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Liu Guoliang Downplays Expectations and Reiterates Need For Mental Strength Heading Into Tokyo

Liu Guoliang recently downplayed gold-medal expectations, reiterated the need for mental strength, and praised the internal Chinese scrimmages for the Tokyo Olympics. Liu made these remarks to Chinese media during a ceremony in which the Olympic dragon uniforms were revealed. Edges and Nets has aggregated and translated several of his comments below. Original Chinese media articles can be found here, here, and here.

Coaches Double Down On Mental Strength

The Chinese National Team has been quite consistent in emphasizing mental strength as the most important factor heading into the Tokyo Olympics. In addition to Ma Long and Deng Yaping’s recent comments, Coach Wang Nan stated that the players must have confidence in their abilities and preparations.

In Wang’s view, the Olympics are different from normal competitions. The players need to accept and adapt to the heightened mental stress, execute to their normal level under the stress, and avoid having the stress of the Olympics negatively affect their play. Maintain your technique, keep your opponent’s tactics and habits burned in your mind, and leave nothing to regret.

Consistent with his colleagues, Liu also emphasized the importance of mental strength, stating that “As the Olympic Games are approaching, athletes will have a clearer vision of it. They need to undergo a process in their mentality transition and try to find their rhythm in preparation.”

Liu also noted the delicate nature of maintaining a good mental state: “If you are in a good state now, it does not mean that you are in a good state for the Tokyo Olympics; if you are in a bad state now, it does not mean that you are in a bad state for the Tokyo Olympics.”

When discussing China’s women’s singles roster, Chen Meng and Sun Yingsha, neither who have played in the Olympics before, Liu stated, “Every Olympic Games has people who participated for the first time, and they played well for the first time. The most important thing is what kind of mentality they use. If the mentality is good, the psychological pressure will be better handled, and there won’t be too much of an emotional burden on them.”

Liu Downplays Expectations

Although many have China as a shoo-in for gold in each of the Olympic table tennis events, Liu interestingly decided to downplay expectations, “We have the strength to win each of the five gold medals, and we have to confidence to do so. However, there are challenges and risks, especially considering the pace and manner of preparation is quite different in the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the nature of table tennis.”

At least in the women’s events, this remark is in contrast with Deng Yaping’s (who by the looks of things may not be as intimately involved with the national team as Liu) comments last week that Mima Ito was not a serious threat to the Chinese National Team. Liu appeared to have more positive words for their Japanese rivals, stating that “the Japanese table tennis team has been preparing for the Tokyo Olympics for many years, and especially hopes to beat the Chinese team at home, but I think they will give us more motivation. We need such an opponent, and we need such a competition to test the team.”

For what it’s worth, both Mima Ito and Jun Mizutani appear to be confident in their ability to upset China in at least the women’s singles and mixed doubles events.

Liu’s remarks appear to be aimed at relieving pressure from the team and getting them into the desired mental state. “I hope that our players and coaches will not have a burden of sweeping Olympic gold medals like in previous occasions… We cannot carry what we achieved in Rio into these Games, and we have to start from zero in Tokyo.”

“No matter which event, we are determined to win every gold medal. But competitive sports has ups and downs and wins and losses. This is all part of the game, so we don’t put too much pressure on everyone. If you don’t have pressure, you won’t be able to play well, but if you’re under too much pressure, you won’t be able to play well either. Keep a normal mind, put out what you practice, and strive for every piece of work. It’s not about which event is more secure [e.g. team events] and which event we are at risk of losing [e.g. mixed doubles].”

Ma Long at the closed Chinese Olympic Scrimmages

Remarks on the Final Closed Door Training

After the second leg of the Chinese Olympic scrimmages that were broadcast to the public, the National Team has been in closed-door training in Weihai for about 20 days. Liu Guoliang said that the focus of this period is to strengthen the ability and strength of the players. “It’s relatively easy to get out of form in the middle of closed training for about 20 days. This time, everyone’s ability and feeling of competition are better than those in the previous two (Olympic scrimmages). For the last scrimmage, we hope to be more realistic. We expect to be more detailed tactically and in simulating potential Olympic opponents.”

