Japanese teenager Ai Fukuhara will make her mark as the youngest woman to appear in the table tennis competition at the Athens Olympics.
In her big debut at the Games, however, she will face an uphill task to beat dominating Chinese players gearing up for a clean sweep of the medals in the women’s singles.
Most remember “Ai-chan,” as she is affectionately called, for her hysterical but lovable crying bouts on TV while playing as a toddler of no more than five.
Now at 15, she is all grown up, having improved dramatically over the years to reach 26th in the world rankings after a string of impressive victories against world-class players.
One of her most memorable victories came when she stunned then 12th-ranked Li Jia Wei of Singapore in the second round of the World Championships in Paris in May last year, though ranked only 91st in the world at the time.
She made it as far as the quarterfinals before she was pummeled by world No. 1 Zhang Yining, but she had already proven herself to be a true warrior on the big stage — becoming the first Japanese in 14 years to reach the last eight of an individual event of the World Championships.
Whereas, Aya Umemura and Ai Fujinuma had already booked their spots on Japan’s eight-member squad for Athens at the time, Ai-chan had to continue to convince the powers that be how truly hungry she was to play in Greece.
With her defeat of Hong Kong’s Lau Sui-fei at the Asian zone Olympic qualifying tournament in April, she finally booked a berth as the youngest Japanese ever to appear in the Olympics in table tennis.
“Right now, I just feel satisfied that I’ll be able to play in the Olympics,” Fukuhara said.
“I know that this is the wrong attitude though. So, I will do my very best to aim for a goal that is realistic for me at the tournament,” she said.
Umemura, currently ranked 14th, appears to be Japan’s brightest hope to claim a medal in the women’s singles and spoil a sweep by China, which features Zhang, second-ranked and Sydney Olympic champion Wang Nan and third-ranked Niu Jianfeng.
The left-handed Fujinuma, ranked 36th, has made steady progress since appearing at the Sydney Games four years ago, but along with Ai-chan is still a long shot for a podium finish.
Out of the five Japanese men taking part in the competition, Toshio Tasaki and Akira Kito have the best chance of bringing home medals in men’s doubles.
Veteran Koji Matsushita will appear in his fourth consecutive Olympics in men’s singles at age 36 while Shu Arai and Ryo Yuzawa will make their debuts at the Games.
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