Monthly Archives: September 2021

Top Stars Cruise Into Quarter-Finals At China National Games

Top stars in both the men’s and women’s singles events at the China National Games took care of business in the round of 16.

In the men’s singles event, Wang Chuqin went the distance against Xu Yubing, winning 11-9 in the seventh game. After the match, Wang said that it was better to go through these challenges now in the domestic competition rather than the international competition. Other big names such as Fan Zhendong, Xu Xin, Zhou Qihao, and Liang Jingkun had an easier time, winning their round of 16 matches in four or five games.

In the women’s singles event, the eight quarterfinalists are also the eight women at this tournament with the highest World Ranking (note Ding Ning and Zhu Yuling did not play the tournament due to retirement and injury respectively). Among the four members of the Tokyo Olympic team, only Wang Manyu had to play more five games as she notched a 4-2 victory over Liu Fei.

After the match, Wang noted that playing choppers is actually quite physically tiring, and she also had to play a chopper earlier in the team event as well. She remarked that one of the difficulties in playing Liu Fei was that some balls that look like they’re floating out tend to end up landing on the baseline.

Liu Shiwen, Chen Meng, and Xu Xin all noted that everyone is very familiar with each other at this tournament. In particular, this is Xu’s third time playing Zhou Yu in the China National Games spanning across 12 years. Xu said while a lot has changed between them, including their emotional makeup, their desire to win is still the same. Xu is soaking in the moment a bit as he gets older and he has to invest more energy into his family rather than playing. However, for this tournament he feels like he is locked in and playing well.

Liu Shiwen echoed similar sentiments about treasuring the moment and simply wanting to play one more match as she gets older. Liu stated that it was good to be back, as this was essentially her first real tournament in a year and a half. Liu noted that her 4-0 victory over Gu Yuting was still a challenge, since they are familiar with each other. In particular, Liu was able to eke out two close victories in the first two games, after which she felt Gu’s level of play dropped as Liu took the third and fourth game 11-7.

Sun Yingsha received a brief early scare as she was leading in the first game but lost six straight points. Sun stated that she was happy that she was able to regroup, and that the quality of play would only increase going further into the tournament as everyone appears to be playing at their peak condition. She also had praise for her round of 16 opponent Zhang Chi, noting Zhang’s heavy spin and ability to get her opponent stuck.

Scores and draw for the men’s singles event are available here. Scores and draws for the women’s singles event are available here.

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WTT Star Contender Doha (Sep 20-25) Women’s Singles Draws and Results

The draw and results of the round of 16 onwards of the women’s singles event at WTT Star Contender Doha (September 20-25, 2021). Note that our coverage of this event is limited, as we are mainly watching the concurrent China National Games.

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WTT Star Contender Doha (Sep 20-25) Men’s Singles Draws and Results

The draw and results of the round of 16 onwards of the men’s singles event at WTT Star Contender Doha (September 20-25, 2021). Notable omissions are Dimitrij Ovtcharov (upset by Cho Seungmin) and Jang Woojin (upset by Benedek Olah). Note that our coverage of this event is limited, as we are mainly watching the concurrent China National Games.

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China National Games Table Tennis Women’s Singles Draw and Results

The final 16 of the table tennis women’s singles event at the China National Games has been set. Draws and results are posted below.

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China National Games Table Tennis Men’s Singles Draw and Results

The final 16 of the table tennis men’s singles event at the China National Games has been set. Draws and results are posted below. Notable omissions include Ma Long (withdrew) and Lin Gaoyuan (upset by Zhang Yudong in Round of 32)。

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Lucky Fan Zhendong Saves Six Match Points to Defeat Ma Long at China National Games

Down 10-6 in the deciding fifth game, Fan Zhendong needed a huge break to come back and defeat Ma Long in the men’s team final at the China National Games. He received exactly that as he won four net balls in the last eight points of the match and saved five match points, taking the game 13-11 and the match 11-7, 8-11, 7-11, 12-10, 13-11. Combined with a missed step-around forehand kill while up 10-9 and 2-1 in games, Ma ended up failing to convert on all six of his match points.

The quality of play appeared to be quite low during the first couple games, but both players seemed to take safer shots in the last game and a half, resulting in several longer exciting rallies. Having just peaked for the Olympics and then undergone a strict quarantine upon returning to China, neither player may have been in top shape, and Ma went as far as to pull out of the men’s singles event due to injury maintenance. Additionally, all players at the tournament appeared to struggle adapting to the increased elevation of more than 1000 meters in Shanxi.

