How Harimoto Built A 3-1 Lead And How Ma Long Came Back at the 2020 World Cup

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.

Game Plan

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.

Unforced Errors

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?

Rally Game

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.

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Jun Mizutani Discusses Olympics, Harimoto, Ito, and More

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 Interview With European Youth Table Tennis Organization

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!”

Mattias Falck. Falck means falcon in Swedish. Here the falcon flies during the game. Photos: ITTF

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.

Potential for improvement: Falck is working a lot on a harder pre-opening.

“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.

The gun – backhand.

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. “

Sensation in Budapest 2019. Falck is in the final at the World Cup against Ma Long. 

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. “

Is the ABS plastic ball an advantage or a disadvantage for you?

“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. “

Falck has proven it to himself and to others – you can beat even the best Chinese.

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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Power Ranking the Olympic Singles Gold Medal Contenders

This post is the first in a series of previews on the Tokyo Olympics. Read all our Olympic coverage here.

With the conclusion of the Chinese Olympic Scrimmages and less than fifty days to go, Olympic season is in full swing. While the Bundesliga finals, which will feature the likes of Timo Boll and Patrick Franziska, are scheduled to happen this weekend, there are arguably no more remaining high-profile events involving major Olympic gold medal contenders. This brings us to the question, exactly who can be classified as a gold medal contender?

In this post, we take a look at who is a contender and who is a pretender for the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. We then rank the contenders of both genders in order of likelihood of winning gold in Tokyo. The rankings contain a certain amount of subjectivity, but hopefully they are at least more consistent and meaningful than ITTF’s FIFA-style “player ratings“.

Sorting Out Contenders and Pretenders

The road to gold runs through China, so to begin let us take a look at how the top seeds have fared against the Chinese National Team (CNT) over the last couple of years.

Men’s Singles

The table below shows the record of the top eleven seeds in the men’s singles events. The first column indicates the name of the player, the second column indicates his seed at the Olympics, the third column indicates his record against Ma Long (the second seed), the third column indicates his record against Fan Zhendong (the top seed), the fourth column indicates his/her record against the other four highest-ranked players on the CNT (Xu Xin, Lin Gaoyuan, Liang Jingkun, and Wang Chuqin), and the fifth column indicates the total number of wins he has recorded against any of these six members of the CNT.

We only consider four out-of-seven ITTF-sanctioned matches (unfortunately, WTT is looking to make three-out-of-fives the new normal) that happened since 2018 at the earliest. Moreover, we do not consider T2 results, as the rules are an absolute gimmick, and the top Chinese players of both genders possibly underperformed as a result. While this misses out on some key matches like Timo Boll’s 2017 renaissance, matches from four years ago arguably have very little predictive value for matches today. After all, Ding Ning was World Champion in 2017, and now she is retiring.

NameSeedRecord vs Ma LongRecord vs Fan ZhendongRecord vs Rest of CNTTotal Wins vs CNT
Fan Zhendong14-3N/A13-517
Ma Long2N/A3-412-415
Tomokazu Harimoto32-20-32-114
Hugo Calderano40-11-51-42
Lin Yun-Ju51-10-52-73
Mattias Falck60-20-11-51
Dimitrij Ovtcharov70-41-00-51
Timo Boll80-30-60-30
Jang Woojin90-00-44-44
Jeoung Youngsik100-31-30-51
Liam Pitchford111-00-11-22
Record of top seeds in Men’s Singles against CNT

As expected, we see that the Chinese National Team is heads and shoulders above the international competition. No international player has anything close to a winning record against the CNT, and Ma and Fan have by far the most wins against the CNT despite having the handicap of not being able to play against themselves.

We look at the total number of wins that a player has against the CNT as opposed to the win percentage. The idea is that players like Harimoto should not be penalized for making it far enough in a tournament to frequently face off against a Chinese player and lose.

We classify anyone who has not recorded more than two wins over a Chinese player over the last two years as a pretender. After all, if a player could only beat a Chinese player twice over three years, possibly when said Chinese player may have been nursing an injury, out of focus, or experimenting, what are the odds that he can beat them twice in the same tournament at which the Chinese will be at peak performance?

Thus, we label Calderano, Falck, Ovtcharov, Boll, Jeoung, Pitchford, and all the even lower seeds (no lower seed has more than one win against the CNT) as pretenders. While they are strong contenders for bronze and may even make the finals, which Falck achieved in the 2019 World Championships, they will really need all the stars to align and to have the tournament of their lives to win gold.

Women’s Singles

Let’s now take a look at a similar table for the top ten seeds of the women’s singles event. The fourth column in this table will refer to a player’s record against Liu Shiwen, Ding Ning, Wang Manyu, and Zhu Yuling over the last three years.

NameSeedRecord vs Sun YingshaRecord vs Chen MengRecord vs Rest of CNTTotal Wins vs CNT
Chen Meng13-1N/A24-827
Sun Yingsha2N/A1-36-107
Mima Ito31-40-38-89
Cheng I-Ching41-10-20-71
Kasumi Ishikawa51-61-20-82
Feng Tianwei60-11-20-61
Jeon Jihee70-30-10-20
Doo Hoi Kem80-20-20-20
Adriana Diaz90-10-00-10
Sofia Polcanova100-10-10-30
Record of top seeds in Women’s Singles against CNT

When looking at how many wins each player has scored against the CNT over the last three years, it is quite clear that Chen Meng, Sun Yingsha, and Mima Ito are all contenders and the rest of the field consists of pretenders. Although someone like Kasumi Ishikawa or Jeon Jihee may hope to steal a match from Ito and claim bronze, it is difficult to envision anyone outside of Chen, Sun, or Ito taking gold.

