Fan Zhendong recently sat down for an interview with WTT to discuss what the Olympics mean to him and his Olympic preparations. Edges and Nets has aggregated and translated several of his questions and answers. Sources: here, here, here.
What do the Olympics mean to you?
It is what everyone desires. This is the biggest stage, and it is the platform to show your best.
First things first, I need to make sure I execute to my abilities. This is the most fundamental. If you are pressured by the stakes and the atmosphere and let yourself choke, then you have not fulfilled the most basic goal and expectation of such a grand event. Because I feel like on such a big stage, I should be even more eager and even more urgent to showcase my abilities and to broadcast all the abilities and skills I have trained from my childhood up to this moment. And then, of course, I hope to prove myself on this stage and achieve the results I want. So I think my first priority is to display my skills, and then it is to win and prove myself.
Why do you have a blister on your hand?
Recently, I’ve been experimenting, including a new racquet, which doesn’t yet have a perfect fit. My original racquet was also the same model, but for these big competitions, obviously the more detailed your preparations the better. So I am going to prepare more racquets, and I will pick the one that fits well.
How many racquets have you prepared, and how many will you bring to the Olympics?
I don’t know yet. Sometimes, you try a racquet, and it immediately feels good, but sometimes you try it, and over time it feels better and better. Every racquet is different, both when selecting it and playing with it. So I’m just preparing now. The team requirement is to have a main and a spare, and the two racquets need to be roughly identical. For me, I’d say two or three, but we’ll see how many I like.
Do you feel anxious in your Olympic preparations?
In fact, I think this preparation time can definitely help people grow, but you don’t know if you can grow to the level that you need to achieve. In fact, I can also feel that people around me can feel that I’m changing. However, sometimes when you are anxious or feel uncomfortable in your heart, it’s not because you feel that you are not growing, but because you may feel that you are not growing fast enough, or I haven’t reached the way I want, so I think the point of anxiety is actually here. As I said just now, I just need to give myself more positive feedback and give myself more confidence.
Do you feel that you are not good enough in any particular area?
Of course. It feels like the closer we get, the more I feel like I don’t have enough time. It feels like there are many areas I have not trained enough, or there are many areas I have not prepared for, and then suddenly the tournament arrives. This is a normal emotion. It means you are eager, or that you’re ready to seize this game and opportunity. If you think you are ready, I don’t think that is a mentality ready to face a big tournament. I don’t think it’s easy [to be ready], so there’s no need to force myself to a certain standard or to cheat myself or whatever. I just need to accept it.
As the Tokyo Olympics rapidly approach, Mima Ito and Kasumi Ishikawa have made several comments to Japanese media. Furthermore, Ishikawa is allegedly in talks to be the vice-captain for the host country Japan (across all sports) at the Tokyo Olympics. We have aggregated and translated several of their comments and interviews below.
After Chinese media reported that Ito allegedly claimed that she had figured out how to beat Chen Meng and Sun Yingsha in May, Ito’s confidence remains high: “This time is different from the Rio Olympics, because this Olympics are in Japan. It feels unbelievable, but I am very confident and hope I can prepare coolly and calmly as usual. Even if tomorrow is the Olympics, it’s no problem. I will aggressively prepare with the mindset “in order to get the three golds [women’s singles, women’s team, mixed doubles], I must win.””
Ito also reportedly explicitly stated, “I will do my best to bring back three gold medals.”
Ito had an interesting comment regarding playing mixed doubles: “When I’m playing doubles, my body and legs move. It also makes my head spin and I get very tired, but it’s a very fun event.”
Kasumi Ishikawa Interview with “Big Kasumi” Creators
Ishikawa did an interview with the creators of the “Big Kasumi” statue. This interview was published on June 25.
There is roughly one month until the opening of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Please give us your goals and level of enthusiasm. With only one month left, I’m feeling more nervous, and I’m getting more and more excited.
What are your thoughts on seeing “Big Kasumi”? I was very surprised.
It’s real, and I’m very happy to see the completion because I had many cameras shoot it when I asked them to make it.
What kind of adjustments and preparations have you made for the Olympics so far? And where will you prepare for the your final sprint? Unlike the previous Olympic Games, I think that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will be held without any international competition beforehand, so I want to make adjustments so that I leave no regrets. I’m also in really good physical condition. I also want to be careful and stand on the court [presumably, Ishikawa is concerned about her lower back injury that caused her to withdraw from an internal Japanese tournament several months ago].
You said that you will be participating in the [Japanese] league from June 24th. Please tell us the purpose of participating in the match before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Being in the league from June 24th, just before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, is a very valuable opportunity for me. So I will play each game and execute what I have done and what I have practiced. I wish I could start the battle.
How is your current condition out of 100? I think it’s about 70 percent. I’d like to raise it a little more by the time I go to the game and get to about 90 percent until I get on the court, so I’d like to make adjustments for another month.
Lastly, please share your enthusiasm. I want to play at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics without regrets. I think the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will be in a difficult situation, but I want to play without regrets for myself. I want to stand on the court, and I want to make the remaining one month a fulfilling one.
Kasumi Ishikawa Interview Reported By Yahoo Sports
On June 27, Yahoo Sports posted an interview (in Japanese) with Kasumi Ishikawa. We have translated select questions and answers from this interview.
In some interviews, you said, “Recently, I’ve become able to speak with my true intentions.” What is your feeling about that?
After all, there were no matches due to the pandemic, and it was the first time in my life as a table tennis player that I hadn’t had such a match, and I think I was able to become a natural person in a good way.
For over 20 years since you started playing table tennis, you’ve been practicing hard at the top level.
If I didn’t have to do it, I wouldn’t do it at all (laughs). I think it’s difficult to maintain your level even with the minimum practice. Of course, it’s difficult to raise the level no matter how many years you’ve been doing it. If I try to do it at this level, I know that I can’t do it unless I practice hard, so I wonder if I’ll do it.
On the other hand, after winning the All Japan Championship, there was a comment that “I have been enjoying practicing recently.”
I’ve had a time when I couldn’t play a match this year due to the pandemic, and now I feel like I have to have fun. Of course, there are some tough and painful exercises, but I think it’s a waste not to enjoy this time now, whether it’s a match or practice.