Fan’s 3-2 victory over Ma sealed Fan’s Team Guangdong a 3-1 victory over Ma’s Team Beijing 3-1 in the gold medal match of the team event at the China National Games. In the first match of the team match-up, Fan first defeated Beijing’s Wang Chuqin 3-0. Ma Long leveled the score to 1-1 with a 3-0 victory over Guangdong’s Zhou Qihao, but Guandong took a 2-1 lead as Guandong’s Lin Gaoyuan defeated Beijing’s Yan An 3-1. Fan’s 3-2 win against Ma gave Guandong the win and the gold medal.

Given that Ma will not play in the men’s singles event, table tennis fans will need to wait until the World Championships in November to see the next chapter of the Ma Long vs Fan Zhendong rivalry.

The full match can be watched on 247 Table Tennis and Malong Fanmade’s Youtube Channels.

Game 1

The match started out with two missed short flicks from Ma followed by a missed short flick by Fan. Fan then hit several winners while Ma’s backhand appeared to be a bit off as one backhand roll hit the edge of his paddle and another roll dribbled straight down into his side of the table, giving a Fan an early 7-3. Ma was able to narrow the lead down to 9-7 with several big forehands, but he then pushed a serve return into the net, giving Fan a 10-7 lead. Fan then won another backhand-backhand rally to take the first game 11-7.

Game 2

The relatively low quality of play continued into game 2. Fan built an early 5-2 lead, with both of Ma’s points coming from errors from Fan, including another strange point where the ball appeared to dribble off Fan’s backhand straight into his side the table. Fan’s backhand then appeared to completely abandon him as he missed a combinations of backhand blocks, counters, pushes, and openings to allow Ma to go on a 9-3 run and win the second game 11-8.

Game 3

Fan’s backhand continued to fail him in game 3. He lost a backhand-backhand rally and missed a long backhand opening to dig himself into an early 4-1 hole. Ma was able to extend the lead to 6-2 thanks to a pretty chop block and another high push from Fan. Fan was able to level the score to 7-7, but two of the five points he scored in his comeback were due to pretty fast counters, and the remaining three were due to errors from Ma as Fan’s signature backhand roll continued to be non-existent.

Fan then missed a short backhand opening, missed a backhand block, lost a backhand-backhand battle, and then missed another backhand opening to drop four straight points to give Ma the third game 11-7.

Game 4

The fourth game opened with more errors as Ma and Fan each missed two backhand openings in the first eight points. However, despite the errors, Fan’s backhand seemed to be in slightly better form compared to earlier as he was able to land just enough openings and counters to build an early 5-4 lead. Ma then landed two big forehand kills to take a 6-5 lead, prompting Fan to call time-out.

Fan tied it up at 6-6 with a fast down-the-line backhand block after Ma stepped around, but he again yielded the lead with a missed backhand opening against a long serve. Fan was able to get in a small rhythm as he won three straight points off of two pretty rallies and a quality down-the-line backhand opening to go up 9-7.

Ma responded with a run of his own as he landed a big forehand kill and won a very long backhand-backhand rally to level it at 9-9. Ma then landed an ambitious chop block to take match point at 10-9. Fan pushed the ball slightly high but wide to Ma’s backhand on the next point, and Ma’s attempt at a step around kill sailed long to level it at 10-10.

Fan then landed another quality down-the-line backhand opening against the serve to go up 11-10, and in the next point the ball dribbled straight down off Ma’s racquet in the middle of a rally again as Fan took the fourth game 12-10.

Game 5

Both players appeared to be completely in rhythm as game five treated the audience to a series of long rallies. Ma won four straight points early in the game thanks to a series of ambitious step-around forehand kills to take a 7-2 lead. Fan responded with a couple of nice points of his own, but he made several pushing errors as Ma was able to maintain a 10-6 lead for quadruple match point.

With the match almost out of sight, Fan started taking some extremely ambitious shots that all landed as he came leveled the score to 10-10. Fan missed an opening to give Ma his sixth match point at 11-10, but Fan won an ensuing pretty backhand rally to level the score at 11-11 before taking the match at 13-11. 

However, arguably the biggest key to Fan’s comeback was his extremely lucky break: Fan caught four net balls in the last eight points of the match. Coupled with a couple risky shots from Fan that panned out, Ma has to be shaking his head at how this match ended.

