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Power Ranking the Olympic Singles Gold Medal Contenders

This post is the first in a series of previews on the Tokyo Olympics. Read all our Olympic coverage here.

With the conclusion of the Chinese Olympic Scrimmages and less than fifty days to go, Olympic season is in full swing. While the Bundesliga finals, which will feature the likes of Timo Boll and Patrick Franziska, are scheduled to happen this weekend, there are arguably no more remaining high-profile events involving major Olympic gold medal contenders. This brings us to the question, exactly who can be classified as a gold medal contender?

In this post, we take a look at who is a contender and who is a pretender for the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. We then rank the contenders of both genders in order of likelihood of winning gold in Tokyo. The rankings contain a certain amount of subjectivity, but hopefully they are at least more consistent and meaningful than ITTF’s FIFA-style “player ratings“.

Sorting Out Contenders and Pretenders

The road to gold runs through China, so to begin let us take a look at how the top seeds have fared against the Chinese National Team (CNT) over the last couple of years.

Men’s Singles

The table below shows the record of the top eleven seeds in the men’s singles events. The first column indicates the name of the player, the second column indicates his seed at the Olympics, the third column indicates his record against Ma Long (the second seed), the third column indicates his record against Fan Zhendong (the top seed), the fourth column indicates his/her record against the other four highest-ranked players on the CNT (Xu Xin, Lin Gaoyuan, Liang Jingkun, and Wang Chuqin), and the fifth column indicates the total number of wins he has recorded against any of these six members of the CNT.

We only consider four out-of-seven ITTF-sanctioned matches (unfortunately, WTT is looking to make three-out-of-fives the new normal) that happened since 2018 at the earliest. Moreover, we do not consider T2 results, as the rules are an absolute gimmick, and the top Chinese players of both genders possibly underperformed as a result. While this misses out on some key matches like Timo Boll’s 2017 renaissance, matches from four years ago arguably have very little predictive value for matches today. After all, Ding Ning was World Champion in 2017, and now she is retiring.

NameSeedRecord vs Ma LongRecord vs Fan ZhendongRecord vs Rest of CNTTotal Wins vs CNT
Fan Zhendong14-3N/A13-517
Ma Long2N/A3-412-415
Tomokazu Harimoto32-20-32-114
Hugo Calderano40-11-51-42
Lin Yun-Ju51-10-52-73
Mattias Falck60-20-11-51
Dimitrij Ovtcharov70-41-00-51
Timo Boll80-30-60-30
Jang Woojin90-00-44-44
Jeoung Youngsik100-31-30-51
Liam Pitchford111-00-11-22
Record of top seeds in Men’s Singles against CNT

As expected, we see that the Chinese National Team is heads and shoulders above the international competition. No international player has anything close to a winning record against the CNT, and Ma and Fan have by far the most wins against the CNT despite having the handicap of not being able to play against themselves.

We look at the total number of wins that a player has against the CNT as opposed to the win percentage. The idea is that players like Harimoto should not be penalized for making it far enough in a tournament to frequently face off against a Chinese player and lose.

We classify anyone who has not recorded more than two wins over a Chinese player over the last two years as a pretender. After all, if a player could only beat a Chinese player twice over three years, possibly when said Chinese player may have been nursing an injury, out of focus, or experimenting, what are the odds that he can beat them twice in the same tournament at which the Chinese will be at peak performance?

Thus, we label Calderano, Falck, Ovtcharov, Boll, Jeoung, Pitchford, and all the even lower seeds (no lower seed has more than one win against the CNT) as pretenders. While they are strong contenders for bronze and may even make the finals, which Falck achieved in the 2019 World Championships, they will really need all the stars to align and to have the tournament of their lives to win gold.

Women’s Singles

Let’s now take a look at a similar table for the top ten seeds of the women’s singles event. The fourth column in this table will refer to a player’s record against Liu Shiwen, Ding Ning, Wang Manyu, and Zhu Yuling over the last three years.

