Kanak Jha Discusses Olympic Preparations, New Club, and More

Kanak Jha serves against Liam Pitchford at the 2020 World Cup.

Edges and Nets is honored and excited to present our first exclusive interview with Kanak Jha. Jha is a household name in American table tennis, having won every single men’s singles national championship since 2016 for a record four consecutive titles.

On the international stage, Jha is the first American male in the modern era to break into the world’s table tennis elite. He is ranked in the top 30, and at age 21 is one of the game’s biggest rising stars. Since 2018, notable wins for Jha on the ITTF Pro Tour include (in order of recency) 2020 Japanese National Champion Uda Yukiya, 2021 Chinese Olympic Scrimmage Winner Zhou Qihao, Anton Källberg, Kristian Karlsson, Quadri Aruna, Wong Chun Ting, 2019 World Championship Bronze-Medalist An Jaehyun, and Lin Yun-Ju (whom the Chinese have identified as a top-two threat alongside Harimoto at the Tokyo Olympics).

In this interview, we discuss his new international training center in California, how training in the United States compares to training in Europe, competing with China, the Tokyo Olympics, mentally preparing for big tournaments, getting in competitive matches during the pandemic, and playing against stars he watched growing up.

On His New Club in San Francisco

The 2021 US Olympic Team (from left to right: Zhou Xin, Kanak Jha, Nikhil Kumar) wins first place at 888 Table Tennis Center’s grand opening team tournament. Source: 888tabletennis

This is your final sprint before the Olympics, and you’ve been in the United States for several months now. Where have you been training?

I’ve been in California [where Jha grew up and calls home] for the past three weeks, training at 888 Table Tennis Center. For those who don’t know, it’s a really amazing new center next to San Francisco Airport. It’s a great facility with great coaching staff including my personal coach for the last two years Jörg Bitzigeio, who is running it. It’s a really great international center—well, we hope to be an international center in the future—and I’ve been training with my other Olympic teammates there. So it’s been a really nice period for me, getting to be at home.

Have you primarily been training with Zhou Xin and Nikhil Kumar [the other two members of Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics], or are there other people?

Yes, exactly. So primarily with my teammates Zhou Xin and Nikhil. Lily Zhang is also here. And a couple of coaches around the [San Francisco] Bay Area are coming as well. Obviously, Jörg Bitzigeio is running the camp, and so like I said, it’s been a really nice training period and nice camp with my teammates. It’s not so often I’m home. I’m most of the time in Germany, in Europe, so it’s nice to be home, and yeah, it’s a good period.

Can you tell me about how the idea for this club came about, how you got involved, and what your role in the club is right now?

I’m not an expert in the details, but I think the club has been in the making for some time. And I always get updates about how the progress is going, and it’s really exciting now that it’s finished. There are not so many clubs in the US in general and the Bay Area, and this is definitely the largest one [in the Bay Area] and I want to say the largest in the country.

If you’re ever in the San Francisco area and play table tennis, I would definitely recommend for you to check it out. It’s such a great center, and I really think that it has the potential to be an international center, especially where it’s located, near San Francisco Airport. And this weekend we have a tournament here, in which all of my other Olympic teammates and I will be participating in, and it’s kind of like the grand opening of the center. So I’m a representative for this center, and I’m really proud to be a part of 888. And I just really hope it can become an international huge center in the future and have training opportunities for all levels when they come here.

On Training in the United States

Kanak Jha doing a 3-point forehand drill at 888 Table Tennis Center. Source: 888tabletennis

Do you see yourself training full-time in the US in the near future?

Next season I will be in Ochsenhausen, my [German Bundesliga] club from this season. It’s hard to see it [training full-time in the US], just because in Europe and Asia, table tennis is just such a sport that has been there for so long, it’s such a popular sport, and the Europeans and Asians are so strong in table tennis. Right now, to be a professional player, if you really want to reach a world class level, you kind of have to live there if you want to reach the top.