Check out video hilights below. Footage courtesy of Malong Fanmade Channel:

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China National Games Table Tennis Commences

The group stage in the table tennis team event has started at the 2021 China National Games. No major upsets have occurred so far as the top stars all won their matches. Fan Zhendong, Ma Long, and Wang Chuqin all dropped the first game of their first match, and Ma Long was pushed to five games, but they all eventually came out on top. On the women’s side, Wang Manyu also went five games with Yang Yiyun, but the top female stars also mostly prevailed. Other Olympic stars such as Xu Xin, Liu Shiwen, Chen Meng, and Sun Yingsha all cruised to victories in their individual matches..

The group stage consists of four groups (two groups of four and two groups of five). After the group stage action finishes, in the men’s team event Guangzhou (Fan Zhendong, Lin Gaoyuan, and Zhou Qihao) is considered to be a favorite, and Beijing (Ma Long, Wang Chuqin, and Xu Chenhao) will also be a strong contender.

Day one indeed seems to be quite un-newsworthy, as one of the bigger headlines was Ma Long not being able to find his way to the locker room as he walked into a locked door:

However, while the results may not have been newsworthy, the table tennis action was certainly worth a watch. As usual, full matches can be found on the 247 Table Tennis Youtube channel. Check out this pretty point from Wang Chuqin:

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Ma Long Withdraws From Men’s Singles at China National Games

Ma Long has withdrawn from the men’s singles event from the China National Games due to the tight schedule following the Tokyo Olympics and mandatory 21 day quarantine. He will still play the team and doubles events.

Ma won the previous two China National Games in 2013 and 2017, and by withdrawing he will forgo a chance to win a record-setting three titles.

Translation of a Chinese media report below:

Beijing time on September 12, according to “Beijing Daily” report, Ma Long, who has won the Olympic champion, will withdraw from the singles competition in the National Games and focus on the men’s team and men’s doubles.

The Beijing team’s head coach Zhang Lei said: “After returning from isolation, Ma Long actively engaged in recovery and preparations for the National Games, but the entire time was too short. Considering the next National Games, the schedule will be intense, with team, doubles and singles three. After comprehensive discussions between our coaching team, medical insurance team and Ma Long, Ma Long will focus on the men’s team and men’s doubles in this game.”

At the Tokyo Olympics that ended in August, the 32-year-old Ma Long defended his singles and team doubles, becoming another Olympic “five crown” in China’s sports world.

In an interview after the game, Ma Long said: “I think I can still play, I can persist, and I can work hard to compete with young players. This is the mental strength I need most when I go down.”

But just after the Olympic schedule + 21 days of isolation, there is too little time left for Ma Long to prepare for the National Games, so Ma Long gave up the National Games single men’s competition and focused on the men’s team and men’s doubles.

But even if Ma Long did not represent the Beijing team in the men’s singles, the team is still strong. New and old national players such as Wang Chuqin, Xu Chenhao, Yan An and Zeng Beixun are all in the team. Among them, 21-year-old Wang Chuqin is the most promising. During the Tokyo Olympics cycle, Wang Chuqin beat Lin Gaoyuan, Liang Jingkun and other players to get the Olympic reserve spot, becoming one of the key players of the national team preparing for the Paris Olympics.

It is worth mentioning that in the last National Games [in 2017], Wang Chuqin, who was only 17 years old, lost to Ma Long in the men’s singles semifinals and finally won the third place, while Malone defeated Fan Zhendong in the final to win the championship. At the same time, the men’s singles championship at the 2013 National Games was also won by Malone.

This also means that this year’s National Games Ma Long will not be able to create a record of three consecutive National Games men’s singles.

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How Armpit Space Affects The Ma Long vs Fan Zhendong Rivalry

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The Ma Long vs Fan Zhendong rivalry stands as perhaps the most compelling narrative in professional table tennis right now as the rest of the world struggles to keep up with them when it matters. Since the pandemic, Ma and Fan have both played in the 2020 China National Games, the 2020 World Cup, the 2020 ITTF Grand Tour Finals, and the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, and they have reached the finals in all four events (granted, no other Chinese players played the World Cup or Olympics).

Fan and Ma will both play the China National Games later this month and the World Championships in November. Although the Chinese Olympic Scrimmages saw Fan and Ma fall to some younger players, given their established dominance in high-stakes matches, there is a solid chance that Ma and Fan both make it to the finals in at least one of the two events.

