RIO DE JANEIRO – Japan guaranteed itself a first-ever Olympic men’s table tennis team medal on Monday after beating Germany 3-1 to set up a final showdown with defending champion China.
Maharu Yoshimura lost the opening singles match 3-0 before team ace Jun Mizutani — who won bronze in the singles competition four days previously — beat Timo Boll 3-0 to tie the match and set up a pivotal doubles clash between Yoshimura and Koki Niwa and Germany’s Boll and Bastian Steger.
The Japanese pair triumphed 3-1 after a fierce dogfight to give Mizutani the chance to close out the match in his singles matchup with Steger, and the world No. 6 did so with ease, thrashing his opponent 3-0 at Riocentral Pavilion 3.
“I knew I had a big lead so I thought I would be fine, but the last point is the one that’s always played on TV so I really wanted to finish in style,” said Mizutani, who became Japan’s first-ever male table tennis medalist when he beat Vladimir Samsonov of Belarus 4-1 to win the singles bronze on Thursday.
“If I hadn’t won my first match then the team would definitely have lost. I always want to win twice for my country, and I also have the pride of being the team’s ace. I don’t want to lose in front of an audience, whoever it is I’m playing.”
Japan will play China in Wednesday’s final, after the table tennis superpower beat South Korea 3-0 in the second semifinal later on Monday.
World No. 21 Yoshimura lost the opening rubber against Germany’s Dimitrij Ovtcharov — the world No. 5 and the highest-ranked player outside of China — to make Mizutani’s matchup with world No. 13 Boll a must-win situation.
Mizutani proved equal to the task, beating Boll 11-9, 11-5, 12-10 despite a poor career record against the 35-year-old former world No. 1.
“I had to play Boll today, and I’ve lost to him about 14 or 15 times in my life,” said Mizutani. “I could feel that my teammates were worried, but I was confident I could win.
“I knew that if I could beat Boll then it would give the other two a lift, and that if we could win the doubles we would definitely win the whole thing. I’m glad we could do it.”
Yoshimura and Niwa took the first game against Boll and Steger 11-5 before dropping the second 13-15, but the Japanese pair dug in to claim the next two games 11-4 and 11-5 to set the table for Mizutani.
“It wasn’t about the tactics,” said Niwa, the world No. 22. “We’re a team and we were determined to work for each other and win the match.
“At 1-1 the doubles is so important in deciding whether or not you win a medal. I would have had to play last if we hadn’t won and I don’t think I would have won that one, so we had to really go for it.”
Mizutani duly thrashed Steger 11-5, 11-4, 11-4 to book Japan’s place in the final against China, leaving the Germans to contest the bronze-medal match against South Korea.
“I knew it would be a very tough match against Mizutani,” said world No. 24 Steger. “He played a really good tournament and he didn’t make any mistakes. It was really a perfect match for him. I tried everything but there was no chance.”
Japan faces a Herculean task to beat table tennis behemoth China, which has won gold both times since the team event was added to the Olympic program in 2008, and has captured the world championship 20 times.
“Ever since table tennis became an Olympic sport 28 years ago in Seoul, Japanese men had never won a medal,” said Japan men’s coach Yosuke Kurashima. “The players have really put in the effort and now Mizutani has won an individual medal and the team is guaranteed a medal too.
“I’m only half happy because the final is still to come tomorrow. China will definitely put us under pressure so we need to be at our best. It will be like threading the eye of a needle, so I want to see us play the best we can.”