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How Harimoto Built A 3-1 Lead And How Ma Long Came Back at the 2020 World Cup

In anticipation of the Tokyo Olympics, we are re-watching some key matches over the past year between top gold medal contenders. In this post we take a look at how Tomokazu Harimoto built a 3-1 lead against Ma Long at the 2020 World Cup before Ma called a pivotal time-out in Game 5 to come back and take the 4-3 win.

The 2020 World Cup was a weird tournament that likely makes its results a poor predictor of what will happen in the Olympics. First of all, it was right after the break from the pandemic, so players were still getting into competition state both mentally and physically. Second, players who integrated new elements into their game during the pandemic break were debuting them against the top competition often for the first time, possibly resulting in some more experimental play. Third, non-Chinese players had to go through onerous quarantine before entering China during which they were not allowed to train.

Nevertheless, there is still some signal to be gleaned from this tournament. We take a look at what happened in this match, what trends we can expect to persist at the Olympics, and what we can expect to be different. At the time of this posting, the full match can be viewed on Youtube.

Game Plan

We first take a look at the general way in which Harimoto and Ma scored points in this match. As is common practice by top Chinese-speaking players, we divide the point into two distinct phases: the first three shots and the ensuing rally.

First Three Shots

Fighting for the Half-Long

Ma Long’s most desirable outcome coming out of the first three shots of the point was for him to take a forehand opening against the long and especially the half-long ball. He won 68% of the points where he attempted (points in which he missed his opening are also counted) such an opening against a serve or push. On all other points, he was only able to win 47% of the points.

As shown in the clip below, one way that Harimoto, aware of the advantage that yielding the half-long gave to Ma Long, responded to some of Ma’s slower half-long openings was to go for a counter-kill and end the point immediately. Harimoto ended up landing four counter-kills and missing six counter-kills/blocks. This is still a losing situation but less so than when he let Ma control the point following the half-long and slowly carve him up.

The Flicking Game

After Ma was able to take six long forehand openings in game 1, Harimoto, unable to beat Ma in the short-pushing game, was more aggressive in attempting to flick against the short ball in the next game in order to deny Ma the half-long opening. In game 2, Harimoto took 9 short flicks as he cruised to an 11-3 victory. Harimoto would continue to be far more aggressive than Ma in attempting short flicks: Harimoto attempted 50 flicks in the match, while Ma only attempted 12.

Not only was Harimoto more aggressive in attempting to flick against the short ball, but his flicks themselves were also of a more aggressive nature. Harimoto landed 10 flicks that were instant winners while Ma only landed 4 such winners (and unlike Harimoto’s hard flicks, Ma’s “winners” were more controlled well-placed slow shots). However, Harimoto’s aggressiveness came at a cost: he also missed 7 short flicks while Ma did not miss a single flick.

Unforced Errors

We define an unforced error as a missed serve, serve return, or third ball opening against a push. The disparity in unforced errors was quite large as Harimoto missed five serve returns and four third balls while Ma only missed one serve return and one third ball against a push. That amounts to a seven-point difference for an average of one per game. Unforced errors didn’t end up being a difference-maker in any individual match, but the disparity is something to pay attention to should these two players meet in the Olympics.

Was the gap in unforced errors mostly due to extrinsic forces such as Harimoto’s onerous quarantine that Harimoto can easily take care of at Tokyo? Or was it mostly due to something intrinsic to their games such as Ma’s better serves and Harimoto’s natural inclination to take riskier openings?

Rally Game

Once the point got past the first three shots, Ma homed in on steadily attacking Harimoto’s elbow, often with a step-around forehand loop, as shown in the clip below.

Meanwhile, Harimoto played at a more frantic pace, going for fast wide kill-shots to Ma’s forehand, which was often extra vulnerable due to Ma’s tendency to step around. The most potent way in which Harimoto attacked Ma’s forehand was with a quick down-the-line backhand punch—either from the wing or from the elbow—with sidespin that curved the ball even wider to Ma’s forehand.

Alternatively, against Ma’s many shots to the elbow, Harimoto could also step around to deliver a quick forehand loop that was placed even wider and curved even harder than his backhand punch. These step-around shots from the elbow carried the advantage that Harimoto could generate his own power with a quick backstroke and not have to rely on borrowing Ma’s pace. However, the downside was that the extra backstroke made the shot harder to pull off in a faster rally, in which case the quick backhand would be preferred.