Power Ranking the Contenders

Now that we’ve sorted out the pretenders from the contenders using our rough proxy of wins against the CNT, it’s time to rank the contenders in order of likelihood of winning gold.

A common saying among coaches is that there are four pillars of table tennis: technical, physical, tactical, and psychological. While the initial reaction of many people is to focus on the technical aspect of table tennis, players like Liu Shiwen have emphasized the importance of the psychological aspect of table tennis. While we will look at more technical details in future posts, in this ranking we will lean more heavily into the role of amateur psychologist.

8) Lin Yun-Ju

The table shown above undersells Lin a bit, as they don’t count T2 matches, in which Lin beat Lin Gaoyuan, Ma Long and Fan Zhendong. The rules were clearly designed to increase the variance in outcomes and make it easier to pull off upsets, but at the end of the day, Lin has shown the ability to defeat Ma Long and Fan Zhendong in the same (watered-down) tournament, which makes him a gold medal contender.

Lin’s chiquita is arguably the best in the game, giving him the ability to play an aggressive style and launch the opening attack in the point, even when the opponent serves. However, his relative lack of strength and power makes his attacks less intimidating, as Ovtcharov was all too happy to concede the opening attack in his win over Lin at WTT Doha last March.

Lin spent the last Fall training in China with the Chinese National Team. There are two ways to read this. On the one hand, training with the top players and coaches in the world in principle should make him an even bigger threat to China.

On the other hand, China is notoriously secretive and competitive and won’t even share its rubbers with the world. The chances that they shared novel and meaningful insights with Lin are slim. Moreover, in 2017, China allegedly banned Hirano and Ishikawa from playing in the super league because they were such a big threat. If China really feared Lin as a serious contender, would they let him in to train with them right before the Olympics? Lin may surprise us all and pull off the two upsets that he needs, but from the looks of it, China is fairly confident that will not be the case.

7) Jang Woojin

Due to his disappointing first-round loss to Ruwen Filus at WTT Doha, Jang failed to break into the top eight seeds for the Tokyo Olympics. As a result, Jang can potentially run into a top seed as early as the round of 16.

Harimoto will certainly not want to see Jang in the round of 16, as the two exchanged narrow wins in a pair of seven-game thrillers in the ITTF Finals and World Cup last Fall. As Jang is tied with Harimoto on the leaderboard for most wins against the Chinese National Team over the last three years (granted, Harimoto and Lin both have more wins than Jang if you include three-out-of-five and T2 matches), Fan and Ma would likely prefer to see Jang deeper into the tournament as well.

Intuitively speaking, Jang’s willingness to step around and go for big forehands, even if it means risking getting burned on the wide-open forehand, can make his game more high-variance. This opens him up to a potential early-round exit, but it also tilts the odds further in his favor when playing against someone stronger than him such as Fan or Ma.

Jang’s low seed may end up being a blessing in disguise, as it may be easier to play the Chinese players earlier in the event as they may still be shaking off the Olympic jitters and getting used to the environment. Furthermore, a round-of-16 exit is far more stressful and disappointing for a Chinese player than a semi-final exit. If Jang can build an early 2-1 lead against Fan, can his aggressive play and the situational pressure get into Fan’s head?

Korea has consistently challenged China in the men’s singles event over the last several decades, and Korean national team coaches Ryu Seungmin and Kim Taeksoo won’t be intimidated by China. Jang has the surrounding coaching and training infrastructure to beat China. If he gets hot at the tournament, he may very well end up pulling off the two upsets that he needs to win gold.

6) Tomokazu Harimoto

5) Mima Ito

Tomokazu Harimoto and Mima Ito certainly have the respect and fear of the Chinese National Team. In an interview in 2019, Coach Liu Guoliang has remarked that what makes both of them dangerous is their fearlessness and willingness to try out new things.

Stylistically, both of them have zigged while the rest of the field has zagged. Partially due to his young age, Harimoto has opted to essentially never back off from the table or take a backstroke and to instead win points by out-pacing the Chinese with quick off-the-table bounces. Meanwhile, Mima Ito has developed arguably the most iconic serves in the game today (sorry Dima), and instead of attempting the hopeless task of defeating the Chinese in long rallies, she has directed her focus towards winning the point on her first three shots.

While it is still unclear how many fans will be able to attend the Olympics, the home crowd in Tokyo will surely give Harimoto and Ito at least some boost. As young underdogs, Harimoto and Ito will almost certainly face less pressure than their Chinese counterparts as well. Both players are clearly serious threats to beat the Chinese, but which one is more likely to win gold?

