• Kyodo

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Ai Fukuhara and Kasumi Ishikawa enter the 2015 table tennis World Cup in career-best form, putting them in the best-possible position to end China’s longtime grip on the tournament, which begins Friday in Sendai.

Fukuhara, who was born in Sendai, says she will be doing all she can to perform well in front of her home fans after reaching a career-high No. 4 in the world in October.

Four years after the earthquake and tsunami disaster that so badly affected the region, Fukuhara is keen to draw attention to the fact that her hometown has recovered and is on the up-and-up.

“I am really motivated to play in Sendai. I am very pleased to go back home,” she told ITTF.com.

“I hope I can encourage the local people to be positive and to look to the future. I hope that despite everything that has happened everyone can realize that Sendai is a good place, a really good place.”

Fukuhara will have to play at her best if she is to get the fairy-tale home win given she recently lost 4-0 in the quarterfinal of the Polish Open to China’s Liu Shiwen, a player she will likely have to overcome at some point if she is to take the world cup title.

No non-Chinese player has ever won the women’s world cup of table tennis, and in Sendai it is left to China’s Liu and Zhu Yuling to try to continue that run.

Liu, who has spent 22 months ranked world No. 1 since late 2013 but currently sits in second, has to be confident she can take the title given her perfect three-for-three (2009, 2012, 2013) record in world cup tournaments. After deposing Fukuhara, she went on to win the Polish Open when her world No. 1 nemesis and countrywoman Ding Ning retired from the final with a shoulder injury.

Liu, however, has had a year of near-misses, having lost in the final at the 2015 World Championships and Asian Cup, as well as going out at the semifinal stage of the China Open, Japan Open and Kuwait Open.

Liu’s conqueror at the China Open and Japan Open was Zhu. The 20-year-old world No. 3 has lost eight of the 11 times she has faced Liu, but has won their past two matches, which makes her perhaps best-placed to take the title in Sendai.

Ishikawa, the world No. 5, finished third at the 2014 World Cup in Singapore and will be looking to go at least one better if she can reach the semifinal in Sendai.

The world cup of table tennis is billed as the second most important event of the season as it brings together the six continental champions, but in reality competition for the top players is not as close as at some less prestigious tournaments. In Sendai only five of the world’s top 10 players are competing, with reigning world champion Ding the most conspicuous absentee.

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