Liu Shiwen sat down with WTT last week for an interview with WTT on her recovery from an elbow injuryand her role as the mixed doubles player and veteran women’s team member at the Tokyo Olympics. A translation is provided below. Pictures were taken from here.
So far, it’s been going quite well. Ever since January, my physical and technical condition have been gradually improving bit by bit. Actually, I feel like the hardest part was during that time when I was hurt. During that time, I really felt hurt and confused, and I faced a lot of unknowns, so emotionally I felt like I was crumbling. After deciding to get surgery, I had to start over and prepare from scratch.
And even though the recovery process after surgery has been difficult too, overall I consider it to be going smoothly. Every day, I can see my improvement, and I feel like my condition is even better than before I got hurt. And during the recovery, my fighting spirit has also gradually been recovering, like I’ve found my motivation in life and in ping pong again. Because during that time, really every day was painful and confusing, never knowing what the situation was. I was very worried, and I had to face it. And it was hard to face the confusing injury situation and Olympic situation. When you don’t know how it is to face it, i makes you feel like you’re crumbling.
After getting surgery, a lot of it was just recovering from the pain, just constantly testing the pain and then adjusting myself. Actually, I felt like this was more targeted motivating. Then everyday was just trying to conquer myself and then live well day by day. This is quite motivating and challenging.
What helps you get to the game back faster?
In the early stage, I feel like it’s because of the people around me. I feel like it’s because the entire coaching staff, including teammates like my doubles partner Xu Xin, still believe in me. Even though I was hurt for so long, they still really believe in me. I feel like this has given me a lot of power. Actually when I first started rehab, I felt like the time was very tight. I didn’t know if I would be able to play to the level of, let’s not even talk about the Olympics, my normal training condition. I really didn’t know.
But with everyone giving me encouragement combined with the Olympics and the mixed doubles event, I felt like these two points simultaneously gave me a lot of support that allowed me to get through the early stages of laying a foundation, which were really difficult.
What was it like the first time you returned to playing?
I think the first time I picked up a paddle again was in Guangzhou during the league match [presumably she is referring to this event in December]. At that time, I just wanted to move around and try it out a bit. Actually training was out of the question.
Then in Chengdu [in December], it felt pretty similar. However, when I was in Chengdu, my teammates were all on holiday. Really when I was able to return to gathering, training and eating with my teammates was around January. Actually, I was pretty happy and calm. I feel like to be able to return with my team and train with everyone [made me happy]. Because before that I had to do a lot preparations, I hadn’t played for almost a year, and I had just recovered from surgery. I feel like just returning to the team isn’t easy. Because you have to keep up with everyone else’s training rhythm and competitiveness. This requires a very high standard.
And after returning to the team, even though I couldn’t completely return to training, sometimes I couldn’t keep up, just being around everyone and seeing everyone train inspired. So I still had the desire to return to my previous level. I wasn’t thinking about the Olympics. I was just thinking about getting a little bit better and finding my best condition.
Have you returned to 100 percent?
Well how do you measure what is 100 percent? Actually I haven’t put too much though into that. I just want to diligently get better a little bit every day and conquer myself. My goal is not to return to my old form. Actually I want to find a new self, to conquer myself continuously, not to compare with how I was playing before. So I don’t think I need to measure whether I’ve returned to my old self. I want to improve bit by bit and surpass my old self.
But now I feel like from the perspective of the mixed doubles at the Olympics, my partnership with Xu Xin has had a big improvement. Even though I have just returned for three or four months, the time we have spent together is really long. And for both of us our main event is mixed doubles, so we have been training together and improving our chemistry a lot, so I think we understand each other even better than before. In this regard, I have a lot of confidence.
From the perspective of singles and other things, I just need to diligently move forward one step at a time.
What are your thoughts on Xu Xin?
First of all I’m very thankful to him. Because I was hurt for so long, and I at the stage when I couldn’t practice, I communicated with him and told him this injury is actually pretty serious. Even though I hadn’t decided to get surgery yet, I kind of knew it in my heart. He put a lot of confidence in me. He told me, “first take care of your injury. We still have time.”
I think our trust in each other is very solid, so even though in the early stages of recovery I was play pretty poorly, he was still always giving me encouragement and trust. I feel like this trust comes from the bottom of our hearts.
I feel like it wasn’t easy for him either, because when I was hurt he had to change doubles partner and it was all very confusing. But I feel like since I’ve returned and we’ve trained together every day, his playing condition is getting better and better. And now that we’ve entered the final sprint in preparations and start to peak, I feel like his condition and his fighting spirit have never been better. I feel like this has driven me a lot, and I really +hope that we can get gold together at the Olympics.
Will there be pressure at the Olympics?
Of course there will be pressure. No matter what you’re playing, there’s pressure if you want to win. Well after all, for the Olympics, it’s everyone’s dream. Even though I’ve attended before, the desires you have towards the Olympics still are very strong.
I feel like your desire and motivation to win a championship will certainly give you pressure. Your intensity will definitely defeat the pressure, the dread, and the fear. I feel this very closely, because I feel like after all these years, we’ve gone through a lot to get to where we are today. I think we believe in ourselves. Coupled with the desire for the Olympics, we want to stand on the stage of the Olympics as soon as possible. Then I hope to be able to showcase myself. After all, walking down this road that we do, why do we persist? It is to stand on the Olympic podium.
Have you completed your Olympic preparations?
Although the Olympics have been postponed, our motivation and belief in our hearts has always been there. It feels like you don’t even have to finish saying the word Olympics, and our hair will raise. So even though sometimes we will adjust, maybe we’ll slow down our footwork since the timing and rhythm in the competition are not the same, the words Olympics are always there. We just have to say the words Olympics and we will mobilize ourselves into the zone. The power and desire inside of us is already there.
Hopefully during the final sprint of preparations, we can improve ourselves and make ourselves stronger, and hopefully we will have more confidence at the Olympics.
As an Olympic veteran, how will you guide other players?
I hope I can be useful to the team as a mentor. It’s not just technical things. I think it’s even more on the experience side in many ways, and I hope I can guide my teammates on the women’s team. I think they are undoubtedly very, very strong, but they do lack Olympic experience. Sometimes we will communicate and talk a bit. Once we walk into the Olympic Village, we are a unity, playing for our country, for our team. No matter what kind of task I undertake, I hop fulfill it to perfection. Then I hope that we can complete this task ahead of us to perfection.
What is it like to play mixed doubles as the first event at the Olympics?
It’s pretty good. I’m pretty happy that I’m able to take this responsibility. I’m also very happy that I’m able to complete it with everybody. Actually, before in some meetings and team interactions, I said I would try my best to share my experience with others. Then it feels like I have some value (laughs). Hopefully, I can help everyone, help this team, and in the process I’m also rewarded greatly.
