Fierce battle on tap for Olympic table tennis

TOKYO (The Japan News/ANN) - Expectations are high that host Japan will be a smash in table tennis at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and come away with multiple medals. 

 The question is: Who is going to win them? 

 Japan is limited by the rules to just two entries in both men’s and women’s singles. Add in one additional player per gender for the team events, and the squad for the Tokyo Games will be a party of six. 

 Starting last month, the competition for spots on the Olympic team began in earnest, and it looks to be a fierce one. 

 The selection criteria in singles is quite simple. The top two Japanese players in the International Table Tennis Federation’s world rankings in January 2020 will make the cut. 

 The battle for the women’s spots is drawing particular attention. Currently, Kasumi Ishikawa, who is aiming to appear in her third Olympics, is the top-ranked Japanese at No. 6. Right behind her at No. 7 is Mima Ito, who recently chalked up a string of eye-opening wins over powerful Chinese opponents at international tournaments, and Miu Hirano, the 2017 world bronze medalist who lurks close by at No. 9.

 In all, Japan has five players packed in the top 20.  

 “No matter how many times you go through it [Olympic team selection], it’s still a narrow gate [to get through],” said veteran Ishikawa, who has consistently maintained her place among the top players. “I will give everything I have to make the team.”

 In principle, the world rankings used for the selection criteria reflect the players’ results over a calendar year. Fluctuations occur based on points earned from international events such as the world championships and the ITTF’s World Tour meets.

 The process for Japan’s top players began at the Qatar Open at the end of last month. However, none of the contingent made it past the quarterfinals in either men’s or women’s singles.

 The first major test on the ITTF calendar will be the world championships, which will be held in Budapest on April 21-28. A title at this tournament will be worth 3,000 ranking points, the most among international events.

  Led by 15-year-old Tomokazu Harimoto, at No. 4 the highest-ranked Japanese male, Japan will dispatch five players each to the men’s and women’s singles competitions. A high placing in Budapest will put a player in the driver’s seat in the selection race for the Tokyo Olympics. 

  “If somehow you lose in the first round, that pretty much ends your Olympic hopes,” said veteran Jun Mizutani, the third-highest ranked Japanese male at No. 13. “The results from the world championships are extremely important.”

  Making the selection battle even more difficult was the addition of three newly established international tournaments that start in July. Because entry to these tournaments is afforded to those with top results up to then, it makes it possible to quickly pull away from rivals. That gives players currently out of selection range a chance to suddenly jump into the picture.

 Koki Niwa, ranked No. 8 among the men, said this can elicit a sense of urgency.

 “To get into [the new tournaments], the battles in March and April become more important, and if you don’t win early on, that will make you anxious going into the later events,” he said.

  The two members (one male, one female) to be added for the team competitions will be decided by the Japan Table Tennis Association’s technical development committee, based on who it feels can best pair up with the singles players in doubles. 

  That said, there has not been anything close to a shake-up among the top three players of either gender recently. So who will be the winners in the battle for the two tickets to the Olympics? Will a No. 3 turn the tide and usurp one of the berths? The curtain has opened, let the show begin.