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Icon Ai still bringing positivity to the table

By Shi Futian | China Daily | Updated: 2022-07-04 07:19
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Table tennis icon Ai Fukuhara hopes to enhance the sporting exchanges between Japan and China.  HOU YU/CHINA NEWS SERVICE

Having trained and competed in China since childhood, Japanese table tennis icon Ai Fukuhara remains a hugely popular figure with Chinese fans-highlighting the history of exchange in the sport between the two countries.

Ai retired from competition in 2018 and currently works as the general manager of World Table Tennis (WTT) Japan. Now, the 33-year-old expects to see more communication and exchanges between the young paddlers of China and Japan.

"The Chinese women's table tennis team ranks first in the world, and second is the Japanese women's team. It is really good for them to be able to train or exchange with Team China," Ai said last week in an interview for online China Daily show Gen Z's Words.

"Before I retired, the younger Japanese players I played alongside included Mima Ito, Miu Hirano and Hina Hayata. For them, Team China always represents the level to catch up with."

The rivalry between the two nations' squads has gripped table tennis fans all over the world, especially during last year's Tokyo Olympics when host Japan was aiming to do the home fans proud. Team China ultimately prevailed, pocketing four of the five golds on offer, with Japan winning the mixed doubles title.

The absorbing matchups between the two countries continued throughout a series of WTT tournaments, with many of the young Chinese stars impressing Ai.

"I would say Sun Yingsha is the one who impressed me the most. She looks really cute," said Ai.

"They arrived on the international stage when I had retired. The level of Team China is so high. I wasn't so clear about her style of play. But after watching her games, her judgment, speed, spin, power and so on really amazed me.

"Young athletes nowadays are really different. They pursue 'happy table tennis'. They don't train like crazy, and their mentalities are very flexible."

Ai won silver and bronze medals respectively at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, while also reaching the podium on multiple occasions at world championships. In a sport Team China has dominated for decades, Ai's achievements make her one of the most successful Japanese table tennis players of all time.

She always credits her time training and competing in China as a major reason for her success.

"When I was 7, I went to Tianjin for training. On the first day, I practiced from morning to evening. I was totally exhausted," recalled Ai.

"At night, I couldn't get to sleep with achy legs. As a 7-year-old, I was too young to understand why my legs were hurting. So I would just toss and turn in bed.

"When I played in the Chinese Table Tennis Super League, there were basically no Japanese except for me. And when I was training in Liaoning province, I never met any Japanese players. So I thought and behaved like a Chinese in many ways."

Since retiring, Ai's passion for the sport continues to burn bright in her role as WTT Japan general manager-a job which involves nurturing young talent and serving athletes.

In June, she started an online fitness live broadcast on Chinese social media, hoping to attract more people to sports, especially table tennis.

"I think live broadcasting on social media is fun. It was the first time I had used live broadcasting to communicate and interact with fans as well as to exercise with them," said Ai.

The WTT was established in 2019, with the circuit's glitzy tournaments attempting to attract a wider audience with an altogether more glamorous feel and bigger prize pools.

"When I was an athlete, it was a great pity that there were no WTT matches," Ai added. "The WTT tournaments have provided a lot of opportunities for players. And here fans can have close interaction with their favorite players."

By promoting the sport via as many platforms as possible, Ai hopes more young people can discover the charm of table tennis.

"When I grew up, I found that table tennis was kind of like a teacher to me. I just learned a lot of things from it. Sports enrich my life," she said.

"I think table tennis can bring a lot of joy. And like all ball games, table tennis players are very close to each other. So it's quite easy for them to become friends after playing. Such friendships last a lifetime.

"So I hope that young people and those who are hesitant about playing table tennis can join us and they will have a happier life through table tennis."

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