What do the Olympics mean to you?
I believe it is a platform to improve yourself and conquer yourself.
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.”
Edges and Netsis honored and excited to present our first exclusive interview with Kanak Jha. Jha is a household name in American table tennis, having won every single men’s singles national championship since 2016 for a record four consecutive titles.
On the international stage, Jhais the first American male in the modern era to break into the world’s table tennis elite. He is ranked in the top 30, and at age 21 is one of the game’s biggest rising stars. Since 2018, notable wins for Jha on the ITTF Pro Tour include (in order of recency) 2020 Japanese National Champion Uda Yukiya,2021 Chinese Olympic Scrimmage Winner Zhou Qihao,Anton Källberg, Kristian Karlsson, Quadri Aruna, Wong Chun Ting, 2019 World Championship Bronze-Medalist An Jaehyun,and Lin Yun-Ju (whom the Chinese have identified as a top-two threat alongside Harimoto at the Tokyo Olympics).
In this interview, we discuss his new international training center in California, how training in the United States compares to training in Europe, competing with China, the Tokyo Olympics, mentally preparing for big tournaments, getting in competitive matches during the pandemic, and playing against stars he watched growing up.
On His New Club in San Francisco
This is your final sprint before the Olympics, and you’ve been in the United States for several months now. Where have you been training?
I’ve been in California [where Jha grew up and calls home] for the past three weeks, training at 888 Table Tennis Center. For those who don’t know, it’s a really amazing new center next to San Francisco Airport. It’s a great facility with great coaching staff including my personal coach for the last two years Jörg Bitzigeio, who is running it. It’s a really great international center—well, we hope to be an international center in the future—and I’ve been training with my other Olympic teammates there. So it’s been a really nice period for me, getting to be at home.
Have you primarily been training with Zhou Xin and Nikhil Kumar [the other two members of Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics], or are there other people?
Yes, exactly. So primarily with my teammates Zhou Xin and Nikhil. Lily Zhang is also here. And a couple of coaches around the [San Francisco] Bay Area are coming as well. Obviously, Jörg Bitzigeio is running the camp, and so like I said, it’s been a really nice training period and nice camp with my teammates. It’s not so often I’m home. I’m most of the time in Germany, in Europe, so it’s nice to be home, and yeah, it’s a good period.
Can you tell me about how the idea for this club came about, how you got involved, and what your role in the club is right now?
I’m not an expert in the details, but I think the club has been in the making for some time. And I always get updates about how the progress is going, and it’s really exciting now that it’s finished. There are not so many clubs in the US in general and the Bay Area, and this is definitely the largest one [in the Bay Area] and I want to say the largest in the country.
If you’re ever in the San Francisco area and play table tennis, I would definitely recommend for you to check it out. It’s such a great center, and I really think that it has the potential to be an international center, especially where it’s located, near San Francisco Airport. And this weekend we have a tournament here, in which all of my other Olympic teammates and I will be participating in, and it’s kind of like the grand opening of the center. So I’m a representative for this center, and I’m really proud to be a part of 888. And I just really hope it can become an international huge center in the future and have training opportunities for all levels when they come here.
On Training in the United States
Do you see yourself training full-time in the US in the near future?
Next season I will be in Ochsenhausen, my [German Bundesliga] club from this season. It’s hard to see it [training full-time in the US], just because in Europe and Asia, table tennis is just such a sport that has been there for so long, it’s such a popular sport, and the Europeans and Asians are so strong in table tennis. Right now, to be a professional player, if you really want to reach a world class level, you kind of have to live there if you want to reach the top.
But it’s already great to have a high-level center here, and now definitely when I’m home and coming back time to time, I can train there. I would love in the future if it would be possible to train here full time, and hopefully, hopefully, that will be a possibility in the future.
So you’ve been here for a while, and I wanted to ask you about how it’s different from Europe.
Yeah, it’s a really huge difference to be honest between training in Europe and here in the US, where I’ve been training since I was a kid. [In the US] it’s primarily driven by private lessons if you want to practice table tennis and really want to improve [as a kid].
But it’s a different culture here in the US, because we don’t have full-time professional players. We don’t have so many full time clubs where you have a lot of other players to play with, so it’s mostly just private lessons and paying [a private coach] per hour and trying to improve with coaching. Meanwhile, in Europe, you’re really in a center in a club with many other professional players in a group setting.
So I think it definitely does have disadvantages and advantages. One of the advantages from being in the US is that we have a lot of young kids whose techniques are oftentimes more advanced than in Europe, because we get to train with high-level coaches, so our technical level, our techniques start out at a higher level than Europeans at a young age. But as you get older you definitely need to be playing with other professional players in a group setting. [In a group setting] you can always play matches, you can block for real-life table tennis settings that more closely resemble the match. There’s only so much you can play with a [private] coach.
So I do think you need a bit of both, but I think the biggest difference is there’s a group setting in general when you’re training in Europe, which is very helpful when you’re reaching a higher level. Because there’s really only so much you can train against on one side against a block or just practicing one way [with a coach], versus when you’re playing with someone on the other side of the table who also really wants to improve and also wants to win the point. And that pushes everyone forward together, just being in that atmosphere all the time.
But these days, you are training in a group right?
And is it just the four US men’s team members and Lily?
Yeah, and maybe one or two more. I don’t know if you know like Bob Chen. But yeah, mostly it’s just us.
Ok. Another thing I wanted to ask you about your training is that I think it’s fair to say that you’re the strongest in the group by a pretty undebatable margin.
Uh, you can say that I’m ranked the highest.
And in Germany, there are some players who are higher ranked than you. Do you see any advantages or disadvantages of training like this, where in my opinion, you are pretty obviously ahead of the pack.
It’s always good in some ways to practice with players at a stronger level than you, so you can see what they’re doing better, what makes them such a top player. But at the same time, for me personally, the most important thing in training is you know what you’re working on. If you come to the table with a goal and you know what you need to practice, then in that regard you don’t really need the highest level of sparring partner or someone who’s much better than you if you know what you’re working on and what you’re doing.
So I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s always nice to play with players better than you, and you could say it’s more fun compared to if you play with someone at your own level, but at the same time the most important thing is that when you come to the table, you know what you’re working on, you have a goal of what you’re practicing in, and in that case, training will always be beneficial.
I think in general in table tennis, everyone’s goal is to beat the Chinese. I mean for those who themselves are not Chinese, obviously. So you see there are a lot of advantages like in the clubs in Europe, there are a lot of international players from different parts of the world. We can learn from each other and practice with each other, and see what you’ve done successfully, what your knowledge of the game may be more than mine that I can learn from.