Since the pandemic the two players have gone 2-2 against each other, with Ma winning by far the most important match in the Olympic finals. In this post we take a look at how a difference in armpit space between the two players’ strokes influences the game dynamics.

Comparing the Elbow

In the short clip below of Ma and Fan warming up together, you can see a slight difference in how high they raise their elbows when executing a standard backhand counter. Fan opens up his armpit more and raises his elbow slightly higher, while Ma tends to tuck his elbow a little bit lower in.

This difference in principle should give Fan the advantage when transitioning between forehands and backhands as his racquet is already where it needs to be with a slight turn of the body. On the other hand, Ma carries the slight advantage when stepping around as he requires slightly less space to pull off a forehand. We see an exaggeration of Ma’s preference for the middle and Fan’s preference for the corner in the two points shown blow.

This dynamic results in several tactical consequences.

Ma Targets Fan’s Elbow

Based on Fan’s weakest point, the middle, Ma’s placement strategy is quite straightforward: Ma overwhelmingly targets Fan’s elbow in the rallies, both in the opening and the follow-up shots. In the clip video, Ma wins four straight points targeting Fan’s elbow on every single shot.

How Ma Escapes the Backhand-Backhand Battles

Fan’s placement strategy to Ma is a little more involved. Both Ma and Fan know that, even if Ma places the ball well, Fan is favored to win pure backhand-backhand rallies between the two players due to several factors including stylistic difference brought about by the difference in armpit space in their neutral position. Hence, the burden is on Ma to step around and get out of the backhand-backhand battles to take his signature big forehand.

Stepping Around In the Flow of the Rally

Some variation of backhand-backhand battle ends up occurring in most of the points between Fan and Ma, so one of the key tug-a-wars in their matches is to see how often Ma can step around in the rally, and how often Fan is able to burn him for stepping around too early.

In their World Cup match-up, Coach Deng Yaping commented that although Ma clearly must hunt the forehand, he psychologically must also have confidence to engage in backhand-backhand battles. If he does not have confidence in his backhand and only looks to step around all the time, then Fan will beat him even more badly at the backhand-backhand battle and burn him down-the-line for stepping around early. Instead, Ma is at his best when he engages in the backhand-backhand battles but takes the big forehands when the chance comes like in the point below.

Fan’s job is to not let Ma rip forehands on him all day, so if Ma telegraphs early that he is going to step around, then Fan can burn him with a down-the-line roll for a clean winner like in the point shown below. Hence, in every match between the two, Fan is almost always the first player to go down-the-line to the forehand in the rallies.

Stepping Around in Anticipation

It is quite obvious that Ma needs to step around after he sees the ball come to his elbow or that Fan needs to go down-the-line if he sees Ma telegraphing that he will step around. However, both players also tend to try to squeeze a few extra points by anticipating their opponent’s actions and acting early. This can occur as early as the opening, before the rally has gotten into a rhythm.

While this yields great dividends if the player anticipates correctly, it also results in getting burned quite badly if he guesses wrong. In the point below, Ma serves half-long side-spin wide to the backhand and anticipates that Fan will go cross to the backhand. However, Ma guesses wrong as Fan burns him with a down-the-line opening for a clean winner.

Similarly, Fan does not appear to always go down-the-line in response to what he sees from Ma. If he anticipates that Ma is looking to step around, he may go down-the-line as early as the opening. However, if he guesses wrong like in the two points below, then Ma is perfectly in position for a big forehand kill.

While it looks embarrassing when they guess wrong, both players are betting on the fact that they can anticipate their opponent often enough that in the aggregate they come out on top from acting early. Furthermore, for Fan his down-the-line openings also serve as a deterrent for Ma to step around early all the time.

Ma’s Famous Chop Blocks

Another way that Ma mixes things up and escapes the fast-paced backhand rallies is with his signature chop-block.

Of course, the chop block is a difficult shot that requires an insane amount of touch, but his tucked in elbow also makes it easier for him to get his racquet onto the left-side of the ball and chop the ball forward. The chop block is just anothhe difference in how high Ma and Fan raise their elbows likely ends up affecting almost every shot in the game in one way or another.

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Table Tennis Stars React to Ding Ning’s Retirement

Ding Ning announced her retirement in a Weibo post yesterday and will begin studying at Peking University at age 31. Table tennis stars including Ma Long, Xu Xin, Liu Shiwen, Liu Guoliang and Ai Fukahara wished her the best. A translation of her post is as follows:

Reporting to Peking University today! From now on, I will be the Peking University freshman will “Studying Ning”.

