Monthly Archives: February 2021

Benedek Olah Upsets Chen Chien-An 3-1 at WTT Doha 2021

Not the post you were looking for? A guide to all of Edges and Nets’ coverage of WTT Doha (also known as WTT Middle East Hub and formerly known as ITTF Qatar Open) can be found here.

Down 8-10 and 2-1 in a three out of five, Taiwan’s Chen Chien-An’s (WR 69) chiquita was just a bit too soft, and Finland’s Benedek Olah (WR 85) hit back a hard back-hand counter-loop for the winner. Olah let out a yelp in celebration as he completed the upset with a score of 8-11, 12-10, 11-9, 11-8 to advance to the third round of the qualifying draw in the WTT Contender event at WTT Doha 2021.

ITTF’s website failures and bugs continued to plague the event as they failed to post any of the morning events on the schedule.

Olah opened the match by falling into an early 8-3 deficit after missing his own serve and several short pushes and openings. Olah staged a comeback with series of hard counterloops and narrowed the lead to 9-8. However, his short game again let him down as he missed a critical push and forehand flick, giving Chen the first game 11-8.

In game 2, Chen’s short game failed him as he popped up two early service returns that Olah swiftly killed. Poor service return combined with some slightly late loops that clipped the net and went off the table were enough to give Olah a 7-4 lead. Over the course of the game, Chen popped up a push at least five times, but Olah missed two high balls. A particularly frustrating miss was at game point at 10-9 that left Olah squatting in frustration. However, at 10-10 Olah landed a hard chiquita to take advantage and then won a short-push battle to take the game 12-10.

The third game was slightly delayed as both Chen and Olah had a conflict with the umpire over Covid protocols (she did not want them to switch the positions of their towels even though the players were switching sides). After the delay, Olah opened the game with a 5-0 lead after smacking down several of Chen’s softer openings.

He then received a questionable yellow card after he went to use his towel when the umpire went to fix the barrier. After a short discussion, the yellow card was rescinded after the umpire was found to be in the wrong. However, this may have broken his momentum as he immediately missed a backhand counter-loop and a short push to drop the lead to 5-2. Olah appeared to regroup as he won the next two points, including a pretty highlight at 6-2.

However, Chen caught a net at 2-7, which sparked a series of sloppy play by Olah, including a missed serve, a missed high flick, and a block against a slow spinny loop from Chen that left Olah yelling “focus” in frustration. This was enough for Chen to level that game to 9-9. Olah then landed a heavy push that Chen looped into the net followed by a hard chiquita to take the game 11-9.

Chen mixed in a combination of hard opening with some slower spinnier openings to win four points in a row and take a 6-2 lead in game 4. Chen was able to maintain the lead up until 8-5, and then Olah caught a net to narrow it to 8-6. Chen’s push on his next serve return was a bit high and soft, allowing Olah to kill it and force Chen to take a time-out at 8-7. The time-out was to no avail, as his next push was again high, allowing to Olah to get in another kill. Olah then killed another soft opening by Chen and landed in a hard chiquita of his own to take a double match point at 10-8. Olah then killed a soft chiquita from Chen, capping off a 6-0 run in a display of offensive firepower to take the match 3-1.

Olah will play world ranked Austria’s Andreas Levenko (WR 141) in the third round. Levenko upset England’s Paul Drinkhall (WR 56) in his second-round match. There are a total of four rounds that a player must win in order to advance to the main draw.

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Unless stated otherwise, all images and footage in this post can respectively be found on ITTF’s Flickr page and the ITTV channel.

This match was covered live. All live posts are shown below.

Winners and Losers of China’s Withdrawal From WTT Doha

This post is the sixth post in a series of posts previewing the 2021 World Table Tennis (WTT) Middle East Hub (also known as the Qatar Open or WTT Doha) coming March 3-13. Our previous post covered seeds 4 and 4 Liu Shiwen (who after the post was published has withdrawn) and Cheng I-Ching. A summary of all of Edges and Nets’ coverage of WTT Doha can be found here.

By far the biggest storyline hanging over WTT Doha will be China’s last-minute withdrawal from the event and all future international events between now and the Tokyo Olympics due to coronavirus concerns. This does not necessarily mean we will not see the Chinese players in action before Tokyo as the China Open may still happen.

We take a look (mainly from a seeding perspective) at who benefits and who suffers from the sudden withdrawal.

Winner: Mima Ito

Barring an epic collapse in the first few rounds of both events, with Sun Yingsha not able to gain ranking points from WTT Doha, Mima Ito will be world ranked number two after the completion of WTT Doha and in full control of the second seed at the Tokyo Olympics. Assuming ITTF continues its current drawing system of treating the third and fourth seed as equals, that would give Ito a 50 percent chance that the two Chinese players meet in the semi-finals, meaning Ito has a clear path to the Olympic finals without having to beat a Chinese star.

That being said, even if Ito does not need to play a Chinese player on the way to the finals in the Olympics, she still needs to take care of business against the likes of Cheng I-Ching and Kasumi Ishikawa, who recently beat Ito at the Japan National Championships. We will see in WTT Doha whether she is ready to take advantage of the golden opportunity that the withdrawal has presented her.

Winner: Hugo Calderano

Barring a major collapse from Tomokazu Harimoto or an epic run from Mattias Falck, which although unlikely are both possibilities, there is effectively a two-way race between Calderano and Lin Yun-Ju (who along with Dimitrij Ovtcharov are actually club teammates now that Calderano has joined Fakel Gazprom Orenburg) for the fourth seed at the Tokyo Olympics. The fourth seed is incredibly valuable as it ensures that one does not have to play either of the two Chinese stars until at least the semi-finals, so there is a path to an Olympic medal without beating a Chinese player.

The two are so close on the world rankings, that essentially whoever performs better at WTT Doha will be in position for the fourth seed (Calderano keeps the fourth seed if they perform exactly the same at WTT Doha).

Before Xu Xin withdrew from the event, Calderano and Lin entered WTT Doha on equal footing as third and fourth seeds. However, now that Xu Xin is out, Calderano has been upgraded to the second seed. This means that (assuming no upsets happen), Calderano’s semi-final will either be Lin or Mattias Falck while Lin’s semi-final will either be wth Calderano or Harimoto.

If Lin and Calderano play each other in the semi-finals, such a match-up would likely be a play-in for the fourth seed at the Tokyo Olympics. In such a situation, Calderano doesn’t benefit that much from Xu Xin’s withdrawal, as both Lin and Calderano would control their own destiny. Where Calderano would have an advantage would be if he plays Falck and Lin plays Harimoto, as many would consider Harimoto to be the more difficult opponent.

Although Lin and Calderano are club teammates, it is unclear how much familiarity they have with each other’s games. Based on their recent social media behavior, it seems that Calderano is still training Germany while Lin has been training in China over the last few months.

Losers: Sun Yingsha and Lin Yun-Ju

Ito’s and Calderano’s improved Olympic seeding prospects come at the expense of Sun Yingsha and Lin Yun-Ju. For Lin, it is not a huge disadvantage since it is just a slight change-up in the draws, and Lin should feel confident in his abilities to beat Harimoto anyway.

However, Sun’s inevitable fall to third in the world rankings really hurts her. First, if she plays the Olympic singles, there is a chance that she will have to play another Chinese player in the semi-finals. Even worse, one of Sun’s advantages in the Olympic selection process was that she was higher ranked than Ito and that selecting Sun and Chen Meng would thus ensure that China would hold the top two seeds. However, from an Olympics seeding perspective, Sun now carries no advantage over the likes of Ding Ning, Zhu Yuling, and Wang Manyu.

Winner: Kasumi Ishikawa

Ishikawa needs to do better than Cheng I-Ching in both the WTT Contender and WTT Star Contender event to pass her in the world rankings and put herself in position to take the fourth seed. This previously would have been an extremely difficult task as it likely would have involved beating two players out of Cheng, Ito, Liu Shiwen, or Sun Yingsha in the quarter-finals of each event without losing.