I mean at the end of the day, the Chinese really are the best by a lot. Obviously, the Japanese are also very good, but to beat the Chinese is really the ultimate goal. I think the way we can improve, you see that the Chinese, they have these big centers with so many players on their national team for training, and we just don’t have that amount of players or those conditions in Europe or the rest of the world. So it definitely helps when we train together, that we can all improve and hopefully fight against them in the future.
I see. So you know China has that thing where they rank their rivals into tiers, you’re tier three right now.
I saw that. I saw that.
Do you agree with that assessment, and do you have a timeline for when you want to be tier one?
(laughs) Well first I need to say that it’s pretty cool that I’m there in general. I mean, growing up, I would never think that China, anyone on the national team, would know who I am. So just to know I’m there is pretty cool. I haven’t really put much thought into what tier I am. I’m kind of focused on myself and improving. But yeah, it’s pretty cool to know that I’m on their radar, and I hope in the future to keep improving and maybe challenge them hopefully. And I guess that’s the goal of myself, and of course, many other players.
On the Tokyo Olympics
Do you have any specific goals for Tokyo in terms of where you finish?
For me personally, I really just want to take it round by round. I mean the Olympics are such a unique event. It’s only the best players in the world coming there, so I know how difficult it will be. I definitely feel like I’ve improved a lot every year actually since Rio, which was my first Olympics, and I was very young, so definitely there are a little more expectations than last time, but I just want to take it round by round. And like I said, it’s such a strong event, so it’s definitely going to be extremely challenging from the beginning.
Do you think you’re going to be more nervous this time compared to 2016 because of the expectations, or do you think maybe it’ll be easier this time mentally since it’s your second time?
It’s hard to say. It’s a little hard to compare, but the pressure will always be there regardless of how many Olympics you play. It’s impossible not to have pressure. The most important thing is how you deal with the pressure.
But really, I try to really not to think about it so much. I’m just more focused on myself and improving every day and getting into top shape. When I’m training well before a competition, like I am now, it helps me to gain confidence to feel good going into the event. So the most important thing for me is just to have a lot of confidence and feel good about myself going into the Games, and then not worry too much about how far I reach.
On His Mental Game
So when the Chinese talk about their preparation for a big event, it’s always just mental, mental, mental, mental, mental. Do you feel like it’s the same for you, or do you also worry about physical or technical stuff?
So for the Chinese, I think their technical skill is at a higher level than almost everyone else in the world, so they know mentally if they can be focused and just be able to play their normal game, that can already be enough to go far in a tournament.
Yeah, I think mental really is the biggest thing. At the end of the day, everyone can play at a high level, especially at the Olympics. Being in the top 100 versus top 30, the [technical] differences can oftentimes be small, so it’s a lot of mental, how well you can impose your game onto the [opposing] player, how good your tactics are coming into the match, and those things often make the difference between winning and losing when both players are already playing at a high level.
Mentally, do you feel like it’s different playing an international event versus at US Nationals, where you’re a heavy favorite, and I mean you’re basically like China at the US Nationals.Do you feel like preparing for Nationals is just completely mental at that point and is the mental preparation different from an international event?
Yeah, I think the Nationals in the last two or three years I’ve played, I’ve been the favorite. So it’s definitely a different kind of pressure in its way, because you kind of expect yourself to win, but at the same time, you have to realize that being the top seed versus actually winning are two very different things. Everyone is hungry to beat you. You’re the main guy to beat. It’s also easy to relax yourself, saying I’m the top seed, I should already be thinking of the semi-finals, and that’s really the wrong way to go at it.
Regardless of whether it’s a US Nationals or an international event, I always try to come in with the same mindset, which is just to be 100 percent prepared, 100 percent focused from the first round, and that’s how I always want to free myself into a tournament mentally.
To get into a good mental state right before a tournament, is there a certain preparation that you do? Like matches or something?
Yeah, it depends a lot on which tournament also. In general, I just try to make myself in good shape. As the days get closer to the tournament, it’s more like individual, I’d say how I feel, what I would like to do, what I would like to practice and work on.
And yeah, mentally, it’s more of just trying to adjust. If you’re feeling nervous, just try to relax. If you’re feeling too relaxed, then maybe pump yourself up the day before, maybe try to really get yourself motivated to play. You always want to try to find a balance between feeling really confident and positive but at the same time having a little bit of that pressure inside so that you know you’re going to have an edge.
On Getting Competitive Matchplay Leading Up to Tokyo
I’ve seen chatter that it’s hard to get in competitive matches these days due to COVID. The Europeans have ETTC going on,and the Asians have their own internal things going on. Do you feel like the team tournament this weekend [at 888 Table Tennis Club] is close to that?
Yeah. First, going into Tokyo, it’s a really different feeling compared to a normal event, just because there’s been no real international competition for such a long time. That’s something that’s not really normal in the table tennis scene. You’re used to playing a lot of international events, competing a lot, and now there’s really been no events for such a long period, so it’ll definitely be a little different feeling than a normal preparation.
That’s why I’m also really happy that we’re having an event this weekend where we can compete a bit and play some serious high-level matches and get yourself into the groove and see what is working, what is not working, and mentally try to get yourself into that competitive state and competitive feeling.
Given how few matches there are these days, is there a reason you chose not to play in Qatar [WTT Doha] in March?
During the Qatar Open, I was actually at home in California. It had been a long stretch for me in Germany, about ten or ten-and-a-half months that I hadn’t been able to come home. So my thought process was, at the time there was supposed to be a China Hub after Qatar, and I think there were supposed to be two events there. I think they originally planned four [including Qatar]. There would have been two events in China, and that was my original plan, to focus on the China Hub. They were also a little more important in terms of ranking.
But unfortunately afterwards, that got cancelled due to COVID. So it’s a bit unfortunate. If I knew that ahead of time, I definitely would have competed [in Qatar], but we live in a time of uncertainty, so we have to live with it.
So you really haven’t played competitively since like February then?
Yeah, I want to say my last international tournament was maybe in October, the Men’s World Cup in China.
You had other stuff like the German Cup in early 2021 though, right?
Yeah, then I think I competed competitively last time in like March, maybe. It’s definitely been a while, and the international stage is different from even the [German] league. So it’s still nice to play a tournament now this weekend and compete a bit.
On Some of His Recent Matches Against Top Stars
So at the World Cup, you almost beat Chuang Chih-Yuan [Kanak lost deuce in the seventh]. Based on my understanding, he’s been your favorite player for a while now.How was that? Were you starstruck or anything?Did you talk to him about that?
Actually it’s my second time playing him. I also played him in the 2019 Omar Open, and he beat me really convincingly there, so I was kind of disappointed with my performance there. I played quite badly. Maybe I was a little bit excited in 2019 to play him, because I mean I never expected to play him growing up, you know.
