Getting stronger and stronger, A blazing resolve from a silent man
“Calm and unperturbed”, Adjectives like these suit Koki Niwa perfectly. Among all the players, motivating themselves by shouting in the hall, Koki has rarely shown any sort of emotion during a match. “I think it is totally fine to have some players like me,” says the young man with a deep strong voice. It is hard to believe that he is still 22-years young.
Current world ranking: number 9, he has even won a silver medal at the Olympic Games in Rio and become one of the key players in Japan. Still, Koki spoke with us with an unimpressed expression: “The silver medal in Rio…well, I wasn’t all too happy about it”. When we asked for the reason he said; “Well, I lost all 3 singles matches I played during the team competition. Most of it was my team mates Mizutani (Jun Mizutani) and Yoshimura (Maharu Yoshimura) who helped me out. Rather than being happy about the medal, I was angry and frustrated. To be honest, I still ask myself if I really deserved to get this medal”. Even regarding the success, the Japanese table tennis scene has seen recently, he says that it’s just a coincidence. “The Japanese team has many solid players, so we are quite strong in team matches, but in singles tournaments there are some strong players all over the world, so the chance to win against countries except China is 50:50.
He is not a pessimist. Koki Niwa is a realist. His realistic way of thinking comes from HIS experience as a player starting his career from very young age. Koki made his debut at 14 years old as the youngest member of the Japanese national team at the 2009 World Championship. Everybody in the media praised him as a “table tennis prodigy”. Few years later, in 2012 he beat Ma Long during the qualification round of the London Olympic Games. He also had the highest winning average in the German Bundesliga 2013/2014. Thus, making a lot of new records by “beating the best of the best”.
„The natural way“ of controlling his emotions“
Everyone except for Niwa himself talked about him as the „boy version of Ai Fukuhara!“ and was extremely excited. He was the only one who stayed cool. Surprisingly he told us, “When I was a child I was a piece of work. My parents could only barely manage to handle me”. However, he also told us: “The more and more matches I was able to win at table tennis, the quieter I became. This is what I think of as the natural way”. Same as many creatures who adapt to their environment, so did Koki start to adapt to the environment of the “match” and learn to control his emotions. He neither has sleepless nights before a match, nor does he get nervous. He never listens to music or performs any rituals for better luck in matches. Koki just close his eyes, lay down and relaxes. Through a minute of meditation, he removes every distraction allowing him to focus.
David vs Goliath; progress for the sake of fighting against the world
Everything is just to get stronger. Niwa who believes this was given a trial on the way to the top by the god of table tennis, namely his “height”. No matter how much he wished for it, his height never got higher than 160. “Height is directly linked to power. All top players from China were at least 180. If you have less power than your opponent, you can’t win if you move backwards, even if it is only one step.” Therefore, Niwa decided to choose a “hyper aggressive offense play style” by always staying close to the table. He didn’t only utilize his extremely gifted feeling for the ball, but also learned some cunning receive techniques like the high-speed banana flick.
There was one moment where Niwa seemed to whisper his “true feelings” during my time with him. This was during the photo shooting, where he saw a stepladder. He quickly jumped on the 10 cm high ladder and whispered “If I was only 10 cm bigger…” For a short time, he stared off somewhere far, dreaming for another world, but he quickly switched back to the cool Koki Niwa we are used to.
April 2017, Koki Niwa decided to become a professional table tennis player after graduating college. He exploded at the world championship in Germany. One of the best matches of the whole tournament was said to be his match against Ovtcharov (Germany, WR:5th ). He never stepped back even though his opponent had higher world ranking and “he would normally never be able to beat him”. However, after hard fought 7 matches, he finally won. Right afterwards, Niwa rose his fist and shouted into the crowd. “I was very focused during this match, full of emotion, so after the match something burst out of me.” It has been a long time since he was able to be in the position of the challenger. “I had nothing to lose as a challenger, this was probably the reason why I was able to win.” He remembered back to the time when he had his first international match at 14 years old. He now realizes how strong and difficult it is to play without fear.
Strong players look like giants.
Challengers and the one who is challenged. In the world of table tennis there is a huge difference between these two. “I play way better if I play against players with higher ranking than me. If I play against lower rank players I play with a defensive and reactive mind set, so it’s difficult to play.” Even the best players tend to sometimes lose quite easily against a “no-name player”. That’s the reason why table tennis is called “a sport with mind games”.
Many top-class table tennis players say: “There is a scene, which only the two players standing at the table can see”. Even Niwa says: “It might sound strange, but strong players look very big in their appearance”.
Starting from young age of 14, Niwa’s table tennis career was always one of “challenging the world”. Finally, he entered the top 10 in the world, a world he has never seen before. “First I want to focus on improving my ranking one by one.” Top 10 in the world is even for a silver medalist like Niwa a dimension, where he is the challenger.
Koki Niwa, a seeker of strength was always searching for the “strength of the individual”; but even he experienced a change of mind over the years through the existence of his senior, Jun Mizutani. “I was always looking at Mizutani’s back. He was always standing in the lead and fighting for Japan. That is why the younger generation who were trying to overtake him always gave their all.” Of course, one can’t stay always a junior. “Mizutani san is not the kind of guy who motivates other people through words. He motivates people through his actions. One day, I want to become an ace player like him and lead Japan.” There is for sure a link between these players, which only they can understand because they’ve experienced the same feeling on the big battlefield.
2020, how will Koki Niwa play? He most likely won’t be distracted by any big shouts from the crowd. He’ll just continue playing quiet and calm, blazing his inner fire. But there is one thing we can say for sure; the Koki Niwa standing at the other side of the blue table, will appear “even bigger and stronger” than before.
(Interview , text edited by Kanae Takeda ; Rallys editorial office）