RIO DE JANEIRO – Jun Mizutani made Japanese table tennis history Thursday, winning the country’s first Olympic singles medal, a bronze, when he beat Vladimir Samsonov of Belarus 4-1 in Rio.
The gold medal match was a display of table tennis mastery when defending gold medalist Zhang Jike was completely dominated, and demoralized, by reigning world champion Ma Long.
Ma was controversially not selected for the London 2012 singles event, but he got his revenge in Brazil, playing with a passion and intensity on a level all of his own.
In the semifinals, Mizutani had played well in an unsuccessful attempt to get his first win over Ma, and the effort set him up to take on and beat the lumbering 40-year-old Belarusian.
“It has been my dream since I began playing table tennis (to win Japan’s first singles medal) so I’m really happy that it came true,” said the 27-year-old Mizutani.
“I thought I would regret it for the rest of my life if I lost today and I would have wanted to die, so I did my best thinking I certainly do not want to lose.
“Many (Japanese) people have competed in the Olympics until now but no one had won a singles medal, so I played to the best of my abilities on their behalf as well,” he said.
The world No. 6 got off to a perfect start, claiming the first game easily, 11-4, and was able to consolidate his early lead by scraping through the second 11-9.
It was clear that Samsonov, the world tour’s most well-credentialed senior citizen who is competing at his sixth games in Rio, would not lie down without a fight in his first Olympic medal match, and so it was as he rallied to take the third 11-6.
The fourth game proved pivotal and went to extra points with Mizutani only winning when the ball flicked the edge on the 26th — giving him a 14-12 win and a 3-1 lead.
“I could feel that my opponent was strongly determined not to give up any points, but I didn’t want to give up either, so I’m glad the ball scraped the edge in the end,” said Mizutani.
That edge may have cracked Samsonov, and he was visibly frustrated as he watched his best chance at an Olympic medal slip away in the fifth game, which Mizutani won 11-8.
On the back of this singles success, Mizutani will now join up with Koki Niwa and Maharu Yoshimura for the team event, with another medal most certainly a possibility.
“I was able to make my dream come true today with the support of many people, so in the team competition, I want to make other people’s dreams come true by winning a medal,” Mizutani said.
The gold medal match in men’s singles had all the makings of a classic, but Ma proved to be simply untouchable.
Even a player of Zhang’s incredible talent was rendered a spectator as Ma blew him off the table with power, recovery play and shotmaking.
The 27-year-old world No. 1 Ma gave his fourth-ranked compatriot no chance, winning the final 14-12, 11-5, 11-4, 11-4 for what will go down as one of the most incredible performances seen.
But as is normal for a Chinese champion player, he took it all in stride.
“I am very glad not only to complete the grand slam, but to become Olympic champion alone makes me happy. I didn’t stress too much during the game. I did my best and played free,” Ma said.
“I’m extremely happy that I could win the gold medal. It’s a special moment in my career.”