New table tennis league set to begin

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Tomokazu Harimoto, Miu Hirano and other top Japanese table tennis players will look to develop themselves to genuinely become the world’s dominant powerhouse by competing in the newly launched professional T.League.

The league kicks off on Oct. 24 at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan, which usually serves as the national sumo venue, with a men’s matchup between the T.T Saitama and Kinoshita Meister Tokyo.

The women’s circuit will begin the following day at the same arena between the Top Otome Pingpongs Nagoya and Nippon Life Insurance Red Elf.

The league consists of four men’s and women’s teams each. The men’s four are: Saitama, Meister, the Okayama Rivets and Ryukyu Asteeda. The women’s four are: Nagoya, Red Elf, Kinoshita Abyell Kanagawa and Nippon Paint Mallets.

The T.League announced the outline of the format on Wednesday. Each club will play 21 games in the regular season, which will continue through February, and the top two teams will compete for the championship in March.

Each event will have four matches: The first contest will be a three-set doubles and the next three will be five-set singles. If the teams are tied at 2-2, they will play a “victory match,” which is a one-set singles contest, to determine the winner.

Each club is required to have at least one “S” class player, meaning he or she has to be placed within the top 10 in the world rankings or has made a podium finish in a singles competition at either the Olympics or world championships or earned a team gold medal in those in the last four years. The S player must play at least eight matches during the regular season.

There are other player ranks that the teams will have to qualify as well.

“We hear that there’s going to be many Chinese players (in the league), so I would like to face them as many time as I can,” Ryukyu’s Koki Niwa said at a news conference, which was lavishly staged at Tokyo’s Midtown, on Thursday.

The teams compete based upon the number of points they score in each game. (If a team wins 4-0, it will get four points. If it is a 3-1 win, the team gets three points. Even if a team loses 2-3 through a victory match, it will still earn one point.)

There will be schedule conflicts for some of the players who are also competing in the ITTF World Tour circuit. So it will be important for the teams to manage that, having their top-flight players compete as much as possible.

For Harimoto, who is Japan’s top-ranked male player at No. 8, he will also have to manage his school time as well. But the 15-year-old promised that he would compete as best as he can to improve himself.

“It’s really a good thing to be able to play against the world’s bests being in Japan,” said Harimoto, who captured the national championship singles title as the youngest-ever player (age 14) earlier this year and aims to win a gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Saitama’s Maharu Yoshimura insisted that the pro league would help raise the level in the country, with the home Olympics in sight.

“There’s been top leagues like in China,” said Yoshimura, who earned a silver medal in the team competition at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. “And now we will have our own pro league in Japan, and I believe that it will help develop the level of our game. I think that this league will help create a situation where we are in a good position to win gold medals, no matter who will represent Japan.”

The league announced that it has finalized a partnership deal with Dome Corporation and that all the teams will wear Under Armour-made jerseys.