RIO DE JANEIRO – Japan managed to take a match off China but the two-time defending Olympic champions prevailed 3-1 in the end to win another gold medal in the men’s team event at the Rio Games on Wednesday.
Jun Mizutani saved three match points to score his first career victory over Xu Xin in five games, but reigning Olympic and world champion Ma Long won twice for China, which also won the doubles.
Japan’s silver is its first in the men’s team, and will be great motivation as the squad looks to plot a way to dethrone China at the next Summer Games in 2020 in Tokyo.
“We couldn’t win gold this time, but I definitely hope to take something from what we achieved here and win gold at the Tokyo Olympics,” said Mizutani, the bronze medalist in the singles competition.
“I don’t think beating China in Tokyo is a far-fetched dream.”
After world No. 1 Ma crushed Koki Niwa in the first match 3-0, Mizutani gave Japan a glimmer of hope in the second against Xu. Mizutani won the first two games, 12-10 and 11-9, but former world No. 1 Xu roared back to force a fifth game.
Mizutani had his back against the wall facing a 10-7 deficit, but won the next five points to stun Xu and even the score.
“I’m 0-15 against him and it feels great to have finally gotten revenge on a stage as big as the Olympics,” Mizutani said. “I won a medal in both the singles and the team event and I’m thrilled by it.
“I’m convinced we can build on what we achieved here for Tokyo.”
Said Japan coach Yosuke Kurashima, “He won a bronze in the singles here after years of not being able to win one, and I think he’s been liberated from the pressure that was on him. It showed in the team event.”
Yet the Chinese duo of Zhang Jike and Xu proved too much for Niwa and Maharu Yoshimura, winning 3-1 after dropping the first game. Yoshimura had no chance against Ma, who made quick work of his opponent in just 14 minutes of actual playing time.
Kurashima defended his decision to save Mizutani for a potential fifth game rather than pencil him in for the fourth, explaining that for Japan to have a shot of beating China, he had to avoid Mizutani matching up with Ma and count on winning the doubles.
“Ma Long is in top form at the moment and for us to win gold, we had to avoid Mizutani playing him so he has a chance of winning twice and then pray that Yoshimura and Niwa win the doubles,” Kurashima said.
“We went all in for the doubles. I felt that if we could win the doubles, then we would have a shot at a gold medal. Zhang Jike aggravated his back in the doubles and I really thought we had a chance, but the crucial third game didn’t go our way.”
Kurashima said he was pleased with the results and performances from his troops looking ahead to the 2020 Games on home soil.
“I think we did very well here. Who could have imagined we would win a couple of medals after London?” he said.
“These four years will be about how much we can gain on China. It won’t be easy with China being as good as they are. We will need to develop another two or three players of Mizutani’s quality to stand a chance against China.”