NameSeedRecord vs Sun YingshaRecord vs Chen MengRecord vs Rest of CNTTotal Wins vs CNT
Chen Meng13-1N/A24-827
Sun Yingsha2N/A1-36-107
Mima Ito31-40-38-89
Cheng I-Ching41-10-20-71
Kasumi Ishikawa51-61-20-82
Feng Tianwei60-11-20-61
Jeon Jihee70-30-10-20
Doo Hoi Kem80-20-20-20
Adriana Diaz90-10-00-10
Sofia Polcanova100-10-10-30
Record of top seeds in Women’s Singles against CNT

When looking at how many wins each player has scored against the CNT over the last three years, it is quite clear that Chen Meng, Sun Yingsha, and Mima Ito are all contenders and the rest of the field consists of pretenders. Although someone like Kasumi Ishikawa or Jeon Jihee may hope to steal a match from Ito and claim bronze, it is difficult to envision anyone outside of Chen, Sun, or Ito taking gold.

Power Ranking the Contenders

Now that we’ve sorted out the pretenders from the contenders using our rough proxy of wins against the CNT, it’s time to rank the contenders in order of likelihood of winning gold.

A common saying among coaches is that there are four pillars of table tennis: technical, physical, tactical, and psychological. While the initial reaction of many people is to focus on the technical aspect of table tennis, players like Liu Shiwen have emphasized the importance of the psychological aspect of table tennis. While we will look at more technical details in future posts, in this ranking we will lean more heavily into the role of amateur psychologist.

8) Lin Yun-Ju

The table shown above undersells Lin a bit, as they don’t count T2 matches, in which Lin beat Lin Gaoyuan, Ma Long and Fan Zhendong. The rules were clearly designed to increase the variance in outcomes and make it easier to pull off upsets, but at the end of the day, Lin has shown the ability to defeat Ma Long and Fan Zhendong in the same (watered-down) tournament, which makes him a gold medal contender.

Lin’s chiquita is arguably the best in the game, giving him the ability to play an aggressive style and launch the opening attack in the point, even when the opponent serves. However, his relative lack of strength and power makes his attacks less intimidating, as Ovtcharov was all too happy to concede the opening attack in his win over Lin at WTT Doha last March.

Lin spent the last Fall training in China with the Chinese National Team. There are two ways to read this. On the one hand, training with the top players and coaches in the world in principle should make him an even bigger threat to China.

On the other hand, China is notoriously secretive and competitive and won’t even share its rubbers with the world. The chances that they shared novel and meaningful insights with Lin are slim. Moreover, in 2017, China allegedly banned Hirano and Ishikawa from playing in the super league because they were such a big threat. If China really feared Lin as a serious contender, would they let him in to train with them right before the Olympics? Lin may surprise us all and pull off the two upsets that he needs, but from the looks of it, China is fairly confident that will not be the case.

7) Jang Woojin

Due to his disappointing first-round loss to Ruwen Filus at WTT Doha, Jang failed to break into the top eight seeds for the Tokyo Olympics. As a result, Jang can potentially run into a top seed as early as the round of 16.

Harimoto will certainly not want to see Jang in the round of 16, as the two exchanged narrow wins in a pair of seven-game thrillers in the ITTF Finals and World Cup last Fall. As Jang is tied with Harimoto on the leaderboard for most wins against the Chinese National Team over the last three years (granted, Harimoto and Lin both have more wins than Jang if you include three-out-of-five and T2 matches), Fan and Ma would likely prefer to see Jang deeper into the tournament as well.

Intuitively speaking, Jang’s willingness to step around and go for big forehands, even if it means risking getting burned on the wide-open forehand, can make his game more high-variance. This opens him up to a potential early-round exit, but it also tilts the odds further in his favor when playing against someone stronger than him such as Fan or Ma.

Jang’s low seed may end up being a blessing in disguise, as it may be easier to play the Chinese players earlier in the event as they may still be shaking off the Olympic jitters and getting used to the environment. Furthermore, a round-of-16 exit is far more stressful and disappointing for a Chinese player than a semi-final exit. If Jang can build an early 2-1 lead against Fan, can his aggressive play and the situational pressure get into Fan’s head?

Korea has consistently challenged China in the men’s singles event over the last several decades, and Korean national team coaches Ryu Seungmin and Kim Taeksoo won’t be intimidated by China. Jang has the surrounding coaching and training infrastructure to beat China. If he gets hot at the tournament, he may very well end up pulling off the two upsets that he needs to win gold.

