Rise of the Japanese Girls
Rowden April 2017
It is interesting looking at current female World rankings that Japan is very much in the ascendency.
In the Women’s list the top 10 are all of Asian origin, with China having the 1 and 2 in Ding Ning and Zhu Yuling, with Chen Meng at 5 and Wu Yang at 10. Japan has only 3 in the top 10, Kasumi Ishikawa at 4, Mima Ito at 8 and Satoh Hitomi at 9 but Miu Hirano is at 11. However the Chinese players are collectively older with an average age of almost 25 (Ding is 27) while the Japanese girls average just over 19 with Mima only 16 and Miu just 17.
In fact Miu Hirano has only just won the Asian Championships beating Ding Ning 3 – 2 in the quarters (on her 17th birthday), Zhu Yuling 3 – 0 in the semis and Chen Meng 3 – 0 in the final, to become the first Japanese girl to win in 20 years.
What is also conclusive are the Under 21 Rankings where Japan has 8 out of the top 10, numbers 1, 2 and 3, 5, 6 and 7 and 9 and 10. China has no women in this category, the other two places are filled by Hong Kong at 4 and Singapore at 8. Japan is the number 1 ranked team in the World in Juniors (under 18), with 6 girls, ranked 1 to 4, plus the 6 and 10; China has 2 players at 5 and 7, Romania 1 and Puerto Rico 1. Even in the Under 15 Rankings, Japan out of 5 Asian players has 3 at 1, 2 and 8 with 1 from Hongkong at 4 and another from Korea at 9; there are 2 players from the USA and 1 each from Russia, Romania and France. China has no players in this category.
So just what is it that the younger Japanese players are doing that is making the difference? The clues are in Miu Hirano’s victories over the World 1, 2 and 5 in the current Asian Championships. She lost the first two ends against Ding Ning, the first 3 and the second only on deuce, but was already showing that she was faster and was capable of using the plastic ball better. From 0 – 2 down Miu won the 3rd to 9 and the 4th 16 – 14. In the 4th Ding was 9 – 5 and 10 – 8 up. Miu was not only faster taking the ball at times very early, but she was extremely strong on the BH and excellent at placement and variation; not only was she capable of playing very wide off the side of the table but also targeted the body well and played the line to perfection especially straight to Ding’s FH. Once in the rally she never gave Ding time to settle, kept moving her and was always prepared to improvise from time to time. In the 5th Ding was 6 – 4 and 7 -- 6 up but never lead after that and lost 10 – 12.
In the semis and final, against the World 2 and 5, Miu never looked like losing and won both 3 – 0.
Just what can we take from these results. On the Chinese side there were a number of obvious points.
● All their players drifted away from the table at times and as soon as they did this they were open to the wider angled ball and being moved from one side to the other
● All their players were outplayed and outmaneuvered by Miu’s BH which was invariably taken very early and close to the table
● They underestimated her serves and 3rd ball and how well she could use them
● They couldn’t cope with her speed and total unpredictability in placement
● They couldn’t cope with the wide angles
● They tried to use their FH from the BH corner and often got out of position
There were also areas in which Miu could have performed better and been much more dominant. This is understandable as she is still young, finding her own feet and learning what she can and can’t do. She could have:
● Handled short serves and receives better at times and used a bigger range of alternatives and more precision in placement early in the rally
● Changed the pace more often especially when the opponent retreated
● Considered her strategies more when forced back herself. She is relatively weak from a deeper position
● Thought more to use the block on the FH side to create openings and pull players in and out
Overall I felt that the Chinese players are still trying to play celluloid ball strategies with the plastic. Around 2009 to 2010 they had some of the fastest players in the world and the priority was speed (Zhang Yining and Liu Shiwen) but over the last 5 years or so they’ve moved away to more spin and often a little deeper positions. As a result they are still lifting and not playing through the ball enough. The Chinese players often looked slow and ungainly against Miu’s extreme speed and wide placement, but of course over the years they have played much longer with celluloid.
On the other hand the Japanese being younger (Ito’s another example) have adapted quicker to plastic techniques. They understand that spin is of much less value, especially off the table and they are prioritizing speed from very early in the rally. I am just surprised that the Chinese have not caught up especially in the younger age groups and are not producing players of this type and working more at closer-to-table play. However when you’ve been so successful for decades perhaps it takes time to understand that when the science changes, the techniques and strategies may need to change also.
It is also quite ironic that the Chinese women after decades of speed and closer-to-table stop/start play have more recently been prepared to develop a little more like the men, only to have the game change with the introduction of the plastic ball.