Have you made any specific changes in your daily practice with that idea?
You’re doing more and more of the practice you want to do. The practice you have to do and the practice you want to do are probably a little different. There are other exercises I want to do, but I don’t think I have to do this, I’ll do more and more exercises I want to do. I haven’t done so much until now, but if I enjoy myself, I will continue to do what I want to do. Then, new exercises and things I want to do will come out, and I’m wondering if it will be fun again.
After all, I think it will be the first and last time to participate in the Tokyo Olympics once every four years, so rather than just looking at the feelings and results of enjoying it on the special stage of the Tokyo Olympics. I want to have fun, cherish the process, and feel that there is a result after that. I want to enjoy the situation I am in now, both in practice and in games.
Have you ever felt that you like table tennis again recently?
After all, I think I like table tennis because it’s fun to feel the joy of being able to do things after practice that I previously couldn’t do. The joy of being able to do something that didn’t work is the same as when I started playing table tennis.
Does the process of mastering a technique that you previously couldn’t do feel like you can just suddenly do it at one point?
There are various things. Sometimes you can do it suddenly, and sometimes you just have to do it. But after all that, I forget what I remembered. So, in the end, I think that people who can remember it often forget it, so if I try to remember it, I think it’s impossible if I don’t do it.
Do you sometimes suddenly become able to do it during a match?
Oh, that’s right. When you suddenly feel like “let’s try”, I think it’s a time when you feel positive, so that’s a good time. Whether it works or not. It feels like it doesn’t have to be included, so I was able to do that in the past, so now I’m thinking of doing it while cherishing it.
Do you feel a gap between the image of Ishikawa in society and yourself?
Well, I don’t really know what society thinks about me, so I don’t know (laughs)
Sure. I’m sorry…
Ah, but I really speak a lot, but I wonder if I think I don’t speak much. Someone I met for the first time said “I speak more than I expected” about 5 times, recently (laughs).
Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule!
Thank you very much.
Kasumi Ishikawa on the Japanese League
In this section, Edges and Nets has aggregated several of Ishikawa’s post-game remarks on the Japanese league. Sources: here, here, here.
“It’s a rare opportunity for a real battle, so I’d like to actively show what I’ve been practicing and find out what was good and what was bad. Today, the serve is very good and the opponent disliked it.”
“It was a great experience to be able to play a lot of games with strong players before the Olympics, and it was great to be able to play at this timing. One month left until the Olympics. I want to be well prepared so that I won’t regret it and do my best to play the best.”
“I’m very happy because it’s been a long time since I entered the Japan League, so I’m very happy. There were a lot of games. I think the backhand was good this time. There was a part that led to scoring, and I was able to put out a lot of what I had practiced in the games, so I was very confident. It was a good experience to be able to play against a strong player in a tense atmosphere. I will do my best to play the best at the Olympics by preparing well so that I will not regret the remaining one month.”
Dimitrij Ovtcharov smashed a forehand into the net at match point and Timo Boll threw his hands into the air as he defeated Ovtcharov 4-1 (9-11, 11-6, 11-9, 11-8, 11-8) to win his record-setting eighth European Championships. Vladimir Samsonov and Gábor Gergely are tied for second-to-most men’s singles European championships, with three titles each.
It’s a well-deserved title for 40-year-old Boll as he beat every European player ranked top-10 in the world (other than himself) en route to his title. In addition to beating Ovtcharov in the finals, Boll also beat Mattias Falck 4-2 earlier in the day in the semi-finals.
After the match, Boll said, “The last few days were really tough, but I treated myself really hard, and in the end I played fantastic table tennis, and I’m happy. What should I say? I didn’t expect it…I wasn’t sure if I could handle three, four days of such a championship. Physically, I’m tired now, but I could manage it, and therefore I am really happy.”
Cognizant of his age, Boll further added, “The first [championship] is always special, but this can be my last, so it was also emotional, and I had a tough last year. I was close to stopping maybe my career. Exactly one year ago, I was close to down at the bottom, and I’m back again, so I feel really glad.”
Boll got off to a slow start as he missed two serve returns to go down 2-0. Boll was able to get two lucky balls early on to keep himself in the game, but solid play from Ovtcharov allowed him to extend his lead to 8-5. Ovtcharov whiffed a forehand loop, and then Boll further narrowed the lead to 8-7 with a pretty point in which he spun the ball from below table height that Ovtcharov was unable to block. After the players exchanged two missed loops each, Ovtcharov held game point at 10-9, which he promptly converted with two strong backhand loops.
Boll again got off to a slow start in game 2 as he missed several openings to go down into a 5-2 hole. However, Boll appeared to find his rhythm as his steady spinny loops and wide rallies combined with Ovtcharov’s problems executing his short flick well allowed Boll to reel off eight straight points and cruise to a 11-6 victory.
Ovtcharov opened the third game with two lucky points to go up 2-0 and scored several more points by pinning Boll down with several wide counters. However, despite another net ball for Ovtcharov at 7-7 to give him the 3-0 edge in lucky balls over the course of the game, Boll was able to stick to the game plan of steady spinny loops and wide rallies and pressuring Ovtcharov to self-destruct on the short flick and frustrate himself as Boll eked out an 11-9 victory.
Ovtcharov finally switched to his iconic backhand serve to start the fourth game, but he switched back to the forehand serve after he split his two backhand serves. After Ovtcharov gave a weak push and missed two flicks to lose three straight points and go down 5-4, Ovtcharov called time-out. However, after the time-out, Ovtcharov’s short-game woes continued as he popped up another push and missed another two flicks as Boll extended the lead to 10-8.
Ovtcharov got ready to serve his super simple straight serve, but received a service warning regarding the height of the toss. Ovtcharov switched back to his standard pendulum serve and then lost the game 11-8 on another missed short flick.
Ovtcharov opened the fifth game quite sloppily to lose six straight points, including a missed serve and go down 6-1. However, Ovtcharov was able to claw his way back to 7-7 after winning all four of his service points off his signature backhand serve. However, Boll was able to win the next two points on his own serve to go up 9-7 and win a pretty counter-loop rally to break Ovtcharov’s serve and go up 10-7. Ovtcharov was able to save one match point with a tricky long fast backhand serve to Boll’s forehand. However, Ovtcharov smacked the ball into the net on the next point, delivering Boll the game, match, and his record-shattering eighth title.
Watch curated video hilights in the Instagram post below:
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Timo Boll defeated his Bundesliga teammate Anton Kallberg 4-1 (12-10, 15-17, 11-8, 11-8, 16-14) in the quarter-finals of the European Table Tennis Championships.
In a post-game interview, Boll remarked that this was one of his best if not his best match in the last one or two years as he felt that he was agile and thinking well throughout the match. Boll pointed to the first game as a tone-setter for the match, as he came back from down 8-2 to win the game 12-10.
The fifth and final game was also heartbreaking for Kallberg as he was up 10-8 and blew a total of four game points, all with service, to lose the game 16-14. In particular, on Kallberg’s third game point at 12-11, Boll caught a lucky net-ball on the serve return that was virtually impossible to return. Kallberg was able to save two match points during the deuce, but Boll got an edge ball at 15-14 to close out the game and the match.
Boll will face top seed Mattias Falck in the semi-finals on Sunday at 12:10 Warsaw time (+2 GMT). The match can be watched on the ETTU homepage. In the other semi-final, Marcos Freitas will play against Dimitrij Ovtcharov.
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Liu Guoliang recently downplayed gold-medal expectations, reiterated the need for mental strength, and praised the internal Chinese scrimmages for the Tokyo Olympics. Liu made these remarks to Chinese media during a ceremony in which the Olympic dragon uniforms were revealed. Edges and Nets has aggregated and translated several of his comments below. Original Chinese media articles can be found here, here, and here.
Coaches Double Down On Mental Strength
The Chinese National Team has been quite consistent in emphasizing mental strength as the most important factor heading into the Tokyo Olympics. In addition to Ma Long and Deng Yaping’s recent comments, Coach Wang Nan stated that the players must have confidence in their abilities and preparations.
In Wang’s view, the Olympics are different from normal competitions. The players need to accept and adapt to the heightened mental stress, execute to their normal level under the stress, and avoid having the stress of the Olympics negatively affect their play. Maintain your technique, keep your opponent’s tactics and habits burned in your mind, and leave nothing to regret.
Consistent with his colleagues, Liu also emphasized the importance of mental strength, stating that “As the Olympic Games are approaching, athletes will have a clearer vision of it. They need to undergo a process in their mentality transition and try to find their rhythm in preparation.”
Liu also noted the delicate nature of maintaining a good mental state: “If you are in a good state now, it does not mean that you are in a good state for the Tokyo Olympics; if you are in a bad state now, it does not mean that you are in a bad state for the Tokyo Olympics.”
When discussing China’s women’s singles roster, Chen Meng and Sun Yingsha, neither who have played in the Olympics before, Liu stated, “Every Olympic Games has people who participated for the first time, and they played well for the first time. The most important thing is what kind of mentality they use. If the mentality is good, the psychological pressure will be better handled, and there won’t be too much of an emotional burden on them.”
Liu Downplays Expectations
Although many have China as a shoo-in for gold in each of the Olympic table tennis events, Liu interestingly decided to downplay expectations, “We have the strength to win each of the five gold medals, and we have to confidence to do so. However, there are challenges and risks, especially considering the pace and manner of preparation is quite different in the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the nature of table tennis.”
At least in the women’s events, this remark is in contrast with Deng Yaping’s (who by the looks of things may not be as intimately involved with the national team as Liu) comments last week that Mima Ito was not a serious threat to the Chinese National Team. Liu appeared to have more positive words for their Japanese rivals, stating that “the Japanese table tennis team has been preparing for the Tokyo Olympics for many years, and especially hopes to beat the Chinese team at home, but I think they will give us more motivation. We need such an opponent, and we need such a competition to test the team.”
For what it’s worth, both Mima Ito and Jun Mizutani appear to be confident in their ability to upset China in at least the women’s singles and mixed doubles events.
Liu’s remarks appear to be aimed at relieving pressure from the team and getting them into the desired mental state. “I hope that our players and coaches will not have a burden of sweeping Olympic gold medals like in previous occasions… We cannot carry what we achieved in Rio into these Games, and we have to start from zero in Tokyo.”
“No matter which event, we are determined to win every gold medal. But competitive sports has ups and downs and wins and losses. This is all part of the game, so we don’t put too much pressure on everyone. If you don’t have pressure, you won’t be able to play well, but if you’re under too much pressure, you won’t be able to play well either. Keep a normal mind, put out what you practice, and strive for every piece of work. It’s not about which event is more secure [e.g. team events] and which event we are at risk of losing [e.g. mixed doubles].”
Remarks on the Final Closed Door Training
After the second leg of the Chinese Olympic scrimmages that were broadcast to the public, the National Team has been in closed-door training in Weihai for about 20 days. Liu Guoliang said that the focus of this period is to strengthen the ability and strength of the players. “It’s relatively easy to get out of form in the middle of closed training for about 20 days. This time, everyone’s ability and feeling of competition are better than those in the previous two (Olympic scrimmages). For the last scrimmage, we hope to be more realistic. We expect to be more detailed tactically and in simulating potential Olympic opponents.”
There will be a final closed-door scrimmage on July 8 to July 10. We may expect to see fewer upsets in this scrimmage as Liu further elaborated the differences between the goals of the initial and final scrimmages: “There are warm-up matches before, during and at the end of the closed training, which can play different roles. The early stage is mainly to test the strength, the mid-term test is the improvement and progress of the players after the closed training in the early stage, and the latter is intended to be the final run-in and preparation.”
Coach Deng Yaping recently made several statements to Chinese media regarding the Chinese women’s team’s Olympic preparations and their most serious threat, Mima Ito.A translation of the linked article is provided below.
There are only a little more than 30 days left before the Tokyo Olympics. For the last few days, the Chinese National Team has been preparing for the final stage in Chengdu. As the “first generation big devil” of Chinese and World Women’s Table Tennis, Deng Yaping accepted an interview with Titan [the outlet that wrote the article] reporters. She believes that during this time the players most need to control the rhythm, and the number one opponent Mima Ito does not pose a real threat.
The closed training camp of the national table tennis has come to the final sprint stage. In the last month or so, what should be paid attention to? Deng Yaping, who has rich experience in competitions, especially the Olympics, said that the players should slowly enter the mental game state. After all, the Olympics are still more than a month. They can’t adjust their emotional excitement instantly but instead need to adjust, strengthen and improve it according to the results of the warm-up matches, and gradually deepen it.
“Different from preparing for the previous Olympic Games, there has virtually never been a situation of training without competition. How do we transition slowly from warm-up matches to Olympic competitions? Because the timeline of the Olympic table tennis matches is longer than the usual World Championships, World Cup and Pro Tour events, so we need to control the rhythm, because the competitive state is a very delicate thing. You can’t come out too early, and you can’t come out too late.”
The veteran players are more experienced to deal with this point, so Deng Yaping also said that this is the function of experience: “The veteran players have better experience and control over their nerves. They know that they need to be fully invested in the mental game and a bit excited, but before the game they need to control own excitement and know how much effort to use against the opponent. But at this point, one of our national team’s strong points is the coach’s control of the athletes, so we don’t need to worry about it.”
Speaking of veterans, the two veterans of the women’s table tennis players, between Ding Ning and Liu Shiwen, who participated in the last Olympic Games and won gold [in the team event], Ding withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics competition early, and Liu was passed over for Olympic women’s singles qualification. For Deng Yaping, this is a normal thing. As veteran players, they should have been able to understand and accept such a process very early.
“Any athlete has a peak period and a decline period. Competitive sports will always have a cycle. There will always be someone who will retire. Young people will always come up. The national table tennis team has always had a tradition of passing on help. I believe this arrangement must be approved by the coaching staff. As a result of many deliberations, everyone has their own career, and everyone must stick to their position.”
Therefore, the women’s singles representing the Chinese women’s table tennis team in the Tokyo Olympics will be Chen Meng and Sun Yingsha, who have never experienced Olympic experience. However, Deng Yaping is not worried about their performance: “They have played in world competitions, and they all showed their level. Being able to stand out from the top players in the national table tennis team fully demonstrates their due strength. Although the Olympics is different from other competitions, their competition experience is still rich.”
For their first Olympic journey, Deng Yaping said that the most important thing is their mentality: “Their technical and tactical abilities are definitely not problematic. The main thing is how they think. Don’t think it’s the Olympics, then they will be burdened with the pressure they shouldn’t bear. They cannot think too much about winning or that the two of us must win the championship. We should focus on every opponent and every match.”
With the two Olympic novices and Liu Shiwen, an experienced veteran, Deng Yaping believes that such a female table tennis trio is a very stable and comprehensive lineup for the Olympics: “The three of them happen to be the three generations of the old, middle and youth in the team. Experience, stability, impact, lineup changes can make various changes to opponents, and I look forward to their performance.”
In Tokyo, the biggest opponent of Chinese women’s table tennis is the Japanese team, or Mima Ito, whose face and name are also printed largely on the wall of the national table tennis training hall. Many people say that Mima Ito is small and mobile and fights hard, resembling Deng Yaping. So can she break through the wall that is the Chinese National Team?
Deng Yaping said: “The Chinese Women’s table tennis indeed has very few rivals. Ito is certainly a threat, but how strong is she? I don’t think so. She is indeed unique, but the strength is not strong enough, so we don’t respect her strategically. If we pay attention to her tactically and prepare carefully, I think it is enough. Although she has a good storyline [e.g. homecourt in Tokyo], there is no need to make her so mythical. Our Chinese players have the advantage and confidence to defeat her.”
Ma Long recently sat down with WTT (World Table Tennis) to discuss various aspects of his preparation for the Olympics, what the Olympics mean to him, and what motivates him. The original interview (in Mandarin) can be found on the WTT Weibo account. We have provided a translation below.
How does it feel to prepare for your third Olympic games [Ma played the team event in 2012 and singles and teams in 2016]?
Normal, I guess. Anyway, certainly before the competition, you feel that your mentality and technical condition are not fully prepared, but sometimes that’s how competition is. For the high-pressure tournaments you may give yourself the highest possible standards, and during training you may never reach those standards, but come competition time you might find that you actually play to those standards.
The Olympics won’t happen twice in my life, and it’s the tournament of everyone’s dreams, so I need to give it my all and chase after it. I feel like if I don’t approach it this way then it will leave me with regret.
I think my experience may help me, but it may also hurt me as well; because I may approach this Olympics like it’s my first Olympics or my second, but your playing condition including your age, current developments in the world table tennis stage, and your opponent’s playing condition are all not the same, so it will not be completely the same as my rhythm last time. I still need to try to cooperate with my teammates to make some adjustments.
However, I think the most important thing is that my mental preparation needs to be even better than before, because previously I had nothing, so I can only go all out. After playing to a certain mental state, you may know that when you really want it, you actually end up not being able to hit your shots. Only when you are extremely relaxed and until the competition can you really find your best playing condition. You cannot find that during training. So sometimes during training, I still aim for perfection, but not for that unachievable perfection.
Everyone is using you as a role model. How do you feel about it?
This is a responsibility and it’s also a source of motivation. I hope that I can do an even better job and continue to maintain it. At the same time, over the last few years, their aggressiveness, including their yearning, to a certain extent has also given me a lot of motivation. I hope that when I’m tired and see these young teammates next to me and how they still have energy, this atmosphere can drive me further. So I think we can help motivate each other.
What do the Olympics mean to you?
I think the Olympics are the most important battle of an athlete’s life. After you win it, you think that winning the Olympics is a very important achievements. It is like graduating from a top university. Sometimes you also feel that the Olympics truly can bring you glory to last a lifetime and allow you to perform on the biggest stage. After you win the Olympics, you feel like you will remember it for a lifetime, so all athletes would like to play on this stage.
What motivated you to play in your third Olympic games?
On the one hand, the mentality and desire to win is still there. It may also be that although I haven’t won any [major] championships in the last year, I have still had some victories during this entire process, and these victories give me confidence. I think that [the confidence from winning] is very important for athletes.
Of course it also has something to do with passion. Passion is what regularly motivates me during training, but the desire for victory is also what motivates me. When you hold these two together, then you get my current level of persistence. If you only have passion but no victory, then your confidence may be affected. If you only like the game but have no love, and you only rely on the competition, then you have no guarantees and may not be able to persist. I think if both of these are present, I can maintain my persistence for the Olympics.
In anticipation of the Tokyo Olympics, we are re-watching some key matches over the past year between top gold medal contenders. In this post we take a look at how Tomokazu Harimoto built a 3-1 lead against Ma Long at the 2020 World Cup before Ma called a pivotal time-out in Game 5 to come back and take the 4-3 win.
The 2020 World Cup was a weird tournament that likely makes its results a poor predictor of what will happen in the Olympics. First of all, it was right after the break from the pandemic, so players were still getting into competition state both mentally and physically. Second, players who integrated new elements into their game during the pandemic break were debuting them against the top competition often for the first time, possibly resulting in some more experimental play. Third, non-Chinese players had to go through onerous quarantine before entering China during which they were not allowed to train.
Nevertheless, there is still some signal to be gleaned from this tournament. We take a look at what happened in this match, what trends we can expect to persist at the Olympics, and what we can expect to be different. At the time of this posting, the full match can be viewed on Youtube.
We first take a look at the general way in which Harimoto and Ma scored points in this match. As is common practice by top Chinese-speaking players, we divide the point into two distinct phases: the first three shots and the ensuing rally.
First Three Shots
Fighting for the Half-Long
Ma Long’s most desirable outcome coming out of the first three shots of the point was for him to take a forehand opening against the long and especially the half-long ball. He won 68% of the points where he attempted (points in which he missed his opening are also counted) such an opening against a serve or push. On all other points, he was only able to win 47% of the points.
As shown in the clip below, one way that Harimoto, aware of the advantage that yielding the half-long gave to Ma Long, responded to some of Ma’s slower half-long openings was to go for a counter-kill and end the point immediately. Harimoto ended up landing four counter-kills and missing six counter-kills/blocks. This is still a losing situation but less so than when he let Ma control the point following the half-long and slowly carve him up.
The Flicking Game
After Ma was able to take six long forehand openings in game 1, Harimoto, unable to beat Ma in the short-pushing game, was more aggressive in attempting to flick against the short ball in the next game in order to deny Ma the half-long opening. In game 2, Harimoto took 9 short flicks as he cruised to an 11-3 victory. Harimoto would continue to be far more aggressive than Ma in attempting short flicks: Harimoto attempted 50 flicks in the match, while Ma only attempted 12.
Not only was Harimoto more aggressive in attempting to flick against the short ball, but his flicks themselves were also of a more aggressive nature. Harimoto landed 10 flicks that were instant winners while Ma only landed 4 such winners (and unlike Harimoto’s hard flicks, Ma’s “winners” were more controlled well-placed slow shots). However, Harimoto’s aggressiveness came at a cost: he also missed 7 short flicks while Ma did not miss a single flick.
We define an unforced error as a missed serve, serve return, or third ball opening against a push. The disparity in unforced errors was quite large as Harimoto missed five serve returns and four third balls while Ma only missed one serve return and one third ball against a push. That amounts to a seven-point difference for an average of one per game. Unforced errors didn’t end up being a difference-maker in any individual match, but the disparity is something to pay attention to should these two players meet in the Olympics.
Was the gap in unforced errors mostly due to extrinsic forces such as Harimoto’s onerous quarantine that Harimoto can easily take care of at Tokyo? Or was it mostly due to something intrinsic to their games such as Ma’s better serves and Harimoto’s natural inclination to take riskier openings?
Once the point got past the first three shots, Ma homed in on steadily attacking Harimoto’s elbow, often with a step-around forehand loop, as shown in the clip below.
Meanwhile, Harimoto played at a more frantic pace, going for fast wide kill-shots to Ma’s forehand, which was often extra vulnerable due to Ma’s tendency to step around. The most potent way in which Harimoto attacked Ma’s forehand was with a quick down-the-line backhand punch—either from the wing or from the elbow—with sidespin that curved the ball even wider to Ma’s forehand.
Alternatively, against Ma’s many shots to the elbow, Harimoto could also step around to deliver a quick forehand loop that was placed even wider and curved even harder than his backhand punch. These step-around shots from the elbow carried the advantage that Harimoto could generate his own power with a quick backstroke and not have to rely on borrowing Ma’s pace. However, the downside was that the extra backstroke made the shot harder to pull off in a faster rally, in which case the quick backhand would be preferred.
Ma typically waited until he had the opportunity to step around for a big forehand before going to Harimoto’s forehand. However, Ma would leave his forehand extremely exposed in such instances, which Harimoto took advantage of with wide quick blocks off the bounce.
Ma Long’s Magical Time-Out
Harimoto looked on his way to a 4-1 victory as he had just scored three straight points and was up 5-4 and 3-1 in games until Ma called a time-out and completely reversed the course of the match.
Ma’s Magical High-Toss Serve
Prior to the time-out, Ma served a high-toss serve only twice. After the time-out, every single one of Ma’s serves was a high-toss serve. Ma’s high-toss serve was absolutely devastating for Harimoto. After the time-out, Harimoto held his own on his own serves through the second half of game 5 and game 6, going 7-7. However, he went an abysmal 2-11 on Ma’s serves.
Harimoto appeared to struggle mightily with pushing short against the high-toss serve, presumably due to an inability to read how much spin was on the ball. As a result, one major effect of Ma’s high-toss serve was that it opened up far more opportunities for him on the half-long opening. In Games 2-4 and the first half of game five, in which Harimoto was largely in control, Ma attempted a long forehand opening on 14% of the points. After the time-out, Ma nearly doubled that number to 26% over the next game and a half.
One way Harimoto managed to deny Ma the half-long was to flick the serve. However, against the high toss-serve, due to difficulties reading the spin and the inherent challenges of giving quality flicks against no-spin or light-spin balls, Harimoto’s flicks likely packed just a bit less speed and spin than earlier in the match. The slow-down appeared to be enough for Ma to wait in anticipation for the hard counter from the backhand or elbow and continue to dominate these points.
