Japan’s Ai Fukuhara, famous for bursting into tears on national television as a toddler, has been given top billing at the world table tennis championships before even pinging a ball in anger.
The 20-year-old brought practice to a standstill on Tuesday, spending more than two hours tossing balls high into the air to see how the lights at arena would affect her serve.
Japanese camera crews tripped over themselves to film Fukuhara, who has little realistic chance of disrupting China’s dominance at the championships in Yokohama.
“I was working out exactly where to throw the ball into the lights,” Fukuhara was quoted as saying in Japanese newspapers yesterday. “I’m beginning to get excited about the championships.”
Fukuhara will take center stage, with one of the courts already being christened “Ai-chan’s Court” (Little Ai’s Court).
Once the darling of the Japanese media, Fukuhara appeared regularly on TV shows as a child where she would throw tantrums and wail out loud if she lost a point to celebrities.
Earlier this year, eight-year-old Miu Hirano eclipsed Fukuhara’s record by becoming the youngest player to appear at the Japanese championships.
Fukuhara, Japan’s flag-bearer at the Beijing Olympics last August, was 10 when she first competed at national level in 1998.
Hirano, who can barely see over the net, and has to be coaxed away from her mother’s side to play matches, is not appearing at the world championships.
In qualifying action yesterday Welshman Adam Robertson defeated Dino Suarez of Ecuador.
Robertson coasted to an 11-2, 11-2, 12-10, 11-6 win over Suarez to reach today’s first round of the tournament.
Crystal Huang of the US advanced to the first round of the women’s singles with an 11-6, 11-4, 11-3, 11-1 win over Armenia’s Tatevik Yengibaryan.
China is expected to dominate the championships after winning all the table tennis gold medals at the Beijing Olympics.
Chinese players will be the top-four seeds in both the men’s and women’s singles.
The championships feature men’s and women’s singles, men’s and women’s doubles and mixed doubles.