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The Ma Long vs Fan Zhendong rivalry stands as perhaps the most compelling narrative in professional table tennis right now as the rest of the world struggles to keep up with them when it matters. Since the pandemic, Ma and Fan have both played in the 2020 China National Games, the 2020 World Cup, the 2020 ITTF Grand Tour Finals, and the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, and they have reached the finals in all four events (granted, no other Chinese players played the World Cup or Olympics).
Fan and Ma will both play the China National Games later this month and the World Championships in November. Although the Chinese Olympic Scrimmages saw Fan and Ma fall to someyoungerplayers, given their established dominance in high-stakes matches, there is a solid chance that Ma and Fan both make it to the finals in at least one of the two events.
Since the pandemic the two players have gone 2-2 against each other, with Ma winning by far the most important match in the Olympic finals. In this post we take a look at how a difference in armpit space between the two players’ strokes influences the game dynamics.
Comparing the Elbow
In the short clip below of Ma and Fan warming up together, you can see a slight difference in how high they raise their elbows when executing a standard backhand counter. Fan opens up his armpit more and raises his elbow slightly higher, while Ma tends to tuck his elbow a little bit lower in.
This difference in principle should give Fan the advantage when transitioning between forehands and backhands as his racquet is already where it needs to be with a slight turn of the body. On the other hand, Ma carries the slight advantage when stepping around as he requires slightly less space to pull off a forehand. We see an exaggeration of Ma’s preference for the middle and Fan’s preference for the corner in the two points shown blow.
This dynamic results in several tactical consequences.
Ma Targets Fan’s Elbow
Based on Fan’s weakest point, the middle, Ma’s placement strategy is quite straightforward: Ma overwhelmingly targets Fan’s elbow in the rallies, both in the opening and the follow-up shots. In the clip video, Ma wins four straight points targeting Fan’s elbow on every single shot.
How Ma Escapes the Backhand-Backhand Battles
Fan’s placement strategy to Ma is a little more involved. Both Ma and Fan know that, even if Ma places the ball well, Fan is favored to win pure backhand-backhand rallies between the two players due to several factors including stylistic difference brought about by the difference in armpit space in their neutral position. Hence, the burden is on Ma to step around and get out of the backhand-backhand battles to take his signature big forehand.
Stepping Around In the Flow of the Rally
Some variation of backhand-backhand battle ends up occurring in most of the points between Fan and Ma, so one of the key tug-a-wars in their matches is to see how often Ma can step around in the rally, and how often Fan is able to burn him for stepping around too early.
In their World Cup match-up, Coach Deng Yaping commented that although Ma clearly must hunt the forehand, he psychologically must also have confidence to engage in backhand-backhand battles. If he does not have confidence in his backhand and only looks to step around all the time, then Fan will beat him even more badly at the backhand-backhand battle and burn him down-the-line for stepping around early. Instead, Ma is at his best when he engages in the backhand-backhand battles but takes the big forehands when the chance comes like in the point below.
Fan’s job is to not let Ma rip forehands on him all day, so if Ma telegraphs early that he is going to step around, then Fan can burn him with a down-the-line roll for a clean winner like in the point shown below. Hence, in every match between the two, Fan is almost always the first player to go down-the-line to the forehand in the rallies.
Stepping Around in Anticipation
It is quite obvious that Ma needs to step around after he sees the ball come to his elbow or that Fan needs to go down-the-line if he sees Ma telegraphing that he will step around. However, both players also tend to try to squeeze a few extra points by anticipating their opponent’s actions and acting early. This can occur as early as the opening, before the rally has gotten into a rhythm.
While this yields great dividends if the player anticipates correctly, it also results in getting burned quite badly if he guesses wrong. In the point below, Ma serves half-long side-spin wide to the backhand and anticipates that Fan will go cross to the backhand. However, Ma guesses wrong as Fan burns him with a down-the-line opening for a clean winner.
Similarly, Fan does not appear to always go down-the-line in response to what he sees from Ma. If he anticipates that Ma is looking to step around, he may go down-the-line as early as the opening. However, if he guesses wrong like in the two points below, then Ma is perfectly in position for a big forehand kill.