Taming Harimoto’s Fast Wide Shots to the Forehand
One of Ma’s key adjustments after the time-out was taking away the fast wide shots to the forehand from Harimoto. Both Harimoto’s number of attempted fast wide shots to the forehand and their effectiveness vanished following Ma’s time-out in Game 5. Before the time-out, Harimoto was able to land a fast wide shot to the forehand on 36% of all points and convert 89% of those into a win. However, after the time-out, Harimoto was only able to land a fast wide shot on 21% of all points and convert a measly 44% into wins.
The lower number of attempts is likely a consequence of Ma better controlling the rhythm of the point thanks to his high-toss serve. The lower conversion rate was likely due to Ma better anticipating the fast wide shot to the forehand so that he could get in position more reliably like in the clip shown below. In the first point of the clip, even though Harimoto misses the shot, we can see that Ma was already waiting for the shot to the forehand.
What to Expect In Tokyo
Should Ma and Harimoto meet in Tokyo, the aesthetic of the match will likely be similar, with Ma hunting half-longs and attacks to the elbow and Harimoto more aggressively flicking short balls and trying to win the rallies with quick wide shots to the forehand.
Harimoto will clearly be looking to make certain adjustments. Most importantly, he needs to find a way to better read Ma’s high-toss serve and develop a better contingency plan in case he has trouble reading the high-toss serve (or a new serve) again. Harimoto will also likely look to clean up some of the errors he made at the World Cup by virtue of better shot selection and being in better game-shape come Tokyo.
At age 33, Ma has likely been coasting through most of the major events since the 2019 World Championships, and we can expect to see an all-around better version of Ma in Tokyo. While Ma cannot count on his high-toss serve to bail him out again at the Olympics, he also still has more tools in his bag of tricks (such as his backhand serve) to give him an extra advantage should he need it again against Harimoto.
Jun Mizutani recently sat down with a Japanese table tennis reporter to discuss the Tokyo Olympics, the pandemic, Tomokazu Harimoto, playing doubles with Koki Niwa as two lefties, playing doubles with Mima Ito, and life after table tennis. Edges and Nets has provided an English translation below. All photos in this post are taken from the original website of the interview.
Please note that this translation was done via Google Translate with corrections for obvious mis-translations of table tennis terms; no Japanese speakers were involved. Translating Japanese pronouns into English gives Google Translate difficulties, and we did our best to correct the pronoun mistranslations to match the context, but there may still be errors.
On the Pandemic
First of all, I would like you to look back on the 2020-21 season. I think it was a difficult situation due to the pandemic, but what kind of year was it?
Mizutani: There were few matches, so I couldn’t confirm my condition. The only thing that was big was that the T-League was held for one season. Unfortunately, Kinoshita Meister Tokyo [Mizutani’s team] couldn’t achieve the third straight victory, but as an individual, I was able to win 13 singles, so I think it wasn’t bad.
How would you rate your performance on a scale to 100?
Around 70 points? I think there is still room for growth.
Please tell us your feelings when the Tokyo Olympics were postponed, which should have ended before the opening of the T-League last year.
In many ways, I had the feeling that it was “quite difficult.” All domestic and international games are gone, and I don’t know when I can play. There were various restrictions on practicing. I had never had such an experience, so I had a really hard time.
I think it was difficult to maintain motivation.
That’s right. Even though I thought “I have to do my best for the Olympics!”, I sometimes felt depressed, “I wonder if it will be held …”. There was a wave in my feelings. But now that the event is approaching and it’s becoming more and more realistic, my motivation is very high.
A the moment when the Olympics were postponed, Mizutani’s face came to my mind first. “Is it okay?” “What should I do?”
If it were true, I might have retired around August last year (laughs). Now that I am confident that I can still do it, I think I can do my best until next year even if it is postponed again.
I was relieved to hear that. Is there any part of the condition that has improved over the past year that lead to your current confidence?
Is it a place where you can “return to the old days”? Recently, I’ve returned to the feeling I had when I was a high school student or college student who was playing table tennis and was crazy about it.
Did you have any chance [to return to the old days of being passionate]?
I’m sure it’s because I feel that the rest of my competitive life is short. I’ve always liked table tennis, but I can’t do it anymore. Because of that kind of loneliness, I think I can practice with a lot of strength like I used to.
Does the fact that you have more time to think about table tennis and look back at the pandemic also have an effect?
I think it is. On the other hand, when I couldn’t play table tennis, I tried some things, “let’s do something different.” But in the end, none of them lasted long. So when I practiced for the first time in a while, I thought, “Oh, I like table tennis after all.” I think that the feeling of “I like table tennis” that I felt anew is connected to my current self.
By the way, what is the “something different” that you tried?
First of all, I played a game (laughs).
Oh, is it “Clash Royale” that was showing off his skills on TV programs?
You know it well (laughs). I also held a tournament myself. I often talk about games with Harimoto in the bath [possible alternate translation: locker room?]. I talk about private things that have nothing to do with table tennis, the Olympics, Chinese players, etc., but 50% talk about games.
On Tomokazu Harimoto
That’s right. Now that you mentioned Mr. Harimoto, how do you see his growth as a player?
It seems that he is gradually feeling a sense of responsibility. Even in recent practice, after everyone finished the curriculum, they practiced independently for another hour. I am also working hard on training. Harimoto is already in the third year of high school. I think this is a time when one can grow up as a table tennis player and as a person, so I feel that he is facing table tennis more firmly than ever before.
Harimoto has sometimes raised mental control as an issue, but do you have the impression that he is also doing well in mental control?
I think he’s done very well since the beginning of this year. It was the same not only in the national team but also in the T-League, but last year he was disappointed when he lost the game, and he felt regret. He was more depressed than the team, he was more depressed about what he lost, and he wasn’t completely blown away. However, this hasn’t happened since the beginning of this year, and he’s in very good shape. He also won the singles at the international tournament held in Qatar in March, and I feel that he is growing steadily.
What do you feel is growing in his play?
He’s back to the aggressive play style he used to have. When Harimoto is off, his play becomes defensive, and in many cases he is attacked by his opponent and cannot defend himself. But lately, I can see that he is taking advantage of that reflection and facing the game with the intention of aggressively attacking himself.
On Koki Niwa and Playing Doubles Together
The mental and play aspects are definitely evolving, aren’t they? Please tell us your impression of another national team member, Koki Niwa.