Liu further commented on the utility of the closed-door scrimmages that were held this week, which featured several upsets against the Olympic team including Lin Gaoyuan over Xu Xin, Wang Manyu over Chen Meng and Sun Yingsha, Zhou Qihao over Fan Zhendong, and Zhang Rui over Sun Yingsha. Liu stated, “It served as a test midway through our training. Competing with a more specific target, our players can feel the competitiveness of the games and dig out problems.”

There will be a final closed-door scrimmage on July 8 to July 10. We may expect to see fewer upsets in this scrimmage as Liu further elaborated the differences between the goals of the initial and final scrimmages: “There are warm-up matches before, during and at the end of the closed training, which can play different roles. The early stage is mainly to test the strength, the mid-term test is the improvement and progress of the players after the closed training in the early stage, and the latter is intended to be the final run-in and preparation.”

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Check out  Deng Yaping’s recent comments on the Tokyo Olympics, other interviews, and the rest of our Olympic coverage as well!

Deng Yaping: Mima Ito Is Not A Serious Threat to China

Coach Deng Yaping recently made several statements to Chinese media regarding the Chinese women’s team’s Olympic preparations and their most serious threat, Mima Ito. A translation of the linked article is provided below.

There are only a little more than 30 days left before the Tokyo Olympics. For the last few days, the Chinese National Team has been preparing for the final stage in Chengdu. As the “first generation big devil” of Chinese and World Women’s Table Tennis, Deng Yaping accepted an interview with Titan [the outlet that wrote the article] reporters. She believes that during this time the players most need to control the rhythm, and the number one opponent Mima Ito does not pose a real threat.

The closed training camp of the national table tennis has come to the final sprint stage. In the last month or so, what should be paid attention to? Deng Yaping, who has rich experience in competitions, especially the Olympics, said that the players should slowly enter the mental game state. After all, the Olympics are still more than a month. They can’t adjust their emotional excitement instantly but instead need to adjust, strengthen and improve it according to the results of the warm-up matches, and gradually deepen it.

“Different from preparing for the previous Olympic Games, there has virtually never been a situation of training without competition. How do we transition slowly from warm-up matches to Olympic competitions? Because the timeline of the Olympic table tennis matches is longer than the usual World Championships, World Cup and Pro Tour events, so we need to control the rhythm, because the competitive state is a very delicate thing. You can’t come out too early, and you can’t come out too late.”

The veteran players are more experienced to deal with this point, so Deng Yaping also said that this is the function of experience: “The veteran players have better experience and control over their nerves. They know that they need to be fully invested in the mental game and a bit excited, but before the game they need to control own excitement and know how much effort to use against the opponent. But at this point, one of our national team’s strong points is the coach’s control of the athletes, so we don’t need to worry about it.”

Speaking of veterans, the two veterans of the women’s table tennis players, between Ding Ning and Liu Shiwen, who participated in the last Olympic Games and won gold [in the team event], Ding withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics competition early, and Liu was passed over for Olympic women’s singles qualification. For Deng Yaping, this is a normal thing. As veteran players, they should have been able to understand and accept such a process very early.

“Any athlete has a peak period and a decline period. Competitive sports will always have a cycle. There will always be someone who will retire. Young people will always come up. The national table tennis team has always had a tradition of passing on help. I believe this arrangement must be approved by the coaching staff. As a result of many deliberations, everyone has their own career, and everyone must stick to their position.”

Therefore, the women’s singles representing the Chinese women’s table tennis team in the Tokyo Olympics will be Chen Meng and Sun Yingsha, who have never experienced Olympic experience. However, Deng Yaping is not worried about their performance: “They have played in world competitions, and they all showed their level. Being able to stand out from the top players in the national table tennis team fully demonstrates their due strength. Although the Olympics is different from other competitions, their competition experience is still rich.”

For their first Olympic journey, Deng Yaping said that the most important thing is their mentality: “Their technical and tactical abilities are definitely not problematic. The main thing is how they think. Don’t think it’s the Olympics, then they will be burdened with the pressure they shouldn’t bear. They cannot think too much about winning or that the two of us must win the championship. We should focus on every opponent and every match.”

