The 2018 ITTF Japan Open held in Kitakyushu, Japan turned out to be a tournament no one will forget in a hurry. Butterfly players completely dominated and made up the entire men’s semi final line up, in what was a competition of incredible performances and huge upsets.

Early in the tournament all eyes turned to the 2012 Olympic Champion and Butterfly player Zhang Jike who has recently made his return to the world stage. In his two previous ITTF Tour events he had crashed out early, leaving some to speculate as to what his intentions were in returning and whether or not he was taking his come back seriously. In a recent interview the Butterfly star was quoted saying  “At the moment I want to keep playing as long as possible. I want to participate at the Olympics in Tokyo.”

The former Olympic champion quickly proved these words were meant very seriously and put all negative speculations to rest by defeating all three of his preliminary round opponents with ease. His most impressive performances however, came in his round of 32, 16 and quarter final matches defeating  Johnathan Groth, young Chinese hopeful Jingkun Liang followed by a fantastic 4-3 win over an in form Jin Ueda. This setup a mouth watering semi final with long time rival and fellow Butterfly player Timo Boll.

Timo Boll’s route to the final was considerably shorter due to his higher world ranking but no less impressive. The German legend defeated Japans Yuta Tanaka in his round of 32 match, Mattias Karlsson in the last 16 and then an scored an emphatic 4-1 win over Kenta Matsudaira in the quarters. Unfortunately, and to the dismay of the Japanese crowd, Timo Boll was forced to pull out of the tournament due to a recurring shoulder injury which gave Zhang Jike a bye into the final.


In the other half of the draw Butterfly’s 14 year old Wonderkid Tomokazu Harimoto was about to do what he does best, sending shock waves through the table tennis world. His round of 32 and 16 wins over France’s Simon Gauzy and China’s Zhou Yu set up what was to be the biggest shock of 2018 when he faced the current World and Olympic Champion Ma Long. After Ma Long’s previous round victory over the world number 1 Fan Zhendong, most were expecting an in form Ma Long to make light work of the 14 year old however the Wonderkid had other ideas.

The ever passionate Harimoto stormed into a 3-0 lead over, who many consider to be the greatest player of all time. Ma Long would not be defeated so easily however and took back the next two sets comfortably 3-11, 2-11. At this point some may have thought that Ma Long, with the momentum behind him would overcome his far less experienced opponent, but once again the Wonderkid proved everyone wrong. The 6th set was closely contested until the midway point where Harimoto pulled away giving himself 4 match points over the Olympic Champ. He then took his first opportunity to put the match to rest, defeating Ma Long in front of his home crowd in a moment that no one will forget in a hurry.

In the semi final Harimoto met Butterfly and Korean player Lee Sangsu who had made his way to the semis by defeating Wong Chun Ting, Liao Cheng-Ting and  Chuang Chih-Yuan. To everyone’s relief there were no pull outs in this semi final, and both Butterfly players put on a fantastic show for the Kitakyushu crowd, with Harimoto coming out as the winner in another superb 6 set match.

After a breath taking tournament only two players were left standing and what followed next was a match as pulsating as a table tennis match can be. The first set was a close one. With both players flowing, the first set was narrowly taken by Zhang Jike 9-11. The next set was more of the same and was again taken by the Chinese phenom 8-11. Harimoto then took back the momentum in what was two fairly one sided sets, levelling the match up at 2-2. The two then traded the next two sets with Zhang Jike winning the 5th 10-12 and Harimoto taking the 6th 11-7.

This setup a seemingly destined and nail biting 7th set decider. After being 5-1 down Zhang Jike was able to claw his way back into the set and gave himself championship point at 9-10. The Wonderkid had other ideas however and after saving a match point and losing one of his own, he was able to clinch victory 13-11 with an ace serve. With this Japan Open victory and with his incredible win over Ma Long it proves that on the right day Tomokazu Harimoto can beat anyone. With this in mind maybe, just maybe winning his home Olympics at Tokyo 2020 isn’t out of the realms of possibility.


About The Author


Seb has succeeded in living his passion for table tennis. A long-time player, he connected to professional table tennis as commentator for the ITTF, travelling to top events such as World Championships and reporting live from the action. In 2014, Seb became part of the Butterfly Team, working in international Sales and Marketing at Butterfly Europe in Germany.

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