But it’s already great to have a high-level center here, and now definitely when I’m home and coming back time to time, I can train there. I would love in the future if it would be possible to train here full time, and hopefully, hopefully, that will be a possibility in the future.

So you’ve been here for a while, and I wanted to ask you about how it’s different from Europe.

Yeah, it’s a really huge difference to be honest between training in Europe and here in the US, where I’ve been training since I was a kid. [In the US] it’s primarily driven by private lessons if you want to practice table tennis and really want to improve [as a kid].

But it’s a different culture here in the US, because we don’t have full-time professional players. We don’t have so many full time clubs where you have a lot of other players to play with, so it’s mostly just private lessons and paying [a private coach] per hour and trying to improve with coaching. Meanwhile, in Europe, you’re really in a center in a club with many other professional players in a group setting.

So I think it definitely does have disadvantages and advantages. One of the advantages from being in the US is that we have a lot of young kids whose techniques are oftentimes more advanced than in Europe, because we get to train with high-level coaches, so our technical level, our techniques start out at a higher level than Europeans at a young age. But as you get older you definitely need to be playing with other professional players in a group setting. [In a group setting] you can always play matches, you can block for real-life table tennis settings that more closely resemble the match. There’s only so much you can play with a [private] coach.

So I do think you need a bit of both, but I think the biggest difference is there’s a group setting in general when you’re training in Europe, which is very helpful when you’re reaching a higher level. Because there’s really only so much you can train against on one side against a block or just practicing one way [with a coach], versus when you’re playing with someone on the other side of the table who also really wants to improve and also wants to win the point. And that pushes everyone forward together, just being in that atmosphere all the time.

But these days, you are training in a group right?

Yeah.

And is it just the four US men’s team members and Lily?

Yeah, and maybe one or two more. I don’t know if you know like Bob Chen. But yeah, mostly it’s just us.

Ok. Another thing I wanted to ask you about your training is that I think it’s fair to say that you’re the strongest in the group by a pretty undebatable margin.

Uh, you can say that I’m ranked the highest.

And in Germany, there are some players who are higher ranked than you. Do you see any advantages or disadvantages of training like this, where in my opinion, you are pretty obviously ahead of the pack.

It’s always good in some ways to practice with players at a stronger level than you, so you can see what they’re doing better, what makes them such a top player. But at the same time, for me personally, the most important thing in training is you know what you’re working on. If you come to the table with a goal and you know what you need to practice, then in that regard you don’t really need the highest level of sparring partner or someone who’s much better than you if you know what you’re working on and what you’re doing.

So I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s always nice to play with players better than you, and you could say it’s more fun compared to if you play with someone at your own level, but at the same time the most important thing is that when you come to the table, you know what you’re working on, you have a goal of what you’re practicing in, and in that case, training will always be beneficial.

On Competing With China

Leaked (low-resolution) image of the poster of China’s tiers of rivals. This poster is in the training hall of the Chinese National Team leading up to the Tokyo Olympics. Kanak Jha (hilighted in red) is considered third-tier.

So some of the Japanese players, I’m thinking of Mima Ito in particular, they’re kind of famous for not wanting to train with the Chinese, and they want to stay in their own unit. Although she misses the chance to train with them and collaborate with them, I’m guessing her choice not to train with them gives her innovations a stronger competitive advantage. Can you talk more about this trade-off?

I think in general in table tennis, everyone’s goal is to beat the Chinese. I mean for those who themselves are not Chinese, obviously. So you see there are a lot of advantages like in the clubs in Europe, there are a lot of international players from different parts of the world. We can learn from each other and practice with each other, and see what you’ve done successfully, what your knowledge of the game may be more than mine that I can learn from.

I mean at the end of the day, the Chinese really are the best by a lot. Obviously, the Japanese are also very good, but to beat the Chinese is really the ultimate goal. I think the way we can improve, you see that the Chinese, they have these big centers with so many players on their national team for training, and we just don’t have that amount of players or those conditions in Europe or the rest of the world. So it definitely helps when we train together, that we can all improve and hopefully fight against them in the future.

