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Sunday, Feb. 17, 2008

WEEK 3

TABLE TENNIS TURNAROUND

Japanese star vows to spread the 'bling-pong' gospel


Staff writer

When I went to the Table Tennis National Championships in Tokyo a month ago, the last thing I expected was a revolution.

Naomi Yotsumoto in her 'revolutionary' garb on the mixed-doubles podium
Table Tennis National Championships
Naomi Yotsumoto (second from left, top) in her "revolutionary" garb on the mixed-doubles podium after playing in last month's Table Tennis National Championships (above) held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium (below). EDAN CORKILL PHOTOS
Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium

High-toss serves? Tricky spins? Off-the-chest, flicked backhand smashes? Yes, yes — and bring it on! But open calls for revolt? Knowing glances at red-faced officials? Players shedding their conservative shorts for skimpy skirts?

No, no and no — but surely I was intrigued.

Japan's annual ping-pong derby, which determines the nation's best players in singles, doubles and mixed doubles, was held in mid-January at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium in Shibuya.

In terms of results, there was little controversy: both men's and women's singles were won by last year's champions (Jun Mizutani and Sayaka Hirano, respectively). But the controversy came a full three days before the singles finals were even held.

It was a Thursday afternoon. The giddy atmosphere in the UFO-like arena was in brave defiance of painfully cold weather outside. Pink-cheeked teenagers in tracksuits ran this way and that, like school students on the morning of an excursion.

I had timed my arrival for a mixed-doubles match in which popular favorite and then-world No. 10, Ai Fukuhara (aka Ai-chan), was to appear, but a faster-than-expected train ride meant I had some time to get acclimatized.

Twenty-four courts were arranged in the middle of the stadium, each demarcated by blue, waist-high barriers. The simultaneous bouncing of 24 balls filled the hall with a rain-like din, and there was an erratic accompaniment too: hearty cries of "so!" from the players — the equivalent of "yes!" in English sports.

It was the formation of a rugby-like scrum around Court 22 that alerted me to Ai-chan's arrival.

But, comfortable with the massive media presence, the 156-cm-tall dynamo and her partner were warming up and sharing jokes as I assumed a position directly behind the head umpire.

That was when the revolution started — or, at least, when I became aware that it was already in motion.

A young woman in the coach's corner disrobed to reveal a tight, deep aquamarine-colored top with a gold-sequined collar, a matching miniskirt and something that — at risk of sounding rather tautological — I can only really describe as lacy "fishnet" leg warmers.

News photo
News photo
Naomi Yotsumoto and Masato Watanabe square up with Ai Fukuhara and Ryusuke Sakamoto (top) at last month's Table Tennis National Championships in Tokyo; after the match (above); and preparing to return serve. EDAN CORKILL PHOTOS
News photo

Naomi Yotsumoto was her name, and she was also sporting makeup, eyeliner and mascara — and, to top it off, her curly hair was piled up in a giant bun and was spliced by what appeared to be a feather.

Though she looked more like a 1920s flapper than a 21st-century ping-pong paddler, Yotsumoto nevertheless took to the court and proceeded, with the aid of her similarly dressed partner, to blow the blue-and-white polo shirts off the backs of team Ai-chan.

This wasn't supposed to happen — not the gear, nor the drubbing. Table tennis is supposed to be, well, uncool and anything but sensational. Right?

In Japan, generally, nerdy members of school clubs are the butt of jokes; and it seemed impossible that Ai-chan, the world No. 10 (who has since moved up to No. 9), could lose.

Still, as the game progressed, that unfailing indicator of sporting fortunes — the timing of the photographers' shutters — was suggesting an upset. Soon, each of Yotsumoto's sharp forehands down the line or snapped crosscourt backhands were given extra grunt in the form of 100 clicking camera shutters.

Half an hour later and the last "so!" was said.

Yotsumoto and partner had won and, what's more, the feather was still in place.

Naomi Yotsumoto, I quickly learned, has been a high-performing table-tennis player for more than 10 years. From January 2001 to May 2002 she was ranked in the top 150 women in the world. But recently, another aspect of the 29-year-old's game has been scooping the headlines: her stated desire to put more bling into the ping.

At a press conference after the match, Yotsumoto reiterated an earlier vow: "I want to start a revolution in table tennis."

She went on: "The sport has an image of being dull and uncool. I want to make it more popular; that's why I've been wearing attractive clothes in competitions."

Yotsumoto's revolution began at last year's National Championships, when she appeared in a yellow off-the-shoulder dress with a 15-cm white daisy in her hair. The flower caught the attention of the match umpire, who decided to order its removal on the basis that it was a non-essential decoration.

That got me thinking: Was not this year's gaudy get-up excessively decorative too?

Nobuyuki Shirakawa, the director and officer-in-charge of uniforms and equipment at the Japan Table Tennis Association, told me that the association vets all uniforms worn by entrants in the National Championships in advance. "The checks are on the clothes only, and Yotsumoto's this year were judged to be OK," he said, before adding that "headwear and makeup are not checked in advance, and that's why Yotsumoto was picked up by the match umpire last year."

Japan, he continued, has looser uniform regulations than associations overseas, where clothes must not be the same color as the competition balls. "We are happy to support (creative design in the uniforms)," he concluded.

That said, it turns out that Yotsumoto's move has coincided with a similar shift at the international level too. Eight months after last year's Nationals in Japan, the International Table Tennis Federation held its first Fashion Contest to coincide with the Women's World Cup in Chengdu, China. Yotsumoto was invited, along with a number of professional fashion designers, to submit samples of her snazzy wear. She even modeled a samba-inspired, belly-button-revealing number herself.

But while Yotsumoto's fashion has proven popular with the media, few of her fellow competitive players seem to be following her lead. A representative of major equipment- and uniform-maker Nittaku explained that it has not received many requests for "Yotsumoto gear," adding (with just a hint of regret) that "table-tennis players are generally shy."

Back at the Nationals, and the decidedly un-shy Yotsumoto was about to back up her doubles effort with a singles match. While I was waiting, I thought I'd ask some of the fans what they thought of her revolutionary cause.

Sixty-five-year-old Ms. Inoue was a believer: "There are more people here this year than last year, so maybe her efforts are paying off."

A 32-year-old gent who preferred to remain anonymous was so keen, he thought the men should get in on the act too. "Like in soccer, they should make their uniforms more cool," he said.

By the time Yotsumoto was stripping off to reveal her singles outfit (a sky-blue off-the-shoulder top with frilly tutu), support from the crowd was running at 100 percent (albeit from a sample of five).

And then she was back to batting and bopping, whacking it out with another polo-shirted opponent — and, to my eyes at least, she was managing an adept impersonation of an angry blue butterfly in the process.

Sure enough, Yotsumoto went on to win that match, and for a moment it looked as if the revolution was blessed with an irresistible momentum. Alas, however, in her next mixed-doubles appearance, the star injured her lacy-legwarmer-clad Achilles tendon, and had to withdraw — but not before revealing to the press a third one-piece outfit she'd been keeping for a later stage in the competition.

Did she not want to keep it under wraps so she could use it next year? No, she said, "I'll come up with something new again for next year."



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