How Wang Manyu Won the 2021 World Championship Women’s Singles Finals

In this post we take a look at key tactics and stylistic match-ups that allowed Wang Manyu to defeat Sun Yingsha 4-2 (11-13, 11-7, 6-11, 11-6, 11-8, 17-15) in the women’s singles finals of the 2021 World Table Tennis Championships. This post is almost entirely based off of the live TV commentary of Chinese National Team member Zhou Yu. Full video of the match can be watched here.

Sun and Wang are two of the premier members of the Chinese National Team and won a women’s doubles gold medal together earlier in the day. As a result, the two are deeply familiar with each other’s game, and Zhou believed that the end result would come down to who was in better condition and could adjust their mental state from being teammates earlier in the day and handle the pressure of the moment better.

Zhou actually picked Wang as the winner before the match started for an interesting reason. Sun Yingsha had a relatively easier path to the finals, defeating Wang Yidi 4-1 in the semi-finals, and her closest match in terms of score was a 4-2 win over Adriana Diaz in the round of 16. In fact, from the round of 16 through the quarter-finals, Sun did not even have to play a single deuce.

On the other hand, Wang had come back from down 3-2 to win a 90-minute seven game thriller against top seed Chen Meng the day before. As a result, Zhou believed that she would be more psychologically “in the zone” and ready for the finals than Sun.

The result of the match ultimately largely came down to luck and mental toughness as both players were clearly a bit nervous and the quality of play declined at deuce in the sixth game. This is quite common for two well-matched players of such high caliber, and Liu Shiwen has also noted before that she feels like semi-finals are more entertaining to watch than finals because both players are nervous and play poorly in the finals.

In another post later this week, we will take a close look at key individual moments that Zhou Yu identified in the match from a psychological perspective that ended up delivering the 4-2 win for Wang. In today’s post, we will instead zoom out a bit and look at the general playing style and tactics of these two players during the finals.

Wang Manyu’s Playbook

Zhou Yu described Wang Manyu as the more stable player in the backhand-backhand rally, stating that she tends to give higher quality backhands with more spin and consistency than Sun as seen in the clip below.

Hence, Wang is favored when both players are in rhythm. Her main objective is thus to survive the first three shots of the point, establish a firm position and center of gravity, and get into the backhand-backhand rally. Once Wang’s position is established, even if Sun changes direction to the forehand, it’s not too difficult for Wang to transition to the forehand and maintain control of the point.

Sun Yingsha’s Playbook

Since Wang’s superior backhand and defense make her favored to win a rally when both players are in rhythm, the onus is on Sun to leverage her speed advantage to place the ball to Wang’s middle or forehand early in the point and then continually increase the pace to prevent the rally from getting into a steady rhythm as shown in the clip below. Interestingly, this puts Sun in an opposite position of her strategy against Mima Ito as described by Coach Deng Yaping.

The First Three Shots

The first three shots of the point are important for Sun to put Wang in an uncomfortable position and give herself the chance to increase the pace of the point before Wang can add spin to make things difficult. One way that Sun did this was to bait Wang into a weak backhand opening, especially from the middle, which would then allow Sun to punish Wang with speed and placement. As seen in the clip below, doing so was key in helping Sun build an early 6-2 lead in Game 3.

Wang Manyu’s Solution

After Sun took a 6-2 lead in Game 3 from pushing the pace on several of Wang’s weak openings, Wang then won three straight points by switching to patiently pushing with her forehand. If Wang saw a good opportunity to open with quality, she could do so and then get ready for a steady rally. If Sun opened first, that was also fine for Wang as her defense is strong enough to handle the attacks and stay in position.

Wang maintained this strategy through the next several games as the match turned back in her favor. She also went as far as to push a couple of unpleasant long balls from her middle rather than taking a weak opening.

The Middle-to-Middle Battle

One way Sun deterred Wang from engaging in the patient pushing was by serving long and fast to Wang’s middle. We see both at the end of Game 3 and in the beginning of Game 4, Sun served a pair of back-to-back long fast serves to Wang’s middle, winning all four points.

Sun in general targeted Wang’s middle with topspins, and although Zhou Yu expected Wang to step around at some point, Wang instead chose to guard the middle with her backhands and hunker down for some middle-to-middle battles.

This strategy paid off. The fourth and fifth game were filled with middle-to-middle rallies, and Wang’s superiority in these middle-to-middle rallies were enough for her to take them fairly comfortably at11-6 and 11-8 (Wang was up 10-5 in the fifth game) respectively.

As a result, Zhou recommended that Sun start targeting Wang’s middle-right instead of her middle-left in the last game. Sun did so beautifully on one point as we see Wang miss an extremely awkward backhand attempt.

Sun Goes For Broke In Game 6

After losing two games by relatively comfortable margins, Sun adjusted in Game 6 by becoming hyper-agressive. and stepping around more often and taking several risky and hard shots with her forehand to increase the pace even more in order to shift the flow of the game further towards a speed-contest. This helped her avoid getting trapped in several middle-to-middle or backhand-backhand rallies and resulted in some of the prettiest points of the match as shown in the clip below.

However, Sun’s hyper-agressive play resulted in errors of her own, including at several crucial moments late in the game as she appeared to get a bit nervous.

Wang needed every one of these errors as she was able to hold on to win Game 6 17-15 despite some truly amazing play by Sun earlier in the game. Of course, Wang played amazingly as well to force the game into deuce, including weathering attacks to the forehand, middle, and backhand to save game point at 10-9.

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