But this time, honestly I treated it like a normal match. It’s a World Cup, and once you get on the table, you just want to win. That’s what my mindset was, so I really wasn’t thinking of anything else.
But definitely still, even after playing him, I have even more respect for him, how great he is, how great he still is at his age. He’s definitely a fantastic player, and it’s one of the reasons he’s my favorite player.
So shortly after that, you played the German Cup, where you played Timo Boll and Shang Kun. For those matches, you lost both of those 3-0, but in pretty much every game, you were pretty close until the end. And then they get you with like a serveor something. For you, is that a mental thing, or is that just something that happens when you play stronger players, or is it just a problem reading their serves, or what?
Yeah, in general, top players’ serve and receive game is really important. You not only have to receive the ball, you have to receive it with a lot of quality, so that they don’t attack you aggressively on the next shot.
It’s cool, it was my first time playing Timo. He beat me 3-0. As you said, the sets maybe were a little bit close, but still it was quite convincing. It’s always cool to play against top players, because you can really feel their balls and really see up close what you can really never see on video, what they’re doing so well. So it’s always great to play against them and kind of learn what they’re doing that makes them so special.
I see. And do you feel like they’re playing better at the end of the games compared to the beginning of the games, when you’re able to keep the score tighter?
I think in general for all levels when you’re playing someone at a higher technical level than you, the ending is where you can really feel that the most. Whether it’s just because they’re a little more confident in their abilities or a little more experienced, in decisive moments is what really separates higher-level players from players who are not at their level. And I think that holds for all stages of table tennis.
I guess nobody that you’re training with has serves as good as Timo Boll. How do you practice your serve return under such circumstances?
I train more by myself and not to receive a specific player’s serve, so I’m working on my receive in general and my shots in general. But when you lose to a player where you have a problem, a pretty obvious problem, like you can’t receive or you have problems with their receive, it’s always good to take a look at that and work on that. But most of the time, I’m training just for myself to work on my own shots and that will anyway apply in the match regardless of who I’m playing against.
Liu Guoliang recently downplayed gold-medal expectations, reiterated the need for mental strength, and praised the internal Chinese scrimmages for the Tokyo Olympics. Liu made these remarks to Chinese media during a ceremony in which the Olympic dragon uniforms were revealed. Edges and Nets has aggregated and translated several of his comments below. Original Chinese media articles can be found here, here, and here.
Coaches Double Down On Mental Strength
The Chinese National Team has been quite consistent in emphasizing mental strength as the most important factor heading into the Tokyo Olympics. In addition to Ma Long and Deng Yaping’s recent comments, Coach Wang Nan stated that the players must have confidence in their abilities and preparations.
In Wang’s view, the Olympics are different from normal competitions. The players need to accept and adapt to the heightened mental stress, execute to their normal level under the stress, and avoid having the stress of the Olympics negatively affect their play. Maintain your technique, keep your opponent’s tactics and habits burned in your mind, and leave nothing to regret.
Consistent with his colleagues, Liu also emphasized the importance of mental strength, stating that “As the Olympic Games are approaching, athletes will have a clearer vision of it. They need to undergo a process in their mentality transition and try to find their rhythm in preparation.”
Liu also noted the delicate nature of maintaining a good mental state: “If you are in a good state now, it does not mean that you are in a good state for the Tokyo Olympics; if you are in a bad state now, it does not mean that you are in a bad state for the Tokyo Olympics.”
When discussing China’s women’s singles roster, Chen Meng and Sun Yingsha, neither who have played in the Olympics before, Liu stated, “Every Olympic Games has people who participated for the first time, and they played well for the first time. The most important thing is what kind of mentality they use. If the mentality is good, the psychological pressure will be better handled, and there won’t be too much of an emotional burden on them.”
Liu Downplays Expectations
Although many have China as a shoo-in for gold in each of the Olympic table tennis events, Liu interestingly decided to downplay expectations, “We have the strength to win each of the five gold medals, and we have to confidence to do so. However, there are challenges and risks, especially considering the pace and manner of preparation is quite different in the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the nature of table tennis.”
At least in the women’s events, this remark is in contrast with Deng Yaping’s (who by the looks of things may not be as intimately involved with the national team as Liu) comments last week that Mima Ito was not a serious threat to the Chinese National Team. Liu appeared to have more positive words for their Japanese rivals, stating that “the Japanese table tennis team has been preparing for the Tokyo Olympics for many years, and especially hopes to beat the Chinese team at home, but I think they will give us more motivation. We need such an opponent, and we need such a competition to test the team.”
For what it’s worth, both Mima Ito and Jun Mizutani appear to be confident in their ability to upset China in at least the women’s singles and mixed doubles events.
Liu’s remarks appear to be aimed at relieving pressure from the team and getting them into the desired mental state. “I hope that our players and coaches will not have a burden of sweeping Olympic gold medals like in previous occasions… We cannot carry what we achieved in Rio into these Games, and we have to start from zero in Tokyo.”
“No matter which event, we are determined to win every gold medal. But competitive sports has ups and downs and wins and losses. This is all part of the game, so we don’t put too much pressure on everyone. If you don’t have pressure, you won’t be able to play well, but if you’re under too much pressure, you won’t be able to play well either. Keep a normal mind, put out what you practice, and strive for every piece of work. It’s not about which event is more secure [e.g. team events] and which event we are at risk of losing [e.g. mixed doubles].”
Remarks on the Final Closed Door Training
After the second leg of the Chinese Olympic scrimmages that were broadcast to the public, the National Team has been in closed-door training in Weihai for about 20 days. Liu Guoliang said that the focus of this period is to strengthen the ability and strength of the players. “It’s relatively easy to get out of form in the middle of closed training for about 20 days. This time, everyone’s ability and feeling of competition are better than those in the previous two (Olympic scrimmages). For the last scrimmage, we hope to be more realistic. We expect to be more detailed tactically and in simulating potential Olympic opponents.”
There will be a final closed-door scrimmage on July 8 to July 10. We may expect to see fewer upsets in this scrimmage as Liu further elaborated the differences between the goals of the initial and final scrimmages: “There are warm-up matches before, during and at the end of the closed training, which can play different roles. The early stage is mainly to test the strength, the mid-term test is the improvement and progress of the players after the closed training in the early stage, and the latter is intended to be the final run-in and preparation.”
Coach Deng Yaping recently made several statements to Chinese media regarding the Chinese women’s team’s Olympic preparations and their most serious threat, Mima Ito.A translation of the linked article is provided below.