However, without Sun and Liu in the mix, Ishikawa is now a top four seed at WTT Doha. This means that if Ishikawa plays to her seeding, she will reach the semi-finals, where she can either face Cheng for what would almost be a play-in match for the Olympic fourth seed or face Ito, who she recently beat at the Japan National Championships in January. A win against Ito would send Ishikawa to the finals, in which case Ishikawa will have either already outperformed Cheng or will have the chance to outperform Cheng by beating her in the finals for what would also almost be a play-in match for the Olympic fourth seed. Thus, Ishikawa’s chances of stealing the Olympic fourth seed from Cheng have gone way up.

While Ishikawa gets a huge boost from the absence of Liu and Sun, things are also still looking solid for Cheng I-Ching. Cheng still completely fully controls her own seeding destiny and can widen the gap between her and Ishikawa with a pair of wins in the semi-finals/finals over Ishikawa in both WTT Contender and WTT Star Contender.

Loser: Liu Shiwen

After not getting to see Liu Shiwen in the Fall of 2020 due to her injury, fans will need to wait even longer to see Liu Shiwen in action. This prolonged absence will really hurt Liu in the world rankings as a good performance from Kasumi Ishikawa could drop Liu to number 9 in the world, which would put her as a fifth seed in the Olympic women’s singles behind Ito, Ishikawa, Cheng I-Ching, and the other Chinese player.

If Liu does not get the chance to pass Ishikawa again in the China Open, it is hard to see China selecting her to play at the women’s singles event. Such a low-seeded Chinese player at the Olympics would be unprecedented, and China could end up with a quarter-final China vs China match-up on their hands if that were to happen. That would give China a maximum of one medal, a result they almost certainly want to avoid.

Furthermore, Liu has lost her two most recent matches with Mima Ito. Granted they were in 2018, but coaches would likely want to see how she plays against Ito before selecting her for the Olympic team. Without the chance to prove her case at WTT Doha, Liu Shiwen’s Olympic hopes may now almost completely hinge on her performance at the China Open (which may or may not happen).

If you liked this article, please follow Edges and Nets on Facebook or Instagram to stay updated.

Unless stated otherwise, all images and footage in this post can respectively be found on ITTF’s Flickr page and the ITTV channel.

Liu Shiwen Interview With CCTV

Reigning World Champion Liu Shiwen sat down with CCTV for an extended interview regarding her gutsy run to the 2019 World Championship title and the psychological aspect of her career. The full video (in Mandarin) is available on Weibo. Edges and Nets has provided a rough summary of the interview below. Unfortunately, my level of Mandarin was not high enough to capture a lot of what Liu said in the later half of the interview. If anyone has a more accurate or detailed translation, feel free to leave a comment or contact me.

Liu Shiwen on her journey leading up to her World Championship run

*voice over of Liu Shiwen right after her World Championship win*

LS: I’ve wanted the world championship title so badly. I’ve been inches away from the title in the finals twice, so I feel that this title was very difficult to win.

*sit down interview*

LS: Right after the final match, I had a dreaming feeling and didn’t know what had just happened.

CCTV: You couldn’t believe the course of events, or you couldn’t believe the results?

LS: Actually it’s neither. I felt like I had completed a dream I have held for a long time. You would think you would be extremely happy, but actually it felt quite average. Before, I thought I would be endlessly happy like it’s some huge deal, but when I got it, it felt like one short shot of adrenaline and then very quickly I felt pretty average.

Inside my heart I’ve always had a belief in myself, because I think very highly of Ma Long, but the path he had previously taken was also quite rocky, and in the end he accomplished his dreams. Actually I think in my heart I‘ve always had this belief to support me, that I can end up being like Ma Long.

CCTV: Ma Long said that when he saw you win world champion that he cried

LS:Perhaps my experience was too difficult, so everyone feels kind of sorry for me.

To be an athlete, it always requires strength. You don’t want to cry when you lose and let others feel sorry for you. But I feel like the moment I won, I had a lot of emotions, and I felt pretty tired. I didn’t want to suppress myself and wanted to capture the moment. At the beginning I did not want to cry, after I got off the court, I felt pretty tired and wanted to sit and calm down for a couple minutes. And in that moment, maybe I wasn’t able to control my emotions.

Looking back at my experience, I’ve always had a belief in myself. Even more than winning the title, what I really wanted was to feel satisfied with myself.

CCTV: So do you feel satisfied?

LS: I guess throughout my training and competition, actually I just set up a goal for myself to play well. Before the tournament, I didn’t have this belief that I was for sure going to win the championship. I just told myself that I need to play to a certain condition [level of play] that I hoped for.

CCTV: What was the hardest moment of your career?

LS: I feel like it’s all difficult. I think part of being an athlete for so many years is that there is a lot more losing than winning, especially in big competitions. That’s why I was so emotional when I won, because it really is not easy.

CCTV: Can you talk about how you considered quitting table tennis?

LS: During the most difficult time, I’ve thought about it. I spoke about it with my parents, but I did not dare bring it up with the national team coaches. I considered quitting, because at the lowest times, I really could not see the possibility of winning World Champion.

CCTV: What helped you turn it around this time?

LS: It’s not like when I was young, where I could just crush everyone with my skill. While before I was focused on catching the ball and dominating the technical battle, but this time I better realized it’s not just a match of skills, but a match of your whole personhood. And I wanted to see if this time, I was mentally really up for it.

CCTV: Talk about how the fuss about seedings and world rankings affect you [Liu was the fourth seed at the 2019 World Championships].

LS: In the past, I’ve been one of the favorites for the championship, but this time I was not so it felt a little awkward. I was scared, but I was grateful for this opportunity, so I decided to make the best of it. I also realized that this could possibly be my last World Championships.

On her semi-final win over Ding Ning

LS: When I was playing Ding Ning, I felt that she was the strongest player in the tournament. In the past, I felt like I would beat Ding Ning, but this time I really felt that Ding Ning was the strongest player.

In the first two games, I was still very nervous (Liu Shiwen lost the first two games 11-5, 11-9 before coming back to win 4-2). Then I realized that even if I could push it to six or seven games, I would still lose, because this was not the way I wanted to play.

When I caught up to 2-2, I felt that I had opened up the situation. The last four games the score was quite uncertain (Liu actually won the last four games 11-6, 11-6, 11-0, 11-2). However, I felt that Ding Ning did not play up to her true level the last few games.

I was actually quite calm, because it was only a semi-final. A semi-final actually feels quite far from the championship title. But ten minutes after the match ended, I started getting very nervous. I was about to play my double’s final (Liu won the mixed doubles title with Xu Xin), and I told Ma Lin I was extremely nervous. I had to play my doubles final, and I couldn’t let myself think of my singles semi-final I just completed or my singles final in the future.

The last time I was this nervous was in the 2015 World Championship finals. A semi-final actually feels quite far from the championship title, because there is still one more match. However, once you reach the finals it is a completely different feeling.

Right after you lose the final, it doesn’t feel too bad, but afterwards you go through a really slow waiting period for your next shot at it. I’ve already had this experience twice, so I really didn’t want to go through it again.

On her finals win over Chen Meng

LS: I knew that Chen Meng was likely to build an early lead on me, because I have not had much success against her over the last couple years. However, at the start of the match I did not feel that it was impossible for me to win. At the start of the game, everyone is psychologically neutral, so I already expected her to build an early lead (Chen Meng won the first game 11-9).

I expect everyone to do a lot of psychological preparation before that match. Before that match has started, we’ve both played several games in our head and assessed where to hit the ball and how we will move. I feel like one of my advantages was my two final experiences and also how much I wanted it.

CCTV: I felt that Chen Meng was very anxious against you. You could see it on her face.

I think at the end of the day, table tennis isn’t just a game of skill. It’s a psychological battle combining your experience and everything else together. I knew what I had to do to win the championship. I think since Chen Meng has had a lot of winning experience against me, she would be rushing to win. However, at the end of the day, we were competing on who would make less errors and who would mentally collapse first.

CCTV: When did you really feel like the title was in reach?

LS: When I took the 2-1 lead. Even when Chen Meng won the fourth game, I was still satisfied at 2-2, because it was a score that I had wanted when we started the match. 

