes, Takahashi came to the FID Japan Table Tennis Champion League in the worst circumstances, yet managed to win the event for the first time in two years. This was his second time to win the event.
Takahashi leveraged the changes in his environment.
Takahashi, however, had a stumble on the first day. Kato and Takemori both won all of their six matches, while Takahashi lost his third match to Ryo Miyauchi (11th in world ranking), one of his colleagues at Hitachi SC. This loss did not deflate Takahashi's will to win at all: "I had to accept the loss, because I practice with Miyauchi and sometimes I win, sometimes I lose. I was disappointed, but you never know what will happen in a competition, so I did not give up on winning the event." He was well prepared for the next day's matches against Takemori and Kato.
On the second day, Takahashi showed perseverance in his ninth match against Kato. He won in the very last game (fifth), coming back from Kato's match point (at 9-10) seven times total. In his tenth match against Takemori, he again made a come back from a match point in the last game, winning at 15-13.
Because Takahashi advanced forward through tough matches, at this point the three were tied at nine wins and one loss. In his very last 11th match, Takahashi won a straight victory over Takumi Nagamatsu. This made Takahashi the champion of the event, without the need to wait for the outcome of the match between Kato and Takemori.
"I cannot believe it. A lot happened this year." (Takahashi)
Starting last year, Takahashi began training every day for the Tokyo Paralympics with support from his employer Hitachi SC. His training base is now Tasaka Takken in Kyoto, the training base of Sora Matsushima and other well-known top Japanese junior athletes. Coach Takashi Matsushima admits, "I hounded him a lot, and I know he cried a few times. His weakness was not being able to win persistently at competitions, so I drove him down."
Furthermore, Takahashi was attached to a rubber material meant for beginners. When he finished fourth at the Table Tennis Championships, Coach Matsushima finally convinced him to switch materials, saying, "You will never be able to get any better results if you keep using this material." Takahashi says, "At first I was worried, but since changing to a rubber material that makes the ball fly better, I am no longer pressured by the opponent and I can utilize my receives better."
The results of this event—of overcoming crises and overtime to win full-game matches—are a display of Takahashi's courage developed through such self-reform efforts. Of course, Takahashi's goal is to do well in the Tokyo Paralympics.
"My goal for next year is to win the World Championships. Of course I also want to attend the Tokyo Paralympics. The results today give me confidence."
Takahashi had been consistently finishing below Kato and Takemori for the past two years, and this event brought him back to the lead, thanks to the generous support he is receiving. It certainly shows his potential for the future.
Rio representative Ito wins her seventh women's Champion League for the first time in four years
Veteran player Maki Ito, 9th in world ranking and Japanese representative at the Rio Paralympics, won the event for the first time in four years. Ito, who turned 33 this year, made a convincing victory with seven wins out of seven matches. Her diligent effort accumulated over the years was, in the end, enough to stop the destructive momentum of the younger players.
Sayuri Mio, 7th in world ranking and winner of the Table Tennis Championships, was the biggest favorite for the Champion League. Other rivals included Kanami Furukawa (11th in world ranking), riding a momentum after her victory at the Asian Para Championships in August, and Nanako Hazeyama (12th in world ranking), known for her solid playing with few errors. All of these athletes are between 20 and 23.
For the past several years, Ito tended to cede victory to these athletes. Ito's strengths are in her use of a special high-density rubber and her unpredictable returns. Although this works well at international competitions, she was finding it harder to win in national competitions where her style is well known. Her opponents would go after her forehand position, her biggest weakness, and she would routinely lose. At this event, however, she was determined to overcome this disadvantage.
The second day showed the results of her efforts, specifically her fourth match against her greatest rival, Mio. Mio attacked her forehand position, but she was able to return the balls. After a heated 38-minute match, Ito ended it in the last game with a score of 11-9. Her fifth match was no easier, being against Furukawa. Again, Furukawa went after her forehand position and gained a two-game lead, but Ito came back winning three games straight. The two-victory streak gave Ito momentum to win straight against Hazeyama, making her the champion for the first time in four years.
Veteran player Ito stopped her younger rivals.
Ito said, "It is tough when the ball comes to my forehand position, but I tried hard to return them."
Michihiro Oogi, Ito's coach since October 2016, said, "In the past, it was all she could do to return forehand balls, but we did some focused practice including considering where to aim."
Regarding the Tokyo Paralympics, Ito said, "I don't know. It would be tough to get in." However, she vows to keep moving forward: "I will keep trying." She is one of the leaders of FID events, with seven victories in the Japan Champion League and nine in the Table Tennis Championships, and her journey still continues.
High school students Takashi Asano (champion) and Runa Serizawa (second) in the Open League
The Open League often uncovers previously unknown young contenders. This year, two first-year high school students put on impressive performances. Takashi Asano won the men's league, and Runa Serizawa placed second in the women's league.
Of course, Asano is not unknown. As a junior high school student he placed third in the Champion League last year. This year he won all ten matches with straight wins. He boards at the prestigious Keiho High School in Nagasaki and has a good track record, placing 16th in singles at the prefectural inter-high school preliminaries , and third in doubles at the All Japan Junior Prefectural preliminaries . This year he did not qualify for the Champion League because the Table Tennis Championships in June fell on the same day as his prefectural event. If he had, however, he very well might have been one of the top contenders. Asano practices "more than twelve hours on weekends and more than five hours on weekdays." We hope he is aiming for the Tokyo Paralympics.
Serizawa, second place in the women's Open League, finished the preliminaries in the top spot after defeating Japanese representative Ayumi Kawasaki (17th in world ranking). In the last match of the finals tournament she played against Kawasaki again, this time losing, which put in second place. That said, her performance shows great potential. "After defeating Ms. Kawasaki in the preliminaries, I was surprised to hear that she is a top player. I was tired in the finals and did not play well at all, but I had fun. I am also surprised to hear people telling me I should aim for the Tokyo Paralympics." (Serizawa)