Ai Fukuhara and Kasumi Ishikawa are friends away from the table tennis table, but it is not a cozy sort of relationship. They admit candidly to desperately wanting to beat each other.
"My goal now is to become the ace. Ai's been in my sights all this time because she has always been above me. I want to rise above her on my own," says Ishikawa, 19.
In many ways, Fukuhara, 23, paved the way for her younger rival. A native of Sendai, who first took up the paddle at only 3 years and 9 months, she was soon hailed as a table tennis prodigy.
The media dubbed her a "girl genius" and "crybaby Ai," because she cried at practice and when she lost. While still an elementary school student, she was competing as a “professional athlete” at major tournaments and made the Japanese squad for the Athens Olympics at only 15. She was the Japanese team's standard-bearer at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Ishikawa, a native of Yamaguchi, was a relatively late starter compared with Fukuhara, taking up the sport up at the ripe old age of 6 and honing her skills at a table tennis school started by her mother. She played in the 2005 national championships while still only in sixth grade and made it to the third round. People were already referring to her as “Ai II” by the time Fukuhara was holding the flag in Beijing.
In many ways, they are opposites. Fukuhara is right-handed, round-faced and bright-eyed. Ishikawa is left-handed, sharp-featured, and has piercing eyes. Fukuhara is known for her deadly backhand and lightning quick aggression. Ishikawa cuts her opponents down with a devastating forehand.
"She holds herself together,” Fukuhara says. “Right before a game she'll say, 'I'm going to sleep.' Even when she goes into a game right after sleeping, she's as strong as usual. She's in control and she can change modes in a heartbeat. I get discouraged easily.”
Top Japanese table tennis players spend much of their year touring in competitions overseas, and opportunities to take each other on are always special occasions. Their matchups in the few competitions held in Japan receive extra attention, adding to the pressure on the players.
Fukuhara’s first loss to Ishikawa came in the 2010 Japan Top 12, and she admitted to a sense of relief after the defeat.
"I thought that day would come sometime," she said. "We're always getting compared. I was scared that if I lost to someone younger, people would say I'm no good anymore or ‘Fukuhara's done.’ It was a relief to finally lose."
At the 2011 national championships, Ishikawa followed up on her success, beating Fukuhara in the semifinals and rising above her in the world rankings. Fukuhara says she doesn’t usually watch her rivals’ games, but couldn't tear herself away from Ishikawa’s victory in the finals.
At this year’s national championships in January, they both made it to the finals and the tables were turned. Ishikawa was amazed by the changes in her rival.
"Her facial expression looked different from usual. The way she hit the ball, it was like a bullet. I was surprised. I didn't think she'd come at me so fast."
Fukuhara overpowered Ishikawa, showing great improvements in a forehand that had been a thorn in her game. But she says the quality of play on both sides was improved: "There were more rallies and we hit the ball better. It feels like every time we raise our level."
Inevitably, the tears followed. Standing one step below Fukuhara at the medal ceremony, Ishikawa started crying. Fukuhara cried for joy. “It is my 20th year in table tennis and I was feeling ashamed," she said.
For all the intense emotions, the pair somehow remain friends. They first met in 2006 at an international competition in Kita-Kyushu, Japan. Ishikawa, 19, had forgotten her uniform, so Fukuhara gave her some clothes from her own bag.
At the time, Ishikawa says, she was overwhelmed: "I'd watched Ai on TV. It was amazing. I had borrowed her uniform!"
Now the support goes both ways. Last January, on the pro tour in Slovenia, they arrived at a spooky hotel in Slovenia in the middle of the night.
"I'm scared. I can't sleep alone," said Fukuhara. Ishikawa responded: "Ai, do you sleep in a twin? I'll stay with you." They stayed up all night together.
The next morning, Ishikawa joshed: "What was that! It wasn't at all scary!"
Fukuhara responded: “You said you were scared. So I kept you company. ..."
Ishikawa shot back: "No! No! You were a hundred times more scared than me."
The two were roommates for a short period after becoming doubles partners in 2009 and cooked their meals together. Fukuhara brought the rice cooker, strainer and ramen while Ishikawa supplied the pot, electric kettle and rice.
“I use some honorific language because she's my senior, but I can say what I want,” Ishikawa says. “There's no point if I hold back what I want to say and we end up losing games."
Having partnered with older players herself and experienced the feeling of not being able to talk freely, Fukuhara says she has tried to foster an equal relationship: “I didn't want to make her walk on eggshells.”
Both women have already secured their spots on Japan’s national team for the London Olympics after a tense qualifying campaign decided by points accumulated in international competition. Ishikawa, currently ranked sixth in the world rankings, is facing her first Olympics, while Fukuhara, 10th in the rankings, has been there twice before.
Their friendship will be a vital component in the Japanese team but, still, the tension remains. In practice, they admit to rarely sharing techniques because of their rivalry.
As Ishikawa puts it: "We're friends, but the constant competition has been tough."
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