Ito probably has better chances of winning gold due to her lack of competition among non-Chinese women. While it’s possible that Ito is upset before she reaches the semi-finals, unlike Harimoto she does not need to worry about playing a Jang Woojin in the round of 16 or a Lin Yun-Ju in the quarter-finals. Virtually all the top non-Chinese stars played at WTT Doha in March, and Ito won both the Contender and Star Contender events quite handily. Meanwhile, Harimoto was upset by Ovtcharov in the Contender event before bouncing back to win the Star Contender event.

However, assuming both players reach the semi-finals, it is debatable who would fare better against the Chinese players. Ito has a significantly better record against the CNT than Harimoto does. She also apparently claimed that she has figured out how to beat Chen Meng and Sun Yingsha, but her prior record against them is even worse than Harimoto’s record against Ma Long and Fan Zhendong.

In fact, the table above also slightly sells Harimoto short. He has a three-out-of-five win against Fan under his belt, and he was a blown 3-1 lead from defeating Ma at the 2020 World Cup in China despite having to go through onerous quarantine during which he was not allowed to play.

If we assume both players have roughly similar chances against the Chinese, then Ito edges out Harimoto in our power rankings. Harimoto carries a significantly bigger risk than Ito of not making the semi-finals, which in turn dampens his chances at winning gold.

4) Sun Yingsha

As is usually the case, the heaviest favorites for gold are all Chinese. While Ma Long vs Fan Zhendong is one of the more interesting table tennis debates these days, Chen Meng has performed heads and shoulders above the competition over the last few years. Hence, Chen takes the number one spot in our power rankings and Ma and Fan take the next two spots.

Although Sun has a worse record against the CNT than Ito over the last several years, Sun has a 4-1 head-to-head record against Ito, which becomes 6-1 when considering T2 and three-out-of-fives. Sun would be the favorite in a match-up against Ito, giving her the number four spot in the power rankings.

3) Fan Zhendong

2) Ma Long

With Sun Yingsha slotted in at fourth and Chen Meng locked in at first, the second and third spot in the power rankings go to Fan Zhendong and Ma Long. The big debate is, who would you pick between Ma and Fan to win gold in Tokyo?

Fan Zhendong has a winning head-to-head record over Ma Long since 2018, a better record against the Chinese National Team, and a higher world rank. Fan looked better than Ma at the Chinese Olympic Scrimmage. Ma will turn 33 at the end of the year, while most Chinese players retire by the age of 30.

However, Ma is arguably the greatest player of all time. Ma has won the last three World Championships, including in 2019 when he was coming off an injury and playing as a lower seed, and the 2016 Olympics. Even if he doesn’t look his best during scrimmages, which are the epitome of unimportant low-stakes matches, he has earned the benefit of the doubt that he will get it together when the matches really matter.

Moreover, as a result of Ma’s dominance over the last half-decade, Fan has zero championship experience in top-tier events. Fan may look better physically and technically, but Ma undoubtedly has the mental edge going into Tokyo.

Father Time catches up with everyone eventually, and Ma may end up looking extremely vulnerable a la Zhang Jike in 2016. However, until Ma loses in a World Championship or Olympic match, betting against him in a top-tier event is a dangerous game. Hence, he lands just above Fan in the power rankings.

1) Chen Meng

Before her loss to Wang Manyu in the finals of the second leg of the Olympic Scrimmage, Chen Meng was virtually untouchable for more than a year. She won the first leg of the Olympic Scrimmage earlier in May and won all her matches (not counting exhibitions like WTT Macao) in 2020, sweeping through World Cup, Grand Finals, All China National Championships in the Fall and the German Open and Qatar Open before the pandemic. She has a favorable head-to-head record against Sun and Ito, and since 2018 she has recorded more wins against the Chinese National Team in international competition than Ito and Sun combined.

Chen walks into Tokyo as the clear-cut favorite to win gold in the women’s singles event over Sun, Ito, and arguably the entire field combined. Neither Ma Long nor Fan Zhendong can claim such odds, so Chen sits atop the power rankings at number 1.

Update: Photos from the Chinese National Team Training Hall have been released, including their signature posters of their key rivals divided into tiers:

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Fan Zhendong and Wang Manyu Win Second Leg of China Olympic Scrimmage

Fan Zhendong recovered from a 3-1 in games and 8-4 deficit against Xu Xin to win the men’s singles finals and Wang Manyu handed Chen Meng her first major loss since the pandemic to win the women’s singles finals at the second leg of the Chinese Olympic Scrimmages.

It is an encouraging sign for Fan, who was upset by dark horse champion Zhou Qihao in the finals of the first leg of the China Olympic Scrimmages. Fan will represent China in the men’s singles event at the Tokyo Olympic alongside Ma Long. Ma was upset by Xu Chenhao in the quarter-finals, denying fans the chance to see a preview of the likely Ma vs Fan finals at the Tokyo Olympics. After suffering a series of bad losses earlier this year, Xu Xin finally put together a strong tournament performance as he rounds into form to represent China in the team event at the Olympics.

After his win, Fan noted that when losing, the most important thing to think about was not tactical adjustments per se, but to remind himself not to give up. After establishing a no-quit mentality was he able to think of tactical and technical adjustments to spark the comeback.

Wang Manyu was selected as a reserve for the Chinese Olympic team, but she defeated both of China’s women’s singles representatives at the Olympics, Chen Meng and Sun Yingsha, and clearly outperformed Liu Shiwen, who will be providing a veteran presence in the women’s team event.

