Olympics / Summer Olympics / Table tennis

Teen star Ito leads Japan to team table tennis bronze

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Fifteen-year-old Mima Ito showed the composure of a veteran to lead Japan’s women to the table tennis team bronze medal at the Rio Olympics on Tuesday with a 3-1 win over Singapore.

Japan, which missed out on the chance to win gold when it lost to Germany in Sunday’s semifinal, got off to a bad start when team captain Ai Fukuhara lost her opening singles match 3-2 to Yu Mengyu before ace Kasumi Ishikawa evened the score by sweeping world No. 4 Feng Tianwei.

Ito and Fukuhara then gave Japan the advantage with a hard-fought 3-1 doubles win over Yu and Zhou Yihan, before teen phenom Ito stayed on the table to rout Feng 3-0 and claim an emotional bronze medal for her and her teammates at Riocentral Pavilion 3.

“I’m so happy,” said world No. 9 Ito, who in 2014 became the youngest-ever winner of an International Table Tennis Federation event at the age of 13 when she triumphed at the German Open with doubles partner Miu Hirano.

“Losing two days ago was so difficult, and I cried, but that night I got myself together and vowed that I would end the competition with a smile on my face. When you lose you just have to forget about it and take your frustration out in the next match. I wasn’t nervous at all. I was looking forward to it.”

The victory gave Ito her first-ever Olympic medal, while Fukuhara and Ishikawa added bronze to the team silver they won four years ago at the London Games.

World No. 8 Fukuhara felt the weight on her shoulders when she lost the opening rubber in five games to world No. 13 Yu, but the 27-year-old table tennis icon was smiling by the end of the match.

“This has been the hardest four years and the hardest Olympics I’ve ever experienced,” said Fukuhara, who is competing at her fourth Summer Games. “This time, as the oldest player and as the captain, whether I won or lost I couldn’t afford to let it get to me.

“It was so important to set the mood by winning the opener, but I lost and that stopped the team from getting on a roll. It was still eating me up when I was playing my doubles match, but Kasumi and Mima led us to victory and I’m very grateful to them for that.”

World No. 6 Ishikawa was desperate to earn team salvation after crashing out in the singles tournament in her first match in Rio, and the 23-year-old took responsibility by volunteering to face Singapore’s ace in the second match.

“I really wanted to play Feng,” said Ishikawa. “I knew that if I could beat her, it would set the team off in the right direction.

“I’m not really that kind of person. I haven’t had that strength in the past, but today I wanted to be assertive and step up to the plate.”

Fukuhara and Ito then teamed up to beat Zhou and Yu in a nail-biting doubles clash, coming through 9-11, 11-9, 11-1, 14-12 to give Ito the chance to clinch the medal against Feng.

Ito promptly turned in a dominant performance against a player ranked five places higher in the world, setting the example for Japan’s men’s team to follow when it takes on China in the gold-medal match on Wednesday.

“I was able to win because my two teammates helped me,” said Ito. “I didn’t win this medal on my own. It wasn’t just the players, but everyone who supported us helped us to get this.

“I wanted the silver at least, but I have realized how hard it is to win an Olympic medal. I’m glad I was able to get one.”

Ito will have the chance to win more when Tokyo hosts the games in four years’ time, and Fukuhara was glad that her young teammate could end her first Olympics on a high note.

“Losing against Germany was so frustrating, and it was on mind for the next two days,” said Fukuhara. “If we had lost today, of course it would have been bad for myself and Kasumi, but I didn’t want Mima to have to go through the next four years feeling that frustration. Winning the bronze medal is better.”

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