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Tied 2-2 in games, Mima Ito (WR 3) and Hina Hayata (WR 29) both reached into their bag of tricks as Ito eked out a gutsy 11-9 win in a pivotal game 5 en route to a 11-9, 11-8, 6-11, 9-11, 11-9, 11-6 finals victory over Hayata. With the win Ito, has captured the first ever World Table Tennis (i.e. rebranded ITTF) Title in the WTT Contender Event at WTT Doha. The qualification draw of WTT Star Contender, the second and more prestigious event at WTT Doha, is already underway and will be ongoing throughout the week.
The victory is slightly dimmed due to the withdrawal of Sun Yingsha and Liu Shiwen and general lack of star-power among Ito’s opponents (none of her opponents were in the top 20 although Hayata likely deserves to be in it). However, Ito was still able to make a small statement; while all the other top seeds in the event were getting upset left and right, Ito was able to stay steady take care of business. If everyone has similar showings in WTT Star Contender event, Ito can make the case for why she is arguably the ONLY serious threat to Chinese supremacy at the Tokyo Olympics.
Ito opened the match very aggressively, which initially cost her as she missed several aggressive forehand smashes to go down 7-3. However, her shots suddenly started landing and went on a 8-2 run to take the game 11-9. Save for a net ball when down 7-4 (which itself was in the middle of an offensive rally), all of Ito’s last eight points were won off of aggressive wide openings or ambitious forehand smashes. Both the points she lost were a result of her missing her own forehand smash.
Ito’s aggressive style carried into game 2, but thanks to a couple early service and return errors and a missed smash, Hayata was able to open up an early 5-3 lead that could have been larger if not for a couple of her own easier backhand errors.
Ito then won four points in a row to take a 7-5 lead. Two of these points followed the same strategy of allowing Hayata to open with her backhand against a short ball to the center and then smashing the ball back hard for the winner after anticipating its location.
Ito would use the same play again at 8-7 to maintain a 9-7 lead. Ito then surprised Hayata with a short push; Hayata rushed when stepping in and flicked the ball into the net, giving Ito three game points at 10-7. Ito missed a forehand smash to cut it to 10-8, but Hayata then missed a forehand flick on the serve return to lose the game 11-8.
Similar to game 1, Ito continued to be aggressive and go for hard and wide forehand smashes, but missed several of them. Hayata also added some extra twists to her short game including a half-long push at 3-2 and a surprise forehand flick at 6-3 that, combined with Ito’s errors, were enough for Hayata to go up 9-3.
Ito was able to win two points on her own serve to cut it to 9-5. Hayata then served long to Ito’s elbow but missed the block when Ito stepped around to smash it to her backhand. On the very next point, Hayata trusted her long serve and anticipation again as she served a long serve again to Ito’s elbow, but this time a little further to the backhand, and when Ito stepped around and hit it to Hayata’s backhand, Hayata was ready for a wide block to Ito’s forehand for the winner.
Ito was able to catch Hayata with a long serve on the next point, but Hayata’s surprised return carried some weird spin and neither player seemed to know what was on the ball for a couple shots before Ito went for the smash and hit it out the table, giving game 3 to Hayata 11-6.
Hayata showed some great anticipation and killed several of Ito’s openings as she built a 6-3 lead. However, Hayata then missed her own serve, lost a weird point after a net ball, and then lost a great rally to level it at 6-6. However, Hayata was unfazed as she continued to show great anticipation and smack down many of Ito’s openings and fool Ito with her long serves to cruise to an 10-7 lead.
However, a winning serve return from Ito and a missed serve return by Hayata cut the lead to 10-9. Ito calmly asked for her second “covid timeout” of a game (i.e. where a player effectively gets an extra mini-break by asking the umpire to “wipe down” the table), and what appeared to be a rattled Hayata then called a real timeout.
Hayata then opened with a chiquita to Ito’s wide backhand and then hit a hard wide backhand winner against the soft return to take the game 11-9.
Neither player was able to take control the pace of the game like Ito in games 1 and 2 or Hayata in games 3 and 4. Ito had the slight edge in rallies, allowing her to build 8-6 lead. It was around at this point that both players appeared to bust out their bags of tricks.
Hayata won a point off a tricky half-long serve, and Ito took the next point with a short, high, and very strange chop block that Hayata hit into the net. Hayata then won the next point with a strawberry flick to cut the lead to 9-8. Each player then won a point off the third ball following great anticipation, resulting in a 10-9 lead for Ito with Hayata to serve. Ito then opted for a short push instead of the backhand flick that Hayata was expecting on the serve return, and Hayata missed the following push as Ito eked out a clutch 11-9 win in a pivotal game 5.
Game 6 got off to a strange start. Hayata first won a beautiful rally before missing her own serve to level it at 1-1. Ito then caught a net ball and a pretty wide block to take a 3-1 lead. Hayata then proceeded to serve long on all four of her next four serves and lost all four points. However, Ito returned the favor by losing four straight of her own serves, including a missed serve.
Hayata was able to get narrow the lead one more point to 7-6 with a deep push to Ito’s backhand before dropping the next point to g o down 8-6. Hayta then missed a serve return and then lost the next point after Ito got a net ball, giving Ito quadruple match point at 10-6. Hayata’s shoulders slumped in frustration, and although it looked like she had gathered herself together for the next point, her serve was a bit high, and Ito killed the serve with a wide punch to Hayata’s forehand.
This sequence capped off a 5-0 streak for Ito in what was otherwise a close and unpredictable game. She thus took the match 4-2, and with it, the first ever WTT title (WTT Macau does not count because the rules were a complete gimmick).
On the men’s singles side, Dimitrij Ovtcharov captured the title with a 4-1 win over Lin Yun-Ju.
Ito missed three of her own serves and Hayata missed two. It’s unclear why whether the large number of missed serves was due to nervousness, rustiness, or a change in routine due to covid restrictions (e.g. no touching the table).
Either Ito sweats a lot or she really likes making use of the so-called covid timeout.
Edges and Net previously released a rudimentary statistical analysis of the Hayata vs Ito match-up. We will shortly follow up on how these trends held at WTT Doha in an upcoming post. Stay tuned!
The outfits this time were significantly better than whatever they were wearing at the All Japan National Championships in January, which can be seen in our Instagram post below. Between these National Championship outfits and Harimoto’s tendency to dress like a fruit with his monochromatic color schemes, Edges and Nets is not a huge fan of Team Japan’s fashion choice.