I see. So you know China has that thing where they rank their rivals into tiers, you’re tier three right now.

I saw that. I saw that.

Do you agree with that assessment, and do you have a timeline for when you want to be tier one?

(laughs) Well first I need to say that it’s pretty cool that I’m there in general. I mean, growing up, I would never think that China, anyone on the national team, would know who I am. So just to know I’m there is pretty cool. I haven’t really put much thought into what tier I am. I’m kind of focused on myself and improving. But yeah, it’s pretty cool to know that I’m on their radar, and I hope in the future to keep improving and maybe challenge them hopefully. And I guess that’s the goal of myself, and of course, many other players.

On the Tokyo Olympics

Kanak Jha sets a record at the 2016 Rio Olympics as the first US Olympian (across all sports) born in the year 2000 or later. Source: Sports Illustrated

Do you have any specific goals for Tokyo in terms of where you finish?

For me personally, I really just want to take it round by round. I mean the Olympics are such a unique event. It’s only the best players in the world coming there, so I know how difficult it will be. I definitely feel like I’ve improved a lot every year actually since Rio, which was my first Olympics, and I was very young, so definitely there are a little more expectations than last time, but I just want to take it round by round. And like I said, it’s such a strong event, so it’s definitely going to be extremely challenging from the beginning.

Do you think you’re going to be more nervous this time compared to 2016 because of the expectations, or do you think maybe it’ll be easier this time mentally since it’s your second time?

It’s hard to say. It’s a little hard to compare, but the pressure will always be there regardless of how many Olympics you play. It’s impossible not to have pressure. The most important thing is how you deal with the pressure.

But really, I try to really not to think about it so much. I’m just more focused on myself and improving every day and getting into top shape. When I’m training well before a competition, like I am now, it helps me to gain confidence to feel good going into the event. So the most important thing for me is just to have a lot of confidence and feel good about myself going into the Games, and then not worry too much about how far I reach.

On His Mental Game

Kanak Jha pushes a ball en route to winning his record fourth consecutive national title in 2019.
Kanak Jha pushes a ball en route to winning his record fourth consecutive national title in 2019. Source: USATT

So when the Chinese talk about their preparation for a big event, it’s always just mental, mental, mental, mental, mental. Do you feel like it’s the same for you, or do you also worry about physical or technical stuff?

So for the Chinese, I think their technical skill is at a higher level than almost everyone else in the world, so they know mentally if they can be focused and just be able to play their normal game, that can already be enough to go far in a tournament.

Yeah, I think mental really is the biggest thing. At the end of the day, everyone can play at a high level, especially at the Olympics. Being in the top 100 versus top 30, the [technical] differences can oftentimes be small, so it’s a lot of mental, how well you can impose your game onto the [opposing] player, how good your tactics are coming into the match, and those things often make the difference between winning and losing when both players are already playing at a high level.

Mentally, do you feel like it’s different playing an international event versus at US Nationals, where you’re a heavy favorite, and I mean you’re basically like China at the US Nationals. Do you feel like preparing for Nationals is just completely mental at that point and is the mental preparation different from an international event?

Yeah, I think the Nationals in the last two or three years I’ve played, I’ve been the favorite. So it’s definitely a different kind of pressure in its way, because you kind of expect yourself to win, but at the same time, you have to realize that being the top seed versus actually winning are two very different things. Everyone is hungry to beat you. You’re the main guy to beat. It’s also easy to relax yourself, saying I’m the top seed, I should already be thinking of the semi-finals, and that’s really the wrong way to go at it.

Regardless of whether it’s a US Nationals or an international event, I always try to come in with the same mindset, which is just to be 100 percent prepared, 100 percent focused from the first round, and that’s how I always want to free myself into a tournament mentally.

To get into a good mental state right before a tournament, is there a certain preparation that you do? Like matches or something?

