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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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Identifying The Magnus Effect In Table Tennis

As we all wait for the elite professional table tennis scene to return in early May, in today’s post we will look at one of the more fundamental physical phenomena in table tennis that not all viewers are aware of: the Magnus Effect.

The Magnus Effect is a physical phenomenon that explains how the spin of a ball modifies its trajectory while the ball is in the air. Unlike other aspects of table tennis mechanics, the Magnus Effect is not the result of gravity and friction, forces that we are familiar with and experience every day, but the result of fluid dynamics. This makes it difficult to visualize and form an intuitive understanding of the Magnus Effect.

However, although it is difficult to create an intuition for the cause of the Magnus Effect, once you understand its results (which are extremely simple), then you can see how the Magnus Effect is present in several common table tennis contexts.

What is the Magnus Effect?

A very non-rigorous explanation of the Magnus Effect (courtesy of Wikipedia) is as follows. When a spinning ball moves through a fluid (such as air), the ball “pushes” the air in one direction, and as a result of Newton’s Third Law (every action has an equal and opposite reaction), the air pushes back on the ball in the opposite direction. The visualization below shows a ball with topspin traveling to the right, which kicks up the air behinds it. As a result, the air exerts a reactive downward force on the ball.

If this is difficult to form an intuition around, that is fine; from a table tennis perspective what matters is not the cause but the effect of the Magnus Effect. The most important takeaway is that the Magnus Effect means that the spin of the ball affects its trajectory while the ball is still in the air and before it even hits the table.

Visualization of the airflow that causes the Magnus Effect

What makes the Magnus Effect counterintuitive is that for topspin and underspin, the direction of the force is opposite of what we usually associate for each spin. When the ball bounces on the table or off the raquet, we typically associate a topspin ball with jumping upward and forward (e.g. for a kicker serve) and an underspin ball will jump downward and backward (e.g. Ma Lin’s famous ghost serve).

However, by contrast, the Magnus Effect exerts a downward force (and a smaller backward force when the ball is falling) on topspin balls and an upward force (and a smaller forward force when the ball is falling) on underspin balls. We can better visualize both the direction of the Magnus Effect and how strongly it can influence the ball’s trajectory in the below video, where a basketball falling downward with backspin floats very far forward. If you tilt your neck sideways while watching the video, then you can see how a ball with backspin traveling horizontally across a table will feel an upward force due to the Magnus Effect (of course, in a table tennis scenario, this force is still weaker than gravity, so the ball still falls down onto the table).

Identifying the Magnus Effect in Table Tennis

At its essence, the Magnus Effect may be slightly counterintuitive but it is extremely simple: topspin is dragged down when the ball is in the air, and underspin is lifted up when the ball is in the air. We look at its consequences in two common scenarios: the fast topspin rally and the counter against a spinny opening loop.

The Magnus Effect In Fast Topspin Rallies

One of the biggest results of the Magnus Effect is that it is more desirable to add topspin to loops regardless of the speed. Spin vs speed is often viewed as a tradeoff where one must lose one to gain the other, which can be the case when the amount of spin/speed generated is limited by the player’s physical abilities. However, in the certain in-game contexts, increasing topspin may actually enable more speed. Watch the following winner by Ding Ning below.

The radar on the net measures the speed of the winner to be a fast 70 km/hr, but notice how the ball actually does not bounce that deep on the table. It only bounces roughly at the halfway point between the edge and the net both on Ding’s game-winner and the shot immediately before that. This is because the ball is loaded with spin (watch the ball roll on the floor when the point ends), so a heavy Magnus force drags the ball down faster. Hence, Ding Ning could have hit even faster, and the ball would still have landed within the table.

In general, adding more topspin counterintuitively makes the ball land shallower due to the Magnus Effect. This gives players a wider margin of error to hit the ball hard and fast without having to worry about it going off the table. As long as the player brushes the ball sufficiently and adds enough spin, the player can hit as hard as he or she wants and the ball will still drop down onto the table because of the increased Magnus force.

Although it is usually desirable to land serves, pushes, and opening deep onto the table, in the fast rally the ball is so fast and the opponent has so little time to react that the shallow depth appears not to matter much anyway. Moreover, with the heavy amount of spin involved and high downward velocity due to the Magnus Effect, the ball gets a serious kick once it bounces off the table. Looking at the slow-motion replay you can see how much pressure Ding Ning applies to Mima Ito during that point. On the first block, the ball is already up to near her face-level (granted, Mima Ito is short and also bending down). On the second shot, Ito is a bit late, and the ball jumps over her paddle.