While it looks embarrassing when they guess wrong, both players are betting on the fact that they can anticipate their opponent often enough that in the aggregate they come out on top from acting early. Furthermore, for Fan his down-the-line openings also serve as a deterrent for Ma to step around early all the time.
Ma’s Famous Chop Blocks
Another way that Ma mixes things up and escapes the fast-paced backhand rallies is with his signature chop-block.
Of course, the chop block is a difficult shot that requires an insane amount of touch, but his tucked in elbow also makes it easier for him to get his racquet onto the left-side of the ball and chop the ball forward. The chop block is just anothhe difference in how high Ma and Fan raise their elbows likely ends up affecting almost every shot in the game in one way or another.
However, Ovtcharov gave China a brief scare when he took a 2-1 lead against Fan Zhendong, but Fan was able to stay calm and come back. As Liu Guoliang later remarked, if Ovtcharov had won that, then it would have been 1-1, which would have put China in an uncomfortable position. Based on Liu’s remarks, Fan will almost certainly be back in 2024 as a veteran presence.
Liu Guoliang already has his eyes set towards the 2024 and 2028 Olympics. He stated that while the women’s team is in a position of dominance given the youth of Sun Yingsha and Wang Manyu, the men’s team will need to make some adjustments heading into the next Olympic cycle as Ma Long and Xu Xin age into retirement.
Liu in particular praised Sun Yingsha as an idol and role model for the next generation not just in table tennis but all of Chinese athletics. He also praised Chen Meng’s dominance in winning two gold at this Olympic Games, hinting that she may be back for the 2024 Olympics at the age of 31.
Liu also acknowledged the veteran presence of Liu Shiwen and Ding Ning and the impact they have had on the National Team culture. He praised Liu for the journey she took recovering from elbow surgery last Fall, and said although they obviously would rather have won gold in mixed doubles, there is not much to regret since she came out, performed, and gave it her all.
Liu also reflected on his own journey in table tennis, noting that it was his seventh Olympic games. He quipped that when he was a player, he felt that being a player was the most stressful job. Then he became a coach and realized being a coach was the most stressful job. Then he became head coach and then director of the Chinese National Team, and each time he realized that the job was even more stressful.
Ma Long defeated Fan Zhendong 4-2 (11-4, 10-12, 11-8, 11-9, 3-11, 11-7) to become the first male table tennis player to win two Olympic singles gold medals.
Before the match, Ma noted that Fan was the favorite, so he had no pressure and just to go out and fight. Ma also commented that he indeed showed more initiative and agressiveness in the match; this may have been reflected in the early 6-0 lead that Ma jumped to in the first game of the match
Post-game Fan Zhendong did not appear completely satisfied with the result, saying, “I felt like Ma Long controlled the situation today. I had chances to take control of the situation, especially in the third and fourth game, but I wasn’t able to…I wasn’t able to find my game today. Winning the second game was a miracle, but in the third game I wasn’t still relaxed or positive enough, so in the end I wasn’t able to take advantage of the opportunity.”
When asked if Ma Long was the greatest of all time, Fan replied that it’s hard to compare across eras, but at least in this generation, Ma Long is the greatest.
Dimitrij Ovtcharov defeated Lin Yun-Ju 4-3 to win the bronze medal.
Unfortunately, we will not be providing a recap for this match. Should we get access to a high-quality recording, we look forward to taking a closer look at what happened in this match.In the meantime, check out our recap of the women’s singles final.
The men’s singles final of the second leg of the Chinese Olympic Scrimmage in Nanyang was held between Xu Xin and Fan Zhendong. A long-anticipated matchup ignited the enthusiasm of the audience. Fan Zhendong lost three games after winning the first game. On the other side of the table was Xu Xin, who jumped up with his fists clenched. On this side of the table, Fan Zhendong was drenched with sweat. The off-court coach Wang Hao wrapped an ice bag with a towel and put it on the back of Fan Zhendong’s neck to cool him down. “The venue was very hot at the time. Xu Xin put a lot of pressure on me, and my own energy consumption was also very high. Cooling down was really useful for me, and it let me calm down a bit.”