Yeah, it depends a lot on which tournament also. In general, I just try to make myself in good shape. As the days get closer to the tournament, it’s more like individual, I’d say how I feel, what I would like to do, what I would like to practice and work on.

And yeah, mentally, it’s more of just trying to adjust. If you’re feeling nervous, just try to relax. If you’re feeling too relaxed, then maybe pump yourself up the day before, maybe try to really get yourself motivated to play. You always want to try to find a balance between feeling really confident and positive but at the same time having a little bit of that pressure inside so that you know you’re going to have an edge.

On Getting Competitive Matchplay Leading Up to Tokyo

Kanak Jha's Bundesliga team at Ochsenhausen. From left to right: Samuel Kulczycki, Simon Gauzy, Hugo Calderano, Kanak Jha, Maciek Kubik
Kanak Jha’s German Bundesliga team at Ochsenhausen. From left to right: Samuel Kulczycki, Simon Gauzy, Hugo Calderano, Kanak Jha, Maciek Kubik. Source: TTF Ochsenhausen.

I’ve seen chatter that it’s hard to get in competitive matches these days due to COVID. The Europeans have ETTC going on, and the Asians have their own internal things going on. Do you feel like the team tournament this weekend [at 888 Table Tennis Club] is close to that?

Yeah. First, going into Tokyo, it’s a really different feeling compared to a normal event, just because there’s been no real international competition for such a long time. That’s something that’s not really normal in the table tennis scene. You’re used to playing a lot of international events, competing a lot, and now there’s really been no events for such a long period, so it’ll definitely be a little different feeling than a normal preparation.

That’s why I’m also really happy that we’re having an event this weekend where we can compete a bit and play some serious high-level matches and get yourself into the groove and see what is working, what is not working, and mentally try to get yourself into that competitive state and competitive feeling.

Given how few matches there are these days, is there a reason you chose not to play in Qatar [WTT Doha] in March?

During the Qatar Open, I was actually at home in California. It had been a long stretch for me in Germany, about ten or ten-and-a-half months that I hadn’t been able to come home. So my thought process was, at the time there was supposed to be a China Hub after Qatar, and I think there were supposed to be two events there. I think they originally planned four [including Qatar]. There would have been two events in China, and that was my original plan, to focus on the China Hub. They were also a little more important in terms of ranking.

But unfortunately afterwards, that got cancelled due to COVID. So it’s a bit unfortunate. If I knew that ahead of time, I definitely would have competed [in Qatar], but we live in a time of uncertainty, so we have to live with it.

So you really haven’t played competitively since like February then?

Yeah, I want to say my last international tournament was maybe in October, the Men’s World Cup in China.

You had other stuff like the German Cup in early 2021 though, right?

Yeah, then I think I competed competitively last time in like March, maybe. It’s definitely been a while, and the international stage is different from even the [German] league. So it’s still nice to play a tournament now this weekend and compete a bit.

On Some of His Recent Matches Against Top Stars

Kanak Jha celebrates a point against Chaung Chih-Yuan at the Men's World Cup in October 2020
Kanak Jha celebrates a point against Chaung Chih-Yuan at the Men’s World Cup in October 2020. Source: ITTF.

So at the World Cup, you almost beat Chuang Chih-Yuan [Kanak lost deuce in the seventh]. Based on my understanding, he’s been your favorite player for a while now. How was that? Were you starstruck or anything? Did you talk to him about that?

Actually it’s my second time playing him. I also played him in the 2019 Omar Open, and he beat me really convincingly there, so I was kind of disappointed with my performance there. I played quite badly. Maybe I was a little bit excited in 2019 to play him, because I mean I never expected to play him growing up, you know.

But this time, honestly I treated it like a normal match. It’s a World Cup, and once you get on the table, you just want to win. That’s what my mindset was, so I really wasn’t thinking of anything else.

But definitely still, even after playing him, I have even more respect for him, how great he is, how great he still is at his age. He’s definitely a fantastic player, and it’s one of the reasons he’s my favorite player.