Leveraging the Magnus Effect Against Slow Spinny Loops

Many amateur players have had the experience where, even if an opening loop is slow, if it is spinny it can often be quite challenging to block because the spin causes the ball to bounce off the racquet so that it flies off the edge of the table. One solution is to close the racquet and essentially hit the ball downward in order to counter the heavy topspin..

Alternatively, a player can simply add his or her own topspin to the ball, so even if the ball bounces off the racquet at a higher angle than expected, the Magnus Effect will forgive minor errors and drag the ball down. In the clip below, Ma Long opens his angle and counters Fan Zhendong’s slow spinny opening with a heavy topspin counter in which his racquet goes almost straight up instead of down or even forward.

Bonus: Around-the-net Shots

The Magnus Effect carries the most in-game implication for top-spin balls and topspin is usually the heaviest spin in the match, but it also affects heavy underspin and sidespin balls. For underspin balls, the Magnus Effect gives heavy chops their floating effect. While the distances involved in table tennis are too small for us to see some of the extreme bends that we do in soccer/football on sidespin balls, the curve induced by the Magnus Effect can clearly be seen in some of the more ambitious around-the-net shots that Youtube stars like Adam Bobrow take.

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Unfortunately, ITTF has killed ITTV, meaning that past matches are no longer publicly available to watch. Hence, no analysis blog posts are scheduled for the immediate future. You can check out past analysis posts here.

How Dimitrij Ovtcharov Solved The Lin Yun-Ju Problem At WTT Doha

A guide to all of Edges and Nets’ coverage of WTT Doha (also known as World Table Tennis (WTT) Middle East Hub and formerly known as ITTF Qatar Open) can be found here.

Dimitrij Ovtcharov appeared to have a Lin Yun-Ju problem. Going into WTT Doha, Lin had won their previous four match-ups in international competition dating back to the 2018 Austrian Open and appeared to have virtually no problem attacking Ovtcharov’s famous serves or dominating Ovtcharov in the rallies.

However, with several key adjustments Ovtcharov actually came quite close to beating Lin in the ITTF Grand Finals in November 2020, but he fell just short, losing deuce in the sixth game. After adding in a few extra wrinkles to his game, Ovtcharov was finally able to snap his losing streak against Lin in the WTT Contender finals at WTT Doha witha 4-1 victory. We take a look at what adjustments Ovtcharov made to finally solve the Lin Yun-Ju problem on his fifth try.

Unfortunately, the video of the full match appears to have been removed from Youtube and to the best of our knowledge is currently publicly unavailable.

The Lin Yun-Ju Problem

We note two key reasons for Lin’s dominance over Ovtcharov in their previous matches. First is that although Ovtcharov’s serves are typically seen as one of his strengths, Lin has virtually no problem receiving Ovtcharov’s serves with very aggressive chiquitas that allow Lin to take the initiative on the attack. Second, Lin appears to be physically faster than Ovtcharov by a comfortable margin, allowing him to dominate in fast-paced counter-attack rallies as shown in the point below from their match in 2020.

Thus, Ovtcharov will almost certainly lose to Lin if he plays the traditional approach that most young kids are taught of trying to land the first opening attack and using the advantage gained from taking the initiative to dominate the ensuing rally. Ovtcharov cannot compete with Lin’s chiquita to open up more often than Lin. Even if Ovtcharov were able to open up first more often than Lin, Lin’s physical speed advantage could effectively neutralize the advantage Ovtcharov may gain in the rally from being the first to open.

The Solution: Ceding the Opening Attack

After losing quite handily in the 2019 Czech Open, one of Ovtcharov’s central and incredibly daring and innovative adjustments both in the 2020 ITTF Grand Finals and in WTT Doha was to almost completely cede the opening attack to Lin.

To get an idea of how willing Ovtcharov was to allow Lin to attack first, consider the following numbers. In their 2019 match-up, Ovtcharov attempted 36% of the opening attacks (whether make or miss) from either player. While Lin attempted a healthy majority of the opening attacks, this is still quite a reasonable number given his dominance in the chiquita.