There are only a little more than 30 days left before the Tokyo Olympics. For the last few days, the Chinese National Team has been preparing for the final stage in Chengdu. As the “first generation big devil” of Chinese and World Women’s Table Tennis, Deng Yaping accepted an interview with Titan [the outlet that wrote the article] reporters. She believes that during this time the players most need to control the rhythm, and the number one opponent Mima Ito does not pose a real threat.
The closed training camp of the national table tennis has come to the final sprint stage. In the last month or so, what should be paid attention to? Deng Yaping, who has rich experience in competitions, especially the Olympics, said that the players should slowly enter the mental game state. After all, the Olympics are still more than a month. They can’t adjust their emotional excitement instantly but instead need to adjust, strengthen and improve it according to the results of the warm-up matches, and gradually deepen it.
“Different from preparing for the previous Olympic Games, there has virtually never been a situation of training without competition. How do we transition slowly from warm-up matches to Olympic competitions? Because the timeline of the Olympic table tennis matches is longer than the usual World Championships, World Cup and Pro Tour events, so we need to control the rhythm, because the competitive state is a very delicate thing. You can’t come out too early, and you can’t come out too late.”
The veteran players are more experienced to deal with this point, so Deng Yaping also said that this is the function of experience: “The veteran players have better experience and control over their nerves. They know that they need to be fully invested in the mental game and a bit excited, but before the game they need to control own excitement and know how much effort to use against the opponent. But at this point, one of our national team’s strong points is the coach’s control of the athletes, so we don’t need to worry about it.”
Speaking of veterans, the two veterans of the women’s table tennis players, between Ding Ning and Liu Shiwen, who participated in the last Olympic Games and won gold [in the team event], Ding withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics competition early, and Liu was passed over for Olympic women’s singles qualification. For Deng Yaping, this is a normal thing. As veteran players, they should have been able to understand and accept such a process very early.
“Any athlete has a peak period and a decline period. Competitive sports will always have a cycle. There will always be someone who will retire. Young people will always come up. The national table tennis team has always had a tradition of passing on help. I believe this arrangement must be approved by the coaching staff. As a result of many deliberations, everyone has their own career, and everyone must stick to their position.”
Therefore, the women’s singles representing the Chinese women’s table tennis team in the Tokyo Olympics will be Chen Meng and Sun Yingsha, who have never experienced Olympic experience. However, Deng Yaping is not worried about their performance: “They have played in world competitions, and they all showed their level. Being able to stand out from the top players in the national table tennis team fully demonstrates their due strength. Although the Olympics is different from other competitions, their competition experience is still rich.”
For their first Olympic journey, Deng Yaping said that the most important thing is their mentality: “Their technical and tactical abilities are definitely not problematic. The main thing is how they think. Don’t think it’s the Olympics, then they will be burdened with the pressure they shouldn’t bear. They cannot think too much about winning or that the two of us must win the championship. We should focus on every opponent and every match.”
With the two Olympic novices and Liu Shiwen, an experienced veteran, Deng Yaping believes that such a female table tennis trio is a very stable and comprehensive lineup for the Olympics: “The three of them happen to be the three generations of the old, middle and youth in the team. Experience, stability, impact, lineup changes can make various changes to opponents, and I look forward to their performance.”
In Tokyo, the biggest opponent of Chinese women’s table tennis is the Japanese team, or Mima Ito, whose face and name are also printed largely on the wall of the national table tennis training hall. Many people say that Mima Ito is small and mobile and fights hard, resembling Deng Yaping. So can she break through the wall that is the Chinese National Team?
Deng Yaping said: “The Chinese Women’s table tennis indeed has very few rivals. Ito is certainly a threat, but how strong is she? I don’t think so. She is indeed unique, but the strength is not strong enough, so we don’t respect her strategically. If we pay attention to her tactically and prepare carefully, I think it is enough. Although she has a good storyline [e.g. homecourt in Tokyo], there is no need to make her so mythical. Our Chinese players have the advantage and confidence to defeat her.”
Ma Long recently sat down with WTT (World Table Tennis) to discuss various aspects of his preparation for the Olympics, what the Olympics mean to him, and what motivates him. The original interview (in Mandarin) can be found on the WTT Weibo account. We have provided a translation below.
How does it feel to prepare for your third Olympic games [Ma played the team event in 2012 and singles and teams in 2016]?
Normal, I guess. Anyway, certainly before the competition, you feel that your mentality and technical condition are not fully prepared, but sometimes that’s how competition is. For the high-pressure tournaments you may give yourself the highest possible standards, and during training you may never reach those standards, but come competition time you might find that you actually play to those standards.
The Olympics won’t happen twice in my life, and it’s the tournament of everyone’s dreams, so I need to give it my all and chase after it. I feel like if I don’t approach it this way then it will leave me with regret.
I think my experience may help me, but it may also hurt me as well; because I may approach this Olympics like it’s my first Olympics or my second, but your playing condition including your age, current developments in the world table tennis stage, and your opponent’s playing condition are all not the same, so it will not be completely the same as my rhythm last time. I still need to try to cooperate with my teammates to make some adjustments.
However, I think the most important thing is that my mental preparation needs to be even better than before, because previously I had nothing, so I can only go all out. After playing to a certain mental state, you may know that when you really want it, you actually end up not being able to hit your shots. Only when you are extremely relaxed and until the competition can you really find your best playing condition. You cannot find that during training. So sometimes during training, I still aim for perfection, but not for that unachievable perfection.
Everyone is using you as a role model. How do you feel about it?
This is a responsibility and it’s also a source of motivation. I hope that I can do an even better job and continue to maintain it. At the same time, over the last few years, their aggressiveness, including their yearning, to a certain extent has also given me a lot of motivation. I hope that when I’m tired and see these young teammates next to me and how they still have energy, this atmosphere can drive me further. So I think we can help motivate each other.
What do the Olympics mean to you?
I think the Olympics are the most important battle of an athlete’s life. After you win it, you think that winning the Olympics is a very important achievements. It is like graduating from a top university. Sometimes you also feel that the Olympics truly can bring you glory to last a lifetime and allow you to perform on the biggest stage. After you win the Olympics, you feel like you will remember it for a lifetime, so all athletes would like to play on this stage.
What motivated you to play in your third Olympic games?
On the one hand, the mentality and desire to win is still there. It may also be that although I haven’t won any [major] championships in the last year, I have still had some victories during this entire process, and these victories give me confidence. I think that [the confidence from winning] is very important for athletes.
Of course it also has something to do with passion. Passion is what regularly motivates me during training, but the desire for victory is also what motivates me. When you hold these two together, then you get my current level of persistence. If you only have passion but no victory, then your confidence may be affected. If you only like the game but have no love, and you only rely on the competition, then you have no guarantees and may not be able to persist. I think if both of these are present, I can maintain my persistence for the Olympics.
