Dimitrij Ovtcharov appeared to have a Lin Yun-Ju problem. Going into WTT Doha, Lin had won their previous four match-ups in international competition dating back to the 2018 Austrian Open and appeared to have virtually no problem attacking Ovtcharov’s famous serves or dominating Ovtcharov in the rallies.
However, with several key adjustments Ovtcharov actually came quite close to beating Lin in the ITTF Grand Finals in November 2020, but he fell just short, losing deuce in the sixth game. After adding in a few extra wrinkles to his game, Ovtcharov was finally able to snap his losing streak against Lin in the WTT Contender finals at WTT Doha witha 4-1 victory. We take a look at what adjustments Ovtcharov made to finally solve the Lin Yun-Ju problem on his fifth try.
Unfortunately, the video of the full match appears to have been removed from Youtube and to the best of our knowledge is currently publicly unavailable.
The Lin Yun-Ju Problem
We note two key reasons for Lin’s dominance over Ovtcharov in their previous matches. First is that although Ovtcharov’s serves are typically seen as one of his strengths, Lin has virtually no problem receiving Ovtcharov’s serves with very aggressive chiquitas that allow Lin to take the initiative on the attack. Second, Lin appears to be physically faster than Ovtcharov by a comfortable margin, allowing him to dominate in fast-paced counter-attack rallies as shown in the point below from their match in 2020.
Thus, Ovtcharov will almost certainly lose to Lin if he plays the traditional approach that most young kids are taught of trying to land the first opening attack and using the advantage gained from taking the initiative to dominate the ensuing rally. Ovtcharov cannot compete with Lin’s chiquita to open up more often than Lin. Even if Ovtcharov were able to open up first more often than Lin, Lin’s physical speed advantage could effectively neutralize the advantage Ovtcharov may gain in the rally from being the first to open.
The Solution: Ceding the Opening Attack
After losing quite handily in the 2019 Czech Open, one of Ovtcharov’s central and incredibly daring and innovative adjustments both in the 2020 ITTF Grand Finals and in WTT Doha was to almost completely cede the opening attack to Lin.
To get an idea of how willing Ovtcharov was to allow Lin to attack first, consider the following numbers. In their 2019 match-up, Ovtcharov attempted 36% of the opening attacks (whether make or miss) from either player. While Lin attempted a healthy majority of the opening attacks, this is still quite a reasonable number given his dominance in the chiquita.
In the 2020 Grand Finals, Ovtcharov attempted only 20% of the opening attacks, allowing Lin to open up a staggering four times more often than Ovtcharov did. Ovtcharov returned over half of Lin’s long or half-long serves with a push or defensive shot, a decision that would earn most young children a healthy punishment from their coach. For comparison, in their 2019 match-up, in which Ovtcharov played a more conventional approach, Ovtcharov attacked nine of Lin’s eleven long serves.
Ovtcharov continued this approach of pushing long serves in their match at WTT Doha, even doing so at game point and deuce as shown below.
Overall, in Ovtcharov’s victory at WTT Doha, he attempted a more reasonable 30% of the opening attacks. The uptick in attempted opening attacks can be explained by several factors. First is the statistical noise present in any sample size of roughly 100. Second, as we will see later, Ovtcharov appeared to intentionally mix in more attacks to catch Lin off guard more often.
Third is that Lin also made the observation that Ovtcharov was perfectly happy to let him attack first and adjusted his game accordingly. This could most clearly be seen in that he pushed several of Ovtcharov’s serves as opposed to rushing in for the chiquita. Lin virtually never made such a move in their matches in the 2019 Czech Open and the 2020 Grand Finals. This adjustment in turn allowed Ovtcharov to reveal just how happy he was to let Lin attack first; Ovtcharov simply pushed back Lin’s pushes and did not seem to mind if his own push ended up being long or even slightly high.
Why Cede the Opening Attack?
What does Ovtcharov gain from ceding the opening attack? After all, it often ends up with Lin immediately winning the point with a clean third-ball kill.
First is the obvious advantage that pushing is less error prone than attacking. In their two match-ups at the 2020 Grand Finals and WTT Doha 2021, Lin totaled 22 opening errors, while Ovtcharov only had 7. Over the course of 11 games, this comes out to just over one extra error a game for Lin. However, as Ovtcharov won two games in deuce in his 4-1 victory in Doha, this small advantage ends up mattering greatly.
However, Ovtcharov cannot just hope for Lin to miss 11 openings a game. The central advantage of ceding the attack appears to be that it counter-intuitively allows Ovtcharov to better dictate the pace and rhythm of the game. We can see this in a couple of Ovtcharov’s favorite go-to plays against Lin.
Go-To Play #1: Backhand or Elbow Pin-down Against the Chiquita
As shown in the two points in the video below, one of Ovtcharov’s favorite plays is to either serve or push short or half-long to Lin’s forehand and allow Lin to take a chiquita from the forehand. Ovtcharov then blocks down the line to Lin’s backhand or elbow, and Lin either misses the backhand or returns an extremely weak shot that gives Ovtcharov a massive advantage in the ensuing rally.