In the 2020 Grand Finals, Ovtcharov attempted only 20% of the opening attacks, allowing Lin to open up a staggering four times more often than Ovtcharov did. Ovtcharov returned over half of Lin’s long or half-long serves with a push or defensive shot, a decision that would earn most young children a healthy punishment from their coach. For comparison, in their 2019 match-up, in which Ovtcharov played a more conventional approach, Ovtcharov attacked nine of Lin’s eleven long serves.

Ovtcharov continued this approach of pushing long serves in their match at WTT Doha, even doing so at game point and deuce as shown below.

Overall, in Ovtcharov’s victory at WTT Doha, he attempted a more reasonable 30% of the opening attacks. The uptick in attempted opening attacks can be explained by several factors. First is the statistical noise present in any sample size of roughly 100. Second, as we will see later, Ovtcharov appeared to intentionally mix in more attacks to catch Lin off guard more often.

Third is that Lin also made the observation that Ovtcharov was perfectly happy to let him attack first and adjusted his game accordingly. This could most clearly be seen in that he pushed several of Ovtcharov’s serves as opposed to rushing in for the chiquita. Lin virtually never made such a move in their matches in the 2019 Czech Open and the 2020 Grand Finals. This adjustment in turn allowed Ovtcharov to reveal just how happy he was to let Lin attack first; Ovtcharov simply pushed back Lin’s pushes and did not seem to mind if his own push ended up being long or even slightly high.

Why Cede the Opening Attack?

What does Ovtcharov gain from ceding the opening attack? After all, it often ends up with Lin immediately winning the point with a clean third-ball kill.

First is the obvious advantage that pushing is less error prone than attacking. In their two match-ups at the 2020 Grand Finals and WTT Doha 2021, Lin totaled 22 opening errors, while Ovtcharov only had 7. Over the course of 11 games, this comes out to just over one extra error a game for Lin. However, as Ovtcharov won two games in deuce in his 4-1 victory in Doha, this small advantage ends up mattering greatly.

However, Ovtcharov cannot just hope for Lin to miss 11 openings a game. The central advantage of ceding the attack appears to be that it counter-intuitively allows Ovtcharov to better dictate the pace and rhythm of the game. We can see this in a couple of Ovtcharov’s favorite go-to plays against Lin.

Go-To Play #1: Backhand or Elbow Pin-down Against the Chiquita

As shown in the two points in the video below, one of Ovtcharov’s favorite plays is to either serve or push short or half-long to Lin’s forehand and allow Lin to take a chiquita from the forehand. Ovtcharov then blocks down the line to Lin’s backhand or elbow, and Lin either misses the backhand or returns an extremely weak shot that gives Ovtcharov a massive advantage in the ensuing rally.

From this play, we see one big advantage of letting Lin attack first. Provided that Ovtcharov can to a certain degree anticipate the location of Lin’s first attack and avoid immediately getting killed, he is often firmly waiting in the position he wants to be at while Lin has to move his body further out both in the left-right direction and the shallow-deep direction in order to initiate the attack.

Thus, even if Lin knows that the ball is likely to go deep to his backhand on the next shot (which is not a guarantee if Ovtcharov plays with enough variation and keeps Lin guessing), he has a significant distance to cover and not much time (recall Ovtcharov is typically blocking down the line) to recover from his opening chiquita, neutralizing his physical speed advantage over Ovtcharov.

While Ovtcharov most clearly leveraged this positional advantage in the backhand pin-down against Lin’s chiquita from the forehand corner, it can also be seen in other points in the match, such as in the point below where Lin steps around for the hard forehand kill, but Ovtcharov correctly anticipates the location of the kill and blocks it wide to Lin’s forehand.

Go-To Play #2: Change In Pace

While Ovtcharov may have difficulty keeping up with Lin in terms of raw speed, he is able to throw Lin off rhythm by either going from a slow block to a fast counter or sometimes even a fast counter to a slower block as seen in the point below.

If Ovtcharov’s goal is to maximize change of pace, Ovtcharov may thus prefer to start from a position of blocking instead of a moderately fast opening attack as it allows him to switch gears more drastically. We can also see more clearly how Ovtcharov’s defensive approach actually makes his attacks more effective in several points where Ovtcharov performs a standard opening but appears to catch Lin off guard and win the point immediately.

Ovtcharov faces the standard trade-off where if he attacks too much, then his attacks are no longer surprising and he is unnecessarily playing into Lin’s game. This appears to have been the case in the 2019 Czech Open. However, attack too little and he is failing to exploit a quick and easy source of points. This appears to have been the case in the 2020 ITTF Grand Finals. Ovtcharov seems to have struck a nice balance of initiating the attack just under 30% of the time and pushing a little less than half of Lin’s long serves at WTT Doha. Of course, Lin may force a change in that number in their next match-up.