Jun Mizutani recently sat down with a Japanese table tennis reporter to discuss the Tokyo Olympics, the pandemic, Tomokazu Harimoto, playing doubles with Koki Niwa as two lefties, playing doubles with Mima Ito, and life after table tennis. Edges and Nets has provided an English translation below. All photos in this post are taken from the original website of the interview.
Please note that this translation was done via Google Translate with corrections for obvious mis-translations of table tennis terms; no Japanese speakers were involved. Translating Japanese pronouns into English gives Google Translate difficulties, and we did our best to correct the pronoun mistranslations to match the context, but there may still be errors.
On the Pandemic
First of all, I would like you to look back on the 2020-21 season. I think it was a difficult situation due to the pandemic, but what kind of year was it?
Mizutani: There were few matches, so I couldn’t confirm my condition. The only thing that was big was that the T-League was held for one season. Unfortunately, Kinoshita Meister Tokyo [Mizutani’s team] couldn’t achieve the third straight victory, but as an individual, I was able to win 13 singles, so I think it wasn’t bad.
How would you rate your performance on a scale to 100?
Around 70 points? I think there is still room for growth.
Please tell us your feelings when the Tokyo Olympics were postponed, which should have ended before the opening of the T-League last year.
In many ways, I had the feeling that it was “quite difficult.” All domestic and international games are gone, and I don’t know when I can play. There were various restrictions on practicing. I had never had such an experience, so I had a really hard time.
I think it was difficult to maintain motivation.
That’s right. Even though I thought “I have to do my best for the Olympics!”, I sometimes felt depressed, “I wonder if it will be held …”. There was a wave in my feelings. But now that the event is approaching and it’s becoming more and more realistic, my motivation is very high.
A the moment when the Olympics were postponed, Mizutani’s face came to my mind first. “Is it okay?” “What should I do?”
If it were true, I might have retired around August last year (laughs). Now that I am confident that I can still do it, I think I can do my best until next year even if it is postponed again.
I was relieved to hear that. Is there any part of the condition that has improved over the past year that lead to your current confidence?
Is it a place where you can “return to the old days”? Recently, I’ve returned to the feeling I had when I was a high school student or college student who was playing table tennis and was crazy about it.
Did you have any chance [to return to the old days of being passionate]?
I’m sure it’s because I feel that the rest of my competitive life is short. I’ve always liked table tennis, but I can’t do it anymore. Because of that kind of loneliness, I think I can practice with a lot of strength like I used to.
Does the fact that you have more time to think about table tennis and look back at the pandemic also have an effect?
I think it is. On the other hand, when I couldn’t play table tennis, I tried some things, “let’s do something different.” But in the end, none of them lasted long. So when I practiced for the first time in a while, I thought, “Oh, I like table tennis after all.” I think that the feeling of “I like table tennis” that I felt anew is connected to my current self.
By the way, what is the “something different” that you tried?
First of all, I played a game (laughs).
Oh, is it “Clash Royale” that was showing off his skills on TV programs?
You know it well (laughs). I also held a tournament myself. I often talk about games with Harimoto in the bath [possible alternate translation: locker room?]. I talk about private things that have nothing to do with table tennis, the Olympics, Chinese players, etc., but 50% talk about games.
On Tomokazu Harimoto
That’s right. Now that you mentioned Mr. Harimoto, how do you see his growth as a player?
It seems that he is gradually feeling a sense of responsibility. Even in recent practice, after everyone finished the curriculum, they practiced independently for another hour. I am also working hard on training. Harimoto is already in the third year of high school. I think this is a time when one can grow up as a table tennis player and as a person, so I feel that he is facing table tennis more firmly than ever before.
Harimoto has sometimes raised mental control as an issue, but do you have the impression that he is also doing well in mental control?
I think he’s done very well since the beginning of this year. It was the same not only in the national team but also in the T-League, but last year he was disappointed when he lost the game, and he felt regret. He was more depressed than the team, he was more depressed about what he lost, and he wasn’t completely blown away. However, this hasn’t happened since the beginning of this year, and he’s in very good shape. He also won the singles at the international tournament held in Qatar in March, and I feel that he is growing steadily.
What do you feel is growing in his play?
He’s back to the aggressive play style he used to have. When Harimoto is off, his play becomes defensive, and in many cases he is attacked by his opponent and cannot defend himself. But lately, I can see that he is taking advantage of that reflection and facing the game with the intention of aggressively attacking himself.
On Koki Niwa and Playing Doubles Together
The mental and play aspects are definitely evolving, aren’t they? Please tell us your impression of another national team member, Koki Niwa.
The approach to table tennis has changed. I think Niwa has a “genius skin” in terms of play, or a play style that doesn’t look like a hard worker, but in practice it’s moving tremendously. I wondered if that movement would really be used in games. It’s also interesting to practice mainly on the basics, even though you play so messed up in a match.
Niwa is a genius player, I was a little surprised that the main practice was basic practice.
I don’t think that was the case in the past. Immediately before the last Rio Olympics, he was so stressed that he couldn’t practice for weeks, and sometimes he escaped from reality. But this time, he’s doing basic practice every day, so I’m glad it looks okay. He’s my doubles partner, but he’s a player who has his own world, so I think I have to read what he’s thinking.
Do you have any concerns that you are both left-handed for doubles?
Certainly, the pair of two left-handed players has hardly been seen in the world for the past 15 years. There was also a talk that either I or Niwa should team up with Harimoto because it is difficult to move. However, Harimoto still wants to be an “ace player” (a player who plays two games in singles), so naturally the team took on its current form [where Niwa and Mizutani are paired]. I have been practicing with Niwa quite a bit, and every time I do it, I make new discoveries and understand our weaknesses, so I feel that I am growing step by step despite the difficulties.
Because the hard part is, how do I move?
That’s right. Everything is difficult, both after serving and after receiving.
Still, are there upsides as well?
There is definitely. The merit of teaming up two left-handed players is that both can provide the same service as in singles, and it is possible to attack with a chiquita even in receive. I think it will give us a great advantage in that respect. Also, from the opponent’s point of view, I think it’s definitely their first time to play against a lefty/lefty pair. I have no experience either.
Certainly, you can play a match against an opponent who has never played against a lefty/lefty pair while always holding an advantage.
There is definitely an advantage in terms of feelings. However, if you do it properly, you won’t win 100%. If you can play normally and win, there would be more lefty/lefty pairs. So our strategy is not to play a normal doubles match, but to use a lot of tricky play to confuse our opponents. So I think you’ll feel like you’re watching a completely different competition.
On Mima Ito
You will also participate in the Tokyo Olympics in mixed doubles. It’s been about two years since you made a pair with Ito from the Korea Open held in July 2019. Please tell us your impression of Ito again.