Fan Zhendong said that when a player is down, there will be two kinds of performances, mentally collapsing or biting down and fighting back. This is how he survived in the finals in Nanyang, and was able to re-group and play more resolutely. “I handled the seventh game better. There was only one game left. There was nothing left to save for later. We all stood on the same starting line. Whoever is more determined and who dares to take action can take the lead. So I kept pumping myself up, fought for every point, and didn’t wait for the opponent to make a mistake.” Fan Zhendong, who survived, won the men’s singles champion of the Nanyang leg of the Olympic Scrimmages.
Soon after Fan Zhendong entered the training camp in Xiamen following the first leg of the Olympic Scrimmage, the national team announced the Olympic roster. He will participate in both singles and team events at the Tokyo Olympics. The announcement of the roster made Fan Zhendong feel that the picture before him was more specific. “The things to be done are also specific. After I understood the rigorous selection process, I felt that the responsibility and pressure on myself were more substantial. Then I looked at the second Nanyang leg of the Olympic scrimmages that was about to be held, and my desire to win and willingness to push through challenges was better than the first leg in Xinxiang [where Fan was upset by Zhou Qihao], and my mind was much more clear in the game.”
Fan Zhendong didn’t actually find the feeling of the game immediately after he arrived in Nanyang. “In the beginning, there were some fluctuations in my thoughts, and my technical state was not particularly good. From the first round, the matches were single-elimination. This is a little bit different feeling from having a group stage like in Xinxiang. But overall I was very active and I thinking of ways and getting myself into peak game-state.”
After defeating Zhang Yudong 4-0 in the first game, he said without reservation: “Because I felt like the game was nothing special, I did not want to become too wrapped up in it. When the game started, I served more long serves and won several in a row, so the tactic was successful. I took the initiative to start a rally when things got uncomfortable, so that I would be more comfortable later.” When recalling the first game again, Fan Zhendong thought, “You must first understand yourself before developing tactics to fit your game. When formulating any tactics, you have a clear position for yourself before the game, and you can make the correct arrangements and decisions during the game.”
In the Nanyang scrimmage, the doubles match synchronized with the singles also helped Fan Zhendong better get into game state. “The competition and amount of running in doubles are not less than in singles. Although there are only the semi-finals and finals in doubles, the quality of the balls is high and requires great concentration. You only have these two games to feel that you’re playing better and better and getting into rhythm.”
On Saturday, May 29th, Fan Zhendong did not have a game on this day, and the whole day was spent in training, which made him feel thoroughly trained. “It was after this day of training. When I arrived at the day of my last match, I felt very concentrated and dedicated.” It was time for the finals. After actively getting into game state and training, Fan Zhendong, was able to withstand the pressure and nervousness, “especially in the sixth and seventh games [against Xu Xin], I obviously feel that my mentality was good and I was different than in previous games.”
In an interview in Nanyang, Fan Zhendong said that after the Olympic list was released, what he did the most was to train his mind. What he practiced was to “control his emotions of anticipation and control the inner roller coaster in your heart.” This is Fan Zhendong’s first opportunity to stand in the current position to accept the test of the Olympics and to learn. After the competition was reduced due to the pandemic, Fan Zhendong, like all athletes, experienced a long period of training without specific competition goals.
“I feel that training camps have been going on for a long time now. Before, I was even a little confused over whether it was normal training, camp training, or closed training. But now I have specific goals for the competition. As the game approaches, my emotions and mentality may change a lot. The specific feeling is that every day is different, I think differently, and I feel different pressure. It’s hard to say how big or small this pressure is, but it changes every day, and I also have prepared well and communicated more with my coach and teammates.”
After the Nanyang Station Olympic scrimmage, Fan Zhendong came to Weihai to participate in a closed training to make the final sprint to prepare for the Olympics. At the same time, he had to experience more scrimmages prepared by the pre-Olympic team. “If you only look at these games, you definitely hope to win. But if you take the Olympics as the goal, winning or losing the scrimmage is no longer the most important thing. Winning does not mean that everything is good. Losing does not mean that all is lost. I think the correct way to look at it is to look at winning or losing in the correct way. The time to the Olympics is getting shorter and shorter. Because of the pandemic, fewer games have become an objective situation. When there are games, I hope I can invest more immediately and I hope I can gain more in the preparation stage. “
In the training to prepare for the Olympics, and in the upcoming [closed-door] scrimmages, will Fan Zhendong, who often puts pressure on himself, put forward some requirements for himself? This time, Fan Zhendong said: “I want to go with how I’m feeling. If sometimes I am too tight and I can’t relax myself, then I’ll just loosen up. If it’s too relaxed, it won’t work either. I have to master this balance. The person who knows me best is myself. The person who can adjust me best is myself.” At the same time, Fan Zhendong, who understands himself, has a clear mind when talking about his own shortcomings. “In fact, there are some areas where I have not practiced in enough detail or thought about it enough. The neglected details will become difficult when it comes to the game, so what I have to do now is to practice more and explore myself more carefully.”
Looking forward to the Tokyo Olympics, Fan Zhendong believes that there are many unknowns in the Olympics due to the epidemic. “No athletes have had such experience before. I don’t know or imagine what the Olympics is like and what requirements are placed on the athletes. At this moment, I think the most important thing is the mentality. Be positive and calm, accept all kinds of situations that may happen, this is the most realistic thing for me to do.”
Although “emergency situations” cannot be simulated, Fan Zhendong said that he can be prepared in his mentality, “for example, stick to it when it is difficult, and grit your teeth when you are tired.” Fan Zhendong also said: “If I want to, I can also think about what psychological fluctuations I might have.” Olympic games and Olympic champions will occasionally appear in Fan Zhendong’s imagination. “But I don’t think too much, because it’s the first time for me to participate in the Olympics. I have no experience, no past, no simulation, no memories and lessons. For me, every game in the Olympic Games is very important. Every match is the finals.”
Fan Zhendong recently sat down for an interview with WTT to discuss what the Olympics mean to him and his Olympic preparations. Edges and Nets has aggregated and translated several of his questions and answers. Sources: here, here, here.
What do the Olympics mean to you?
It is what everyone desires. This is the biggest stage, and it is the platform to show your best.
First things first, I need to make sure I execute to my abilities. This is the most fundamental. If you are pressured by the stakes and the atmosphere and let yourself choke, then you have not fulfilled the most basic goal and expectation of such a grand event. Because I feel like on such a big stage, I should be even more eager and even more urgent to showcase my abilities and to broadcast all the abilities and skills I have trained from my childhood up to this moment. And then, of course, I hope to prove myself on this stage and achieve the results I want. So I think my first priority is to display my skills, and then it is to win and prove myself.
Why do you have a blister on your hand?
Recently, I’ve been experimenting, including a new racquet, which doesn’t yet have a perfect fit. My original racquet was also the same model, but for these big competitions, obviously the more detailed your preparations the better. So I am going to prepare more racquets, and I will pick the one that fits well.
How many racquets have you prepared, and how many will you bring to the Olympics?
I don’t know yet. Sometimes, you try a racquet, and it immediately feels good, but sometimes you try it, and over time it feels better and better. Every racquet is different, both when selecting it and playing with it. So I’m just preparing now. The team requirement is to have a main and a spare, and the two racquets need to be roughly identical. For me, I’d say two or three, but we’ll see how many I like.
Do you feel anxious in your Olympic preparations?
In fact, I think this preparation time can definitely help people grow, but you don’t know if you can grow to the level that you need to achieve. In fact, I can also feel that people around me can feel that I’m changing. However, sometimes when you are anxious or feel uncomfortable in your heart, it’s not because you feel that you are not growing, but because you may feel that you are not growing fast enough, or I haven’t reached the way I want, so I think the point of anxiety is actually here. As I said just now, I just need to give myself more positive feedback and give myself more confidence.
