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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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WTT Doha 2021 Preview Part 4: Men’s Singles Seeds 5 Through 8

Jang Woojin WTT Macau

This post is the fourth post in a series of posts previewing the 2021 World Table Tennis (WTT) Middle East Hub (also known as the Qatar Open or WTT Doha) coming March 3-13. Our previous post covered seeds 5 through 8 in the women’s singles event: Jeon Jihee, Feng Tianwei, Miu Hirano, and Kasumi Ishikawa. A summary of all of Edges and Nets’ coverage of WTT Doha can be found here.

The full list of players set to play at WTT Doha appears to now be set in stone. In today’s post we take a closer look at seeds five through eight in the men’s singles event (Jeoung Youngsik, Dimitrij Ovtcharov, Jang Woojin, and Mattias Falck) at WTT Doha, how they’ve played since the ITTF restart after the pandemic, what is at stake for them at Qatar, and their potential quarterfinal match-ups. The players in the top 20 of the world rankings who will participate in the WTT Star Contender event (the second one scheduled from March 8-13) are:

SeedNameWorld Rank
1Xu Xin2
2Tomokazu Harimoto5
3Hugo Calderano6
4Lin Yun-Ju7
5Mattias Falck8
6Jang Woojin11
7Dimitrij Ovtcharov12
8Jeoung Youngsik13
9Liam Pitchford15
10Patrick Franziska16
11Koki Niwa17
12Jun Mizutani18
13Simon Gauzy20

Eight out of these thirteen players will also play WTT Contender. The five who will not play are Jang Woojin, Jeoung Youngsik, Patrick Franziska, Koki Niwa, and Jun Mizutani. Let us now take a closer look at seeds five through eight.

8th Seed Jeoung Youngsik

Feb 21 Update: Jeoung Youngsik has been selected for the Olympic Team event. This decision was made before the start of WTT Doha. Analysis in this section may be out of date.

Jeoung Youngsik played decently well in the post-pandemic World Cup last November. He upset Hugo Calderano before losing to national teammate Jang Woojin 4-2 in the quarterfinals. However, things have gone downhill since. He lost badly to Fan Zhendong at the ITTF Grand Finals. In the Korean Olympic Trials earlier this month, he went a winless 0-4 against Lee Sangsu and An Jaehyun, failing to qualify for the Olympic singles event.

However, at the time of this post, the Korean national team does not appear to have announced who will join Lee Sangsu and Jang Woojin in representing Korea in the Olympic team event, meaning Jeoung still has a chance to go to Tokyo. The coach’s selection appears to largely be a two-way race between Jeoung and An Jaehyun.

There are certain factors working in Jeoung’s favor despite his poor performance at the Korean Olympic Trials. First, Jeoung has a higher world rank. Second, he and Lee are a familiar doubles pair who won their doubles match against Xu Xin and Liang Jingkun at the 2019 World Team Cup.

Coaches may also be willing to show Jeoung some grace considering that WTT Doha will mark the end of Jeoung’s roughly year and a half long mandatory military service for Korea, during which he has had to do a non-trivial amount of duty and training. Between the conclusion of WTT Doha and Tokyo, Jeoung will be able to devote himself 100 percent to table tennis without worrying about military duties.

While more focus and hours at the table for the next few months does not necessarily translate directly to better success in the competition, there is reason to be optimistic. Jeoung’s game is not as explosive and does not rely on extremely fast footspeed as much as some of his younger Korean teammates like An or Jang do. He instead relies more on keeping a stable position and anticipating the position of his opponent and the ball (like in the point shown below). Intuitively speaking, one may expect that such a style would benefit more from increased training time compared to a style that relies more on raw physical athleticism.

Although it does not look like Jeoung has lightning-quick footspeed, his stability and anticipation allow him to get to where he needs to be.

That being said, An and Jeoung both get the chance to strengthen their cases to the coaches in Doha. For Jeoung, this means that at minimum he must avoid early upsets, especially to German rival Patrick Franziska and Japanese rivals Jun Mizutani and Koki Nowa.