When I first formed the pair, I was confused by the variety of Mima Ito’s plays. Whether it’s service or receive, it’s a new technique I’ve never seen, I take a course, and the returned ball is also unique, so I couldn’t handle it easily. Even so, the pairing is getting better as the number of games increases, and I feel that the combination is getting better even in practice.
Ito is from the same club (Toyota Town Table Tennis Sports Boy Scouts), and she has a well-known relationship [with Mizutani]. Since she was little, she was called “Falcon” (laughs).
I’m abandoning it now (laughs).
You’re fighting in doubles with Ito, but is your impression different from what it used to be?
I have strong memories of when she was in kindergarten, so there may be parts where I can interact with her as she were in the past.
Is it like a cute little sister?
It really feels like that. However, the moment I stand in front of the table tennis table, I become the face of a top athlete representing Japan. I also look at it with respect.
On His Chance Of Winning Gold in Mixed Doubles
About a year ago, it was said that in mixed doubles you and Ito had a 65-75% chance at medaling and a 20% chance at gold. Has that percentage changed?
We are second in the mixed doubles world rankings, so we will probably be the second seed. In that case, I think that the possibility of medals has increased to about 70-80% because we will not hit the Chinese pair [Liu Shiwen and Xu Xin] until the finals. The gold medal is also adjusted very nicely, so it’s about 30%.
It indeed has gone up a lot. I think the biggest rival is China’s Xu Xin & Liu Shiwen pair, but looking at the competition results so far, it is a painful result without a victory in four matches.
There is not much difference in ability among us, and I think that we are in a position to win, so I think that the rest is a big part of my feelings. Looking back, in the 2019 Grand Final final, while leading the set count 2-0, we lost three games at once and lost the matches. As I continued to lose, I started to think “I want to win” and “I think I can win” during the match, and I felt less motivated to go, or I was a little defensive. If I can get rid of that, I think the probability of winning will increase.
Is there anything you are working on specifically?
Recently, I’ve been practicing a reverse horizontal rotation serve called YG (Young Generation) service. I don’t usually use it a lot in games, but there are many players who have trouble with YG service regardless of gender. That’s why I want to use it as a big weapon at the Olympics.
Certainly, Mizutani has an image that YG service will be released at this moment.
I think so. The reason why I haven’t used it so much is that the YG service is a very complicated rotation, so the returned ball is also complicated. In that case, it would be difficult for Mima Ito to hit the third ball, so it was a big risk to put it out many times. But on the contrary, if you master it, it will definitely become a big weapon, so I am currently practicing hard. Already, Mima Ito’s trust in hitting the third ball firmly even for complicated receives has increased considerably.
Other rivals include Taiwan’s Lin Yun-ju & Cheng I-Ching and South Korea’s Lee Sang-su & Jeon Ji-hee. What is your impression of them?
I’ve been able to win the Taiwanese pair without much effort, so I think it’s a great match. However, I lost to the Korean pair in the semi-finals of the Qatar Open in March. As for the cause of defeat, there are many patterns in which male players are left-handed and female players are right-handed in pairs from other countries, but the Korean pair is the opposite and a little special. That’s why I was confused by the return ball, which has a different nature than before. It didn’t mesh well from beginning to end.
I was watching the game, but I had the impression that you couldn’t break the bad momentum.
That’s right. My play was also really bad. But I’m sure I’ll be able to play well at the Olympics, and I don’t think we’ll get similar results.
On the Tokyo Olympics and Beyond
However, what I am really worried about is the condition of Mizutani’s eyes. Recently, I think some people have said that “the naked eye is better”, but what is your current state?
I’ve been practicing with the naked eye for a long time now, and I feel that it’s a little better than it used to be. For the time being, new sunglasses will arrive, so I haven’t decided which way to go. We plan to make a decision after previewing the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, which is the venue for the match.
I just pray that you will be in the best condition. The opening of the Tokyo Olympics is approaching, but what is the position of Mizutani in this tournament, which will be your fourth appearance?
I think it’s my first and last chance to win a gold medal. The next Paris tournament will be difficult due to age, and this time it will be held in Tokyo, so I would like to prepare so that I can demonstrate all my abilities.
You’ve always been told that you’ll retire after the Olympics, but do you still feel that way?
Yes. However, I think that I will retire from the international competition, but I wonder if I will continue to play table tennis … It may be quite ambiguous (laughs).
I’m getting ahead of myself, but what do you want to do other than table tennis after the Olympics?
That’s not the case at all. I also like soccer and baseball, so I have a desire to try it, but I’m tired of it. There is no such thing as “I want to continue doing this!”
It’s strange that people who have been playing table tennis for such a long time get bored. How about being a commentator? I think you commentated on the finals at this year’s All Japan Championships.
If I get an offer, I would like to try it. It feels like “I wish I could.”
Finally, please share with us your enthusiasm for the Tokyo Olympics.
As a culmination of myself, I would like to express all of my 27 years of competitive life in performance. The goal is to play so far away from humans that the viewer thinks “I can never imitate that myself”, so please take a look.
By the way, do you not wear underwear at this tournament as well?
Naturally. Needless to say.
If you change it suddenly, the condition will go crazy. Thank you for this time. I’m looking forward to your success!
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Mattias Falck recently sat down for an interview with Compass, a European Youth table tennis organization. More information on the organization can be found here.The original article is in German. We have posted an English translation here (the translation was done by Google Translate with human corrections for obvious errors on table tennis terms; no native German speakers were involved).Read other interviews that we have aggregated and translated here.
The reigning World Championships runner-up Mattias Falck is a late bloomer. He is currently preparing for the Olympic Games. Its advantage is its extraordinary play system, which also goes very well with the new ABS plastic ball.
He can’t wait to land in Japan. “To take part in the Olympic Games, to experience them, is something special!”
When Compass reaches Mattias Falck, he is in a hotel room in Paris. He, Kristian Karlsson, Jon Persson and Anton Källberg are currently on a preparatory training camp for the European Championships and the Olympic Games together with the French national team. Mattias is grateful for the variety of being in a city he doesn’t visit often and training with players he doesn’t otherwise train with. When I asked him what he was currently concentrating on during training, he initially hesitated to answer.
“There is a lot of improvement in my game,” he says, which sounds very humble for someone who is ranked ninth in the world. “I’m good at rallies, but since I play with short pimples on my forehand, my first offensive ball is sometimes too slow, which makes it a little too easy for my opponents to attack hard on this ball and counter-loop. That’s why I try to improve my forehand openings. ”
Mattias Falck made it into the top 100 in October 2015. In June 2019 he was in the top 10, which is something special. Only three non-Asian players have managed to do this in the last seven years. [Note from Edges And Nets: this is clearly false since Timo Boll and Dimitrij Ovtcharov have both occupied a top-ten spot in 2021.] Besides Mattias, these are Simon Gauzy and Hugo Calderano.
