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.
|Name||Seed||Record vs Ma Long||Record vs Fan Zhendong||Record vs Rest of CNT||Total Wins vs 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.
|Name||Seed||Record vs Sun Yingsha||Record vs Chen Meng||Record vs Rest of CNT||Total Wins vs CNT|
|Doo Hoi Kem||8||0-2||0-2||0-2||0|
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: