Mima Ito vs Sun Yingsha Olympic Preview

Arguably the most interesting storyline across all Olympic table tennis events is whether Mima Ito can finally dethrone the Chinese women from their stronghold over Olympic table tennis. Ito has the biggest chance to do so in the single’s event, and if she receives some help from her teammates Kasumi Ishikawa and Miu Hirano, she has a chance to do so in the team event as well.

Frankly, even a finals appearance from Ito in the women’s singles event would be a big deal. Luckily for Ito, she drew Sun Yingsha for her semi-final match-up (as opposed to the more challenging Chen Meng), and a win over Sun would make Ito the first non-Chinese finalist in the Olympic women’s singles event since Kim Hyang-mi in 2004.

In the team event, a China vs Japan final is also highly likely. In such a match-up, Mima Ito would be the “ace” player who plays two singles matches, so China essentially gets to pick which two of Chen Meng, Sun Yingsha, and Liu Shiwen play Ito. Given Liu’s relatively weak head-to-head record against Ito, it is very likely that China will select Sun to play against Ito for perhaps the second time in the Olympics.

We take a look at what to expect from a Sun Yingsha vs Mima Ito match-up.

The Mima Ito vs Sun Yingsha Rivalry

Although Sun is the clear favorite over Ito, the two have somewhat of a budding rivalry as they are of similar age and world ranking. In an interview with WTT, Sun said that her favorite match is her 2019 World Team Cup win over Ito, in which Sun came back from 7-10 to win five straight points to take the deciding fifth game 12-10, and that she likes to re-watch that match starting from the player entrance until the very end.

Sun has the superior 4-1 head-to-head record against Ito in four out of sevens since 2018, including their most recent match-up at the 2020 World Cup. However, several extrinsic factors may tilt the scales slightly more towards Ito’s favor in the Olympics. While the World Cup was in China, the Olympics will be in Tokyo. This benefits Ito both in terms of crowd support and any potential lopsidedness in the quarantine process due to event-mandated or national government-mandated restrictions.

Of course, the biggest extrinsic X-factor hovering over the Tokyo Olympics is that the pandemic has completely disrupted day-to-day life and there has been no international competition since March. While China has had its highly publicized internal scrimmages and Japan has likely also had similar internal competitions, players like Kanak Jha have noted that there is still a significant difference in feeling between smaller internal competitions and bigger international events. A general sports maxim is that chaos and high variance help the underdog, which in this case is Ito.

Ito caused a stir among Chinese netizens when she allegedly claimed to have figured out a strategy to defeat Chen and Sun back in March before they were even selected to the team. On the other hand, Chinese table tennis legend and two-time Olympic singles gold medalist Deng Yaping recently claimed that Ito is not a serious threat to the Chinese women’s team.

Deng also provided live commentary for Sun Yingsha’s 4-2 win over Mima Ito at last year’s World Cup. We take a second look at the match, and take a closer look at some of Deng’s comments on the Sun vs Ito match.

Please note that the Chinese commentators are sometimes loathe to speak critically or reveal information about their own players, so Deng’s comments were actually more heavily focused on Ito than Sun. This bias is reflected in this blog post.

Big Picture Strategies

Deng noted that the key battle in this match-up was to see whether they could make the point about spin or speed. Ito’s preferred manner of winning points was to go for speed and left-right placement.

On the other hand, Deng stated that Sun’s strategy should have been to give spinny (whether underspin or topspin) balls deep into Ito’s backhand, which would give Ito problems due to her short pips and close stance to the table. Sun could build an additional advantage by constantly changing the pace and playing the point to her own rhythm rather than at Ito’s frantic top-speed pace.

As Sun built a 3-0 lead in games, Deng remarked that two keys to Sun’s lead was her superior ability to control the rhythm during the match and Ito’s tendency to commit errors, including even on her own serve. Deng also felt that Ito was playing too rushed in trying to play the game at a fast speed.

Spin vs Speed

Let us take a closer look at how the spin vs speed tension embedded itself into the match. As noted above, Ito largely won rallies by leveraging speed and left-right placement to put winners past Sun on the wide wing (or at least make it so that Sun could barely touch the ball) or to jam Sun on the elbow as shown in the clip below.

Meanwhile, one way that we can see that Sun was prioritizing spin and arcing the ball over speed is that she rarely missed into the net. When she did miss into the net, it was on points like the one shown below where Ito caught her off guard wide on the wings, and Sun couldn’t execute a full stroke properly.

While Ito was trying to score fast winners and ending the point more quickly, Sun’s approach was to land deep spins onto the table mostly towards Ito’s backhand. Sun was also willing to grind out the point for an additional shot or two until Ito missed due to difficulties controlling deep, spinny balls when standing close to the table with her pips.

In the clip below, we can see thatS un tended to target Ito’s backhand and, unlike Sun, Ito frequently missed both into the net and out of the table as she had trouble handling Sun’s spin, depth, and control of the pace. In the slow-motion replay at 6-5 in the first game, we see that the ball lands near the white baseline before Ito punches it into the net.

Deng also noted that Ito made four relatively unforced forehand errors in game 2 as shown in the clip below, a problem that would plague Ito throughout the match.

It is imperative for Ito to clean up these errors in Tokyo. Not only does giving four points away in one game make it nearly impossible to win against a Chinese player, Deng further noted that as a result of Ito’s unreliable forehand, Ito’s only option to win points was to rely on her backhand punch, and Deng Sun would try to take advantage of this restriction.

Ito will undoubtedly be less error-prone in both the rallies and her serves (more on that later) in Tokyo, but there is a question of how intrinsic Ito’s errors are to her style of play. First, since high-arcing spinny loops like Sun’s almost never go into the net and topspin helps drag the ball down onto the table the harder the player spins, Sun’s loops are intrinsically more robust against errors than Ito’s flatter hits. Second, hypothetical longer rallies in which Sun is able to continuously volley in deep spins favor Sun, so it is in Ito’s interest to take riskier shots and end the point more quickly, whether as a winner or as an error, so Ito will appear to make more errors. Hence, while it may be easy to lament what the game would be like without “easy” errors on Ito’s side, it may be unrealistic to hope for her to play as error-free as the Chinese.

Mima Ito’s Experimental Serves

Liu Guoliang stated in 2019 that one of the reasons that Ito has been able to consistently challenge the Chinese National Team is that Ito is not scared to experiment with new plays and techniques. However, that experimentation always comes with growing pains. Deng noted that Ito introduced some new serves at the World Cup, and that while Ito may be able to land that serve in practice every time, executing that serve in a real match is another story. Ito missed three serves over the course of the second and third game, including a critical serve down 8-7 in the second game (the same game mentioned above in which she missed four forehands).

Ito’s service woes continued in WTT Doha this March, as she missed three serves against Hina Hayata in the WTT Contender Finals, and she had this infamous sequence against Yu Mengyu that WTT has absolutely loved sharing.

However, Deng also noted that one of Ito’s unique characteristics is that even when she’s missing, she keeps trying. Indeed, these high-cost experiments come with a reward. We see in the clip below that when Ito was able to properly execute the experimental serves that she was missing, Sun actually appeared quite confused and gave very desirable returns to Ito (even though Ito loses some of these points in the end).

A big question is whether Ito can clean up the exploration and fully exploit the new serves that she has at the Tokyo Olympics. While it’s tempting to assume that of course Ito will clean up her act for an event as important to her as the Olympics, Ito was likely also banking on being able to play in an international tournament between WTT Doha and now. Without that experience, will Ito have enough confidence to execute these experimental serves at critical moments?

Mima Ito’s Short Pips Serve Return Magic

The worst possible serve to give to Mima Ito is a short serve to her backhand against which she can work her wonders with the pips. Even against short serves to the forehand, Ito will sometimes step in and take the serve with her pips. We see in the clip below some examples of damage that Ito was able to do using her pips on the serve return against Sun.

To prevent Ito from taking all short serves with her pips, one common strategy is to mix in long fast serves to the backhand. As noted in a previous blog post, left-handed players have even sometimes altered their starting serving position pattern in what is perhaps an attempt to allow for better long fast serves to Ito’s backhand.

Deng also mentioned the straight serve (i.e. no sidespin) as a possible method to keep Ito from wreaking havoc with her pips. After Ito missed a straight serve return against Sun in the point shown below, Deng offered praise for the straight serve, noting that, “Players with pips do not like straight serves [with no sidespin]. They actually like the sidespin, because they can borrow your sidespin and punch the ball.”

Sun mostly stuck with standard pendulum and shovel serves with sidespin, which are clearly her preferred serves, throughout the match, but it may be worth keeping an eye out for more straight serves from Sun against Ito.

Beware the Mima Ito Comeback

As Ito won Games 4 and 5, Deng was constantly bemoaning Sun’s wasted opportunity after blowing a 9-7 lead while up 3-0, declaring that the match should already be over with a 4-0 victory for Sun. However, Deng also acknowledged that Ito is extremely adept at making come-backs as she tends to go for broke and swing at everything when she is down, and those shots always seems to land.

An astute watcher may have also noticed that some of Ito’s more creative serves and serve returns shown above come when Ito is down big. Ito also tends to turn her creativity up another notch when she’s down as she loses fear over taking risky shots.

We see examples of Ito launching comebacks with crazy shots in the first game (in which Ito came back from 10-6 to force a deuce), second game (when Ito narrowed the gap from 10-3 to 10-6), and the fourth game (in which Ito came back from 9-7 while trailing 3-0 in games).

Sun is still the favorite over Ito, but we’ve seen that if enough things break right both technically and mentally for Ito, she has a very real chance of upsetting Sun and making her way into the finals.

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If you are based in the United States, be sure to also check out our exclusive interview with Kanak Jha and a tournament that Edges and Nets will participate in hosting in San Diego in mid-August.