Ma typically waited until he had the opportunity to step around for a big forehand before going to Harimoto’s forehand. However, Ma would leave his forehand extremely exposed in such instances, which Harimoto took advantage of with wide quick blocks off the bounce.

Ma Long’s Magical Time-Out

Harimoto looked on his way to a 4-1 victory as he had just scored three straight points and was up 5-4 and 3-1 in games until Ma called a time-out and completely reversed the course of the match.

Ma’s Magical High-Toss Serve

Prior to the time-out, Ma served a high-toss serve only twice. After the time-out, every single one of Ma’s serves was a high-toss serve. Ma’s high-toss serve was absolutely devastating for Harimoto. After the time-out, Harimoto held his own on his own serves through the second half of game 5 and game 6, going 7-7. However, he went an abysmal 2-11 on Ma’s serves.

Harimoto appeared to struggle mightily with pushing short against the high-toss serve, presumably due to an inability to read how much spin was on the ball. As a result, one major effect of Ma’s high-toss serve was that it opened up far more opportunities for him on the half-long opening. In Games 2-4 and the first half of game five, in which Harimoto was largely in control, Ma attempted a long forehand opening on 14% of the points. After the time-out, Ma nearly doubled that number to 26% over the next game and a half.

One way Harimoto managed to deny Ma the half-long was to flick the serve. However, against the high toss-serve, due to difficulties reading the spin and the inherent challenges of giving quality flicks against no-spin or light-spin balls, Harimoto’s flicks likely packed just a bit less speed and spin than earlier in the match. The slow-down appeared to be enough for Ma to wait in anticipation for the hard counter from the backhand or elbow and continue to dominate these points.

Taming Harimoto’s Fast Wide Shots to the Forehand

One of Ma’s key adjustments after the time-out was taking away the fast wide shots to the forehand from Harimoto. Both Harimoto’s number of attempted fast wide shots to the forehand and their effectiveness vanished following Ma’s time-out in Game 5. Before the time-out, Harimoto was able to land a fast wide shot to the forehand on 36% of all points and convert 89% of those into a win. However, after the time-out, Harimoto was only able to land a fast wide shot on 21% of all points and convert a measly 44% into wins.

The lower number of attempts is likely a consequence of Ma better controlling the rhythm of the point thanks to his high-toss serve. The lower conversion rate was likely due to Ma better anticipating the fast wide shot to the forehand so that he could get in position more reliably like in the clip shown below. In the first point of the clip, even though Harimoto misses the shot, we can see that Ma was already waiting for the shot to the forehand.

What to Expect In Tokyo

Should Ma and Harimoto meet in Tokyo, the aesthetic of the match will likely be similar, with Ma hunting half-longs and attacks to the elbow and Harimoto more aggressively flicking short balls and trying to win the rallies with quick wide shots to the forehand.

Harimoto will clearly be looking to make certain adjustments. Most importantly, he needs to find a way to better read Ma’s high-toss serve and develop a better contingency plan in case he has trouble reading the high-toss serve (or a new serve) again. Harimoto will also likely look to clean up some of the errors he made at the World Cup by virtue of better shot selection and being in better game-shape come Tokyo.

At age 33, Ma has likely been coasting through most of the major events since the 2019 World Championships, and we can expect to see an all-around better version of Ma in Tokyo. While Ma cannot count on his high-toss serve to bail him out again at the Olympics, he also still has more tools in his bag of tricks (such as his backhand serve) to give him an extra advantage should he need it again against Harimoto.

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Jun Mizutani Discusses Olympics, Harimoto, Ito, and More

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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Mima Ito Discusses WTT Doha and Tokyo Olympics

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?

Ito also recently wrote a brief article on some of her thoughts on her performance at WTT Doha. We produce a rough English translation below. Editor notes are in italics.

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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Analyzing Jeon Jihee’s Evolving Service Strategy Against Mima Ito

As a medal contender at the Tokyo Olympics, Jeon Jihee has a chance to make Korean Olympic table tennis history this summer. The most recent Olympic singles medals for South Korea are Kim Kyung-ah’s bronze medal in the 2004 women’s singles event and Ryu Seungmin’s famous gold medal in the 2004 men’s singles event. No woman from South Korea has ever reached the finals in the singles event. Similarly, the last time South Korea won a medal in the women’s team event was in 2008, and South Korea has never reached the finals in the team event.