In the fifth and sixth games (Liu won game 5 11-0), I felt the match tipping in my favor, but I didn’t want to think about the result yet. I’ve played enough matches that I know that in one moment the whole match can flip around.

CCTV: So you had to fight (literal translation: bite down) for every point.

LS: Yes. Since I was a bit of an underdog against Chen Meng, at 2-2 the match could flip at any moment.

CCTV: Is there a lot of joy in this process (playing ping pong)?

LS: Of course. Joy and suffering have to coexist together, and the suffering is necessary to push you to a level you didn’t think was imaginable. I think this is extremely beautiful, being able to realize your explosive potential. It is digging out this potential that brings out the most joy and happiness.

CCTV: Have things changed after winning the championships?

LS: Definitely. After winning the championship, I’ve felt that my expectations for myself have changed. It isn’t about other people or outsiders, but just for me.

If you liked this article, please follow Edges and Nets on Facebook or Instagram to stay updated. Also be sure to check out our preview of Liu Shiwen at WTT Doha 2021 from March 3 to March 13.

WTT Doha 2021 Preview Part 5: Cheng I-Ching and Liu Shiwen

Liu Shiwen 2019 WTTC

This post is the fifth post in a series of posts previewing the 2021 World Table Tennis (WTT) Middle East Hub (also known as the Qatar Open or WTT Doha) coming March 3-13. Our previous post covered seeds 5 through 8 in the men’s singles event: Jeong Youngsik, Dimitrij Ovtcharov, Jang Woojin, and Mattias Falck. Today’s post will cover the third and fourth seeds (Liu Shiwen and Cheng I-Ching, respectively) of the women’s singles event. A summary of all of Edges and Nets’ coverage of WTT Doha can be found here.

Update: China’s withdrawal from WTT Doha 2021 makes a lot of this information out of date.

We take a look at Cheng I-Ching’s race with Kasumi Ishikawa for the fourth seed at the Tokyo Olympics, Liu Shiwen’s campaign to represent China in the women’s singles event at the Tokyo Olympics, and how WTT Doha factors into both of these storylines.

4 Seed Cheng I-Ching

Cheng I-Ching (WR 8) enters WTT Doha 2021 as the fourth seed. She will be looking to do better than her post-pandemic performances in the ITTF Grand Finals and World Cup, where she beat Wu Yue (WR 31) and Adriana Diaz (WR 19) but was upset by Han Ying (WR 21) 4-2 and lost to Wang Manyu (WR 4) 4-1.

As mentioned in our previous post, if the Olympics were held today, Cheng would be the fourth seed in the women’s singles event. Cheng’s top priority these next few months is making sure that Kasumi Ishikawa doesn’t pass her on the world rankings to take the fourth seed in Tokyo. Ishikawa will most likely be unable to do so immediately after this tournament, but Cheng should do her best to advance far in Qatar and deny Ishikawa the chance to pass her in a future tournament (such as a potential China Open).

From an Olympics seeding perspective, a Cheng vs Ishikawa match-up in the quarterfinals or semifinals (or perhaps even the finals) would thus be one of the highest stakes match-ups of the women’s singles event. Cheng and Ishikawa’s games complement each other very well in generating highlights. Cheng tends to take a step back and hit harder, and the extra space gives Ishikawa enough time to put in increasingly impressive blocks as Cheng hits increasingly more powerful and/or well-placed shots as seen in the point shown below from their seven-game thriller last year in Hungary.

Cheng’s matches in rounds after Ishikawa is eliminated are less important to her, as there is pretty much no chance that Cheng will pass Ito for the second seed in Tokyo. However, a win against Ito would break Cheng’s three match losing streak to her and would put her in a better place mentally in a potential future match-up in Tokyo. Since Cheng is one of China’s biggest threats to an Olympic medal in the singles event, if Cheng is able to upset Liu Shiwen or Sun Yingsha, that may very well be enough to tip the balance away from that player representing China in the women’s singles event at the Tokyo Olympics.

3 Seed Liu Shiwen

Reigning World Champion Liu Shiwen (WR 7) enters WTT Doha as the third seed. Her low world rank (by her standards) is not due to losing, but rather due to the fact that she has not appeared in international competition since the pandemic due to an injury that sidelined her up until December. One of the bigger storylines of WTT Doha will be seeing whether Liu Shiwen still looks bothered by her injury. However, Liu’s injury recovery may be overshadowed by perhaps the biggest storyline of the women’s singles event in WTT Doha and beyond: can Sun or Liu make the better case for a spot to represent China in the women’s singles event in Tokyo?

While the Chinese National Team selection process is always a mystery, there are two major factors that viewers should be able to follow along with: seeding and performance against international competition.

Olympic Seeding

The current seeding situation heavily favors Sun. If Sun and Chen Meng are selected, then if the Olympics were held today Ito would be the third seed, and China would have a guaranteed path to sweeping gold and silver. However, if Liu and any other top Chinese player are selected, then Ito would be a top-two seed, setting up a potential China-China clash in the semi-finals that would result in at best a gold and bronze medal for them.

Due to her injury absence, Liu trails Mima Ito by so much in the world rankings that Liu will certainly be unable to pass Ito after WTT Doha regardless of the results. However, if Ito finishes ahead of Sun in both WTT Contender and WTT Star Contender events (e.g. Ito finishes second and Sun loses in the semi-finals or Ito finishes first and Sun finishes second), then Ito will pass Sun for the World Rank #2 spot and take control of the second seed at Tokyo Olympics. Liu may secretly hope for this situation as it would wipe away the seeding advantage that Sun has over Liu.

Performance Against International Competition

At the end of the day, silver and bronze are just icing on the cake for China, and the real prize remains the gold medal. If Liu shows she is better able to take care of business against international competition than Sun, coaches may still pick her even if she gets screwed over by the seeding situation. On the other hand, if Liu suffers an early upset, it will be up to the coaches to determine how much patience to show towards her injury recovery.

Liu is an undefeated 12-0 against Kasumi Ishikawa and 8-0 against Cheng I-Ching, who will almost certainly in some order be the fourth and fifth seed in Tokyo, and Liu has never even needed to go to a deciding seventh game against them. Both of these players have beaten Sun before (although Ishikawa has lost six straight so Sun since her last and only victory over Sun), and if they are able to pull of another upset against Sun or give her a scare, that will work in Liu’s favor.

Liu’s biggest hurdle is Mima Ito, who is likely regarded by China as the biggest threat to their gold medal aspirations. Ito actually has a winning record against Liu, but their most recent match was in 2018. Things will likely be different this time around. In 2018, the Chinese scouting resources were more focused on Miu Hirano, who had a sensational performance throughout 2017, and perhaps even Ishikawa, who was ranked in the top five, while Ito was only top ten at the time. Reflective of the lack of preparedness, in a live commentary coach Liu Guoliang bemoaned Liu Shiwen’s complete inability to handle Ito’s banana flick with the pips (as shown below).

Mima Ito’s Banana Flick with the pips

Liu Guoliang felt that the best option would be to serve short to Ito’s forehand (as shown in the first point below), but he further noted that Liu Shiwen lacked confidence to reliably serve short to Ito’s forehand. As a result, Liu served almost exclusively long to the backhand, even if that meant allowing Ito to step around for the forehand smash (shown in the second point below).

Liu Shiwen wins a point off the short serve to the forehand and then a long serve to the backhand versus Mima Ito.

After more than two years, during which Ito has become the clear-cut biggest threat to Chinese dominance, Liu will presumably have focused on developing serves to play to Ito’s weaknesses and received training on how to deal with Ito’s backhand. However, as Liu Guoliang mentioned in his commentary, executing the short serve to the forehand during training, which the whole national team should be able to do in their sleep, is much easier than in high-pressure matches.

Unless it is clear her injury is bothering her, in which case she may have bigger problems to worry about, Liu likely cannot afford another loss to Ito in Qatar. In principle, an ideal situation for Liu’s Olympic selection hopes would be for her to wipe the floor with Ito and then for Ito to beat Sun. However, due to the way the seeding works out, the only way for Sun and Ito to play each other is for Liu to lose one of them, which she certainly does not want.