6) Tomokazu Harimoto

5) Mima Ito

Tomokazu Harimoto and Mima Ito certainly have the respect and fear of the Chinese National Team. In an interview in 2019, Coach Liu Guoliang has remarked that what makes both of them dangerous is their fearlessness and willingness to try out new things.

Stylistically, both of them have zigged while the rest of the field has zagged. Partially due to his young age, Harimoto has opted to essentially never back off from the table or take a backstroke and to instead win points by out-pacing the Chinese with quick off-the-table bounces. Meanwhile, Mima Ito has developed arguably the most iconic serves in the game today (sorry Dima), and instead of attempting the hopeless task of defeating the Chinese in long rallies, she has directed her focus towards winning the point on her first three shots.

While it is still unclear how many fans will be able to attend the Olympics, the home crowd in Tokyo will surely give Harimoto and Ito at least some boost. As young underdogs, Harimoto and Ito will almost certainly face less pressure than their Chinese counterparts as well. Both players are clearly serious threats to beat the Chinese, but which one is more likely to win gold?

Ito probably has better chances of winning gold due to her lack of competition among non-Chinese women. While it’s possible that Ito is upset before she reaches the semi-finals, unlike Harimoto she does not need to worry about playing a Jang Woojin in the round of 16 or a Lin Yun-Ju in the quarter-finals. Virtually all the top non-Chinese stars played at WTT Doha in March, and Ito won both the Contender and Star Contender events quite handily. Meanwhile, Harimoto was upset by Ovtcharov in the Contender event before bouncing back to win the Star Contender event.

However, assuming both players reach the semi-finals, it is debatable who would fare better against the Chinese players. Ito has a significantly better record against the CNT than Harimoto does. She also apparently claimed that she has figured out how to beat Chen Meng and Sun Yingsha, but her prior record against them is even worse than Harimoto’s record against Ma Long and Fan Zhendong.

In fact, the table above also slightly sells Harimoto short. He has a three-out-of-five win against Fan under his belt, and he was a blown 3-1 lead from defeating Ma at the 2020 World Cup in China despite having to go through onerous quarantine during which he was not allowed to play.

If we assume both players have roughly similar chances against the Chinese, then Ito edges out Harimoto in our power rankings. Harimoto carries a significantly bigger risk than Ito of not making the semi-finals, which in turn dampens his chances at winning gold.

4) Sun Yingsha

As is usually the case, the heaviest favorites for gold are all Chinese. While Ma Long vs Fan Zhendong is one of the more interesting table tennis debates these days, Chen Meng has performed heads and shoulders above the competition over the last few years. Hence, Chen takes the number one spot in our power rankings and Ma and Fan take the next two spots.

Although Sun has a worse record against the CNT than Ito over the last several years, Sun has a 4-1 head-to-head record against Ito, which becomes 6-1 when considering T2 and three-out-of-fives. Sun would be the favorite in a match-up against Ito, giving her the number four spot in the power rankings.

3) Fan Zhendong

2) Ma Long

With Sun Yingsha slotted in at fourth and Chen Meng locked in at first, the second and third spot in the power rankings go to Fan Zhendong and Ma Long. The big debate is, who would you pick between Ma and Fan to win gold in Tokyo?

Fan Zhendong has a winning head-to-head record over Ma Long since 2018, a better record against the Chinese National Team, and a higher world rank. Fan looked better than Ma at the Chinese Olympic Scrimmage. Ma will turn 33 at the end of the year, while most Chinese players retire by the age of 30.

However, Ma is arguably the greatest player of all time. Ma has won the last three World Championships, including in 2019 when he was coming off an injury and playing as a lower seed, and the 2016 Olympics. Even if he doesn’t look his best during scrimmages, which are the epitome of unimportant low-stakes matches, he has earned the benefit of the doubt that he will get it together when the matches really matter.

Moreover, as a result of Ma’s dominance over the last half-decade, Fan has zero championship experience in top-tier events. Fan may look better physically and technically, but Ma undoubtedly has the mental edge going into Tokyo.