Jeon Jihee has a puncher’s chance at accomplishing all of these things, but there is one player who consistently stands in her way to Olympic glory: Mima Ito.

Jeon’s Path To Olympic Glory

The Path to a Singles Medal

In the women’s singles event, there are roughly three tiers of medal contenders. In the first tier are the two yet-to-be-named Chinese women, who will be heavy favorites regardless of their seedings (although both will likely be top three seeds). In the second tier is second seed Mima Ito, who is quite widely acknowledged as the single most dominant threat to Chinese supremacy in the women’s events. In the third tier are seeds four through eight, which in order of projected Olympic seeding are Cheng I-Ching, Feng Tianwei, Kasumi Ishikawa, Jeon Jihee, and Doo Hoi Kem.

Let us first make the somewhat reasonable assumption that nobody in the third tier is able to pull off what would be a historically unprecedented upset against either of the Chinese women (although a historic upset is always possible and Jeon has beaten Chen Meng before in T2). Jeon’s viable path to an Olympic singles medal without having to defeat a Chinese player is as follows.

As a top-eight seed, Jeon is guaranteed not to play anybody higher ranked than her until at least the quarter-finals. In order for her to have the best chance to medal, she has to hope that she can avoid the Chinese players in the quarter-finals by drawing either Ito or the fourth seed. If Jeon is able to upset both the fourth seed and Mima Ito in some order, then she wins at least a bronze medal.

While it is unclear how the Olympic seeding rules work out this year, there is a chance that the two Chinese players may end up on the same half of the draw, in which case if Jeon defeats the fourth seed and Ito, then she will reach the Olympic finals.

The Path to Team Glory

With Jeon’s presence and the rise of teenager Shin Yubin, who notched impressive wins over Miu Hirano and Miyuu Kihara at WTT Doha and steamrolled the domestic competition at the Korean Olympic trials, Team Korea looks to be at the very least a bronze-medal contender and arguably the bronze-medal favorite in Tokyo. However, Korea appears to have loftier expectations.

In a press conference on March 15 (English translation on TTD), Korean table tennis legends Ryu Seungmin and Kim Taeksoo said that they believe that Korea has a solid chance at upsetting Japan and taking the silver medal (Kim also believes that only Japan can reasonably challenge China) at the Olympics. This is a bold proclamation as Japan’s lowest ranked player, Hirano, is higher ranked than Korea’s highest ranked player, Jeon. However, Korea has pointed to recent encouraging signs in their favor, particularly Shin’s win over Hirano and Shin/Jeon’s doubles win over Hirano/Ishikawa at WTT Doha.

Korea is likely closely monitoring the progress of Choi Hyojoo and Shin Yubin before making any final lineup decisions. However, from their remarks, Ryu and Kim seem to be signaling that Jeon and Shin will be playing the doubles match and that Shin will be playing singles against Hirano or Ishikawa. 

If that is the case, then Choi will play a singles match against Ito, who Choi came close to beating at the 2019 World Team Cup, and Japan’s choice of Hirano or Ishikawa, and Jeon will play Ito in a critical singles match should the two countries meet in the semi-finals.

Given that Jeon’s finals aspirations in both the team event and singles event likely run through Mima Ito, should Jeon spend the next few months hyper-focused on Ito similar to the way that China appears to be?

What are Jeon Jihee’s chances of pulling off the wins that she needs?

Jeon appears to have reasonable chances of upsetting the fourth seed in the women’s singles event (who will likely be Cheng I-Ching, Feng Tianwei, or Kasumi Ishikawa). Since 2018, Jeon is 4-3 against Cheng, 2-3 against Feng, and has not played Ishikawa in international competition. As we saw in WTT Doha, there is also a sizable chance that the fourth seed is not even able to make it to the quarter-finals.

On the other hand, we also saw in WTT Doha that Mima Ito appears to arguably be heads and shoulders above the rest of the non-Chinese competition, including Jeon. Since 2018, Jeon is 0-4 against Ito, including two 4-1 losses since the pandemic. Jeon will almost certainly walk into Tokyo as an underdog against Ito.

Although Jeon has had an underwhelming history against Ito over the last couple of years, their last two matches have been closer than the 4-1 scores may indicate. Out of the eight games that Jeon has lost to Ito in the last several months, three have been heart-breaking deuces.

