Anatomy of a Ping Pong Battle of Nerves: Japan’s Kasumi Ishikawa vs North Korea’s Kim Song I

Kim Song I
Kim Song I of North Korea
The woman in red from Japan is ranked 6th in the world. The woman in blue from North Korea is ranked 27th.

Kasumi Ishikawa of Yamaguchi, Japan was born to play table tennis. Her parents were both competitive table tennis players, and her sister is a table tennis professional. Kim Song I is from North Korea, and likely a beneficiary of considerable state resources to get her to the top levels of her sport. And when you watch table tennis at this level, you can see it’s not just a leisure cruise game – it is indeed a high performance sport.

With balls zipping at top speeds of 100 kph on the surface the size of a dinner table for six, supreme hand-eye coordination and strength are needed to receive and send the tiny plastic ball careening to an exact spot on the table, despite the sharpest of angles and heaviest of spins.

Ishikawa raced out to a 9-3 lead in the first game before winning 11-7. She crushed Kim again in the second game by the same score. Ishikawa’s top-spin slams were often too much for Kim, whose returns often went long.

It was 6:30 am Japan time Monday morning when I got on the machine at the gym, switched on the monitor to see what sport NHK would be broadcasting live, and this was the match. I thought, wow, Japan vs North Korea – that’s a compelling match in any competition. After all, these two countries….well, they don’t like each other. At that point, as I started my run, Ishikawa and Kim were tied 2 games apiece, heading into match 5.

While Kim had an early lead, Ishikawa eventually climbed back and was able to win game 5. When she won, she wasn’t as happy as I expected. That’s when I learned you need to win 4 out 7, not 3 of 5. Both players talked with their coaches, girding themselves for one more, maybe two more games.

My work-out done, I had to leave the gym. But I had assumed that Ishikawa would go on to win. And most experts probably also thought Ishikawa would as well. Apparently the first two rounds in the Olympic singles table tennis tournament are played by lower ranked players, while the seeded players like Ishikawa get a bye in those rounds. In other words, while Kim had to fight her way to the third round, Ishikawa was playing her first match. And apparently, in other matches, the top seeds mowed down the competition, most of them winning 4 games to none. The top seeded woman, Ding Ning of China, won her third-round debut in only 11 minutes.

TABLE TENNIS-OLY-2016-RIO
Japan’s Kasumi Ishikawa reacts after losing to North Korea’s Kim Song I in their women’s singles qualification round table tennis match at the Riocentro venue during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on August 7, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / Juan Mabromata
As I learned when I got home that night, the match between Ishikawa and Kim took an amazing 64 minutes. The contest was not only physically and mentally exhausting for the two athletes, it was a display of distinctively different styles. Ishikawa pummeled away with top-spin forehand smashes, while Kim endlessly defended with deft back-spin returns. Back and forth, back and forth they went – at times rallying for exquisitely long periods of nerve-wracking madness.

In the final game, with Kim leading 7-4, Ishikawa stopped playing. Her right leg was visibly cramping and Ishikawa was looking for an official stoppage of play, probably for treatment. The referee insisted she play on. However, the momentum had already switched to Kim, and Kim at this point was returning everything, and I mean everything. And the unforced errors for Ishikawa began to pile up.

In the end, after a suffocatingly tense hour, Song pulled off the upset, defeating Ichikawa four games to three: 7-11, 7-11, 11-9, 11-9, 9-11, 11-9, 11-8.

Outside of Japan and table tennis fans, I’m sure nobody noticed. But I did. And it was an amazing match.