With the two Olympic novices and Liu Shiwen, an experienced veteran, Deng Yaping believes that such a female table tennis trio is a very stable and comprehensive lineup for the Olympics: “The three of them happen to be the three generations of the old, middle and youth in the team. Experience, stability, impact, lineup changes can make various changes to opponents, and I look forward to their performance.”

In Tokyo, the biggest opponent of Chinese women’s table tennis is the Japanese team, or Mima Ito, whose face and name are also printed largely on the wall of the national table tennis training hall. Many people say that Mima Ito is small and mobile and fights hard, resembling Deng Yaping. So can she break through the wall that is the Chinese National Team?

Deng Yaping said: “The Chinese Women’s table tennis indeed has very few rivals. Ito is certainly a threat, but how strong is she? I don’t think so. She is indeed unique, but the strength is not strong enough, so we don’t respect her strategically. If we pay attention to her tactically and prepare carefully, I think it is enough. Although she has a good storyline [e.g. homecourt in Tokyo], there is no need to make her so mythical. Our Chinese players have the advantage and confidence to defeat her.”

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Ma Long Discusses Olympics and More With WTT

Ma Long recently sat down with WTT (World Table Tennis) to discuss various aspects of his preparation for the Olympics, what the Olympics mean to him, and what motivates him. The original interview (in Mandarin) can be found on the WTT Weibo account. We have provided a translation below.

How does it feel to prepare for your third Olympic games [Ma played the team event in 2012 and singles and teams in 2016]?

Normal, I guess. Anyway, certainly before the competition, you feel that your mentality and technical condition are not fully prepared, but sometimes that’s how competition is. For the high-pressure tournaments you may give yourself the highest possible standards, and during training you may never reach those standards, but come competition time you might find that you actually play to those standards.

The Olympics won’t happen twice in my life, and it’s the tournament of everyone’s dreams, so I need to give it my all and chase after it. I feel like if I don’t approach it this way then it will leave me with regret.

I think my experience may help me, but it may also hurt me as well; because I may approach this Olympics like it’s my first Olympics or my second, but your playing condition including your age, current developments in the world table tennis stage, and your opponent’s playing condition are all not the same, so it will not be completely the same as my rhythm last time. I still need to try to cooperate with my teammates to make some adjustments.

However, I think the most important thing is that my mental preparation needs to be even better than before, because previously I had nothing, so I can only go all out. After playing to a certain mental state, you may know that when you really want it, you actually end up not being able to hit your shots. Only when you are extremely relaxed and until the competition can you really find your best playing condition. You cannot find that during training. So sometimes during training, I still aim for perfection, but not for that unachievable perfection.

Everyone is using you as a role model. How do you feel about it?

This is a responsibility and it’s also a source of motivation. I hope that I can do an even better job and continue to maintain it. At the same time, over the last few years, their aggressiveness, including their yearning, to a certain extent has also given me a lot of motivation. I hope that when I’m tired and see these young teammates next to me and how they still have energy, this atmosphere can drive me further. So I think we can help motivate each other.

What do the Olympics mean to you?

I think the Olympics are the most important battle of an athlete’s life. After you win it, you think that winning the Olympics is a very important achievements. It is like graduating from a top university. Sometimes you also feel that the Olympics truly can bring you glory to last a lifetime and allow you to perform on the biggest stage. After you win the Olympics, you feel like you will remember it for a lifetime, so all athletes would like to play on this stage.

What motivated you to play in your third Olympic games?

On the one hand, the mentality and desire to win is still there. It may also be that although I haven’t won any [major] championships in the last year, I have still had some victories during this entire process, and these victories give me confidence. I think that [the confidence from winning] is very important for athletes.

Of course it also has something to do with passion. Passion is what regularly motivates me during training, but the desire for victory is also what motivates me. When you hold these two together, then you get my current level of persistence. If you only have passion but no victory, then your confidence may be affected. If you only like the game but have no love, and you only rely on the competition, then you have no guarantees and may not be able to persist. I think if both of these are present, I can maintain my persistence for the Olympics.

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

In anticipation of the Tokyo Olympics, we are re-watching some key matches over the past year between top gold medal contenders. In this post we take a look at how Tomokazu Harimoto built a 3-1 lead against Ma Long at the 2020 World Cup before Ma called a pivotal time-out in Game 5 to come back and take the 4-3 win.

