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 Our previous post covered seeds 4 and 4 Liu Shiwen (who after the post was published has withdrawn) and Cheng I-Ching.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).