Extending The Bag of Tricks

One critical difference between Ovtcharov’s loss in the 2020 Grand Finals and his victory in WTT Doha is that in the 2020 Grand Finals, Ovtcharov lost a game 11-9 and a game in deuce, while in Doha, Ovtcharov won both the deuce games.

The change in results can arguably be attributed to luck or Lin playing slightly worse or Ovtcharov playing slightly better. However, Ovtcharov also helped himself in Doha by introducing new subtle tricks that allowed him to eke out the extra two games that he needed.

Perhaps the most clear addition to Ovtcharov’s bag of tricks was a new simple dead serve (Kong Linghui is another notable player to have used this serve) that was completely non-existent in his 2019 match with Lin. Ovtcharov was also hesitant to use this serve in their 2020 match until down 9-5 in the sixth game. The serve was effective enough for him to force the game to deuce.

In Doha, Ovtcharov was happy to use this serve much more frequently, even at deuce. It played well into his defensive approach to the game, and Lin was unable to do much against it as there was no spin or power to borrow. As mentioned earlier in this post, Lin chose to push the serve back in both the points shown below, but Ovtcharov felt comfortable pushing the ball back again to give the opening to Lin. The extra couple points won from this serve throughout the match helped give Ovtcharov the slight edge that he needed to take the two close games in the match.

What’s next?

Lin is now the front-runner over Hugo Calderano to take the fourth seed at the Tokyo Olympics. If Lin holds on to the fourth seed, a Lin-Ovtcharov quarter-final draw has a 25% chance of happening, Of course, both players need to also avoid getting upset in order for the match to actually happen. There is also a decent chance that these two could meet in a bronze medal match if Ovtcharov can replicate his WTT Contender performance against Harimoto and China continues to dominate. It is hard to say who would be favored in a match-up in the Tokyo Olympics.

On the one hand, Lin is higher ranked, has a history of defeating Ovtcharov, and appears to have a raw physical advantage in the fast rallies. Moreover, if Ovtcharov is really so eager to let Lin attack first, nothing is stopping Lin from just pushing the ball back more often. At the end of the day, as the one who initiates the attack, Lin in principle should have more control over the pace and rhythm of the game. Moreover, Ovtcharov’s tricks will lose effectiveness as their novelty wears off, and Lin is almost certainly training against the simple dead serve.

On the other hand, Ovtcharov almost certainly has more tricks saved up just for the Olympics, and he is likely to innovate more tricks and tactics over the next few months. Moreover, playing in the round of 16 in the ITTF Grand Finals or the finals of WTT Contender is a completely different animal from playing in a bronze-medal match at the Olympics.

Liu Shiwen has mentioned how critical the mental aspect of table tennis is and how her previous World Championship finals experience gave her the edge over Chen Meng in 2019. Lin is only 19 and has never played in any match as nearly as high stakes as an Olympic bronze-medal match. He may be the “silent assassin” when playing in a T2 or world tour event that, despite the prize money, in the grand scheme of things is quite meaningless, but we have yet to see him in such a big spotlight. On the other hand, this will be Ovtcharov’s third Olympics and he has already won a bronze medal in 2012, which may give him just enough of a mental edge to eke out a tight win.

We apologize for the delay in releasing this post as it took longer than anticipated to write. The next post is scheduled for Wednesday, April 7.

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6 Ruwen Filus Shots To Watch Out For In The WTT Doha Finals

Not the post you were looking for? A guide to all of Edges and Nets’ coverage of WTT Doha (also known as World Table Tennis (WTT) Middle East Hub and formerly known as ITTF Qatar Open) can be found here.

World Rank 42 Ruwen Filus has made a surprise Cinderella run to the finals of WTT Star Contender after defeating Jang Woojin (WR 12) in the round of 32, Jun Mizutani (WR 18) in the round of 16, Lin Yun-Ju (WR 6) in the quarter-finals, and Darko Jorgic (WR 31) in the semi-finals.

He will face Tomokazu Harimoto (WR 5) in the finals, and a sizable number of fans are expecting/hoping for Filus to win. The finals can be viewed on WTT’s website and will be streamed live at 12:45 Greenwich time. Harimoto and Filus have gone 1-1 in their previous international match-ups, with Filus winning their most recent match in 2019.