After taking care of business in the earlier rounds, if Jeoung is able to pull off a big upset against Harimoto or Xu Xin, that may be enough to sway the coaches to pick Jeoung to represent Korea at the Olympic team event. In particular, one of An’s arguments for making the team may be that he has beaten Harimoto recently. Jeoung can neutralize that argument by defeating Harimoto himself. Hence, Edges and Nets would pick Harimoto to be the most interesting quarterfinal match-up for Jeoung.

7th Seed Dimitrij Ovtcharov

Since the restart after the pandemic, Dimitrij Ovtcharov posted a 4-3 win against Liam Pitchford in the World Cup before losing in the quarterfinals of the World Cup to Ma Long and to Lin Yun-Ju in the first round of the ITTF Grand Finals.

Lin has now won the last four meetings between the two in international competition dating back to 2018. In their match-up at the 2020 Grand Finals, Lin was quite clearly faster than Ovtcharov and won virtually all the longer rallies. Lin and Ovtcharov are actually teammates (and will soon be joined by Hugo Calderano) at the Russian club Fakel Gazprom Orenburg and are thus deeply familiar with each other’s game. This familiarity may be why Lin seemed to have almost no problem handling Ovtcharov’s serves. He confidently landed chiquita after chiquita to Ovtcharov’s elbow to set up an ensuing fast rally even when the serve was wide to Lin’s forehand.

Although Ovtcharov is most well known for his spinny backhand and tomahawk serves, one serve that he has found quite useful even against Ma Long is a short dead serve with his backhand that looks like something any noob at the local club could serve. He doesn’t use the serve often, but it has its uses when his opponent is not in rhythm or may be emotionally tight. The sudden lack of spin doesn’t give the opponent anything to borrow, and the opponent may be hesitant or unable to land powerful shots as seen in these two match points that Ovtcharov saved against Lin last November (shown below).

Ovtcharov saves two match points with a short dead serve.

Although Ovtcharov and Lin most likely exchange wins against each other during training, the lopsided record in international competition towards Lin would give Lin a mental edge should these two meet in the quarterfinals in Tokyo. Ovtcharov can break this edge by scoring a victory, even if only in a three out of five, against his club teammate at WTT Doha. Hence, Edges and Nets would consider Lin to be the most interesting quarterfinal match-up for Ovtcharov.

If the Olympics were held today, Ovtcharov would be the ninth seed in the men’s singles event in the Tokyo Olympics behind the two Chinese players, Calderano, Lin, Mattias Falck, Jang Woojin, and Timo Boll. However, since Boll is not playing in Qatar at all and only leads Ovtcharov by a small margin, unless Ovtcharov suffers a pair of major upsets in both events, he has enough ranking points to comfortably pass Boll in the April world rankings and put himself in the position to be at least the eighth seed in Tokyo. Note that although Ovtcharov has been confirmed to play in the team event Tokyo Olympics, we have not been able to confirm whether he or Patrick Franziska will play in the singles event alongside Timo Boll.

Jang, who is ranked directly above Ovtcharov, will not be playing WTT Contender. Hence, if both players play to their seeding or even if Ovtcharov loses in the round of 16 in one event, Ovtcharov will pass Jang on the April world rankings. To maintain his lead over Ovtcharov in the world rankings, Jang must pull off more upsets than Ovtcharov does in the WTT Star Contender event. However, for the purposes of Olympic seeding there is minimal difference between being the eighth seed and the seventh seed.

6th Seed Jang Woojin

Jang Woojin arguably had the best post-pandemic performance out of all non-Chinese men. He split a pair of matches with Harimoto and upset Lin Gaoyuan. In both the Grand Finals and the World Cup, he lost to Fan Zhendong by a comfortable margin. However, visually the game felt closer than the score may have indicated. Jang lead in several games that he lost, and it would not be implausible for him to upset a player like Fan in the near future.

With Jang’s recent performances against Harimoto, Korea may now feel as comfortable as they are going to get about their chances of defeating Japan in the Tokyo Olympics. Although they may not dare to say it aloud, Korea may now be setting its eyes on slaying the giant that is China. There are glimpses of potential such as Jang’s win over Lin Gaoyuan and Lee Sangsu/Jeoung Youngsik’s win over Xu Xin and Liang Jingkun, and Jang could potentially add to that with a fresh upset over Xu in the quarterfinals in Qatar.