Wang finally put a dent on Chen’s dominant run over the past year or so. Chen was up to this point undefeated in 2021 in the first leg of the Chinese Olympic Scrimmage and won the post-pandemic World Tour Finals, World Cup, and All China National Championships in 2020. This tournament result is not necessarily a cause for alarm for Chen and Sun, as the purpose of the scrimmages is precisely for them to work out the kinks in their game.

After her win, Wang remarked that she is very happy with the results and actually did not go into the tournament with any championship expectations or thoughts and was mainly focused on playing well in preparation for the Olympics.

Final Results

Men’s Singles

Finals

Fan Zhendong defeats Xu Xin 4-3 (5, -10, -8, -9, 9, 7, 8)

Semi-Finals

Fan Zhendong defeats Wang Chuqin 4-2 (-10, 10, 6, -6, 9, 10)

Xu Xin defeats Xu Chenhao 4-1 (6, 8, 9, -9, 7)

Quarter-Finals

Fan Zhendong defeats Lin Gaoyuan 4-1(3, -7, 8, 9, 10)

Wang Chuqin defeats Zhou Qihao 4-2 (6, -12, 10, -9, 4, 4)

Xu Xin defeats Liang Jingkun 4-0 (9, 6, 5, 10)

Xu Chenhao defeats Ma Long 4-2 (5, 9, 10, -6, -5, 8)

Women’s Singles

Finals

Wang Manyu defeats Chen Meng 4-2 (-7, 8, 11, 12, -4 8)

Semi-Finals

Wang Manyu defeats Sun Yingsha 4-1 (7, 4, 12, -11, 5)

Chen Meng defeats He Zhuojia 4-1 (-9, 10, 4, 3, 5)

Quarter-Finals

Wang Manyu defeats Chen Xintong 4-1 (8, -7, 5, 7, 7)

Sun Yingsha defeats Gu Yuting 4-3 (5, -10, -8, 7, -5, 7, 5)

Chen Meng defeats Wang Yidi 4-2 (10, 9, 10, -11, -8, 6)

He Zhoujia defeats Liu Shiwen 4-0 (4, 14, 6, 8)

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Out-of-Sorts Ma Long Upset By Xu Chenhao In Chinese Olympic Scrimmage Quarterfinals

Xu Chenhao upset an out-of-sorts Ma Long 11-5, 11-9, 12-10, 5-11, 5-11, 11-8 in the quarter-finals of the second leg of the Chinese Olympic Scrimmage. Whether due to an undisclosed injury or personal mental issues, Ma played some of his worst table tennis in recent memory throughout the first three games as he committed countless unforced errors, exuded dejected and tired body language, and gave up on points before they were over.

Ma was able to turn it around in the last three games as he played significantly better, albeit not quite at peak form. However, the 3-0 deficit that he had dug for himself was too much. High-quality play from Xu delivered him the sixth game as he pulled off the upset of the tournament so far.

In the semi-finals, Xu will play Xu Xin, who defeated Liang Jingkun 4-0. On the other side of the bracket, Fan Zhendong, who beat Lin Gaoyuan 4-1 in the quarter-finals, will play Wang Chuqin, who defeated champion of the first leg of the scrimmage Zhou Qihao 4-2 in the quarterfinals.

Ma and Fan are fresh off a selection to represent China in the men’s singles event at the Tokyo Olympics (they will be joined by Xu Xin in the team event, with Wang Chuqin as a reserve). If Ma shows up in Tokyo playing the way he did in the first three games against Xu, he may be in serious danger of failing to medal, which would be an unprecedented failure by the Chinese National Team. However, Ma still has roughly two months to gather himself physically and psychologically to peak for the Olympics.

Game 1

Ma pushed the ball into the net for the very first point of the match and continued to make unforced errors in the form of missed counters, chop blocks, and short flicks. Ma was unable to establish any dominance in the rallies either as Xu cruised to an 11-5 victory. Three out of the five points that Ma won in the first game were also on easy errors from Xu, as Ma looked completely out of sorts in the first game.

Game 2

Xu won the second game 11-9, but the score makes the game look closer than it felt. It initially looked like Ma was rounding into form as he opened the game with two pretty rallies to take a 2-1 lead. Xu leveled the score to 2-2 with a wide chiquita to Ma’s forehand, a shot that would bother Ma throughout the game. After Xu missed a short forehand flick, Ma proceeded to make three consecutive unforced errors. Xu again burned Ma with a wide chiquita to the forehand, taking a 6-3 lead. Ma displayed some alarming body language during this point as he did not even try to reach a wide ball.

Ma was able to take two points back but then pushed a serve return into the net. Xu opened wide to Ma’s forehand, and Ma again displayed the same dejected body language as he missed the return. A missed push and chop block from Ma allowed Xu to take a 10-6 lead. Although Ma was able to win three straight points to narrow the lead to 10-9, his play was nothing notable during these points, and he missed a short backhand opening at 9-10 to give Xu the second game 11-9.