There is no bound to learning, and I will continue to work hard! In the future, I hope to continue to contribute my own strength to the cause of sports and to everyone.

There are many wonderful things in life, and there are endless possibilities.

Starting today, my career as a table tennis player will come to an end. In the future, I will work towards new dreams and challenge new possibilities.

I have been with table tennis for 26 years, and every moment has been extremely precious: I started to learn to play at the age of 5 and knew nothing, I came to Beijing at the age of 10 to pursue my dreams, I competed for the country in the international arena, and won the championship in the Olympics and completed the “Grand Slam” [winning a World Championship, World Cup, and Olympic title]. I was the flag-bearer of the Chinese delegation at the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympic Games…

Ping-pong taught me to “keep a brave heart forever” whether at a peak or valley, the road to pursuing dreams has never had the words “easy” in it; nobody can be the general who always wins, no one is invincible when encountering failures and difficulties. Face it with courage; when you almost collapse and want to give up, choose to persist, and you will be able to reach the other side of your dreams.

Sports is more than just winning or losing.

Thanks to the great group of the Chinese table tennis team, the coaches who taught me along the way, and the teammates who worked alongside me, love you! I also want to thank my beloved family members, and fans. Your support and company have made me a better me.

Ding Ning wins gold at the Rio Olympics

Other top table tennis stars commented on her post with their best wishes:

Xu Xin: No words need to be spoken [A Chinese idiom]

Liu Shiwen: We’ve competed together since we were eight or nine. We will always be sisters! The future is even brighter!

Ma Long: Forever the captain, the future will be even brighter!

Ding Ning playing at a young age

Ai Fukuhara shared a heartfelt tribute post to Ding Ning:

Ding Ning, you are the most positive player among the athletes I know🏓️

After I finished a match with you, I asked you how I could improve, you explained to me from the first game to the last game, and the bus had arrived at the hotel 🚌 You still had not finished breaking it down to me word by word.

Then I understood why you could win so many Olympic champions and world championships.

I found out from you that people with strength will never hide themselves because they have strength, so they don’t need to keep secrets.

Later, before a match I saw you holding a cute umbrella☔️ I also jokingly said, “If I beat you, can this umbrella be given to me?” You said, “Of course no problem.”

I really beat you that time. You came over and told me “Ai, you played so well today, this umbrella is for you.”

Ding Ning, you are not only worth learning from as an athlete

All aspects of your character have taught me a lot.

Hope your future road will be smoother and smoother

You have already done the best in your table tennis career . You have won all the championships that are possible to win.

The second life after retirement is the same. I hope you will be even more successfuly.

I believe you can do better .

You will always be my role model.

Ai Fukuhara shares a picture of the Chinese and Japanese National Team

Liu Guoliang had the following to say:

I still remember that when Ding Ning proposed to me to retire, she was still very sad, and she shed tears at that time.

For her, I can understand her mood in particular.

Because as an athlete, I have also experienced the moment of retirement.

I also believe that Ding Ning made this decision after careful consideration.

I told her at the time that I hope she can make a good transition after retiring.

As an athlete Ding Ning has achieved very good results.

But then, as a ping-pong person, her real ping-pong career has just begun.

I think Ding Ning can not only in the Chinese table tennis team, but also in Chinese sports, and even in the whole society, convey the positive energy of table tennis and reflect her own values.

And I think Ding Ning has this potential.

So I think Ding Ning chose to go to Peking University to study and continue to enrich herself is a particularly good choice.

Because through systematically learning some theoretical knowledge, combined with her own practice, I believe she can usher in a gorgeous turn.

At the same time, I hope Ding Ning will continue to carry forward the spirit of the Chinese National Team and bring the sunshine and positive energy in her to her study life after transformation.

I also hope that Ding Ning can continue to improve herself and bring light to herself and others.

National women’s coach Li Sun had the following to say:

The biggest impression that Ding Ning gave him was sunshines. She was very active and devoted to table tennis.

Although Ding Ning has encountered setbacks in her career, she always faced the difficulties and finally won the Grand Slam. This is the return of her years of hard work and a manifestation of her own spirit.

Ding Ning’s optimism has always affected the team, especially after she became the captain of the women’s team. In daily training and life, she influenced and led the young players through her words and deeds and set a good example for the young players.

Ding Ning and Li Sun

Best wishes to Ding Ning in retirement!

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