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

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Update: China’s withdrawal from WTT Doha 2021 makes a lot of this information out of date.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