Stylistically, a match-up between Jang and a left-handed player like Xu is always interesting as it mixes up two of the key dynamics associated with their styles. First, Jang loves stepping around the corner for the forehand, even in situations where most other players would prefer to use the backhand (as shown below). Although Jang still steps around quite frequently even against left-handed players, the threat of a lefty’s cross-court backhand to his wide forehand may force him to adjust how he approaches his footwork.

Jang Woojin steps around very aggressively during rallies.

Second, the ease with which left-handed players can serve to the wide forehand often disrupts players from executing the chiquita smoothly. However, possibly in order to stay in position to use his forehand for the next shot, Jang uses the chiquita relatively infrequently compared to others. He instead prefers to use a short forehand push, even if it means allowing the opponent to open more often than if he used the chiquita (as shown below).

Jang Woojin prefers the short forehand push over the chiquita. Even if it means that the opponent opens first, he can get the counterloop back in.

Jang’s preference for the short forehand push over the chiquita thus mitigates one of the key adjustments players must make against left-handed players. These stylistic changes and a taste of a Korea vs China Olympic team match-up make Edges and Nets consider Xu to be the most interesting quarterfinal match-up for Jang.

Jang has also been confirmed to represent Korea in the men’s singles event at the Tokyo Olympics. Similar to Ovtcharov, barring a massive early round upset, Jang should be in a position to pass Timo Boll on the April world rankings and maintain his position to be a top-eight seed in Tokyo.

5th Seed Mattias Falck

Falck had decent results at the two major post-pandemic ITTF events last year. He took care of business against Simon Gauzy (WR 20) and Wong Chun Ting (WR 19) but lost 4-1 to Tomokazu Harimoto and 4-2 to Ma Long.

Edges and Nets has largely chosen to ignore the results at WTT Macau last Fall due to the weird rules (no deuce, three-out-of-five matches, brief coaching every six points, weird draws), the lack of stakes (WTT Macau did not appear to influence world rankings), and the lack of recorded full matches. However, Falck’s 3-1 upset over Xu Xin at WTT Macau (available on Youtube) was such big news that we had to mention it here. The 2019 World Championships finalist will be looking to extend his success to 2021 as he continues to entertain fans and frustrate opponents with his close-to-the-table flat hits from both the backhand and his infamous short pips on his forehand.

Mattias Falck gets wins the point with his signature forehand smash on his way to a 3-1 victory over Xu Xin.

There is currently a four-way race between Falck, Lin, Calderano, and Harimoto for the third and fourth seed at the Tokyo Olympics, which provide a guaranteed path to an Olympic medal without having to defeat either of the Chinese top two seeds. In order to pass Lin and Calderano on the April world rankings, Falck needs to outperform Calderano by 372 ranking points and Lin by 273 ranking points in Qatar.

Similar to the case of Kasumi Ishikawa in the women’s singles event, Falck will need to reach the finals in both events in order to pass Lin. This is an extremely difficult task as it means beating either Lin or Calderano (or a player who upset them) twice and then beating Harimoto or Xu Xin (or a player who upset them) twice. If Calderano plays to his seeding and reaches the semi-finals in both events, then Falck would still be unable to catch Calderano even with two finals appearances.

However, if Falck and Calderano meet in the quarterfinals, then Falck will completely control his own Olympic seeding destiny, because a finals appearance by Falck would entail that Calderano lost in the quarterfinals and did not play up to his seeding. Hence, Edges and Nets would consider Calderano to be the most interesting quarterfinal match-up for Falck.

The Most Interesting Quarterfinal Draw

Assuming everyone plays to their seeding up to the quarterfinals (which will likely not be the case), in summary here are Edges and Nets’ picks for what would be the most interesting draw:

  • Jeoung Youngsik vs Tomokazu Harimoto
  • Dimitrij Ovtcharov vs Lin Yun-Ju
  • Jang Woojin vs Xu Xin
  • Mattias Falck vs Hugo Calderano

If you liked this article, please follow Edges and Nets on Facebook or Instagram to stay updated. The next post in this series will go over seeds 3 and 4 in the women’s singles event. It will be posted on Monday, February 22 (North American timezone).

Unless stated otherwise, all images and footage in this post can respectively be found on ITTF’s Flickr page and the ITTV channel.