Liu Shiwen’s Ideal Draw

It is unfortunate that ITTF’s nationality caps have placed the reigning World Champion in a situation where she may have to hope for her teammate to fail to increase her chances at competing in Tokyo, but that may end up being the case if Liu draws Ito in the semi-finals and Cheng draws Sun.

On the other hand, if Liu draws Sun in the semi-finals, then Liu will completely control her destiny regarding the seeding situation. Two wins over Sun in the semi-finals and two dominant wins over Ito in the finals would deliver the second seed to Ito and allow Liu to show that she can be trusted to defeat Ito and bring China the gold medal in Tokyo. Hence, Edges and Nets would find a Liu vs Sun and Cheng vs Ito semi-final most compelling.

If you liked this article, please follow Edges and Nets on Facebook or Instagram to stay updated. The next post in this series will go over seeds 3 and 4 in the men’s singles event. It will be posted on Wednesday, February 24 (North American timezone). The next article has been delayed to Thursday, February 25 due to the China’s sudden decision to withdraw from WTT Doha.

Unless stated otherwise, all images and footage in this post can respectively be found on ITTF’s Flickr page and the ITTV channel.

WTT Doha 2021 Preview Part 4: Men’s Singles Seeds 5 Through 8

Jang Woojin WTT Macau

This post is the fourth post in a series of posts previewing the 2021 World Table Tennis (WTT) Middle East Hub (also known as the Qatar Open or WTT Doha) coming March 3-13. Our previous post covered seeds 5 through 8 in the women’s singles event: Jeon Jihee, Feng Tianwei, Miu Hirano, and Kasumi Ishikawa. A summary of all of Edges and Nets’ coverage of WTT Doha can be found here.

The full list of players set to play at WTT Doha appears to now be set in stone. In today’s post we take a closer look at seeds five through eight in the men’s singles event (Jeoung Youngsik, Dimitrij Ovtcharov, Jang Woojin, and Mattias Falck) at WTT Doha, how they’ve played since the ITTF restart after the pandemic, what is at stake for them at Qatar, and their potential quarterfinal match-ups. The players in the top 20 of the world rankings who will participate in the WTT Star Contender event (the second one scheduled from March 8-13) are:

SeedNameWorld Rank
1Xu Xin2
2Tomokazu Harimoto5
3Hugo Calderano6
4Lin Yun-Ju7
5Mattias Falck8
6Jang Woojin11
7Dimitrij Ovtcharov12
8Jeoung Youngsik13
9Liam Pitchford15
10Patrick Franziska16
11Koki Niwa17
12Jun Mizutani18
13Simon Gauzy20

Eight out of these thirteen players will also play WTT Contender. The five who will not play are Jang Woojin, Jeoung Youngsik, Patrick Franziska, Koki Niwa, and Jun Mizutani. Let us now take a closer look at seeds five through eight.

8th Seed Jeoung Youngsik

Feb 21 Update: Jeoung Youngsik has been selected for the Olympic Team event. This decision was made before the start of WTT Doha. Analysis in this section may be out of date.

Jeoung Youngsik played decently well in the post-pandemic World Cup last November. He upset Hugo Calderano before losing to national teammate Jang Woojin 4-2 in the quarterfinals. However, things have gone downhill since. He lost badly to Fan Zhendong at the ITTF Grand Finals. In the Korean Olympic Trials earlier this month, he went a winless 0-4 against Lee Sangsu and An Jaehyun, failing to qualify for the Olympic singles event.

However, at the time of this post, the Korean national team does not appear to have announced who will join Lee Sangsu and Jang Woojin in representing Korea in the Olympic team event, meaning Jeoung still has a chance to go to Tokyo. The coach’s selection appears to largely be a two-way race between Jeoung and An Jaehyun.

There are certain factors working in Jeoung’s favor despite his poor performance at the Korean Olympic Trials. First, Jeoung has a higher world rank. Second, he and Lee are a familiar doubles pair who won their doubles match against Xu Xin and Liang Jingkun at the 2019 World Team Cup.

Coaches may also be willing to show Jeoung some grace considering that WTT Doha will mark the end of Jeoung’s roughly year and a half long mandatory military service for Korea, during which he has had to do a non-trivial amount of duty and training. Between the conclusion of WTT Doha and Tokyo, Jeoung will be able to devote himself 100 percent to table tennis without worrying about military duties.

While more focus and hours at the table for the next few months does not necessarily translate directly to better success in the competition, there is reason to be optimistic. Jeoung’s game is not as explosive and does not rely on extremely fast footspeed as much as some of his younger Korean teammates like An or Jang do. He instead relies more on keeping a stable position and anticipating the position of his opponent and the ball (like in the point shown below). Intuitively speaking, one may expect that such a style would benefit more from increased training time compared to a style that relies more on raw physical athleticism.

Although it does not look like Jeoung has lightning-quick footspeed, his stability and anticipation allow him to get to where he needs to be.

That being said, An and Jeoung both get the chance to strengthen their cases to the coaches in Doha. For Jeoung, this means that at minimum he must avoid early upsets, especially to German rival Patrick Franziska and Japanese rivals Jun Mizutani and Koki Nowa.

After taking care of business in the earlier rounds, if Jeoung is able to pull off a big upset against Harimoto or Xu Xin, that may be enough to sway the coaches to pick Jeoung to represent Korea at the Olympic team event. In particular, one of An’s arguments for making the team may be that he has beaten Harimoto recently. Jeoung can neutralize that argument by defeating Harimoto himself. Hence, Edges and Nets would pick Harimoto to be the most interesting quarterfinal match-up for Jeoung.

7th Seed Dimitrij Ovtcharov

Since the restart after the pandemic, Dimitrij Ovtcharov posted a 4-3 win against Liam Pitchford in the World Cup before losing in the quarterfinals of the World Cup to Ma Long and to Lin Yun-Ju in the first round of the ITTF Grand Finals.

Lin has now won the last four meetings between the two in international competition dating back to 2018. In their match-up at the 2020 Grand Finals, Lin was quite clearly faster than Ovtcharov and won virtually all the longer rallies. Lin and Ovtcharov are actually teammates (and will soon be joined by Hugo Calderano) at the Russian club Fakel Gazprom Orenburg and are thus deeply familiar with each other’s game. This familiarity may be why Lin seemed to have almost no problem handling Ovtcharov’s serves. He confidently landed chiquita after chiquita to Ovtcharov’s elbow to set up an ensuing fast rally even when the serve was wide to Lin’s forehand.

Although Ovtcharov is most well known for his spinny backhand and tomahawk serves, one serve that he has found quite useful even against Ma Long is a short dead serve with his backhand that looks like something any noob at the local club could serve. He doesn’t use the serve often, but it has its uses when his opponent is not in rhythm or may be emotionally tight. The sudden lack of spin doesn’t give the opponent anything to borrow, and the opponent may be hesitant or unable to land powerful shots as seen in these two match points that Ovtcharov saved against Lin last November (shown below).

Ovtcharov saves two match points with a short dead serve.

Although Ovtcharov and Lin most likely exchange wins against each other during training, the lopsided record in international competition towards Lin would give Lin a mental edge should these two meet in the quarterfinals in Tokyo. Ovtcharov can break this edge by scoring a victory, even if only in a three out of five, against his club teammate at WTT Doha. Hence, Edges and Nets would consider Lin to be the most interesting quarterfinal match-up for Ovtcharov.

If the Olympics were held today, Ovtcharov would be the ninth seed in the men’s singles event in the Tokyo Olympics behind the two Chinese players, Calderano, Lin, Mattias Falck, Jang Woojin, and Timo Boll. However, since Boll is not playing in Qatar at all and only leads Ovtcharov by a small margin, unless Ovtcharov suffers a pair of major upsets in both events, he has enough ranking points to comfortably pass Boll in the April world rankings and put himself in the position to be at least the eighth seed in Tokyo. Note that although Ovtcharov has been confirmed to play in the team event Tokyo Olympics, we have not been able to confirm whether he or Patrick Franziska will play in the singles event alongside Timo Boll.