The approach to table tennis has changed. I think Niwa has a “genius skin” in terms of play, or a play style that doesn’t look like a hard worker, but in practice it’s moving tremendously. I wondered if that movement would really be used in games. It’s also interesting to practice mainly on the basics, even though you play so messed up in a match.
Niwa is a genius player, I was a little surprised that the main practice was basic practice.
I don’t think that was the case in the past. Immediately before the last Rio Olympics, he was so stressed that he couldn’t practice for weeks, and sometimes he escaped from reality. But this time, he’s doing basic practice every day, so I’m glad it looks okay. He’s my doubles partner, but he’s a player who has his own world, so I think I have to read what he’s thinking.
Do you have any concerns that you are both left-handed for doubles?
Certainly, the pair of two left-handed players has hardly been seen in the world for the past 15 years. There was also a talk that either I or Niwa should team up with Harimoto because it is difficult to move. However, Harimoto still wants to be an “ace player” (a player who plays two games in singles), so naturally the team took on its current form [where Niwa and Mizutani are paired]. I have been practicing with Niwa quite a bit, and every time I do it, I make new discoveries and understand our weaknesses, so I feel that I am growing step by step despite the difficulties.
Because the hard part is, how do I move?
That’s right. Everything is difficult, both after serving and after receiving.
Still, are there upsides as well?
There is definitely. The merit of teaming up two left-handed players is that both can provide the same service as in singles, and it is possible to attack with a chiquita even in receive. I think it will give us a great advantage in that respect. Also, from the opponent’s point of view, I think it’s definitely their first time to play against a lefty/lefty pair. I have no experience either.
Certainly, you can play a match against an opponent who has never played against a lefty/lefty pair while always holding an advantage.
There is definitely an advantage in terms of feelings. However, if you do it properly, you won’t win 100%. If you can play normally and win, there would be more lefty/lefty pairs. So our strategy is not to play a normal doubles match, but to use a lot of tricky play to confuse our opponents. So I think you’ll feel like you’re watching a completely different competition.
On Mima Ito
You will also participate in the Tokyo Olympics in mixed doubles. It’s been about two years since you made a pair with Ito from the Korea Open held in July 2019. Please tell us your impression of Ito again.
When I first formed the pair, I was confused by the variety of Mima Ito’s plays. Whether it’s service or receive, it’s a new technique I’ve never seen, I take a course, and the returned ball is also unique, so I couldn’t handle it easily. Even so, the pairing is getting better as the number of games increases, and I feel that the combination is getting better even in practice.
Ito is from the same club (Toyota Town Table Tennis Sports Boy Scouts), and she has a well-known relationship [with Mizutani]. Since she was little, she was called “Falcon” (laughs).
I’m abandoning it now (laughs).
You’re fighting in doubles with Ito, but is your impression different from what it used to be?
I have strong memories of when she was in kindergarten, so there may be parts where I can interact with her as she were in the past.
Is it like a cute little sister?
It really feels like that. However, the moment I stand in front of the table tennis table, I become the face of a top athlete representing Japan. I also look at it with respect.
On His Chance Of Winning Gold in Mixed Doubles
About a year ago, it was said that in mixed doubles you and Ito had a 65-75% chance at medaling and a 20% chance at gold. Has that percentage changed?
We are second in the mixed doubles world rankings, so we will probably be the second seed. In that case, I think that the possibility of medals has increased to about 70-80% because we will not hit the Chinese pair [Liu Shiwen and Xu Xin] until the finals. The gold medal is also adjusted very nicely, so it’s about 30%.
It indeed has gone up a lot. I think the biggest rival is China’s Xu Xin & Liu Shiwen pair, but looking at the competition results so far, it is a painful result without a victory in four matches.
There is not much difference in ability among us, and I think that we are in a position to win, so I think that the rest is a big part of my feelings. Looking back, in the 2019 Grand Final final, while leading the set count 2-0, we lost three games at once and lost the matches. As I continued to lose, I started to think “I want to win” and “I think I can win” during the match, and I felt less motivated to go, or I was a little defensive. If I can get rid of that, I think the probability of winning will increase.
Is there anything you are working on specifically?
Recently, I’ve been practicing a reverse horizontal rotation serve called YG (Young Generation) service. I don’t usually use it a lot in games, but there are many players who have trouble with YG service regardless of gender. That’s why I want to use it as a big weapon at the Olympics.
Certainly, Mizutani has an image that YG service will be released at this moment.
I think so. The reason why I haven’t used it so much is that the YG service is a very complicated rotation, so the returned ball is also complicated. In that case, it would be difficult for Mima Ito to hit the third ball, so it was a big risk to put it out many times. But on the contrary, if you master it, it will definitely become a big weapon, so I am currently practicing hard. Already, Mima Ito’s trust in hitting the third ball firmly even for complicated receives has increased considerably.
Other rivals include Taiwan’s Lin Yun-ju & Cheng I-Ching and South Korea’s Lee Sang-su & Jeon Ji-hee. What is your impression of them?
I’ve been able to win the Taiwanese pair without much effort, so I think it’s a great match. However, I lost to the Korean pair in the semi-finals of the Qatar Open in March. As for the cause of defeat, there are many patterns in which male players are left-handed and female players are right-handed in pairs from other countries, but the Korean pair is the opposite and a little special. That’s why I was confused by the return ball, which has a different nature than before. It didn’t mesh well from beginning to end.
I was watching the game, but I had the impression that you couldn’t break the bad momentum.
That’s right. My play was also really bad. But I’m sure I’ll be able to play well at the Olympics, and I don’t think we’ll get similar results.
On the Tokyo Olympics and Beyond
However, what I am really worried about is the condition of Mizutani’s eyes. Recently, I think some people have said that “the naked eye is better”, but what is your current state?
I’ve been practicing with the naked eye for a long time now, and I feel that it’s a little better than it used to be. For the time being, new sunglasses will arrive, so I haven’t decided which way to go. We plan to make a decision after previewing the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, which is the venue for the match.
I just pray that you will be in the best condition. The opening of the Tokyo Olympics is approaching, but what is the position of Mizutani in this tournament, which will be your fourth appearance?
I think it’s my first and last chance to win a gold medal. The next Paris tournament will be difficult due to age, and this time it will be held in Tokyo, so I would like to prepare so that I can demonstrate all my abilities.
