Ishikawa sets sights high after rare All-Japan sweep

Ishikawa sets sights high after rare All-Japan sweep
Kasumi Ishikawa, left, hits a stroke during the women’s doubles final with Sayaka Hirano at the All-Japan championships in Tokyo on Saturday.

Even at the still-blossoming age of 21, table tennis star Kasumi Ishikawa is starting to hear the pitter-patter of a younger generation approaching. That makes her recent women's singles title at the All-Japan championships especially sweet, not forgetting she managed a rare sweep of all three events at the competition.

When Ishikawa won the final point against Misaki Morizono in the singles final on Sunday, her face scrunched up - seemingly both crying and smiling at the same time.

Ishikawa had just become the second female player in history to pull off a sweep of all three categories - singles, doubles and mixed doubles - at the All-Japan since Kazuko Ito completed the triple-title feat in the 1960 season under her maiden name Yamaizumi.

"This week was really, really tough," said Ishikawa, who won a historic silver medal in the team event at the 2012 London Olympics, upon finishing the seven-day tournament.

The focus of this year's All-Japan was on whether Ishikawa could achieve the treble after entering the tournament as the defending champion in both singles and doubles.

In addition to the pressure of being the favourite, Ishikawa also had the burden of being targeted by younger players, especially those in their teens.

In fact, Ishikawa and partner Sayaka Hirano were pushed to the brink in the women's doubles final by the high school duo of Airi Abe and Mizuki Morizono on Saturday. Ishikawa and Hirano won the first game of the best-of-five match, but the teenage pair took the following two games with tenacious defence and aggressive attacks.

Ishikawa and Hirano did not lose their composure, though. During a short break, the two decided to change tactics, and Hirano's backhand drives began penetrating the gap between Abe and Morizono in the fourth game. After taking the fourth game, the defending champion was calm as the pair won the final game to take the match 3-2.

Ishikawa also faced an uphill battle in the singles semifinals the next day against Miyu Maeda, a third-year student at Kibogaoka High School in Fukuoka Prefecture. Struggling to deal with the sharp-hitting 18-year-old's left-handed forehands, Ishikawa found herself down 3-1 in the best-of-seven match.

Ishikawa's dream is to play at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with younger sister, Rira, left. However, Ishikawa turned the tide as she began using the width and depth of the table to force Maeda to chase shots in all directions.

"I thought, 'I can't lose at this stage,'" Ishikawa said after securing a comeback victory.

In the end, Ishikawa demonstrated the mental fortitude to overcome all the pressure, beating the older Morizono 4-1 in the final.

"The fact that I survived tough matches makes me feel I can perform better at the next stage," Ishikawa said.

Yasukazu Murakami, coach of women's national team, praised Ishikawa.

"Her mental growth over the past year is evident," he said. "But there's still plenty of room for her to improve as a player."

Ishikawa's next target is the World Championships in Suzhou, China, starting in April.

"I'm looking forward to winning a medal. I'll work harder so I can beat the high-ranking players there," said Ishikawa, who finished fourth in singles at the London Olympics.

Dreaming of Olympic sister act

The teenagers chasing Ishikawa include her younger sister, Rira.

The two were matched up in the quarterfinals of the doubles competition during the All-Japan championships. Kasumi showed her pride as the elder sister in her victory, but Rira and her partner took one game from the eventual champions.

Rira, 17, a second-year student at Teikyo High School in Tokyo, is honing her skills in the Japan Olympic Committee's Elite Academy Program, in which the JOC develops budding athletes.

Rira said she watched Kasumi lead the Japan team to a silver medal at the London Games on TV.

"It made me feel the Olympics are a real goal for me," Rira said.

Her achievements are not as spectacular as those of Kasumi, who won the singles at the All-Japan four years ago at 17. However, the younger Ishikawa is making steady progress, helping to win the title in doubles at the Czech Junior Open in February last year.

"I'm happy because I get a sense of my younger sister's year-to-year progress," Kasumi said.

Kasumi's goal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games is to be on the podium in both singles and doubles. She will be 27 for the 2020 Tokyo Games and intends to play for Japan.

"I think I can play in the Tokyo Games at the peak of my career as an athlete," she said.

Rira is determined to chase her older sister.

"I must improve rapidly" over the five years leading up to the Tokyo Games, she said.

The sisters practice together, and eyes will be on whether the two can realise their common dream of "being in the Tokyo Olympics together."

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