So shortly after that, you played the German Cup, where you played Timo Boll and Shang Kun. For those matches, you lost both of those 3-0, but in pretty much every game, you were pretty close until the end. And then they get you with like a serve or something. For you, is that a mental thing, or is that just something that happens when you play stronger players, or is it just a problem reading their serves, or what?

Yeah, in general, top players’ serve and receive game is really important. You not only have to receive the ball, you have to receive it with a lot of quality, so that they don’t attack you aggressively on the next shot.

It’s cool, it was my first time playing Timo. He beat me 3-0. As you said, the sets maybe were a little bit close, but still it was quite convincing. It’s always cool to play against top players, because you can really feel their balls and really see up close what you can really never see on video, what they’re doing so well. So it’s always great to play against them and kind of learn what they’re doing that makes them so special.

I see. And do you feel like they’re playing better at the end of the games compared to the beginning of the games, when you’re able to keep the score tighter?

I think in general for all levels when you’re playing someone at a higher technical level than you, the ending is where you can really feel that the most. Whether it’s just because they’re a little more confident in their abilities or a little more experienced, in decisive moments is what really separates higher-level players from players who are not at their level. And I think that holds for all stages of table tennis.

I guess nobody that you’re training with has serves as good as Timo Boll. How do you practice your serve return under such circumstances?

I train more by myself and not to receive a specific player’s serve, so I’m working on my receive in general and my shots in general. But when you lose to a player where you have a problem, a pretty obvious problem, like you can’t receive or you have problems with their receive, it’s always good to take a look at that and work on that. But most of the time, I’m training just for myself to work on my own shots and that will anyway apply in the match regardless of who I’m playing against.

If you liked this post, please share it with your friends and follow Edges and Nets on Facebook Instagram, and Twitter to stay updated. Check out our our coverage of other interviews from top players in the game and the rest of our Olympic coverage. You can also follow Kanak Jha on Instagram.

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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If you are based in the United States, be sure to also check out the $3K ASLT Oktoberfest in San Diego, California on October 22-24.

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.

If you liked this post, please share it with your friends and follow Edges and Nets on Facebook Instagram, and Twitter to stay updated. To contact us, please e-mail edgesandnets@gmail.com

If you are based in the United States, be sure to also check out the $3K ASLT Oktoberfest in San Diego, California on October 22-24.

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.

If you liked this post, please share it with your friends and follow Edges and Nets on Facebook Instagram, and Twitter to stay updated. To contact us, please e-mail edgesandnets@gmail.com

If you are based in the United States, be sure to also check out the $3K ASLT Oktoberfest in San Diego, California on October 22-24.

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.

If you liked this post, please share it with your friends and follow Edges and Nets on Facebook Instagram, and Twitter to stay updated. To contact us, please e-mail edgesandnets@gmail.com

If you are based in the United States, be sure to also check out the $3K ASLT Oktoberfest in San Diego, California on October 22-24.

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)。

If you liked this post, please share it with your friends and follow Edges and Nets on Facebook Instagram, and Twitter to stay updated. To contact us, please e-mail edgesandnets@gmail.com

If you are based in the United States, be sure to also check out the $3K ASLT Oktoberfest in San Diego, California on October 22-24.

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.

If you liked this post, please share it with your friends and follow Edges and Nets on Facebook Instagram, and Twitter to stay updated. To contact us, please e-mail edgesandnets@gmail.com

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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.

If you liked this post, please share it with your friends and follow Edges and Nets on Facebook Instagram, and Twitter to stay updated. Check out the rest of our Olympic coverage.

If you are based in the United States, be sure to also check out our exclusive interview with Kanak Jha and the $3K ASLT Oktoberfest in San Diego, California on October 22-24.

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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If you are based in the United States, be sure to also check out our exclusive interview with Kanak Jha and celebrate Timo Boll and the rest of Germany with us at the $3K ASLT Oktoberfest in San Diego, California on October 22-24.

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