Jang, who is ranked directly above Ovtcharov, will not be playing WTT Contender. Hence, if both players play to their seeding or even if Ovtcharov loses in the round of 16 in one event, Ovtcharov will pass Jang on the April world rankings. To maintain his lead over Ovtcharov in the world rankings, Jang must pull off more upsets than Ovtcharov does in the WTT Star Contender event. However, for the purposes of Olympic seeding there is minimal difference between being the eighth seed and the seventh seed.

6th Seed Jang Woojin

Jang Woojin arguably had the best post-pandemic performance out of all non-Chinese men. He split a pair of matches with Harimoto and upset Lin Gaoyuan. In both the Grand Finals and the World Cup, he lost to Fan Zhendong by a comfortable margin. However, visually the game felt closer than the score may have indicated. Jang lead in several games that he lost, and it would not be implausible for him to upset a player like Fan in the near future.

With Jang’s recent performances against Harimoto, Korea may now feel as comfortable as they are going to get about their chances of defeating Japan in the Tokyo Olympics. Although they may not dare to say it aloud, Korea may now be setting its eyes on slaying the giant that is China. There are glimpses of potential such as Jang’s win over Lin Gaoyuan and Lee Sangsu/Jeoung Youngsik’s win over Xu Xin and Liang Jingkun, and Jang could potentially add to that with a fresh upset over Xu in the quarterfinals in Qatar.

Stylistically, a match-up between Jang and a left-handed player like Xu is always interesting as it mixes up two of the key dynamics associated with their styles. First, Jang loves stepping around the corner for the forehand, even in situations where most other players would prefer to use the backhand (as shown below). Although Jang still steps around quite frequently even against left-handed players, the threat of a lefty’s cross-court backhand to his wide forehand may force him to adjust how he approaches his footwork.

Jang Woojin steps around very aggressively during rallies.

Second, the ease with which left-handed players can serve to the wide forehand often disrupts players from executing the chiquita smoothly. However, possibly in order to stay in position to use his forehand for the next shot, Jang uses the chiquita relatively infrequently compared to others. He instead prefers to use a short forehand push, even if it means allowing the opponent to open more often than if he used the chiquita (as shown below).

Jang Woojin prefers the short forehand push over the chiquita. Even if it means that the opponent opens first, he can get the counterloop back in.

Jang’s preference for the short forehand push over the chiquita thus mitigates one of the key adjustments players must make against left-handed players. These stylistic changes and a taste of a Korea vs China Olympic team match-up make Edges and Nets consider Xu to be the most interesting quarterfinal match-up for Jang.

Jang has also been confirmed to represent Korea in the men’s singles event at the Tokyo Olympics. Similar to Ovtcharov, barring a massive early round upset, Jang should be in a position to pass Timo Boll on the April world rankings and maintain his position to be a top-eight seed in Tokyo.

5th Seed Mattias Falck

Falck had decent results at the two major post-pandemic ITTF events last year. He took care of business against Simon Gauzy (WR 20) and Wong Chun Ting (WR 19) but lost 4-1 to Tomokazu Harimoto and 4-2 to Ma Long.

Edges and Nets has largely chosen to ignore the results at WTT Macau last Fall due to the weird rules (no deuce, three-out-of-five matches, brief coaching every six points, weird draws), the lack of stakes (WTT Macau did not appear to influence world rankings), and the lack of recorded full matches. However, Falck’s 3-1 upset over Xu Xin at WTT Macau (available on Youtube) was such big news that we had to mention it here. The 2019 World Championships finalist will be looking to extend his success to 2021 as he continues to entertain fans and frustrate opponents with his close-to-the-table flat hits from both the backhand and his infamous short pips on his forehand.

Mattias Falck gets wins the point with his signature forehand smash on his way to a 3-1 victory over Xu Xin.

There is currently a four-way race between Falck, Lin, Calderano, and Harimoto for the third and fourth seed at the Tokyo Olympics, which provide a guaranteed path to an Olympic medal without having to defeat either of the Chinese top two seeds. In order to pass Lin and Calderano on the April world rankings, Falck needs to outperform Calderano by 372 ranking points and Lin by 273 ranking points in Qatar.

Similar to the case of Kasumi Ishikawa in the women’s singles event, Falck will need to reach the finals in both events in order to pass Lin. This is an extremely difficult task as it means beating either Lin or Calderano (or a player who upset them) twice and then beating Harimoto or Xu Xin (or a player who upset them) twice. If Calderano plays to his seeding and reaches the semi-finals in both events, then Falck would still be unable to catch Calderano even with two finals appearances.

However, if Falck and Calderano meet in the quarterfinals, then Falck will completely control his own Olympic seeding destiny, because a finals appearance by Falck would entail that Calderano lost in the quarterfinals and did not play up to his seeding. Hence, Edges and Nets would consider Calderano to be the most interesting quarterfinal match-up for Falck.

The Most Interesting Quarterfinal Draw

Assuming everyone plays to their seeding up to the quarterfinals (which will likely not be the case), in summary here are Edges and Nets’ picks for what would be the most interesting draw:

  • Jeoung Youngsik vs Tomokazu Harimoto
  • Dimitrij Ovtcharov vs Lin Yun-Ju
  • Jang Woojin vs Xu Xin
  • Mattias Falck vs Hugo Calderano

If you liked this article, please follow Edges and Nets on Facebook or Instagram to stay updated. The next post in this series will go over seeds 3 and 4 in the women’s singles event. It will be posted on Monday, February 22 (North American timezone).

Unless stated otherwise, all images and footage in this post can respectively be found on ITTF’s Flickr page and the ITTV channel.

WTT Doha 2021 Preview Part 3: Women’s Singles seeds 5 THROUGH 8

This post is the third post in a series of posts previewing the 2021 World Table Tennis (WTT) Middle East Hub (also known as the Qatar Open or WTT Doha) coming March 3-13. Our previous post covered two X-factors in the tournament: Lily Zhang in the women’s singles and An Jaehyun in the men’s singles. An X-factor is a young, exciting but lower ranked player who has the potential to upset some higher ranked players in the tournament and make a deep run. A summary of all of Edges and Nets’ coverage of WTT Doha can be found here.

The full list of players set to play at WTT Doha appears to now be set in stone. In today’s post we take a closer look at seeds five through eight in the women’s singles event (Jeon Jihee, Feng Tianwei, Miu Hirano, and Kasumi Ishikawa) at WTT Doha, how they’ve played since the ITTF restart after the pandemic, what is at stake for them at Qatar, and their potential quarterfinal match-ups. The players in the top 20 of the world rankings who will participate in the WTT Star Contender event (the second one scheduled from March 8-13) are:

SeedNameWorld Rank
1Sun Yingsha2
2Mima Ito3
3Liu Shiwen7
4Cheng I-Ching8
5Kasumi Ishikawa9
6Miu Hirano11
7Feng Tianwei12
8Jeon Jihee15
9Sofia Polcanova16
10Adriana Diaz18
11Petrissa Solja19

Out of these eleven, everyone but Jeon Jihee, Sofia Polcanova, and Petrissa Solja will also play the WTT Contenders (the first one scheduled from March 3-6) tournament.

8th Seed Jeon Jihee

As we will discuss shortly, Jeon’s quarterfinal match will likely have minimal seeding implications for Tokyo. However, this tournament will still be an important milestone in her campaign for an Olympic medal. If the Olympics were held today, Cheng, Ito, and (if selected to the Chinese team) Sun and Liu would also be among the top four seeds at the Tokyo Olympics, so Jeon’s quarterfinal match in Qatar will also be a potential Olympic quarterfinal preview.

Jeon has never played Cheng in ITTF competition, and winning a matchup in Qatar in what would likely be their only encounter in an ITTF event before the Olympics would give Jeon the mental edge in Tokyo. Jeon has lost to Sun all three times they have played in international competition, most recently at the 2020 World Finals. In their 2020 matchup, Sun largely dominated Jeon’s shots to Sun’s elbow with crisp blocks and hard step around forehand counters. In a future matchup with Sun, in order to have a chance Jeon likely needs to either figure out a way to bother Sun more at the elbow (which foreign players largely struggle to do against Chinese player) or more consistently hit in difficult wide-angle winners like in the point below.

