Tokyo ready for ZEN-NOH 2019 ITTF Team World Cup before Olympics come to townPhoto: Rémy Gros
From the recently concluded Rugby World Cup to next year's keenly awaited Olympic Games, Japan is very much at the centre of the sporting world right now. Before Tokyo 2020 is duly paraded across the nation next summer, there is a very important test event taking place this week in the form of the ZEN-NOH 2019 ITTF Team World Cup. Twelve of the strongest national associations, in each of the men's and women's competitions, are battling for glory at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, which will also be the venue for next year's big event. In many ways, this is a genuine dress rehearsal for Tokyo 2020.
The roadmap for the first two days of the Team World Cup was confirmed on Tuesday, as teams were split into groups of three with the top two positions of each group proceeding to the knockout rounds. As 1st and 2nd seeds in both men's and women's competitions, China and Japan are the favourites to meet in Sunday's finals. Their strongest challengers among the men's teams are Germany (3rd) and Korea Republic (4th), while Chinese Taipei (3rd) and Hong Kong, China (4th) are the other top seeds in the women's team groups.
History suggests that it will be a monumental task for anyone to stop Team China from retaining their titles after seven straight gold medals in the men's team event and eight for the women's team. The defending champions and world no.1 sides have sent out stellar line-ups as they bid to extend their exceptional winning streaks, including the reigning World Champions Ma Long and Liu Shiwen, world no.1 players Fan Zhendong and Chen Meng, as well as current 2019 ITTF World Tour leaders Xu Xin and Sun Yingsha.
Certainly in no mood to surrender their silverware, Team China's stars are also treating the event as a real test ahead of Tokyo 2020, providing added motivation in the eyes of Rio 2016 Olympic Champion, Ma Long, and Liu Shiwen, who is hoping to becoming a Golden Grand Slam Champion at Tokyo 2020. "The Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium is the venue for Tokyo 2020, so Team China is going to give its all to prepare accordingly for the Olympics. I have played here before and been a champion here, so I hope that the venue will be a lucky place for me once more." – Ma Long.
"I am very honoured to be back here in Japan, but this is my first time playing at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium. It's spacious and I like the look of the stadium. Tomorrow is the first day, so I want to get used to the venue and prepare in the best way possible for the tournament." – Liu Shiwen
Just like last year in London, Japan's men will lock horns with 2018 bronze medallists England in the group stage. Liam Pitchford famously defeated world no.4 Tomokazu Harimoto in straight games at that event – a result that the teenage star had clearly not forgotten:
"It was quite a battle last year against England and there are players that I would like to get my revenge against. This is the key match in our group.
"The men's team has been training very well for the Team World Cup. We would like to win this tournament and we'll do our very best to be champions." – Tomokazu Harimoto
Austria too will provide stiff competition in both men's and women's team events, where both times they have been drawn into Group B and both times alongside Japan. Meanwhile, by crossing paths with the United States' women's team, Miu Hirano will have an attempt at revenge over Lily Zhang following the latter's shock win in last month's Women's World Cup.
The 2019 Team World Cup is featuring several teams who have already confirmed their qualification for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games: Brazil, China, Germany, Japan and United States in the men's competition and Brazil, China, Egypt, Japan and United States in the women's competition will get a sense of what is to come in just over eight months' time at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium.
For the rest, the event will provide yet further motivation and drive to be among the world's finest yet again at next year's showpiece.