Ito Mima: The biggest threat to Chinese table tennis dominance
China have won every women's singles gold medal since table tennis became a medal sport at Seoul 1988, but many table tennis watchers believe if anyone is to break the Chinese dominance, this 19-year-old from the host nation may be the one to do so.
Her recent thrashing of reigning Olympic champion Ding Ning at the Qatar Open in March only served to whip up the frenzy even more.
It confirmed what many people already knew – Ito should not be underestimated.
Japan win Women's Table Tennis Team bronze
Japan win Women's Table Tennis Team bronzeJapan's women's table tennis team win bronze in Rio 2016.
Ito has long been regarded as a prodigy in Japan. Aged just 10 years old, she became the youngest person to win a match at the senior national championships in January 2011. In doing so, she broke a record previously held by another trailblazer and her future teammate, Fukuhara Ai.
That early success opened doors for her, as she was able to visit China to train with Chinese national team hopefuls while still a youth player.
Records have continued to fall for Ito since: in 2014, she won the women's doubles title at the ITTF World Tour German Open alongside fellow 13-year-old Hirano Miu as they became the youngest pair to win a World Tour doubles event; a year later she became the youngest World Tour singles champion (a record since broken by Harimoto Tomokazu); and in 2016 she became the youngest table tennis Olympic medallist, aged 15 years 300 days, when Japan won women's team bronze.
Her continued run of results even gave her the opportunity to star in a cameo role in Japanese rom-com film Mixed Doubles in 2017 alongside Mizutani Jun, her mixed doubles teammate who is also from her hometown Iwata. She also featured in a music video for J-pop group Little Glee Monster in 2018.
It has been a rapid rise for Ito – she doesn't turn 20 until October – who first broke into the top 10 of the world rankings at age 14.
To go with her Olympic bronze medal, she has won eight World Tour singles titles in her career, two World Team Championships silvers, one World Championships women's doubles silver, and a World Championships women's doubles bronze.
Last month, the paddler from Shizuoka Prefecture was voted by fans into the International Table Tennis Federation's Women's 21st Century Dream Team. Her recent 4–0 whitewash of Ding, which included an 11–0 game, undoubtedly set tongues wagging.
Ito would go on to win silver in Qatar, a result that moved her up to a career-high ranking of world number two. No other Japanese player, male or female, has reached these heights under the ITTF's existing ranking system.
And if further proof – aside from that result – was needed that China ought to pay attention to Ito, look no further than the 2018 Swedish Open. En route to the sixth of her eight World Tour wins, the Japanese saw off the then-number-two Liu Shiwen, Ding, and then-number-one Zhu Yuling in consecutive rounds.
In Tokyo next year, Ito will lead Japan's singles charge alongside Ishikawa Kasumi, with whom she won team bronze in Rio (Fukuhara was the third team member). Hirano, herself still only 20 too, will be the third member of the team.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the country's recent achievements (women's team silver at London 2012 and bronze in 2016), Japan have yet to win an Olympic medal in women's singles.
The biggest threat standing in Ito's way is the current world number one, Chen Meng. "I've never beaten Chen Meng," Ito noted to the Japan Times. "There's a player above me who I've never beaten. That motivates me."
Another real possibility for Ito to stand on the top step of the podium in front of her home fans next year will come in mixed doubles, an event which is making its debut at the Olympics.
Ito will partner Mizutani – who has won Olympic men's singles bronze and team silver – in Tokyo. The pair are currently ranked number two in the world, behind China's Liu and Xu Xin.
And, Ito revealed, the lack of training together due to the current coronavirus situation probably won't be a problem for them.
"We can probably do it without (practicing). Even when we compete in tournaments, we don’t practice at all (away from competition). We (just) practice together for 20, 30 minutes before the match. So I really don’t have too many worries about the mixed doubles," she said.
Chinese table tennis has been put on alert.