Although Filus, at age 33, has been around for a while, some fans may be quite unfamiliar with Filus’ game other than the fact that he is a chopper. Most people’s minds immediately jump to Joo Se Hyuk when they think of a male chopper, but Filus is quite different and arguably more creative. We re-watched Filus’ round of 32 match against Jang Woojin and identified six shots to watch out for in a Ruwen Filus match.

Each of these six shots have at least two or three variations visible to the spectator, and when Filus is able to string them together in weird combinations, the possibilities are countless.

Another thing to note is that most of these shots are actually offensive shots. While Filus is known as a chopper, if we discount lucky points and missed serve returns from from the opponent, in Filus’ round of 32 victory over Jang Woojin, 72% of the points that Filus won were on offensive shots (i.e. shots where Filus is actively and quickly trying to throw his opponent out of position). With that in mind, let’s now take a non-exhaustive look at Filus’ toolkit.

1) Offensive Shot: The Floater

The floater is an aggressive shot popular among close-to-the-table long pips players (which Filus is not). To execute the floater, Filus quickly pushes an underspin ball with the long pips at a well-placed location to the elbow or wide corner. While the ball’s raw speed is lower than a regular chiquita, the ball still comes back fast and opponents will sometimes get a unique sensation that the ball is “floating” towards them, which can often mess up their timing. Moreover, Filus appears to have more control over the direction and magnitude of the sidespin he adds to the ball compared to a standard chiquita.

While some may dispute the classification of this shot as an offensive shot due to its slow speed, Filus often uses it with the intent to either win the point outright or set up an aggressive opening on the next shot.

2) Offensive Shot: The Surprise Block

It may seem paradoxical to classify a block as an offensive shot, but the keyword is surprise. When the opponent is expecting Filus to chop it back slowly and then he rushes in and twiddles the paddle for the fast backhand block, the opponent has to react arguably just as quickly as if it were a counterloop or punch that they were expecting.

Unlike the floater, which Filus frequently uses to either win the point or set up another shot, Filus doesn’t use this shot as often (hence the term “surprise” in the name). However, when he does it, the conversion rate is very high.

The surprise block is typically a backhand shot, but there is a forehand variation where it looks like Filus is about to push or shovel (see #5) the ball, and then rushes in for a quick forehand click.

3) Offensive Shot: The Surprise Backhand Loop

When the opponent sends a slow push to Filus’ backhand, he has time to twiddle paddle and pull off a surprise backhand loop. His loop looks like it’s in slow motion compared to some other offensive players with more offensive equipment, but again the key is the surprise. When the opponent is expecting a simple push or a floater back, a well-placed surprise backhand loop can be incredibly difficult to react to.

4) Offensive Shot: The Forehand Loop

The forehand loop both as an opening and a counter-lop is a standard offensive shot that all choppers have. However, it looks like Filus is able to use his forehand more efficiently and frequently than normal choppers because of his arsenal of other shots. For example, he does not really chop with the forehand but instead uses the shovel (see #5), which has a similar backstroke to a forehand loop. This makes him able to more easily switch to a forehand counter-loop when he sees the opportunity.

In the point shown below, he gets Jang out of position with a fast floater and then hits him with a hard down-the-line counter-loop.

5) Defensive Shot: The Shovel

While Filus usually wins the points off his offensive shots, the defensive shots give him the element of surprise that give his offensive shots the firepower that they have. On the forehand side, Filus essentially never chops. He instead prefers to “shovel” the ball along with his forehand. The drawback of this shot is that it perhaps becomes more difficult for him to sustain a defensive rally than a normal chopper.

However, there appear to be two key benefits. One is that the shovel is slightly faster and gives a sharper tempo contrast with his backhand chops. The second, as mentioned earlier, is that the shovel appears to allow him to more seamlessly integrate offensive forehand loops and even flicks due to their similar backstrokes with the shovel.

This can be seen in the point below, although Filus ends up losing. Another fun nugget in this point is that Filus twiddled to chop with the black inverted side at the beginning of the point.

6) Defensive Shot: The Chop

Last but not least is the shot that Filus is most famous for: the chop. He sometimes twiddles to chop with the black inverted rubber, but he mostly uses it the standard way: an underspin chop with the long pips.

As we mentioned earlier, the chop doesn’t directly win Filus that many points as 72% of his points won against Jang were off offensive shots. In fact, in his match with Jang, Filus lost a majority of the rallies where he was stuck chopping and couldn’t get an offensive shot off.

