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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