First, at the 2020 World Cup last November, Jeon was up 10-7 and then failed to convert on four game points in a row to lose 13-11. Then at WTT Doha in March, Jeon lost a deuce 17-15 after Ito got a critical net ball at 15-15 in the second game. In the fifth game, Jeon was again up 10-7 lead and lost six game points in a row, resulting in a 15-13 loss.

Given the closeness of some of these games, even marginal targeted adjustments against Ito may be enough for Jeon to tilt the game more in her favor and pull off the upset in Tokyo.

The Story of Jeon Jihee’s Service Strategy Against Mima Ito

Mima Ito’s Domination on the Serve Return

One adjustment to her game that Jeon has already made and may continue to make against Ito is in the service. Shown below are the last four game points that Jeon failed to convert in game five against Ito at WTT Doha as well as the only match point that Ito needed to win the match.

Over the course of five consecutive critical service returns, Ito manages to receive every serve with the short pips on her backhand and does whatever she wants to them to create an advantage for herself on the next shot. She lands three chiquitas of varying side spin, a fast straight backhand flick, and a strawberry flick.

Why is Ito able to so freely create whatever she wants when receiving the short ball? Part of the reason may be that she does not fully respect the threat of Jeon’s long fast serve to the backhand, which allows Ito to fully focus on being creative with the short receive. Can we quantify how concerned Ito is about the long serve to the backhand and by extension how little attention she can devote to the receive on the short forehand corner?

One rough proxy is the number of times she receives a long fast serve with her forehand. When Ito receives too many long fast serves to the backhand and feels like she is unable to create an advantage on them, she tends to step around and open using her forehand. If Ito has to plan to open her stance for a forehand loop and additionally move left if she’s stepping around, then in principle it should become more difficult for her to move into the table to the short forehand corner to receive a serve with the pips on her backhand.

In Ito’s 4-3 win against Hina Hayata at the All Japan National Championships in January, Ito attempted to receive 13 long serves with her forehand (note this number also includes Hayata’s long serves to Ito’s forehand). In her 4-2 win against Hayata at WTT Doha, that number was 16. In her 4-3 loss to Kasumi Ishikawa at the All Japan National Championships, that number was 5. What about in her 4-1 win over Jeon Jihee at the World Cup last November? Zero.

Jeon raised that number to three in Doha. Let us take a look at the adjustment she made to cause this change, and whether she should further adapt her service game specifically for Mima Ito like other top lefties appear to do.

How Other Left-Handed Stars Serve Against Mima Ito

Jeon may have already started to adapt her service pattern to be more in line with several other left-handed players who are strongly motivated to optimize their games against Ito: Hina Hayata, Kasumi Ishikawa, and Ding Ning. Hayata and Ishikawa should be deeply familiar with Ito since they compete with her for domestic as well as international titles. Ding Ning, along with the rest of China, is likely also hyper-focused on Ito as she is the single biggest threat to Chinese supremacy.

We show selected points in some of their matches against Ito in the past year. Note that these are all very important points in the match. For Hayata and Ishikawa, these are their last few serves in a seven-game thriller. For Ding, these are her last three serves in a 14-12 win during a pivotal third game.

Several things stand out. First, all three of them are willing to challenge Ito on the long serve, even if it means letting Ito step around for a forehand opening. Second, Ito doesn’t do anything too fancy against them when they do serve short. Third, when serving they all stand inside close to the middle of the table (as opposed to the more common position of standing behind the corner), which appears to give them the flexibility to execute serves short to the wide forehand or long to the wide backhand.

Hayata and Ding can go full games serving entirely behind the corner, even at 9-9, but they do serve from inside the table throughout the match, and it says something that when they need points the most, they opt to serve from inside the table. Moreover, while Hayata likes to serve from inside the table against everyone, Ding and Ishikawa are quite clearly serving more often from inside the table specifically because they are playing Ito.

To get a rough idea of how heavily Ishikawa changed her service game for Ito in the All Japan National Championships, consider the following numbers. In Ishikawa’s 4-3 win over Ito in the finals, Ishikawa served from inside the table 85 percent of the time. However, in her 4-2 win over Miyuu Kihara in the semi-finals, Ishikawa served from inside the table only 21 percent of the time.