However, the chop is what unlocks his ability to patiently wait for the chance to unleash all the other shots in his toolkit, so although it doesn’t win him that many points directly, it is the most important shot of Filus’ game and also his signature shot.

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How Mima Ito Defeated Hina Hayata At WTT Doha: A Statistical Analysis Revisited

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Mima Ito defeated Hina Hayata in the finals 4-2 to win the WTT Contender title at WTT Doha. Before the finals started, Edges and Nets wrote a preview that incorporated rudimentary statistical analysis to verify and draw further insights regarding some of our qualitative observations of Ito and Hayata’s match-up at the All Japan National Championships in January.

In this post we revisit the trends we observed in our preview and discuss whether these trends continued to hold in the WTT Contender finals. For a (non-statistical) summary of the finals, please read our recap here. The statistical trends in this match turned out to vary wildly from the All Japan National Championships match. Although this disparity can be partially attributed to uninformative noise present in small sample sizes, we believe that it also partially reflects the dynamic nature of table tennis and how adjustments between matches and even games can wildly swing the nature of a match.

Disentangling these two factors of variation (statistical noise and change in strategy) is an open problem that Edges and Nets is actively exploring. Any suggestions or feedback is welcome.

Ito Dominates On The Third Ball

In our previous post, we noted that Ito had a massive edge in the long rallies, winning a staggering 71% of rallies in which she attempted four or more shots including all six rallies where she attempted five or more shots in the All Japan National Championships match.

Although Ito’s share of total points won rose from 48% to 54%, this time around, Ito only won fifty percent of the long rallies. However, we believe that this discrepancy from Japan can be mainly attributed to the tiny sample size. The number of long rallies dropped by a fair amount; in Japan 14% of the points (for a total of 17 long points) were long rallies and in Qatar that number dropped to 9% (for a total of 10 long points). Hence, if just one or two points had swung the other way (and a couple of the “long rallies” had a fair amount of pushing), the numbers would look more consistent with their Japan match-up.

Unless Hayata suddenly got better at long rallies or Ito suddenly got worse (which is possible if she had a bad night of sleep or something), it is likely that the odds of Ito’s winning a long rally will have stayed relatively similar between January and now. Combining the results of the two recent match-ups, Ito has won 63% of her 27 long rallies against Hayata over the last two months. Our sample size is still quite small and this number may change even more in the future; however, we still feel that Mima Ito is a stronger player in the rallies from watching them play, and physically her lower body looks quite clearly stronger than Hayata’s.

While the change in percentage of long points won by Ito can be attributed to noise and it is possible that the drop in the number of long rallies can as well, we believe that the drop in number of long rallies is due to change in tactics by the players. First, the sample size is larger and thus more robust as the match had 113 points in total. Second, the number of 5-shot, 4-shot, 3-shot, and 2-shot points all decreased and the average rally length (as measured in Mima Ito shot attempts) dropped from 2.3 to 2. As a result the percentage of “one-shot” points that ended in serve, serve return, or third-ball winner by either player rose from 41% to 50%.

Although we previously stated that it may be in Hayata’s interests to lower the length of the rallies, when watching the match it actually felt like Ito was the main one responsible for shortening the rallies as she attempted difficult and aggressive shots with wide angles. This may be reflected in the change in percentage of “one-shot” points won by each player: in their previous match-up in Japan, Ito only won 47% of such points; this time that number jumped to 59%, indicating that she benefited from the shortened points.

Hayata’s Long Serve Management

In an interesting twist, Ito only won 48% of the points in which she served but Hayata only won 40%(!) of the points in which she served. We are not sure what caused this counter-intuitive result.

In our previous post we speculated that Hayata would consider serving more long serves since she actually performed better on her long serves compared to her short serves. It appears Hayata agreed as her percentage of long serves rose from one third to 46%. Her long serves, of which she won 42%, performed slightly better (albeit within the margin of statistical error) than her short serves, of which she only won 39%. Hence, although our judgement must be taken with a massive grain of salt due to small sample size, it appears that Hayata made the correct choice by serving long more often.

We raised the question if it was beneficial for Ito to step around and take Hayata’s serves with her forehand. Ito took 61% (16 out of 26) of Hayata’s long serves with her forehand and won 56% of those point. In comparison, she won six out of the ten long serves she received with her backhand. Hence, with our limited amount of data there is still no evidence that taking the long serve with her forehand or backhand is better.