Game 3

Ma’s tricky serves and early 4-0 lead kept the score close, but otherwise it was a continuation of disastrous play from Ma, including a 6-0 run from Xu to take back an early 6-4 lead. In total, Xu missed three serve returns and popped up another four. Xu managed to split the points where he popped up Ma’s serve return 2-2, including a missed easy high ball from Ma at 10-9. Ma missed a half-long serve return at 10-10, and then Xu killed Ma’s half long serve at 11-10 to take the third game 12-10.

Game 4

In game 4, Ma appeared to largely shake off whatever was plaguing him during the first three games. A series of nice counters helped him build an early 5-2 lead. Ma missed a flick and Xu won three consecutive rallies, despite a time-out from Ma after the second rally, to take a 6-5 lead. However, Ma landed a pretty chiquita to Xu’s middle for a winner and then took a risky step-around down-the-line forehand winner on the next point. Ma continued his dominance as he closed out the game on a 6-0 run to win the fourth game 11-5.

Game 5

To start the fifth game, Xu let out a loud cholae after Ma missed the serve return on the first point as Xu appeared to realize that he could not rely on Ma playing terribly for the whole match. A combination of rushed openings from Xu, smart variation from Ma, and a return to form from Ma allowed Ma to take seven straight points and build a 7-1 lead. Ma cruised to a 10-3 lead to take complete control of the game, eventually taking the fifth game 11-5.

Game 6

Ma and Xu exchanged pretty opening and rallies to start game 6 with an even 3-3 score. Xu then landed three huge forehand winners and won a pretty backhand-backhand rally to win four straight points to take a 7-3 lead. Ma stopped the bleeding with a pretty block, but Xu landed his go-to wide forehand opening that Ma was unable to reach, giving Xu an 8-4 lead. 

Down 8-4, Ma broke out his backhand serve for the first time in the match. Xu popped up the first backhand serve and dumped the second into the net. Ma closed the lead to 8-7 with a hard backhand opening, but he missed a serve return of his own to give Xu a 9-7 lead. Xu then popped up yet another backhand serve from Ma to narrow the lead to 9-8, but he correctly read the next serve and landed a strong forehand flick and won the ensuing rally to take double match point at 10-8. Ma then missed yet another serve return, giving Xu the sixth game 11-8 and the match 4-2.

The full match is linked below:

A sample of some of Ma Long’s low-lights:

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Zhou Qihao Wins China Olympic Scrimmage With 4-2 Upset Over Fan Zhendong

Zhou Qihao defeated Fan Zhendong 4-11, 11-8, 3-11, 12-10, 11-8, 11-9 to complete his dark horse championship run at the China Olympic Scrimmage. Zhou notched earlier wins against Ma Long in the semi-finals and Liang Jingkun in the quarter-finals. After the win Zhou commented, “It wasn’t easy. Of course it feels good, but I cannot yet relax, because there are still more matches going forward. Beating Ma Long and Fan Zhendong is everyone’s dream, so it’s not easy, and I’m quite happy.”

Game 1

Fan won the first game by a comfortable 11-4 margin. The two players were actually quite even on the rallies; if we want to find where Fan’s seven point advantage came from, consider the following: Zhou missed three chiquitas while Fan was able to land two winners with a chiquita. Furthermore, Fan got two net balls and won both points. 

Game 2

Zhou’s struggles to consistently land a chiquita continued as he missed another two early in the game. However, thanks to a lucky ball and a couple of aggressive step-around forehands that paid off, Zhou was able to maintain a 5-4 lead over the first nine points. Zhou then landed an impressive chop-block winner to expand the lead to 6-4. After Fan and Zhou exchanged missed backhand openings, Zhou won an impressive rally after a gutsy long fast serve to Fan, giving Zhou an 8-5 lead. After landing a short backhand winner and a daring step-around forehand attack on the long fast serve return, Zhou found himself up 10-5. Fan was able to score three points in a row to make things interesting, but he missed a hard backhand roll to give Zhou the second game 11-8.

Game 3

Fan opened the game with strong anticipation as he correctly predicted the position of Zhou’s body and ball on three separate points while building up a 5-1 lead. The two exchanged points on several impressive rallies as Fan maintained a 7-3 lead. Over the next three points Fan then got a net ball, won a backhand-backhand rally, and then fooled Zhou with a surprisingly soft loop to the elbow to build an insurmountable 10-3 lead. Zhou then rushed a quick flick into the net on the serve return to give Fan the third game 11-3.

Game 4

After his disastrous third game, Zhou shifted his strategy as he started stepping around for more risky forhenads on the long ball. As a result, he almost entirely stopped taking short serve returns with his backhand, instead opting to go for a heavy short-to-half-long push. This change in strategy turned out to be highly effective in the first half of the game as he built an 8-4 lead.

However, Fan landed a couple of down-the-line winners and Zhou started missing his step-around loop as Fan took five straight points despite a time-out from Zhou at 8-7. Up 9-8, it looked like Fan was going to make it six straight points when he forced Zhou to back off the table and start lobbing with the backhand. However, Zhou refused to miss any of his backhand lobs, and when an impatient Fan finally smashed to the forehand, Zhou landed a spinny counter-loop for the winner, leveling the score at 9-9.

Fan then pushed the ball into the net to go down 10-9 but saved game-point with another down-the-line winner. Zhou then got a lucky net ball when going for an ambitious forehand counter-loop from virtually below the table, giving himself an 11-10 lead. Fan then pushed the ball into the net again, giving Zhou the fourth game 12-10.

