Japan’s table tennis players assemble for first exhibition since pandemic

The nation’s top male and female table tennis players assembled at Ota City General Gymnasium on Monday for a special one-day event, giving fans an opportunity to watch many of the country’s elite talents compete for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

Participants included top players from the professional T. League as well as both the men’s and women’s national teams. The national team select squads included globally noted players such as Tomokazu Harimoto and Kasumi Ishikawa.

Jun Mizutani, the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics men’s singles bronze medalist, withdrew from the event at the last minute after feeling unwell.

No spectators were allowed into the arena for the event, which was hosted by the T. League. But it offered the fans, who watched remotely on television and via the internet, some entertaining matchups that they would not normally be able to see.

In the first part of the event, the T. League select squad competed against a combined squad of the men’s and women’s national teams. The T. League players edged out Japan’s representatives 5-4.

Later, the men’s and women’s national select squads squared off against each other with the men’s team handed handicaps, such as point deficits and being unable to serve. The women’s team beat the male players 2-1 in the unorthodox contest.

Despite being able to train more than athletes in contact sports during the lockdown, players welcomed a chance to finally face off against real opponents.

“It was the first game we played in half a year,” said Ishikawa, a two-time Olympic medalist, after the event. “I was happy to play in actual matches. Hopefully, we’ll start playing more matches from this point on and this was a great first step for that.”

The 27-year-old veteran said she had played many practice games but was nervous to compete with a lot of people observing her performances.

Nevertheless, Ishikawa cherished the opportunity, in part because she was able to take on male players such as Harimoto, the 17-year-old phenom currently ranked No. 4 worldwide.

“I don’t think I’ve played against male players in front of a crowd, but it was so much fun,” Ishikawa said. “We played against each other a lot when he was in elementary school. But this was perhaps the first time since then. My serves didn’t really work against him anymore.”

Harimoto, who won silver at last year’s ITFF Men’s World Cup in Chengdu, China, hit the court hoping to fuel his growth as a player, despite the event’s casual nature.

“Honestly, I’ve had some worries as I’ve just been practicing,” Harimoto said. “But I could try things I’ve worked on and my worries have disappeared today.”

Organizers instituted stringent guidelines to limit the risk of infections ahead of the event. Yoshihito Miyazaki, an assistant chief director of the T. League, said that everyone who was set to appear on court, including players, officials and staffers, was required to take an antigen test.

All tested negative for the virus.

Reporters and photographers were restricted to a press area in the stands and all interviews were conducted online.

“While the coronavirus is still spreading, we don’t have to be too afraid of it and gained confidence through the event tonight,” Miyazaki said. “(Japanese table tennis) had to resume competitions, and we thought it should be us, the T. League.”

The league will open its third season on Nov. 17.

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