The men’s quarterfinals Sunday were, while exciting, decidedly the undercard to what promised to be a hotly contested women’s semifinal between two seed Japan and three seed Germany. With China expected to win their semifinal without much difficulty, all the entertainment from the final four would have to come from the first semifinal.
And boy did it deliver.
Germany survived Japan three games to two to advance to the gold medal match Tuesday evening in a four-hour marathon that lived up to its billing and then some.
The first match between Mima Ito and Petrissa Solja offered a taste of what was to come. After splitting the opening two sets, the teenager Ito rallied back from 8-5 down to win six straight and take a 2-1 lead in the opening line. Solja responded with an emphatic win in the fourth, never trailing en route to an 11-6 equalizer. The fifth set looked set to go the way of the Japanese in a romp, but Solja fought back from 9-3 to somehow win the game and the opening match 12-10.
The second match also went to five games, just in case the spectators were not yet convinced of the spectacle they were watching. Han Ying, the world No. 7, staked herself to a 2-0 lead, putting on an absolute clinic in defensive table tennis. But Kasumi Ishikawa, the world No. 6, gradually worked her way back into the match. First, she made Han sweat for her second set victory. Then, she took game 3 11-6. She liked that score line so much she went right back to it, evening the score in the fourth. Game 5 was a proper rubber match: tied on five different occasions, neither player could create anything in the way of separation. When Ishikawa went up 8-5, Han came right back to tie the set at 8-all. But Ishikawa would answer right back with a 3-0 run of her own to take the game and the set, leveling the contest at a match apiece.
Keeping with the trend, the doubles match went the distance as well. Germany’s team of Xiaona Shan and Solja won the opening game 11-6, but Ai Fukuhara and Ito answered back with a 12-10 win in the second. After taking game 3 11-7, Japan were two points away in game 4 from taking the doubles point. But the Germans won four straight points to win the game 11-7 and force a decisive fifth game. There, they needed to stage a late comeback again, rallying from a pair of points down to take the game and the line.
Ishikawa then played in the third line of singles against Shan. The latter had evidently missed the pre-match script reading, blissfully unaware that she was supposed to push the game to five sets. Instead, Ishikawa dismissed Shan in straight sets, sending the match to a fifth and final line.
In the closer, Fukuhara took on Han in a bout worthy of a gold medal in its own right. Fukuhara won the first game 11-7 before Han leveled the score at 11-9. Han then won game 3 at a canter, 11-4, setting up a must win game for Fukuhara. The world No. 8 rose to the occasion, taking the fourth 11-6, forcing a winner-take-all fifth set in the winner-take-all fifth match.
The decider was a dogfight. After trading body blows, the duo were tied at 7-all before Fukuhara won two straight to put her in the driver’s seat. But at 9-7, Fukuhara’s forehand nestled into the bottom of the net. At 9-8, her smash was long, and again at 9-all. She had somehow gone from frontrunner to fighting for her life.
The final point was the cruelest way possible to lose a match. Locked in another long rally, Han’s backhand slice fluttered along the sideof the table before clipping its very edge and dropping off. Fukuhara never had a chance to touch it. Han sunk to her knees, a combination of exhausted and elated. She had won four straight points to put Germany through to the gold medal match.
China and Singapore will have high expectations to meet in the other women’s semifinal that begins a banner day of table tennis tomorrow, starting at 9:00 AM ET. You can stream that match and the men’s semifinals later in the day on NBCOlympics.com.
Germany relied on its dominant singles play and Japan overcame earliness shakiness as both advanced to the semifinals of the men’s team tournament. Both countries won their matches 3-1 to set up a meeting in the last four Monday evening.
Germany won their match by riding their outstanding singles players – led by world No. 5 Dimitrij Ovtcharov – to take down Austria as all three players recorded a singles victory. Germany won the first two singles lines without dropping a set before losing a tight doubles point. But in the fourth match Bastian Steger beat Stefan Fegerl at love to put his team in Monday’s semifinal.
Japan, on the other hand, had to overcome a sketchy start to punch their ticket. After running out to a 2-0 lead in the first line, Koki Niwa conspired to drop the next three sets as Hong Kong’s Tang Peng took the first game. World No. 7 Jun Mizutani almost duplicated the result when he threw away a 2-0 lead of his own to Wong Chun Ting. But he held on to tie the match at one.
Niwa and Maharu Yoshimura coasted to a victory in the doubles, leaving Yoshimura with a chance to put Japan in the semifinals. Yoshimura made no mistake, closing the door on Hong Kong and sending Japan to the last four.
The action reaches a climax this evening with the first women’s semifinal starting at 7:30 PM ET. You can catch that match and all matches streaming live on NBCOlympics.com.
Two teams booked their spots in the men’s semifinals Sunday morning as the table tennis action continued from the Riocentro.
China continued their march to the gold medal with a sweep of Team GB in the day’s first quarterfinal. Proceedings started brightly for the Brits when Liam Pitchford took the first set of his match against the man who took home the single’s gold in Rio, Ma Long. But it was downhill from there as the Chinese stamped their mark on the game, winning each line at 3-1 to take the match in a sweep.
They’ll take on South Korea in the first men’s semifinal Monday afternoon after the Koreans were 3-1 winners over Sweden. South Korea’s team, which sports three players in the top twenty in the world, had little trouble dispatching the Swedes. After splitting the opening pair of singles lines, the Koreans won the doubles point in a shutout. Jung Young-Sik then put an end to the whole affair with a 3-1 victory over Kristian Karlsson to take the Koreans to the last four.
The men’s quarterfinals continue starting at 2:00 PM ET as Japan take on Hong Kong and Germany squares up against Austria. You can watch it all streaming live on NBCOlympics.com.