Game 5

Zhou opened up an early 5-2 lead thanks to a creative chop block from the backhand and a surprise forehand chop from way behind the table on two consecutive points. However, Fan was able to claw back to 6-6 with his steady backhand. At 7-7, Fan landed a fast down the line backhand to Zhou’s forehand. Zhou had stepped around early and could only watch as the ball sailed by, giving Fan an 8-7 lead. However, Zhou leveled the score with a hard cross-court counterloop winner against Fan’s chiquita to the forehand and then took a 9-8 lead with a risky step-around forehand kill. 

Fan called time-out, but after the time-out Zhou stepped around so hard that his body ended up doing a 360 degree spin for an all-or-nothing kill. Fan was unable to block the ball back, giving Zhou the 10-8 advantage. Fan then flicked the serve return out on the next point, giving Zhou the fifth game 11-8.

Game 6

Fan was able to trap Zhou into controlled backhand-backhand rallies early in the game as he built up a 4-0 lead. However, Zhou was able to pull off an ace long serve and two hard instant backhand winners to help him level the score to 5-5. The two continued to exchange points until Fan was up 8-7. Zhou then executed a pretty chop block followed by a forehand kill and then two risky backhand kills in the middle of the rally to take double-championship point at 10-8. Fan was able to save the first championship point with a couple of wide blocks to either corner. However, his push on the next point was just a bit too long as Zhou landed a strong half-long opening to the elbow. Fan missed the block, giving Zhou the game 11-9 and the match 4-2.

The top three key points of the match are shown below:

The full match is shown below:

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Zhou Qihao Upsets Ma Long 4-3 In China Olympic Scrimmage Semi-Finals

After upsetting Liang Jingkun in the quarter-finals at the China Olympic Scrimmage, Zhou Qihao pulled off an even bigger upset in the semi-finals with an 11-5, 13-11, 9-11, 8-11, 14-12, 4-11, 11-8 victory over Ma Long. As the underdog, Zhou played extremely aggressively, and when he was hot, there was little that even Ma could do. However, when Ma seized control of the game flow, he was able to force Zhou into alternating between being too passive and letting Ma dominate the pace and being too aggressive and missing wild shots.

As a result, the match was extremely streaky, and even a six point lead never felt safe. In game 7, Zhou found himself trailing 8-4, turned up the aggression a notch, and was able to pull off seven straight points to take the game 11-8 and the match 4-3. After the match, Zhou said that it was better not to think too much when down 8-4 and that he just tried taking it one point at a time.

Zhou will play Fan Zhendong, who defeated Wang Chuqin in the semi-finals, in the finals. Zhou knows he will be an underdog against Fan as well and stated that he just has to go for it. In the women’s singles event, Chen Meng, who defeated Zhu Yuling in the semi-finals, will face off in the finals against Sun Yingsha, who defeated Wang Yidi in the semi-finals.

The schedule for May 7 is as follows: Zhu Yuling plays Wang Yidi for third place at 18:30, Wang Chuqin plays Ma Long for third place at 19:30, Chen Meng plays Sun Yingsha at 20:30, and Fan Zhendong plays Zhou Qihao at 21:30. Presumably at least the finals will be broadcast on CCTV-5.

Game 1

From his hard and wide counter-loop on the first point of the match to an aggressive hard down the line counter from below the table to go up 9-5, Zhou set an extremely aggressive rhythm throughout the opening game. Ma seemed to be unable to get into an aggressive rhythm for himself as Zhou won the first game handily 11-5.

Game 2

Zhou continued his aggressive and dominant ways heading into the second game. He took an early 3-1 lead,with the only lost point being due to a missed opening. However, Ma then executed a long fast serve that Zhou was only able to give a passive return against and then a short topspin serve to the forehand that Zhou misread and popped up. These two service sequences were enough to get Ma into an aggressive flow as he went on to win five straight points to go up 6-3.

Ma then missed several of what looked like some easier shots and openings, culminating in a push into the net to go down 9-6 as Zhou reeled off six straight points of his own. After Zhou missed a push and Ma won a pretty rally after Zhou misread his backhand serve, it looked like momentum was on Ma’s side. However, on the next point, Zhou pushed long to Ma’s backhand against Ma’s backhand serve, but Ma missed the step-around forehand opening, bringing the score to 10-8. Zhou then missed a half-long opening of his own and then called time-out up 10-9 with the serve.

Coming out of the time-out, the game took a turn into a short-game battle. Ma landed a chiquita on the serve return to Zhou’s elbow that Zhou missed, leveling the score to 10-10. Zhou then pulled off a nearly identical shot against Ma’s serve to take an 11-10 advantage. Ma then pushed short on the next serve return and prepared to step around early for the forehand. Zhou saw this and attempted a chiquita down the line but missed to make it 11-11. Ma tried a long fast serve to the backhand but missed the block to go down 12-11. A short push exchange at the next point ended with Ma pushing it into the net, giving Zhou the second game 13-11.