Do you feel that you are not good enough in any particular area?
Of course. It feels like the closer we get, the more I feel like I don’t have enough time. It feels like there are many areas I have not trained enough, or there are many areas I have not prepared for, and then suddenly the tournament arrives. This is a normal emotion. It means you are eager, or that you’re ready to seize this game and opportunity. If you think you are ready, I don’t think that is a mentality ready to face a big tournament. I don’t think it’s easy [to be ready], so there’s no need to force myself to a certain standard or to cheat myself or whatever. I just need to accept it.
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.
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.
Record vs Ma Long
Record vs Fan Zhendong
Record vs Rest of CNT
Total Wins vs CNT
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.
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.
Record vs Sun Yingsha
Record vs Chen Meng
Record vs Rest of CNT
Total Wins vs CNT
Doo Hoi Kem
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 TeamTraining Hall have been released, including their signature posters of their key rivals divided into tiers:
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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.
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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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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Fan Zhendong (aka “小胖”, which translates to “mini fatty”) ended 16-year-old Lin Shidong’s (aka “小小胖“, which translates to “mini mini fatty”) cinderella run in the quarter-finals of the China Olympic Scrimmage with an 11-13, 11-5, 11-9, 4-11, 11-5, 11-6 victory. Seeded last in his group, Lin won all three matches in his group including star names such as Xu Xin and Yan An. He had his opportunities to push the match against Fan to seven games and steal a win, including a painful blown 8-3 lead in game 3, but ultimately Fan was slightly more polished and experienced than Lin.
After the match, Fan commented that he felt that he played to his standard level (i.e. not terribly or exceptionally well). He felt he did not play well the first two games, particularly the first game, but even though it looked like Lin was dominating him in games three and four, he felt that he was playing better, which allowed him to execute well in games 5 and 6 and win both games relatively comfortably. Fan also praised Lin’s mentality and refusal to give up when behind and noted Lin’s rapid improvement since the last time that they played.
Fan Zhendong will play Wang Chuqin in the semi-finals. On the other half of the bracket, Zhou Qihao, who upset Liang Jingkun, will play Ma Long. The other top seeds, Xu Xin and Lin Gaoyuan, were eliminated in the group stage by Lin Shidong and Fang Bo, respectively.
In the women’s singles event, Zhu Yuling defeated Liu Shiwen 4-0 and Wang Yidi defeated Wang Manyu 4-2 to join top two seeds Chen Meng and Sun Yingsha in the semi-finals. Chen will play Zhu and Wang will play Sun in the semi-finals.
You can watch the match along with most other matches at this event on the Youtube channel 247 Table Tennis. More information on watching the event live can be found here.
Both players spent most of the first game getting into rhythm as they each missed backhand topspin rolls and gave sloppy pushes and serves for their opponents to abuse. Fan ended up winning a couple of early counterlooping rallies to put himself up at a comfortable 8-3 lead. However, he then consecutively missed a chiquita, a half-long opening, and a down-the-line backhand roll. allowing Lin to catch back up to 8-6. Fan won another power counter-looping rally to go up 9-6 and then popped up Lin’s serve return to keep it at 9-7. Lin tried to take a chiquita to Fan’s forehand, but Fan ripped it for a cross-court winner to take triple game-point at 10-7.
Lin landed his signature hard backhand opening to save the first game point, and then Fan threw away the next two points off of a missed backhand opening and a missed forehand counterloop from a good position. Fan landed his next counter-loop attempt to Lin’s elbow to take an 11-10 lead, but Lin saved the fourth game point with another hard instant backhand winner. Emblematic of his sloppy play in game 1, Fan missed his serve at 11-11 and then missed another backhand roll to give Lin the first game 13-11.
