Friday, May 1, 2009

Yokohama Sports Doubleheader! Table Tennis and Soccer? - May 2, 2009


Recently received an e-mail from a sports media organization that noted that the World Table Tennis Championship was being held in nearby Yokohama. Although I am not a ping pong fan, I figured a quick trip to see the best in the world might make for an interesting afternoon. I then wondered if other games would be taking place in Yokohama this weekend, and was happy to find that the local ball team, the Yokohama Bay Stars, would be at home both Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Even better, a search of the J League schedule showed that my J-League team Kawasaki Frontale were visiting Yokohama Saturday at 3pm. With the soccer stadium a short walk from the table tennis arena, a sports doubleheader day was born!

Yokohama Arena

The table tennis got under way at 10am, and I wanted to get there early to see a few matches before moving on to the soccer game. It was about an hour door-to-door for me, and I arrived around 10:45. Yokohama Arena is a multi-purpose facility, often used for concerts. It recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, but looks brand new. Inside is all carpeted, and there are 3 levels - the entry level, from where you walk up to the first level of seats, and for those with the cheap seats (such as myself), another set of stairs to the top level. Even though the capacity is 17,000, I didn't think the seats were that bad, and I'd like to see a hockey game there. For today's table tennis tourney, there were 4 tables set up, and 4 matches would take place simultaneously.

One of the interesting rules is that eating inside the seating area is not permitted. Although not strictly enforced, this rule may be one of the reasons the arena maintains its appearance.

Table Tennis

After arriving, I made my way to the free seating in the second level. Despite the early time, the cheap seats were nearly full. I later figured out this was because a popular Japanese duo were to play at 11 am, and most people were waiting for that match. I found a decent seat at the other end of the stadium, and caught the last few points of the last quarter final match in mixed doubles. The Chinese team defeated the Slovakian team and this set the tone for the rest of the day, with European teams falling to Asian teams in nearly every match. I use the word teams here, because I saw matches in women's and men's doubles, but had to leave before the singles matches began.

At 11, round 3 of the women's doubles began. The Japanese team of Ai Fukuhara and Sayaka Hirano were playing at the other end of the arena and their match generated all of the noise. Most fans had ThunderStix, which I deplore, and cheered every point they won. With table tennis matches running a best-of-7 games format, with each game won by the first to 11 points (winning by at least 2 points), there was a lot of cheering from that side. The Japanese side defeated a German team in 6 games, but I was focused on the matches closer to me.
In one match, the Chinese side of Yue Guo and Xiaoxia Li, who are the number 1 seeds, easily defeated a German team in 4 quick games. It was clear the Chinese were superior from the start (the picture below is from the 5th point of the match), and so I didn't spend much time watching this one. As an aside, the Chinese advanced to the semi-finals the following day, defeating Fukuhara and Hirano in 4 games.


What intrigued me however, was the match between Polish and Singaporean duos. I noticed that one of the Polish players was missing an arm, just below the elbow. She was able to hold the ball in the crook of her elbow and serve from there, as shown in the picture below. I did a little research and found out that Natalia Partyka participated in both the Olympics and Paralympics in 2008, one of only 2 athletes to do so. I would have guessed that if you are good enough to make the Olympics, you might not be allowed to participate in the Paralympics, but that is not the case. Unfortunately though, she and her partner lost to the Singaporean side in 5 games. This was not unusual, as out of the 6 matches in the round that featured an Asian team against a European side, the Asian team prevailed.


The next matches were for round 3 of men's doubles. Despite a valiant effort by a Swedish team, the trend continued, with all European sides falling to their Asian counterparts. The Japanese men's team of Kenta Matsudaira and Jin Ueda lost to a Korean side, which disappointed the locals, who are hoping for at least one medal from a Japanese player. Fortunately, Jun Mizutani and Seiya Kishikawa advanced to the semi-finals, so there's still a chance.

Overall, it took me a while to get into the flow of the games; with so many matches going on it's difficult to concentrate on just one. I found the men's tennis more competitive, with most matches going 6 or 7 games, compared to the relative blowouts I saw in the women's draw. There also seemed to be more rallies, but that's likely as the talent differential is not as large.
I think I picked a good day to go, as there were still enough matches to see the variety in talent, but ultimately no surprises.

With such a small playing surface, it's difficult to see the movement in the ball from far away. I did notice that in doubles play, the players must alternate shots, which I found added to strategy, but I couldn't really see which player was doing what as the action was quite fast. Some teams tried a more finesse approach, with spins and drop shots, while others tried the stronger game relying mostly on forehand smashes. No doubt, this is a game better suited for TV, unless you are sitting tableside.

It was definitely a good experience to check this out; these are top quality athletes who gain exposure at the Olympics, but otherwise operate in relative anonymity. I am guilty of ignoring sports that aren't that big in North America, but will keep my eyes open in the future for more events of this nature.

Marinos-Frontale

I had to leave the table tennis tournament around 2 to make my way to Nissan Stadium, home of the Yokohama F Marinos. They were taking on Kawasaki, my adopted J League club, who I recently saw in the AFC Champions League.

Nissan Stadium used to be known as International Stadium Yokohama, and hosted the final game of the 2002 World Cup, won 2-0 by Brazil. I worked at the stadium as part of my duties as a FIFA reporter, so it was interesting to return as a spectator for the first time. The stadium is about 20 minutes from Yokohama arena, a nice walk through the Shin Yokohama area, passing close to the Ramen Museum. The final approach is over a large footbridge that brings you to the main entrance, where you can find tributes to the World Cup.


As is the custom, visiting and home fans must enter by different gates, no doubt to stop the hooliganism that plagues Japanese soccer matches. Although I was rooting for Kawasaki, their seating section was located on the first level behind one of the nets, facing into the sun. I guess I am not a true supporter as I would rather watch the game in relative quiet and in the shade. I therefore bought a home area seat, which allowed me to move around the stadium freely (those wearing Frontale colours were not permitted to enter certain parts) and also to sit in the shaded upper deck. Most people buy these seats, which means that one half of the stadium is nearly full, while the other, more expensive side, lies empty. Rather disconcerting.

Although Kawasaki had the early chances, Yokohama scored 2 first-half goals, both by virtue of superb individual efforts that left defenders on the ground and the ball in the net. For the second half, I moved down to the lower level where Frontale was shooting, and was rewarded with a late goal by Japanese national Kengo Nakamura. But it wasn't enough and the Marinos hung on for a 2-1 win. It wasn't a bad game, but at the same point, not a great one either. The pictures below are from the two different locations where I sat.



Although I enjoy soccer, I find attending games here less than interesting. The automaton-like actions of both cheering sections, the silliness of forbidding fans to mix, and the distance from the pitch (due to running tracks set around the entire field) make it difficult to really get into the game. To be fair, the quality of the play is not that bad, but overall I doubt I'll be watching many more J League games, focusing rather on Kawasaki's advance into the next round of the AFC Champions League.

Yokohama

Situated about 20 minutes from Tokyo, Yokohama is often overlooked by tourists intent on the Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima trifecta. But in my mind, Yokohama is a much more tourist-friendly city. Chinatown (picture from there below), Motomachi, and the seaside area all offer different perspectives that are not available in the more staid capital. With the sports facilities a bit closer, I'd suggest a day or two here to anybody visiting the area for their own sports road trip.




That's all my sports for now, but I'm off to Australia this weekend, with some local rugby in Sydney and then a Super 14 game in Brisbane later. Updates to follow here as usual.

Best,

Sean


P.S. In all 5 table tennis events, the 2 finalists were Chinese - wonder if there is any other sport where one nation dominates so completely?

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