Game 3

Ma appeared to seize control over the serve and return game as he went up 6-1 off a combination of clean openings and counters. A desperate Zhou attempted a wild backhand opening that went straight into the net, bringing Ma’s lead up to 7-1. Zhou then busted out a new backhand serve, won a point off the ensuing rally, and then missed his second attempt at a backhand serve to go down 8-2. Zhou was able to regather himself to win three straight points to narrow it to 8-5, but Ma landed a big forehand counter-loop to go up 9-5.

Zhou narrowed it to 9-6 with a nice chiquita to Ma’s forehand, but when he attempted the same move again on the next point, a prepared Ma landed a hard down-the-line counter to take a 10-6 lead. An aggressive Zhou landed in two straight winners and a fast and wide down-the-line backhand block to cut the lead to 10-9, prompting Ma to call time-out. Ma served a short serve to the forehand and Zhou pushed wide to the forehand off the side of the table, but Ma was able to land a pretty down-the-line loop that a late Zhou blocked into the net, giving Ma the third game 11-9.

Game 4

Luck was on Ma’s side throughout game four. First, at 3-2 he hit a shot that looked very very much like a side-ball, but the umpire ruled it an edge ball. The ruling may have affected Zhou mentally as he made a series of errors to go down 9-4. After Zhou scored another point to cut it to 9-5, Ma then got another edge to go up 10-5. Zhou was able to cut the lead to 10-8, but Ma landed what appeared to be another net-ball on the short push. Zhou missed the return and threw his hands up in frustration as Ma took the fourth game 11-8.

Game 5

Zhou started game five with another hot streak of pure aggression as he won five straight points to go up 6-2. However, he cooled off a bit after missing a forehand flick to make it to 6-3. Zhou appeared to alternate between being too passive and too aggressive as Ma went on a 7-1 run of his own to go up 9-7. However, a couple missed openings and pushes from Ma gave Zhou enough breathing room to save a game point and force it to deuce.

Ma got a lucky net ball to go up 11-10, but on the next point he then ripped his third ball forehand opening straight into the net. Ma landed an impressive down-the-line block to get his third straight game-point of the game, but Zhou overpowered Ma on the next rally to level it again to 12-12. Ma then gave a slightly weak and high push at 12-12 and a weak half-long opening at 12-13; Zhou killed both with a counter-loop winner to take the fifth game 14-12.

Game 6

Ma was in complete control of game 6 as he again forced Zhou into alternating between too passive and too aggressive and missing high-risk shots. After Ma went up 8-1, Zhou was able to land in a couple of impressive points, but Ma squashed the comeback with an impressive pre-meditated step-around kill against the long serve to go up 9-3 and then an amazing highlight to go up 10-3. The two players then exchanged points as Ma comfortably took the sixth game 11-4.

Game 7

Ma started game 7 on fire as he built an early 4-1 lead. Zhou, desperate to make some changes, started playing extremely aggressively as the next few points were almost all either Zhou killing himself or scoring huge winners early in the point. The gamble did not immediately pay off as Ma went up 8-4. After Ma missed a push to cut the lead to 8-5, all of Zhou’s risky shots suddenly started to land as he completed a 7-0 run to win the game 11-8 and the match 4-3.

You can watch the full match below:

A slideshow of relevant points can be found in the Instagram post below.

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Fan Zhendong Ends Lin Shidong’s Cinderalla Run At China Olympic Scrimmage

Fan Zhendong (aka “小胖”, which translates to “mini fatty”) ended 16-year-old Lin Shidong’s (aka “小小胖“, which translates to “mini mini fatty”) cinderella run in the quarter-finals of the China Olympic Scrimmage with an 11-13, 11-5, 11-9, 4-11, 11-5, 11-6 victory. Seeded last in his group, Lin won all three matches in his group including star names such as Xu Xin and Yan An. He had his opportunities to push the match against Fan to seven games and steal a win, including a painful blown 8-3 lead in game 3, but ultimately Fan was slightly more polished and experienced than Lin.

After the match, Fan commented that he felt that he played to his standard level (i.e. not terribly or exceptionally well). He felt he did not play well the first two games, particularly the first game, but even though it looked like Lin was dominating him in games three and four, he felt that he was playing better, which allowed him to execute well in games 5 and 6 and win both games relatively comfortably. Fan also praised Lin’s mentality and refusal to give up when behind and noted Lin’s rapid improvement since the last time that they played.

Fan Zhendong will play Wang Chuqin in the semi-finals. On the other half of the bracket, Zhou Qihao, who upset Liang Jingkun, will play Ma Long. The other top seeds, Xu Xin and Lin Gaoyuan, were eliminated in the group stage by Lin Shidong and Fang Bo, respectively.

In the women’s singles event, Zhu Yuling defeated Liu Shiwen 4-0 and Wang Yidi defeated Wang Manyu 4-2 to join top two seeds Chen Meng and Sun Yingsha in the semi-finals. Chen will play Zhu and Wang will play Sun in the semi-finals.

You can watch the match along with most other matches at this event on the Youtube channel 247 Table Tennis. More information on watching the event live can be found here.