You’ve always been told that you’ll retire after the Olympics, but do you still feel that way?
Yes. However, I think that I will retire from the international competition, but I wonder if I will continue to play table tennis … It may be quite ambiguous (laughs).
I’m getting ahead of myself, but what do you want to do other than table tennis after the Olympics?
That’s not the case at all. I also like soccer and baseball, so I have a desire to try it, but I’m tired of it. There is no such thing as “I want to continue doing this!”
It’s strange that people who have been playing table tennis for such a long time get bored. How about being a commentator? I think you commentated on the finals at this year’s All Japan Championships.
If I get an offer, I would like to try it. It feels like “I wish I could.”
Finally, please share with us your enthusiasm for the Tokyo Olympics.
As a culmination of myself, I would like to express all of my 27 years of competitive life in performance. The goal is to play so far away from humans that the viewer thinks “I can never imitate that myself”, so please take a look.
By the way, do you not wear underwear at this tournament as well?
Naturally. Needless to say.
If you change it suddenly, the condition will go crazy. Thank you for this time. I’m looking forward to your success!
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Mattias Falck recently sat down for an interview with Compass, a European Youth table tennis organization. More information on the organization can be found here.The original article is in German. We have posted an English translation here (the translation was done by Google Translate with human corrections for obvious errors on table tennis terms; no native German speakers were involved).Read other interviews that we have aggregated and translated here.
The reigning World Championships runner-up Mattias Falck is a late bloomer. He is currently preparing for the Olympic Games. Its advantage is its extraordinary play system, which also goes very well with the new ABS plastic ball.
He can’t wait to land in Japan. “To take part in the Olympic Games, to experience them, is something special!”
When Compass reaches Mattias Falck, he is in a hotel room in Paris. He, Kristian Karlsson, Jon Persson and Anton Källberg are currently on a preparatory training camp for the European Championships and the Olympic Games together with the French national team. Mattias is grateful for the variety of being in a city he doesn’t visit often and training with players he doesn’t otherwise train with. When I asked him what he was currently concentrating on during training, he initially hesitated to answer.
“There is a lot of improvement in my game,” he says, which sounds very humble for someone who is ranked ninth in the world. “I’m good at rallies, but since I play with short pimples on my forehand, my first offensive ball is sometimes too slow, which makes it a little too easy for my opponents to attack hard on this ball and counter-loop. That’s why I try to improve my forehand openings. ”
Mattias Falck made it into the top 100 in October 2015. In June 2019 he was in the top 10, which is something special. Only three non-Asian players have managed to do this in the last seven years. [Note from Edges And Nets: this is clearly false since Timo Boll and Dimitrij Ovtcharov have both occupied a top-ten spot in 2021.] Besides Mattias, these are Simon Gauzy and Hugo Calderano.
“Whether you make it to the top 100 to the top 10 depends on many things. I think the most important thing is the irrepressible will to always want to improve. And to have a lot of fun developing as a player so that you can enjoy the hard work that is necessary for it, so to speak. It is also important to like the crucial situations in important games, to be triggered again especially when it is 9-9 in a final for a championship.
For me personally, it took me some time to mature and adapt to adult table tennis. It has always been my strength to play the ball safely on the table. In order to assert myself with the adults, I had to become much more aggressive and play harder, but at the same time also had a high level of basic security. With my game system, I can not only play safely. I have to take risks, but of course make as few mistakes as possible. “
You made it into the Top 10 later than anyone else in it right now. You were almost 28. Could you have been there earlier?
“I think everyone goes their own way and there are always a lot of things that influence their career. I can count myself lucky that I had good coaches in every phase of my career – in Lyckeby, where I was trained, in Köping, where I went to table tennis high school, and in Halmstad, where I moved afterwards and where I have been for over ten years. I always had people around me who supported me and believed in me, not to forget my wife, of course. One thing I regret is that I started physical/weight training too late. I still have a lot of work to do in this area. “
It’s one thing to get to the top 10, it’s another to stay there. You have succeeded in doing this for almost two years so far. How come
“My equipment and thus my playing style are a big advantage for me: Short pimples on the forehand and a normal, inverted rubber on the backhand. Very few players play with this combination. Even if I should be analyzed more by my opponents, they still have to play a lot against this material and game system in order to get used to it. And there are just not many who play like me. Therefore it is still very uncomfortable for them that the ball comes out of my backhand with a lot of topspin and bounces “normally”, but much flatter and with reverse spin from my forehand. They are used to a completely different rhythm. “
“An advantage. To be honest, I’m a bit surprised that there are not more pips in the men’s game. The first plastic ball bounced off very flat, making it almost impossible for me to smash the balls when my opponents were playing flat topspins into my forehand. Because my pimples have less grip compared to normal rubbers, I cannot counter-loop with topspin. I could more or less lift it back onto the table. The ABS plastic ball jumps a little higher and has less rotation. That makes it possible for me to attack more straight ahead, ie harder and also more aggressively. “
The Olympic Games are only a few weeks away. What is it like to be able to play there?
“Great! It is the biggest event for table tennis players as it only takes place every four years. You can feel that in the atmosphere. You get nervous, in a very special way. I took part in Rio 2016, but only in the team competition. We were beaten by South Korea in the quarterfinals, where I won a singles but lost the doubles. To experience an Olympics as a player is something extraordinary. I was in the Olympic Village in Rio for over ten days before the competitions started. Many said it wasn’t very wise. But I enjoyed every minute. I thought it was really cool to meet all kinds of people, some of them were real megastars. ”
And how do you prepare?
“We will prepare with many training camps. Then I hope that the European Championships really take place in June so that we have at least one big tournament before that. In Japan we will then have a camp in Fukuoka before we move to the Olympic Village on July 20th. “
You will be placed in the top eight. Special wishes for the draw?
“No – it comes as it comes. I don’t worry about that. I focus on what I can influence. And these are my games. I exclude the rest. “
And what about the Chinese?
“They are the favorites and of course they are very good. But I beat Xu Xin last year and had a set point for a seventh and decisive set against Ma Long. I think they respect me. I have to stay strong at the table and get them under time pressure. I’ll put everything I have in there and fight. “
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