Jeon has played Ito in two four out of sevens in international competition and lost both times, including a recent 4-1 loss post-pandemic at the 2020 World Cup. However, the match was closer than the score may indicate, especially when considering that Jeon struggled quite heavily with returning Ito’s serves. Jeon may be hoping to get another chance to figure out Ito’s serves before a potential quarterfinal match-up in Tokyo. Hence, Edges and Nets would consider Ito to be the most exciting quarterfinal opponent for Jeon.

Jeon is currently ranked #15 in the world, and if the Olympics were held today, she would be the eighth seed (behind the two unconfirmed Chinese players, Mima Ito, Cheng I-Ching, Kasumi Ishikawa, Feng Tianwei, and Doo Hoi Kem). Jeon can pass Doo in the world rankings by reaching the semi-finals, but for the purposes of Olympic seeding it would not make much of a difference as seeds five through eight are typically treated equivalently.

More important for Jeon is to avoid being passed by Sofia Polcanova and falling out of the top eight for Tokyo; this should be a low bar for Jeon to clear as even if she suffers a relatively big upset in the round of 32 and Polcanova outperforms her seeding and reaches the quarterfinals, Jeon will still maintain a slim lead in the world rankings come April. Even if Polcanova makes a deep run to the semifinals, a quarterfinal finish by Jeon, meaning that she played to her seeding, will be enough to keep her just ahead of Polcanova in the April rankings.

7th Seed Feng Tianwei

Feng Tianwei’s post-pandemic performance has been relatively disappointing so far, being upset by Lily Zhang (WR #30) in the world cup (whom Feng later beat at WTT Macau) and Petrissa Solja in the Grand Finals. At age 34, Feng has slowed down a bit even compared to a couple years ago and had trouble keeping up with Zhang in the faster and longer rallies at the world cup. However, as arguably the greatest non-Chinese player over the last decade, her mind still remains sharp as she can still win shorter points by hitting sharp angles to where the opponent is not expecting or able to reach.

Feng currently holds a world ranking of 12 and would be the sixth seed if the Tokyo Olympics were held today. The stakes for Feng are similar to those for Jeon: Feng is almost certainly locked into a fifth to eighth seed in Tokyo, but despite the lack of stakes with regards to seeding, WTT Doha will provide Feng with perhaps her final look at Sun, Ito, Liu, or Cheng before potentially facing one of them in the quarterfinals in what will likely be Feng’s final Olympic games. This would be particularly valuable for Feng since she did not get to play any of these top seeds in international competition since the post-pandemic restart due to her upsets against Zhang and Solja.

Feng’s upset over Liu Shiwen more than ten years ago at the 2010 World Team Championships remains arguably the most iconic moment of Feng’s career, and it would be fun to see a vintage rematch between Feng and Liu for old time’s sake. The two have not played each other since the Korean Open five years ago, which Liu won 4-1. Hence, Edges and Nets would consider Liu to be the most interesting quarterfinal opponent for Feng.

6th Seed Miu Hirano

Hirano has had a rough last couple of years, including losses to Hina Hayata (WR #29), Lily Zhang (WR #30), and Han Ying (WR #22). She did not participate in either the post-pandemic World Tour Finals or the World Cup in the Fall of 2020. Fans caught a brief glimpse of Hirano in the 2021 Japanese national championships this January, but she lost 4-0 to Miyuu Kihara (WR #49) in the round of 16.

Hirano is the highest ranked player in this tournament who is confirmed to not play in the Olympic singles in Tokyo (although Liu Shiwen or Sun Yinghsa may eventually join this list). However, Hirano will be playing for Japan in the team event, in which China and Japan are expected to meet in the finals barring a herculean performance from a star from a third country.

If China sends the same squad to Tokyo that they did to the 2019 World Team Cup, a quarter-final between Hirano and Liu could be both a rematch of Liu’s dominant 3-0 win over Hirano at the 2019 World Team Cup and a potential preview of the Olympic team finals. Although Liu appeared to handle everything Hirano threw at her in their match at the 2019 World Team Cup, Hirano showed a brief flash of competitiveness in the second game and will likely hope to maintain that performance through five games in Qatar (recall quarterfinal matches will be three out of fives).

Another potentially more interesting quarterfinal match-up for Hirano would be with Sun Yingsha. This would also be a potential preview for the Olympic finals in the team event, and if Hirano plays the role of spoiler and defeats Sun in the quarterfinals, she may end up providing the difference needed for her national teammate Mima Ito to take the number two spot both in the world rankings and in Olympic seeding. Also keeping things interesting is that Sun and Hirano have never played each other in any international women’s event (though Sun has previously beaten Hirano in junior competition). Hence, Edges and Nets would consider Sun to be the most interesting quarterfinal opponent for Hirano.

If Hirano faces Cheng I-Ching in the quarterfinals and pulls off an upset, that would also help her teammate Kasumi Ishikawa in the race for the fourth seed in the Olympic women’s singles event. However, it would likely be more compelling both for the fans and for Ishikawa if Ishikawa herself gets the chance to face off against Cheng in the quarterfinals.

Even if Hirano is unable to pull off an upset in the quarterfinals, Qatar provides her with a chance to break her string of recent losses to lower ranked players, and if she avoids being upset and bows out in the quarterfinals in both events, she will still be able to reestablish herself as a top ten player in the April world rankings.

5th Seed Kasumi Ishikawa

Ishikawa had mediocre results in the Fall of 2020 after the pandemic restart. She split a pair of matches with Suh Hyowon (WR #21) in the world cup and grand finals and then was slaughtered by Sun Yingsha at the world cup. Similar to the case with Jeon, it looked like Ishikawa’s shots to the body barely bothered Sun, and she needed difficult wide angle winners to score points.

2021 has started better for Ishikawa as she defeated Mima Ito to win the Japanese National Championship for the first time in five years. Ito was actually leading 3-1, but Ishikawa played incredibly well to stage the comeback, countering many of Ito’s signature fast smashes back with good speed and placement as seen in the first two points of game 7 (shown below).

Ishikawa is within striking distance of Cheng I-Ching on the world rankings list; by April, the 2020 ranking points will be weighted such that Ishikawa will trail Cheng by 360 points. There are up to 1000 points up for grabs at WTT Doha. If she can pass Cheng then she will secure a top four seed at the Olympics, presenting her with a path to an Olympic medal without having to defeat a Chinese player.

The situation favors Cheng, because as a top four seed in Qatar, she has a guaranteed path to the semi-finals without playing any of the higher ranked Sun, Ito, or Liu. If both players play to their seeding, then Cheng will extend her world ranking lead over Ishikawa. In order to pass Cheng, Ishikawa likely needs to reach the finals in both WTT Contender and WTT Star Contender.

Despite Ishikawa’s recent win over Ito, she may be hoping for a quarterfinal match-up with Cheng in both events in Qatar, as such a draw would give Ishikawa the most control over her seeding at the Tokyo Olympics. Even if Cheng loses in the quarterfinals (whether to Ishikawa or someone else), Ishikawa will likely either need to make it to the finals or outperform Cheng in another tournament between now and Tokyo in order to secure the fourth seed in the Olympics; however, a Cheng vs Ishikawa quarterfinal may be as close to a play-in for the fourth seed as we can get. Hence, Edges and Nets would consider Cheng to be the most interesting quarterfinal opponent for Ishikawa.

The Most Interesting Quarterfinal Draw

Assuming everyone plays to their seeding up to the quarterfinals (which will likely not be the case), in summary here are Edges and Nets’ picks for what would be the most interesting draw:

  • Kasumi Ishikawa vs Cheng I-Ching
  • Miu Hirano vs Sun Yingsha
  • Feng Tianwei vs Liu Shiwen
  • Jeon Jihee vs Mima Ito

If you liked this article, please follow Edges and Nets on Facebook or Instagram to stay updated. The next post in this series will go over the list of men who are ranked in the top 20 who have entered the tournament and will take a closer look at seeds five through eight in the Men’s Singles event. It will be posted on Wednesday, February 17 (North American timezone).