From this play, we see one big advantage of letting Lin attack first. Provided that Ovtcharov can to a certain degree anticipate the location of Lin’s first attack and avoid immediately getting killed, he is often firmly waiting in the position he wants to be at while Lin has to move his body further out both in the left-right direction and the shallow-deep direction in order to initiate the attack.
Thus, even if Lin knows that the ball is likely to go deep to his backhand on the next shot (which is not a guarantee if Ovtcharov plays with enough variation and keeps Lin guessing), he has a significant distance to cover and not much time (recall Ovtcharov is typically blocking down the line) to recover from his opening chiquita, neutralizing his physical speed advantage over Ovtcharov.
While Ovtcharov most clearly leveraged this positional advantage in the backhand pin-down against Lin’s chiquita from the forehand corner, it can also be seen in other points in the match, such as in the point below where Lin steps around for the hard forehand kill, but Ovtcharov correctly anticipates the location of the kill and blocks it wide to Lin’s forehand.
Go-To Play #2: Change In Pace
While Ovtcharov may have difficulty keeping up with Lin in terms of raw speed, he is able to throw Lin off rhythm by either going from a slow block to a fast counter or sometimes even a fast counter to a slower block as seen in the point below.
If Ovtcharov’s goal is to maximize change of pace, Ovtcharov may thus prefer to start from a position of blocking instead of a moderately fast opening attack as it allows him to switch gears more drastically. We can also see more clearly how Ovtcharov’s defensive approach actually makes his attacks more effective in several points where Ovtcharov performs a standard opening but appears to catch Lin off guard and win the point immediately.
Ovtcharov faces the standard trade-off where if he attacks too much, then his attacks are no longer surprising and he is unnecessarily playing into Lin’s game. This appears to have been the case in the 2019 Czech Open. However, attack too little and he is failing to exploit a quick and easy source of points. This appears to have been the case in the 2020 ITTF Grand Finals. Ovtcharov seems to have struck a nice balance of initiating the attack just under 30% of the time and pushing a little less than half of Lin’s long serves at WTT Doha. Of course, Lin may force a change in that number in their next match-up.
Extending The Bag of Tricks
One critical difference between Ovtcharov’s loss in the 2020 Grand Finals and his victory in WTT Doha is that in the 2020 Grand Finals, Ovtcharov lost a game 11-9 and a game in deuce, while in Doha, Ovtcharov won both the deuce games.
The change in results can arguably be attributed to luck or Lin playing slightly worse or Ovtcharov playing slightly better. However, Ovtcharov also helped himself in Doha by introducing new subtle tricks that allowed him to eke out the extra two games that he needed.
Perhaps the most clear addition to Ovtcharov’s bag of tricks was a new simple dead serve (Kong Linghui is another notable player to have used this serve) that was completely non-existent in his 2019 match with Lin. Ovtcharov was also hesitant to use this serve in their 2020 match until down 9-5 in the sixth game. The serve was effective enough for him to force the game to deuce.
In Doha, Ovtcharov was happy to use this serve much more frequently, even at deuce. It played well into his defensive approach to the game, and Lin was unable to do much against it as there was no spin or power to borrow. As mentioned earlier in this post, Lin chose to push the serve back in both the points shown below, but Ovtcharov felt comfortable pushing the ball back again to give the opening to Lin. The extra couple points won from this serve throughout the match helped give Ovtcharov the slight edge that he needed to take the two close games in the match.
Lin is now the front-runner over Hugo Calderano to take the fourth seed at the Tokyo Olympics. If Lin holds on to the fourth seed, a Lin-Ovtcharov quarter-final draw has a 25% chance of happening, Of course, both players need to also avoid getting upset in order for the match to actually happen. There is also a decent chance that these two could meet in a bronze medal match if Ovtcharov can replicate his WTT Contender performance against Harimoto and China continues to dominate. It is hard to say who would be favored in a match-up in the Tokyo Olympics.
On the one hand, Lin is higher ranked, has a history of defeating Ovtcharov, and appears to have a raw physical advantage in the fast rallies. Moreover, if Ovtcharov is really so eager to let Lin attack first, nothing is stopping Lin from just pushing the ball back more often. At the end of the day, as the one who initiates the attack, Lin in principle should have more control over the pace and rhythm of the game. Moreover, Ovtcharov’s tricks will lose effectiveness as their novelty wears off, and Lin is almost certainly training against the simple dead serve.
On the other hand, Ovtcharov almost certainly has more tricks saved up just for the Olympics, and he is likely to innovate more tricks and tactics over the next few months. Moreover, playing in the round of 16 in the ITTF Grand Finals or the finals of WTT Contender is a completely different animal from playing in a bronze-medal match at the Olympics.
Liu Shiwen has mentioned how critical the mental aspect of table tennis is and how her previous World Championship finals experience gave her the edge over Chen Meng in 2019. Lin is only 19 and has never played in any match as nearly as high stakes as an Olympic bronze-medal match. He may be the “silent assassin” when playing in a T2 or world tour event that, despite the prize money, in the grand scheme of things is quite meaningless, but we have yet to see him in such a big spotlight. On the other hand, this will be Ovtcharov’s third Olympics and he has already won a bronze medal in 2012, which may give him just enough of a mental edge to eke out a tight win.
We apologize for the delay in releasing this post as it took longer than anticipated to write. The next post is scheduled for Wednesday, April 7.