Did Hayata choke?

We now present a possible explanation for Hayata’s poor performance on her own serve. Did Hayata choke? Meaning, did Hayata play worse than normal because she was nervous? Serves are one of the first things to degrade in quality when a player gets nervous, and she had more than enough reason to be nervous. Although Hayata has played on the big stage before such as in her 2020 All Japan National Championship title run, to the best of our knowledge this is the closest she has ever gotten to winning a major international event.

We know that body-language reading is mostly pseudo-science, but we are going to call upon our resident body language expert anyway to analyze the following clip. This is at the end of game 4 after Ito had narrowed the lead from 10-7 to 10-9 and then called a “covid time-out” where she asked the umpire to wipe the table. Hayata’s face looks frozen in fear and she is completely stiff while Mima Ito is jumping around when the camera pans out (note that Hayata would call time-out and go on to win the game 11-9). This is completely different from when Ito called a covid time-out at 5-3 in the same game (not shown), during which Hayata was also jumping around and keeping herself loose.

Of course, body-language and facial-expression reading is a completely subjective exercise that largely confirms everyone’s own beliefs, and in our recap we already came to the conclusion that Ito was more clutch than Hayata in game 5. It will be interesting to see if we can find a method to quantify clutchness or other soft skills like anticipation. This is largely an open problem across all sports, but we would argue it is particularly important in table tennis, where even a slight change in timing can completely ruin someone’s game.

At the moment, due to the small sample size and the fact that this is a completely new exercise for us, interpreting the limited data appears to be somewhat akin to reading tea leaves, but we hope that the statistics shared in this post provided some additional insight to Mima Ito’s finals victory over Hina Hayata at WTT Contender. Although some people prefer watching many different match-ups, here’s to hoping for another Ito vs Hayata finals in WTT Star Contender so we can do another round of this type of analysis.

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Mima Ito Wins WTT Doha Event With 4-2 Finals Win Over Hina Hayata

Not the post you were looking for? A guide to all of Edges and Nets’ coverage of WTT Doha (also known as WTT Middle East Hub and formerly known as ITTF Qatar Open) can be found here.

For more coverage of the WTT Contender women’s singles finals, check out our preview and our post-game analysis.

Tied 2-2 in games, Mima Ito (WR 3) and Hina Hayata (WR 29) both reached into their bag of tricks as Ito eked out a gutsy 11-9 win in a pivotal game 5 en route to a 11-9, 11-8, 6-11, 9-11, 11-9, 11-6 finals victory over Hayata. With the win Ito, has captured the first ever World Table Tennis (i.e. rebranded ITTF) Title in the WTT Contender Event at WTT Doha. The qualification draw of WTT Star Contender, the second and more prestigious event at WTT Doha, is already underway and will be ongoing throughout the week.

The victory is slightly dimmed due to the withdrawal of Sun Yingsha and Liu Shiwen and general lack of star-power among Ito’s opponents (none of her opponents were in the top 20 although Hayata likely deserves to be in it). However, Ito was still able to make a small statement; while all the other top seeds in the event were getting upset left and right, Ito was able to stay steady take care of business. If everyone has similar showings in WTT Star Contender event, Ito can make the case for why she is arguably the ONLY serious threat to Chinese supremacy at the Tokyo Olympics.

Game 1

Ito opened the match very aggressively, which initially cost her as she missed several aggressive forehand smashes to go down 7-3. However, her shots suddenly started landing and went on a 8-2 run to take the game 11-9. Save for a net ball when down 7-4 (which itself was in the middle of an offensive rally), all of Ito’s last eight points were won off of aggressive wide openings or ambitious forehand smashes. Both the points she lost were a result of her missing her own forehand smash.

Game 2

Ito’s aggressive style carried into game 2, but thanks to a couple early service and return errors and a missed smash, Hayata was able to open up an early 5-3 lead that could have been larger if not for a couple of her own easier backhand errors.

Ito then won four points in a row to take a 7-5 lead. Two of these points followed the same strategy of allowing Hayata to open with her backhand against a short ball to the center and then smashing the ball back hard for the winner after anticipating its location.

Ito would use the same play again at 8-7 to maintain a 9-7 lead. Ito then surprised Hayata with a short push; Hayata rushed when stepping in and flicked the ball into the net, giving Ito three game points at 10-7. Ito missed a forehand smash to cut it to 10-8, but Hayata then missed a forehand flick on the serve return to lose the game 11-8.

Game 3

Similar to game 1, Ito continued to be aggressive and go for hard and wide forehand smashes, but missed several of them. Hayata also added some extra twists to her short game including a half-long push at 3-2 and a surprise forehand flick at 6-3 that, combined with Ito’s errors, were enough for Hayata to go up 9-3.

Ito was able to win two points on her own serve to cut it to 9-5. Hayata then served long to Ito’s elbow but missed the block when Ito stepped around to smash it to her backhand. On the very next point, Hayata trusted her long serve and anticipation again as she served a long serve again to Ito’s elbow, but this time a little further to the backhand, and when Ito stepped around and hit it to Hayata’s backhand, Hayata was ready for a wide block to Ito’s forehand for the winner.

Ito was able to catch Hayata with a long serve on the next point, but Hayata’s surprised return carried some weird spin and neither player seemed to know what was on the ball for a couple shots before Ito went for the smash and hit it out the table, giving game 3 to Hayata 11-6.

Game 4

Hayata showed some great anticipation and killed several of Ito’s openings as she built a 6-3 lead. However, Hayata then missed her own serve, lost a weird point after a net ball, and then lost a great rally to level it at 6-6. However, Hayata was unfazed as she continued to show great anticipation and smack down many of Ito’s openings and fool Ito with her long serves to cruise to an 10-7 lead.

However, a winning serve return from Ito and a missed serve return by Hayata cut the lead to 10-9. Ito calmly asked for her second “covid timeout” of a game (i.e. where a player effectively gets an extra mini-break by asking the umpire to “wipe down” the table), and what appeared to be a rattled Hayata then called a real timeout.

Hayata then opened with a chiquita to Ito’s wide backhand and then hit a hard wide backhand winner against the soft return to take the game 11-9.

Game 5

Neither player was able to take control the pace of the game like Ito in games 1 and 2 or Hayata in games 3 and 4. Ito had the slight edge in rallies, allowing her to build 8-6 lead. It was around at this point that both players appeared to bust out their bags of tricks.

Hayata won a point off a tricky half-long serve, and Ito took the next point with a short, high, and very strange chop block that Hayata hit into the net. Hayata then won the next point with a strawberry flick to cut the lead to 9-8. Each player then won a point off the third ball following great anticipation, resulting in a 10-9 lead for Ito with Hayata to serve. Ito then opted for a short push instead of the backhand flick that Hayata was expecting on the serve return, and Hayata missed the following push as Ito eked out a clutch 11-9 win in a pivotal game 5.

Game 6

Game 6 got off to a strange start. Hayata first won a beautiful rally before missing her own serve to level it at 1-1. Ito then caught a net ball and a pretty wide block to take a 3-1 lead. Hayata then proceeded to serve long on all four of her next four serves and lost all four points. However, Ito returned the favor by losing four straight of her own serves, including a missed serve.

Hayata was able to get narrow the lead one more point to 7-6 with a deep push to Ito’s backhand before dropping the next point to g o down 8-6. Hayta then missed a serve return and then lost the next point after Ito got a net ball, giving Ito quadruple match point at 10-6. Hayata’s shoulders slumped in frustration, and although it looked like she had gathered herself together for the next point, her serve was a bit high, and Ito killed the serve with a wide punch to Hayata’s forehand.

This sequence capped off a 5-0 streak for Ito in what was otherwise a close and unpredictable game. She thus took the match 4-2, and with it, the first ever WTT title (WTT Macau does not count because the rules were a complete gimmick).

Notes

On the men’s singles side, Dimitrij Ovtcharov captured the title with a 4-1 win over Lin Yun-Ju.

Ito missed three of her own serves and Hayata missed two. It’s unclear why whether the large number of missed serves was due to nervousness, rustiness, or a change in routine due to covid restrictions (e.g. no touching the table).

Either Ito sweats a lot or she really likes making use of the so-called covid timeout.

Edges and Net previously released a rudimentary statistical analysis of the Hayata vs Ito match-up. We will shortly follow up on how these trends held at WTT Doha in an upcoming post. Stay tuned!

The outfits this time were significantly better than whatever they were wearing at the All Japan National Championships in January, which can be seen in our Instagram post below. Between these National Championship outfits and Harimoto’s tendency to dress like a fruit with his monochromatic color schemes, Edges and Nets is not a huge fan of Team Japan’s fashion choice.

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