Father Time catches up with everyone eventually, and Ma may end up looking extremely vulnerable a la Zhang Jike in 2016. However, until Ma loses in a World Championship or Olympic match, betting against him in a top-tier event is a dangerous game. Hence, he lands just above Fan in the power rankings.

1) Chen Meng

Before her loss to Wang Manyu in the finals of the second leg of the Olympic Scrimmage, Chen Meng was virtually untouchable for more than a year. She won the first leg of the Olympic Scrimmage earlier in May and won all her matches (not counting exhibitions like WTT Macao) in 2020, sweeping through World Cup, Grand Finals, All China National Championships in the Fall and the German Open and Qatar Open before the pandemic. She has a favorable head-to-head record against Sun and Ito, and since 2018 she has recorded more wins against the Chinese National Team in international competition than Ito and Sun combined.

Chen walks into Tokyo as the clear-cut favorite to win gold in the women’s singles event over Sun, Ito, and arguably the entire field combined. Neither Ma Long nor Fan Zhendong can claim such odds, so Chen sits atop the power rankings at number 1.

Update: Photos from the Chinese National Team Training Hall have been released, including their signature posters of their key rivals divided into tiers:

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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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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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Fan Zhendong Ends Lin Shidong’s Cinderalla Run At China Olympic Scrimmage

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.

Game 1

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.

Game 2

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.

Game 3

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.

Game 4

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.

Game 5

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.

Game 6

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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Identifying The Magnus Effect In Table Tennis

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

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

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

What is the Magnus Effect?

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

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

Visualization of the airflow that causes the Magnus Effect

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

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

Identifying the Magnus Effect in Table Tennis

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

The Magnus Effect In Fast Topspin Rallies

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

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

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

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

Leveraging the Magnus Effect Against Slow Spinny Loops

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

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

Bonus: Around-the-net Shots

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

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

Chinese National Team Shares Their Travel Preferences

We translate a recent group of quick interviews about travel that Table Tennis World did with various members of the Chinese National Team over the last several weeks regarding their travel preferences (sources: one, two, three).

What is the favorite place that you have competed in?

Ma Long: Suzhou

Xu Xin: Shanghai

Fan Zhendong: I have traveled to many places for competition, but the places that have left the biggest mark on me are my first singles World Championships in Paris and my first team World Championships in Tokyo.

Lin Gaoyuan: Japan and Korea

Liu Shiwen: Tokyo

Ding Ning: I don’t have a favorite

Chen Meng: Weihai

Sun Yingsha: I go to wherever there’s good food haha

Wang Manyu: My favorite foreign country is Morroco. My favorite domestic city is Shenzhen.

Zhu Yuling: Korea

Which country or city have you been to that you would recommend fans to travel to and why?

Ma Long: China, it has has everything

Xu Xin: Fiji. The weather is good, the sea is good, and it’s expensive (luxurious?).

Lin Gaoyuan: Japan, the grilled meat is delicious.

Liu Shiwen: United States. I feel like there are so many places to go. Although I’ve been there and planned a lot, I haven’t really been to the most fun places.

Chen Meng: Qingdao, my hometown. The scenery is beautiful and it’s warm in the winter and cool in the summer. There’s also delicious seafood and Tsingtao beer, which will be worth it for everyone.

Sun Yingsha: Everywhere is not bad. I don’t go out too much haha

Where is somewhere you would like to go at least once in your life?

Ma Long: Iceland

Xu Xin: My dream when I was young was to go to Australia, and now I have been there.

Lin Gaoyuan: Maldives

Liu Shiwen: Maldives

Chen Meng: In the sky in a hot air balloon hahaha

Sun Yingsha: Paris

Do you like to travel with a plan or do you do what your heart wants?

Ma Long: A mix of both

Xu Xin: I travel with friends

Fan Zhendong: When you travel, you must go wherever your heart wants

Lin Gaoyuan: When I go out I must travel with a plan.

Liu Shiwen: I travel with a plan.

Ding Ning: I actually prefer to plan the first part, but once I get there then I like the kind of people who just follow their heart.

Chen Meng: I travel with a plan.

Sun Yingsha: Do what my heart wants.

Wang Manyu: Do what my heart wants

Zhu Yuling: I travel with a plan

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