Game 1

Both players spent most of the first game getting into rhythm as they each missed backhand topspin rolls and gave sloppy pushes and serves for their opponents to abuse. Fan ended up winning a couple of early counterlooping rallies to put himself up at a comfortable 8-3 lead. However, he then consecutively missed a chiquita, a half-long opening, and a down-the-line backhand roll. allowing Lin to catch back up to 8-6. Fan won another power counter-looping rally to go up 9-6 and then popped up Lin’s serve return to keep it at 9-7. Lin tried to take a chiquita to Fan’s forehand, but Fan ripped it for a cross-court winner to take triple game-point at 10-7. 

Lin landed his signature hard backhand opening to save the first game point, and then Fan threw away the next two points off of a missed backhand opening and a missed forehand counterloop from a good position. Fan landed his next counter-loop attempt to Lin’s elbow to take an 11-10 lead, but Lin saved the fourth game point with another hard instant backhand winner. Emblematic of his sloppy play in game 1, Fan missed his serve at 11-11 and then missed another backhand roll to give Lin the first game 13-11.

Game 2

Fan started to get into rhythm for game 2 as he reeled off three straight solid step-around forehand loops from his elbow to take an early 5-2 lead. Lin then tried taking a hard cross-court forehand flick to Fan’s forehand, but Fan killed that ball as well to go up 6-2. Fan finally missed a forehand from the elbow to cut the lead 6-3, but his dominance continued as he built up a 9-4 lead. Lin then took a gamble by serving and immediately stepping around. Luckily for Lin, Fan flicked right to where Lin was waiting as Lin ripped a forehand winner to bring it to 9-5. However, a misread serve by Lin and a net-ball from Fan would cut any hopes of a comeback short as Fan took game 11-5.

Game 3

Lin started with a strong service game to go up 3-1, but his struggles with Fan’s short serve to the forehand continued as Fan caught up to 3-3. Lin again scored two points off his own serve to go up 5-3. Fan tried for two short serves to Lin’s forehand, but Lin was able to execute a surprise heavy push to the forehand that Fan pushed into the net and a weird floating long push to the backhand that Fan missed the opening on. Fan missed his chiquita on the next serve return to give Lin the 8-3 lead.

Fan then won the next point off his signature sequence of a hard chiquita on the serve return and then dominating the ensuing rally. Lin went for a hard counter-loop on the next point, but it went straight into the net, narrowing the lead to 8-5. Whether because he felt that the momentum was shifting or that Lin’s gamble was ill-advised, Lin’s coach then promptly called time-out. 

It seems that both players benefited from the time-out as the next two points ended up being amazing rallies, but Fan won both to cut the lead to 8-7. Lin then gambled again by stepping around early and destroying Fan’s chiquita to what was previously his elbow to give himself a 9-7 lead. Fan then served a tricky sidespin serve off the backhand side of the table and then dominated Lin’s weak and unconfident return. Lin then pushed another serve return into the net, and then Fan won the next two points off his signature chiquita sequence to cap off a 8-1 run and take the pivotal third game 11-9.

Game 4

Fan continued his dominant ways for the first point and a half, but Lin landed a pretty block to take the second point and finally stop the bleeding. He built up an early 5-2 lead thanks to some missed backhand rolls from Fan. He then got a net-ball up 5-2 and up 6-2; Fans saved both nets well, but Lin was able to capitalize on both opportunities and extend the lead to 7-2. He then scored another point off a surprise heavy long push to Fan’s elbow to build the lead to 8-2. At 8-3, Lin briefly thought that his first name was Yun-Ju as he tried to take a short serve from the forehand with a chiquita, but he missed badly, letting Fan cut the lead to 8-4. However, he was able to regather himself and cruise to a 11-4 victory to level it at 2-2.

Game 5

Consistent with his post-game comments, Fan played better in game 5 and was simply more polished than Lin throughout the game. The game opened quite closely with the score level at 3-3. However, Fan went on to win six of the next seven points off a combination of long rallies, clean counters, and errors from Lin. Down 9-4, Lin took a chance at an aggressive roll that paid off to narrow the lead to 9-5 with Lin to serve. However, Fan put his foot on Lin’s comeback hopes with a clean chiquita to the forehand that caught Lin off guard, and then Lin finished himself off by missing his own serve long, giving Fan the fifth game 11-5.

Game 6

Both players started reaching into their bag of tricks in game 6. At 3-2, Fan pushed off the forehand side of the table for the first time in the match. Lin looped it into the net, giving Fan a 4-2 advantage. Fan then executed a rare long fast serve at 4-3 and won the ensuing rally to keep the advantage at 5-3. Lin then tried out a new serve from the middle of the table, but Fan was still able to get the long backhand opening and force Lin out of position to take a 6-3 lead. After missing a serve return into the net to cut the lead to 6-4, Fan was able to extend this lead to 8-4 with a long rally and a hard wide opening.

Lin took a gamble with a rare long fast serve that Fan missed to cut it to 8-5, causing Fan to call time-out. Lin then won a fast counter-loop rally to narrow it to 8-6 in an eery reminder of game 3 but with the roles reversed. However, Lin then missed a forehand flick to extend the lead to 9-6. Fan continued to show his superiority on the short game as he opened against a push from Lin that went a bit too long to take a 10-6 lead. He then landed a well-placed chiquita to Lin’s elbow that Lin missed, giving Fan the game 11-6 and the match 4-2.

A slideshow of several important points in each game are shown in the below Instagram post:

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