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.