“Whether you make it to the top 100 to the top 10 depends on many things. I think the most important thing is the irrepressible will to always want to improve. And to have a lot of fun developing as a player so that you can enjoy the hard work that is necessary for it, so to speak. It is also important to like the crucial situations in important games, to be triggered again especially when it is 9-9 in a final for a championship.
For me personally, it took me some time to mature and adapt to adult table tennis. It has always been my strength to play the ball safely on the table. In order to assert myself with the adults, I had to become much more aggressive and play harder, but at the same time also had a high level of basic security. With my game system, I can not only play safely. I have to take risks, but of course make as few mistakes as possible. “
You made it into the Top 10 later than anyone else in it right now. You were almost 28. Could you have been there earlier?
“I think everyone goes their own way and there are always a lot of things that influence their career. I can count myself lucky that I had good coaches in every phase of my career – in Lyckeby, where I was trained, in Köping, where I went to table tennis high school, and in Halmstad, where I moved afterwards and where I have been for over ten years. I always had people around me who supported me and believed in me, not to forget my wife, of course. One thing I regret is that I started physical/weight training too late. I still have a lot of work to do in this area. “
It’s one thing to get to the top 10, it’s another to stay there. You have succeeded in doing this for almost two years so far. How come
“My equipment and thus my playing style are a big advantage for me: Short pimples on the forehand and a normal, inverted rubber on the backhand. Very few players play with this combination. Even if I should be analyzed more by my opponents, they still have to play a lot against this material and game system in order to get used to it. And there are just not many who play like me. Therefore it is still very uncomfortable for them that the ball comes out of my backhand with a lot of topspin and bounces “normally”, but much flatter and with reverse spin from my forehand. They are used to a completely different rhythm. “
“An advantage. To be honest, I’m a bit surprised that there are not more pips in the men’s game. The first plastic ball bounced off very flat, making it almost impossible for me to smash the balls when my opponents were playing flat topspins into my forehand. Because my pimples have less grip compared to normal rubbers, I cannot counter-loop with topspin. I could more or less lift it back onto the table. The ABS plastic ball jumps a little higher and has less rotation. That makes it possible for me to attack more straight ahead, ie harder and also more aggressively. “
The Olympic Games are only a few weeks away. What is it like to be able to play there?
“Great! It is the biggest event for table tennis players as it only takes place every four years. You can feel that in the atmosphere. You get nervous, in a very special way. I took part in Rio 2016, but only in the team competition. We were beaten by South Korea in the quarterfinals, where I won a singles but lost the doubles. To experience an Olympics as a player is something extraordinary. I was in the Olympic Village in Rio for over ten days before the competitions started. Many said it wasn’t very wise. But I enjoyed every minute. I thought it was really cool to meet all kinds of people, some of them were real megastars. ”
And how do you prepare?
“We will prepare with many training camps. Then I hope that the European Championships really take place in June so that we have at least one big tournament before that. In Japan we will then have a camp in Fukuoka before we move to the Olympic Village on July 20th. “
You will be placed in the top eight. Special wishes for the draw?
“No – it comes as it comes. I don’t worry about that. I focus on what I can influence. And these are my games. I exclude the rest. “
And what about the Chinese?
“They are the favorites and of course they are very good. But I beat Xu Xin last year and had a set point for a seventh and decisive set against Ma Long. I think they respect me. I have to stay strong at the table and get them under time pressure. I’ll put everything I have in there and fight. “
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Mima Ito appears to have recently created a stir among Chinese media by declaring to Japanese media that she has figured out how to beat potential Olympic opponents Chen Meng and Sun Yingsha. The timing comes right after China’s National Games Qualifier tournament. However, Chen did not participate in the event, and Sun only played doubles. Chinese fans are left guessing whether Ito is really onto something, or whether she is participating in so-called psychological warfare.
Note: we were unable to obtain the original source of the Japanese interview and are only relaying the reaction by Chinese media. If someone could share the original interview, it would be greatly appreciated.
Ito seems to be guessing that China will send Chen and Sun to play the singles event in Tokyo, but China has not yet released its roster. Based on recent comments made by coach Li Sun, there is speculation that China will instead send Chen and reigning World Champion Liu Shiwen, who appears to have fully recovered from the elbow injury that sidelined her during the second half of 2020, to play in the singles event.
At this point, interpreting Ito’s statement is like reading tea leaves, but is it possible that she is trying to bait China into not sending Sun, who is 6-1 against Ito since 2018?
In WTT Doha in March, I won the single’s champion in two events (i.e. WTT Contender and WTT Star Contender). This tournament is different from previous ones, as the matches were only best three out of five until the quarter-finals. Because I don’t know what would happen under this format, I was very cautious throughout the tournament. Once I reached the stage where it was best four out of seven, I instantly felt relieved and could play comfortably.
Even though I wasn’t immediately playing my best starting from my first match (Ito squeaked by Britt Eerland 3-2 in her first match), my goal every day was simply to play to the level that I know I am capable of, and I slowly began to enjoy it. I feel that whether it is in table tennis technique or my mental game, I have become stronger in many aspects.
Different from last year’s world tour, WTT uses many different types of lighting, so the whole arena feels like a movie theatre. It made me feel very glamorous. Also different from the usual tournaments is that the barriers were very low, so it’s really easy to hit the ball outside of the playing area. The athletes also had to pick up the balls. Whenever I did this, I would start thinking, “if I take this path and walk around this way, I can get to the ball faster.” I would think about these things while playing the tournament.
Throughout these two competitions, I felt that winning the point during the first three shots was my main playing style (shameless plug: check out a similar observation Edges and Nets made in our finals analysis). When I win points through the serve and receive, I play with more excitement (unsure if this is the correct term. The original Japanese word appears to be ノリノリ).
I started gaining confidence in my serve when I won the German Open in March 2015, where I beat very high-ranked players (Ito beat Feng Tianwei, who was ranked number four at the time). I felt that my serves were very good, which made it difficult for my opponents to play aggressively.
At the time, I felt that as long as I could get the two points on my serves, it was enough. However, as I started playing these players more often, even if I won both my points on the serve, I would just return two points back to them on the serve return. Hence, I think both my serve and serve return need improvement.
I need to think carefully and come to a decision on whether to play international tournaments before the Olympics. Before WTT Doha, I did a lot of practice matches with many other players. I think this format is good as it gives the feeling of competition, but at the same time I can get some training in. I hope I can continue to use this method to prepare for the Olympics.
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