The 2020 World Cup was a weird tournament that likely makes its results a poor predictor of what will happen in the Olympics. First of all, it was right after the break from the pandemic, so players were still getting into competition state both mentally and physically. Second, players who integrated new elements into their game during the pandemic break were debuting them against the top competition often for the first time, possibly resulting in some more experimental play. Third, non-Chinese players had to go through onerous quarantine before entering China during which they were not allowed to train.

Nevertheless, there is still some signal to be gleaned from this tournament. We take a look at what happened in this match, what trends we can expect to persist at the Olympics, and what we can expect to be different. At the time of this posting, the full match can be viewed on Youtube.

Game Plan

We first take a look at the general way in which Harimoto and Ma scored points in this match. As is common practice by top Chinese-speaking players, we divide the point into two distinct phases: the first three shots and the ensuing rally.

First Three Shots

Fighting for the Half-Long

Ma Long’s most desirable outcome coming out of the first three shots of the point was for him to take a forehand opening against the long and especially the half-long ball. He won 68% of the points where he attempted (points in which he missed his opening are also counted) such an opening against a serve or push. On all other points, he was only able to win 47% of the points.

As shown in the clip below, one way that Harimoto, aware of the advantage that yielding the half-long gave to Ma Long, responded to some of Ma’s slower half-long openings was to go for a counter-kill and end the point immediately. Harimoto ended up landing four counter-kills and missing six counter-kills/blocks. This is still a losing situation but less so than when he let Ma control the point following the half-long and slowly carve him up.

The Flicking Game

After Ma was able to take six long forehand openings in game 1, Harimoto, unable to beat Ma in the short-pushing game, was more aggressive in attempting to flick against the short ball in the next game in order to deny Ma the half-long opening. In game 2, Harimoto took 9 short flicks as he cruised to an 11-3 victory. Harimoto would continue to be far more aggressive than Ma in attempting short flicks: Harimoto attempted 50 flicks in the match, while Ma only attempted 12.

Not only was Harimoto more aggressive in attempting to flick against the short ball, but his flicks themselves were also of a more aggressive nature. Harimoto landed 10 flicks that were instant winners while Ma only landed 4 such winners (and unlike Harimoto’s hard flicks, Ma’s “winners” were more controlled well-placed slow shots). However, Harimoto’s aggressiveness came at a cost: he also missed 7 short flicks while Ma did not miss a single flick.

Unforced Errors

We define an unforced error as a missed serve, serve return, or third ball opening against a push. The disparity in unforced errors was quite large as Harimoto missed five serve returns and four third balls while Ma only missed one serve return and one third ball against a push. That amounts to a seven-point difference for an average of one per game. Unforced errors didn’t end up being a difference-maker in any individual match, but the disparity is something to pay attention to should these two players meet in the Olympics.

Was the gap in unforced errors mostly due to extrinsic forces such as Harimoto’s onerous quarantine that Harimoto can easily take care of at Tokyo? Or was it mostly due to something intrinsic to their games such as Ma’s better serves and Harimoto’s natural inclination to take riskier openings?

Rally Game

Once the point got past the first three shots, Ma homed in on steadily attacking Harimoto’s elbow, often with a step-around forehand loop, as shown in the clip below.

Meanwhile, Harimoto played at a more frantic pace, going for fast wide kill-shots to Ma’s forehand, which was often extra vulnerable due to Ma’s tendency to step around. The most potent way in which Harimoto attacked Ma’s forehand was with a quick down-the-line backhand punch—either from the wing or from the elbow—with sidespin that curved the ball even wider to Ma’s forehand.

Alternatively, against Ma’s many shots to the elbow, Harimoto could also step around to deliver a quick forehand loop that was placed even wider and curved even harder than his backhand punch. These step-around shots from the elbow carried the advantage that Harimoto could generate his own power with a quick backstroke and not have to rely on borrowing Ma’s pace. However, the downside was that the extra backstroke made the shot harder to pull off in a faster rally, in which case the quick backhand would be preferred.