Unless stated otherwise, all images and footage in this post can respectively be found on ITTF’s Flickr page and the ITTV channel.

WTT Doha 2021 Preview Part 2: X-Factors Lily Zhang and An Jaehyun

This post is the second post in a series of posts previewing the 2021 WTT Middle East Hub coming March 3-13. A summary of all of Edges and Nets’ coverage of WTT Doha can be found here.

Our previous post in our preview series of the upcoming 2021 WTT Middle East Hub (also known as the Qatar Open or WTT Doha) on March 3-13 covered the logistics and format of the event. Notably, the event will be split into two back to back tournaments named WTT Contender and WTT Star Contender, and all matches through the quarterfinals are expected to be three out of fives.

Today’s post goes over one X-factor in each of the Men’s Singles and Women’s Singles events. An X-factor is a young promising but lower ranked player (outside the top 20) who has an exciting playing style, has previously upset a higher seeded player before, and has high potential to upset one or more higher seeded players in the upcoming event. We note past high profile upsets by Lily Zhang and An Jaehyun, what part of their game to watch out for, and what is at stake for them in Qatar.

Women’s Singles: Lily Zhang

Lily Zhang (WR #30) will be playing the WTT Contender event as the 15th seed and the WTT Star Contender event as the 18th seed. Zhang has an exciting style of play characterized by her signature rapid backhand rallies and her aggressive short forehand flicks. She is 24 years old, but her professional career so far is shorter than one may expect from her age as she went to college in the United States, where she only played part time, for several years before committing to playing professional table tennis full time.

Zhang has a history of upsetting top players in ITTF events, most notably in her run to the 2019 World Cup semifinals in which she defeated Miu Hirano (WR #11) in the round of 16 and Sofia Polcanova (WR #16) in the quarterfinals. Since the world circuit restart after the pandemic, she has extended her string of upsets with a win over Feng Tianwei (WR #12) in the world cup and a (three-of-out-of-five) win over Petrissa Solja (WR #19) in WTT Macau. The final two points of Zhang’s 4-3 victory over Hirano in 2019 encapsulate what makes her so exciting and dangerous: an aggressive forehand flick for the winner on the serve return followed by a 12-shot rapid backhand rally.

Lily Zhang displays her signature forehand flick and rapid backhand counter in the final two points of her 4-3 win over Miu Hirano at the 2019 World Cup.

Zhang will be representing the United States in the women’s singles event at the Tokyo Olympics. Since ITTF caps the Olympics singles events to two players per country (affecting the Chinese and Japanese players ranked higher than Zhang) and WR #91 Shin Yubin rather than WR #21 Suh Hyowon will be representing Korea, Zhang would be at worst the seventeenth seed if the Tokyo Olympics were held today. Securing a top 16-seed would guarantee that Zhang does not have to play either of the Chinese stars, who continue to dominate the rest of the world, until at least the round of 16. Her chances of playing a Chinese player before the quarterfinals would also shrink from 37.5% to 25%.

The world ranking points amassed up to December will only be weighted 60 percent by early April (after Qatar but presumably before the next ITTF event), so Zhang will have 4050 world ranking points by then. The player directly ranked above her who is eligible to play in the Olympics is Minnie Soo (4158 points, WR #28), who fortunately for Zhang, will not be playing in Qatar. Zhang can pass Soo by pulling off two upsets in any combination of the two events, which would give Zhang a minimum of 4175 points. This would be enough for Zhang to be at least the 16th seed if the Olympics were held in April.

Men’s Singles: An Jaehyun

An Jaehyun (WR #39) enters the WTT Contender event as the 24th seed and the WTT Star Contender event as the 30th seed. The 21 year old is most well known for his 2019 World Championship run, in which he was a blown 7-2 lead from defeating Mattias Falck (WR #8) to advance to the finals. On his way to the semi-finals An defeated Wong Chun Ting (WR #19), Tomokazu Harimoto (WR #5), and Jang Woojin (WR #11). Due to his low world rank relative to other Korean men, An was not invited to any of the post-pandemic ITTF events in 2020. However, fans caught a glimpse of An in the Korean Olympic trials in early February, in which he defeated Jeoung Youngsik (WR # 13) and Lee Sangsu (WR #22) twice each.

An keeps the game exciting by taking high-risk high-reward step around forehand kills as seen in the first point of the video below. Even when An miscalculates and the ball is out of position but still near his backhand or center, his footwork is often quick enough to either recover and still get the instant kill or put up a softer loop and then get back in position to turn the rally into his advantage as shown in the second point of the video below.

An Jaehyun steps around twice in a row. The first point ends in an instant kill. The second point doesn’t start as well as he may have hoped, but he recovers his position to win the point in the ensuing rally.

However, since An often steps around before his opponent has even contacted the ball, a perceptive opponent can also sometimes put the ball to An’s forehand and leave him completely unable to touch the ball as seen in the video below.

An Jaehyun steps around early and Mattias Falck burns him with a backhand down the line.

Although An held an undefeated 4-0 record against top seeds Lee Sangsu and Jeoung Youngsik at the Korean Olympic trials, An’s 2-2 record against Lim Jonghoon and Cho Daesong and a quirk in Korean Table Tennis Association’s scoring rules resulted in Lee Sangsu winning the trials and qualifying for the second men’s singles spot alongside Jang Woojin, giving An’s fans all over Korea a massive case of Second Lead Syndrome. Since An will not play in the men’s singles event in Tokyo, there are no immediate seeding consequences for any major tournaments for An due to this tournament.

However, at the time of this writing Korea appears to not yet have made the coaches’ selection for the team event in the Tokyo Olympics. If An Jaehyun makes a deep run in either WTT Contender or WTT Star Contender or upsets Xu Xin or Harimoto (players from what are expected to be the top two seeds China and Japan), the coaches may be willing to overlook An’s low world rank and its seeding implications to pick him for the team event. A deep run from An is very much a possibility, since although An is only seeded 24th, there is a plausible draw (Lee in R32, Jeoung in R16, Jang in QF, Harimoto in SF) in which An makes it to the finals without having to upset a single player that he has not already beaten before in high-profile competition. A pair of finals runs for An, as unlikely as that would be, could potentially send him skyrocketing into the top 30 of the men’s world rankings.

Although Zhang and An carry the potential to pull off major upsets, their low world rank will also give them difficult paths to the finals, and they may be vulnerable to early exits. Edges and Nets will be covering their draws and some of their performances in the early stages of the tournament.

If you liked this article, please follow Edges and Nets on Facebook or Instagram to stay updated. The next post in this series will go over the list of women who are ranked in the top 20 who have entered the tournament and will take a closer look at seeds five through eight in the Women’s Singles event. It will be posted on Saturday, February 13 (North American timezone).

All images and footage in this post can respectively be found on ITTF’s Flickr page and the ITTV channel.

2021 WTT Doha Preview Part 1: A Further Look At ITTF’s Rebrand Towards WTT

This post is the first post in a series of posts previewing the 2021 World Table Tennis (WTT) Middle East Hub (also known as the Qatar Open or WTT Doha) coming March 3-13. A complete summary of all of our coverage of WTT Doha 2021 can be found at this page.

The 2021 World Table Tennis (WTT) Middle East Hub (also known as the Qatar Open or WTT Doha) will be happening in early March, and we will be releasing a set of blog posts this week going over who is playing, what’s at stake for each of the players, and potential match-ups to watch out for. However, before we get started, today we will take a look at the tournament format and major differences with previous iterations of the Qatar Open. Notably, the event has been split into two tournaments and all matches until the quarterfinals will now be three out of fives instead of four out of sevens.

The Great Rebrand

The first obvious difference with previous years is the name. Why is the tournament now named WTT Middle East Hub instead of the ITTF Qatar Open? The change of the first word from ITTF to WTT is part of ITTF’s massive rebrand from the ITTF World Tour to World Table Tennis (WTT), which as covered in a previous post, consists of a completely different set of events with different names, locations, and formats. The name change may present some growing pains for ITTF, because WTT is a commonly used acronym and table tennis appears to be nowhere near the top search results of WTT on Google (although table tennis may soon become the top result) or Instagram (where #wtt appears to be dominated by tattoo pictures).