Fan started to get into rhythm for game 2 as he reeled off three straight solid step-around forehand loops from his elbow to take an early 5-2 lead. Lin then tried taking a hard cross-court forehand flick to Fan’s forehand, but Fan killed that ball as well to go up 6-2. Fan finally missed a forehand from the elbow to cut the lead 6-3, but his dominance continued as he built up a 9-4 lead. Lin then took a gamble by serving and immediately stepping around. Luckily for Lin, Fan flicked right to where Lin was waiting as Lin ripped a forehand winner to bring it to 9-5. However, a misread serve by Lin and a net-ball from Fan would cut any hopes of a comeback short as Fan took game 11-5.
Lin started with a strong service game to go up 3-1, but his struggles with Fan’s short serve to the forehand continued as Fan caught up to 3-3. Lin again scored two points off his own serve to go up 5-3. Fan tried for two short serves to Lin’s forehand, but Lin was able to execute a surprise heavy push to the forehand that Fan pushed into the net and a weird floating long push to the backhand that Fan missed the opening on. Fan missed his chiquita on the next serve return to give Lin the 8-3 lead.
Fan then won the next point off his signature sequence of a hard chiquita on the serve return and then dominating the ensuing rally. Lin went for a hard counter-loop on the next point, but it went straight into the net, narrowing the lead to 8-5. Whether because he felt that the momentum was shifting or that Lin’s gamble was ill-advised, Lin’s coach then promptly called time-out.
It seems that both players benefited from the time-out as the next two points ended up being amazing rallies, but Fan won both to cut the lead to 8-7. Lin then gambled again by stepping around early and destroying Fan’s chiquita to what was previously his elbow to give himself a 9-7 lead. Fan then served a tricky sidespin serve off the backhand side of the table and then dominated Lin’s weak and unconfident return. Lin then pushed another serve return into the net, and then Fan won the next two points off his signature chiquita sequence to cap off a 8-1 run and take the pivotal third game 11-9.
Fan continued his dominant ways for the first point and a half, but Lin landed a pretty block to take the second point and finally stop the bleeding. He built up an early 5-2 lead thanks to some missed backhand rolls from Fan. He then got a net-ball up 5-2 and up 6-2; Fans saved both nets well, but Lin was able to capitalize on both opportunities and extend the lead to 7-2. He then scored another point off a surprise heavy long push to Fan’s elbow to build the lead to 8-2. At 8-3, Lin briefly thought that his first name was Yun-Ju as he tried to take a short serve from the forehand with a chiquita, but he missed badly, letting Fan cut the lead to 8-4. However, he was able to regather himself and cruise to a 11-4 victory to level it at 2-2.
Consistent with his post-game comments, Fan played better in game 5 and was simply more polished than Lin throughout the game. The game opened quite closely with the score level at 3-3. However, Fan went on to win six of the next seven points off a combination of long rallies, clean counters, and errors from Lin. Down 9-4, Lin took a chance at an aggressive roll that paid off to narrow the lead to 9-5 with Lin to serve. However, Fan put his foot on Lin’s comeback hopes with a clean chiquita to the forehand that caught Lin off guard, and then Lin finished himself off by missing his own serve long, giving Fan the fifth game 11-5.
Both players started reaching into their bag of tricks in game 6. At 3-2, Fan pushed off the forehand side of the table for the first time in the match. Lin looped it into the net, giving Fan a 4-2 advantage. Fan then executed a rare long fast serve at 4-3 and won the ensuing rally to keep the advantage at 5-3. Lin then tried out a new serve from the middle of the table, but Fan was still able to get the long backhand opening and force Lin out of position to take a 6-3 lead. After missing a serve return into the net to cut the lead to 6-4, Fan was able to extend this lead to 8-4 with a long rally and a hard wide opening.
Lin took a gamble with a rare long fast serve that Fan missed to cut it to 8-5, causing Fan to call time-out. Lin then won a fast counter-loop rally to narrow it to 8-6 in an eery reminder of game 3 but with the roles reversed. However, Lin then missed a forehand flick to extend the lead to 9-6. Fan continued to show his superiority on the short game as he opened against a push from Lin that went a bit too long to take a 10-6 lead. He then landed a well-placed chiquita to Lin’s elbow that Lin missed, giving Fan the game 11-6 and the match 4-2.
A slideshow of several important points in each game are shown in the below Instagram post:
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