Ma typically waited until he had the opportunity to step around for a big forehand before going to Harimoto’s forehand. However, Ma would leave his forehand extremely exposed in such instances, which Harimoto took advantage of with wide quick blocks off the bounce.

Ma Long’s Magical Time-Out

Harimoto looked on his way to a 4-1 victory as he had just scored three straight points and was up 5-4 and 3-1 in games until Ma called a time-out and completely reversed the course of the match.

Ma’s Magical High-Toss Serve

Prior to the time-out, Ma served a high-toss serve only twice. After the time-out, every single one of Ma’s serves was a high-toss serve. Ma’s high-toss serve was absolutely devastating for Harimoto. After the time-out, Harimoto held his own on his own serves through the second half of game 5 and game 6, going 7-7. However, he went an abysmal 2-11 on Ma’s serves.

Harimoto appeared to struggle mightily with pushing short against the high-toss serve, presumably due to an inability to read how much spin was on the ball. As a result, one major effect of Ma’s high-toss serve was that it opened up far more opportunities for him on the half-long opening. In Games 2-4 and the first half of game five, in which Harimoto was largely in control, Ma attempted a long forehand opening on 14% of the points. After the time-out, Ma nearly doubled that number to 26% over the next game and a half.

One way Harimoto managed to deny Ma the half-long was to flick the serve. However, against the high toss-serve, due to difficulties reading the spin and the inherent challenges of giving quality flicks against no-spin or light-spin balls, Harimoto’s flicks likely packed just a bit less speed and spin than earlier in the match. The slow-down appeared to be enough for Ma to wait in anticipation for the hard counter from the backhand or elbow and continue to dominate these points.

Taming Harimoto’s Fast Wide Shots to the Forehand

One of Ma’s key adjustments after the time-out was taking away the fast wide shots to the forehand from Harimoto. Both Harimoto’s number of attempted fast wide shots to the forehand and their effectiveness vanished following Ma’s time-out in Game 5. Before the time-out, Harimoto was able to land a fast wide shot to the forehand on 36% of all points and convert 89% of those into a win. However, after the time-out, Harimoto was only able to land a fast wide shot on 21% of all points and convert a measly 44% into wins.

The lower number of attempts is likely a consequence of Ma better controlling the rhythm of the point thanks to his high-toss serve. The lower conversion rate was likely due to Ma better anticipating the fast wide shot to the forehand so that he could get in position more reliably like in the clip shown below. In the first point of the clip, even though Harimoto misses the shot, we can see that Ma was already waiting for the shot to the forehand.

What to Expect In Tokyo

Should Ma and Harimoto meet in Tokyo, the aesthetic of the match will likely be similar, with Ma hunting half-longs and attacks to the elbow and Harimoto more aggressively flicking short balls and trying to win the rallies with quick wide shots to the forehand.

Harimoto will clearly be looking to make certain adjustments. Most importantly, he needs to find a way to better read Ma’s high-toss serve and develop a better contingency plan in case he has trouble reading the high-toss serve (or a new serve) again. Harimoto will also likely look to clean up some of the errors he made at the World Cup by virtue of better shot selection and being in better game-shape come Tokyo.

At age 33, Ma has likely been coasting through most of the major events since the 2019 World Championships, and we can expect to see an all-around better version of Ma in Tokyo. While Ma cannot count on his high-toss serve to bail him out again at the Olympics, he also still has more tools in his bag of tricks (such as his backhand serve) to give him an extra advantage should he need it again against Harimoto.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Results

Men’s Singles

Finals

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

Semi-Finals

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

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

Quarter-Finals

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

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

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

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

Women’s Singles

Finals

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

Semi-Finals

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

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

Quarter-Finals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game 1

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

Game 2

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

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

Game 3

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

Game 4

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

Game 5

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

Game 6

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

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

The full match is linked below:

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

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

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

Game 1

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

Game 2

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

Game 3

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

Game 4

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

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

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

Game 5

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

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

Game 6

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

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

The full match is shown below:

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

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

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

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

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

Game 1

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

Game 2

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

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

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

Game 3

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

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

Game 4

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

Game 5

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

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

Game 6

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

Game 7

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

You can watch the full match below:

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

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