The rebrand also consists of redesigning visual aesthetics, which means that the tournament may visually look more like the 2020 WTT Macau event instead of the traditional blue/green tables on red flooring. This visual redesign apparently also includes legalizing pink, violet, green, and blue rubbers starting from October 2021. The goal of this choice is to make the sport more visually colorful and to allow players more customization over their racket setup. The move appears to be mainly geared toward getting more casual players interested in the circuit and was overwhelmingly favored by a super-majority of 75% of world delegates in the 2019 Annual General Meeting. However, top fan comments on Instagram did not respond well to the new colors as more traditional club players appeared to associate the brightly colored rubbers with not taking the game seriously.

Event Format: What is different?

The Hub Consists of Two Separate Tournaments

Why is the event named the Middle East Hub instead of the Qatar Open? The Middle East Hub this year actually consists of two independent tournaments held back-to-back: the WTT Contender tournament and WTT Star Contender tournament. Although ITTF may have originally intended for the hub to span across multiple locations in the Middle East for several weeks, due to the pandemic these two tournaments will be held back-to-back in the same location. The second event, WTT Star Contender, will have more prize money and be worth more ranking points, giving it slightly higher stakes.

Restricting Top Players from Entering

In an effort to give lower ranked players more chances to gain ranking points and shine on the bigger stage, ITTF originally intended to restrict WTT Contender events to only allowing two top-20 players and WTT Star Contender events to only allowing four top-20 players. Another possible benefit would be that this balances the star power across multiple events, so we don’t end up with a situation where all the top stars play in one tournament and then in the next tournament no stars play and the fans there are left watching some lesser known players.

However, this year since everything has been condensed into one event, ITTF has expanded the player pool so that WTT Star Contender will include twelve of the top-20 men and eleven of the top-20 women and WTT Contender will include eight out of the top-20 players in each gender. The format from the round of 64 onward appears to be identical for the two tournaments, so we can view WTT Star Contender as essentially an instant rematch after WTT Contender save for a few extra seeds in the five through twelve range.

Switching to Three Out of Fives for Most Matches

The biggest and likely most controversial change in tournament format is that all doubles matches will now be three out of five and all singles matches except the semi-finals and finals will be three out of five. Note that this change only applies to tournaments in the WTT Contender series and major events such as the World Championships should still be four out of sevens throughout. It is not clear whether ITTF will implement this change in this year’s event in Qatar given the increased number of star players invited. ITTF’s stated reason for the change is that: “These [changes] will reinvigorate competitions by making them fairer, more exciting, more competitive and to give fans the opportunity to see more of their favorite players in action in the main draw.”

While switching from a four out of seven format to a three out of five does make things more competitive and allow different fan-favorite players of different nationalities to advance further in the main draw by increasing the chance of an upset, the change is likely to be viewed as less fair since the increased variance can allow the “worse” player to advance more frequently. Whether it is viewed as exciting depends on the preference of the viewer: a casual fan who enjoys chaos, suspense, and parity may prefer the three out-of-fives but a purist who is more interested in seeing the best players win and build their legacies will likely prefer the four out of sevens.

Like the legalization of brightly colored rubbers, the move seems geared towards increasing engagement among casual fans and fans from parts of the world with weaker players. ITTF appears to be making the gamble that more serious and traditional fans will begrudgingly accept the changes and continue to watch. This assessment by ITTF may likely turn out proving correct, but regardless of one’s opinion of the changes, it will take many fans some getting used to.

If you liked this article, please follow Edges and Nets on Facebook or Instagram to stay updated. The next post in this series will go over X-Factors, meaning lower ranked players with large potential to upset higher seeds, in the tournament and will be posted on Wednesday, February 10 (North American timezone).

16-Year Old Shin Yubin Becomes Youngest Ever Korean Olympic Table Tennis Player

16-year old Shin Yubin (WR #94) won the qualification tournament to represent South Korea in the women’s singles table tennis event at the Tokyo Olympics. She is the youngest ever Korean Olympic table tennis player, breaking the record previously held by an 18-year old Ryu Seungmin in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. She will be 17 at the start of the Olympics. Despite only being the the fourth highest ranked player, Shin (WR #94) went undefeated in the second round robin and only dropped one match to lower ranked Lee Zion (WR #106) in the first round robin.

Shin will be representing Korea in the women’s singles even alongside Jeon Jihee (WR #15), who qualified directly via world rank. The third member to represent Korea in the woman’s team event will be selected by the national team coaches (most likely sooner rather than later). Suh Hyowon (WR #21) is the highest ranked remaining woman by far (the next highest would be WR #64 Choi Hyojoo), and is thus likely to be picked for seeding purposes, but she had an abysmal qualification tournament, finishing outside of the top three.

Feb 21 Update: Choi Hyojoo has been selected for the team event. Jang Woojin, Lee Sangsu, and Jeoung Youngsik will represent South Korean in the team event.

Korean Olympic Trials Day 4: Lee Sangsu Qualifies for 2021 Tokyo Olympics

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Lee Sangsu had qualified for the men’s singles event. The trials in fact were only for the team event. Jeoung Youngsik has been confirmed by ITTF to play the men’s singles event at the Tokyo Olympics.

Lee Sangsu won both his remaining day 4 matches against Lim Jonghoon and Jeoung Youngsik and qualified for the Olympics. He will represent Korea at the Tokyo Olympics alongside Jang Woojin, who qualified directly via world rank. Lee’s qualification for the Olympics has also been verifed by several Korean sources. At the time of this posting Day 4 matches can be watched on the KTTA TV Youtube channel, but they may remove the streams from their channels later (they did so for the first three days). The final results of second leg of the round robin were:

Jeoung YoungsikLee SangsuAn JaehyunLim JonghoonCho
2nd RR Record2nd RR Place
Jeoung Youngsik (WR #13)N/A2-42-44-1Win (unverified)2-23
Lee Sangsu (WR #22)4-2N/A2-44-14-23-12
An Jaehyun (WR #39)4-24-2N/A4-14-14-01
Lim Jonghoon (WR #71)1-41-41-4N/A4-01-34
Cho Daesong (WR #141)Loss (unverified)2-41-40-4N/A0-45

The final method to determine who would go to the Olympics was to assign a player five points for winning a round robin, four points for winning second, three points for winning third, two points for winning fourth, and one point for winning fifth. The final results across both round robins were thus given by:

1st RR Record1st RR Points2n RR Record2nd RR PointsTotal PointsFinal Ranking
Jeoung Youngsik2-242-2373
Lee Sangsu3-153-1491
An Jaehyun2-234-0582
Lim Jonghoon2-221-3244
Cho Daesong1-310-4125

Although Jeoung, An, and Lim all had 2-2 records in the first round robin, the final rankings for the round robin went Jeoung second, An third, and Lim fourth based on the number of games won in the three way tie. Thus, An only had three points in the first round robin, allowing Lee to eke out a 9-8 advantage in tournament points and qualify for the Olympics. In an ironic twist of fate for An (who was undefeated against Jeoung and Lee), had the round robin only consisted of Jeoung, Lee, and An, then An would have won the qualification event as he was undefeated against both Jeoung and Lee.

Note: in our previous recap of An Jaehyun’s victory over Lee Sangsu made the incorrect assumption that final rankings would be determined by overall record and as a result stated that An Jaehyun controlled his own destiny. While An did eventually tie Lee for best overall match record and held the head-to-head tiebreaker, the ranking system described above ended up favoring Lee.

The final spot in the Olympics will be determined by coach’s selection (likely sooner than later) and will only play in the team event. Korea likely will select Jeoung for seeding purposes as they fight with Germany and Japan for the second seed and a guarantee to not play China until the finals in the team event. Selecting Jeoung over An also puts Korea in a comfortable position to hold at least a fourth seed, thus avoiding China until at least the semi-finals and giving themselves a path to a medal without defeating China.

One of the downsides of the round-robin format is the potential for anti-climatic finishes. This was the case for Day 4 of the Olympic trials as Jeoung had already been eliminated from contention by the time he played his final match with Lee. As a result, there will be no match recap in today’s post.

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