In Jeon’s loss to Ito at the World Cup, Jeon didn’t serve from the inside the table even once. This is in line with her and Ding Ning’s typical service pattern: almost always serve from behind the corner and possibly break out a different serve from inside the table to introduce some surprises during critical points.

However, at least Ding and Ishikawa have both apparently decided that such a service pattern is sub-optimal against Mima Ito. Jeon seems to have arrived at a similar conclusion as she heavily integrated more serves from inside the table at WTT Doha.

How Jeon Jihee Changed Her Serves At WTT Doha

Jeon Jihee notably started serving from inside the table against Mima Ito at WTT Doha in the second halves of Games 2, 3, and 5 after never doing so in the World Cup (she did, however, serve at least once from the center of the table in her 3-1 loss to Ito at T2 in 2019).

We caught glimpses of the potential advantages of using this serve. In the clip below, we see Jeon take a pair of points at 9-9 in the third game off two fast long serves to the backhand. Ito can only give a standard backhand flick return that is not particularly fast due to the short pips, which Jeon can take advantage of.

However, this serve is not a silver bullet to cure all of Jeon’s woes against Ito. Due to a combination of Ito’s brilliance and Jeon’s possible lack of familiarity with her own serve, some of Ito’s returns against this serve seemed to really catch Jeon by surprise. Jeon also may have signaled more information than she would like with her service stance; she was far more likely to serve fast and long to the backhand when standing inside the table. She can remedy this by serving to the short forehand from inside the table more often.

Jeon also almost certainly feels more comfortable with her usual serve from behind the corner. While she can surely execute her serve from inside the table perfectly during training, can she do it repeatedly when the pressure is on?

As seen in the first video clip in this post, to close out the match Jeon reverted to her normal serve from behind the corner even though Ito was having her way with them. Was this a tactical decision or was it because Jeon lost confidence in her ability to execute the serve well? Jeon did serve a long fast serve to the backhand from inside the table at 12-11, but Ito seemed to easily take advantage of it since the serve was predictable and/or not executed well.

It remains to be seen whether Jeon further integrates this serve into her matches against Ito in the future. At Doha, she only used this serve in the second half of a game and only if the score was within two or three points. This is roughly on par with (although possibly slightly less than) how often Hayata and Ding use this serve against Ito. Does Jeon want to fully adapt Ishikawa’s strategy in All Japan and essentially make this her default serve?

How Much Does Jeon Jihee Want Mima Ito To Step Around?

Counting the number of times Mima Ito receives a long serve with the forehand is always an interesting exercise. As mentioned earlier, the upside of Ito stepping around is that it means she can devote less attention to the short forehand corner. The downside is that it allows her to open with an aggressive shot.

However, a step around forehand from Ito may not be as scary as it sounds. Sure, if Ito knows exactly where the ball is going and has time to prepare, she can pretty much score an immediate winner with a fast wide smash to either corner. However, when she is on the move, not completely in position, and hitting it from a wide angle on her backhand corner, it is extremely difficult to go hard straight down the line to the left-handed server’s backhand.

The points shown below are quite illustrative of the risks and rewards of Mima Ito stepping around for the forehand opening on the serve return.

In the first point, Ito is only able to make a soft and somewhat predictable cross-court shot to Jeon’s forehand, and Jeon lands the strong counter-loop. In the second point, Ishikawa is waiting for the forehand counter, but Ito manages to get in position and land a smash to her elbow for the instant kill. In the third point, Ito prepares to step around, but Ishikawa serves short to the forehand, so Ito can only push with the forehand. Ishikawa loses the point, but she gets a desirable serve return from Ito.

No set formula exists for how often the opponent should want Ito to step around and take the forehand serve return opening. Even Ito probably does not know the optimal number. Hayata, Ding, Ishikawa, and Jeon (listed in order of willingness to challenge Ito’s long opening attack) have all tried various service strategies with varying degrees of success.

So far Ding has had the most success against Ito, but that can also be heavily attributed to the fact that she is Ding Ning. Meanwhile, Jeon has so far been the most conservative with the worst results (granted there are many other factors that account for her results), and it remains to be seen whether she will further adapt her strategy going forward.

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

Confident Tomokazu Harimoto Defeats Ruwen Filus 4-2 To Take WTT Star Contender Title

Not the post you were looking for? A guide to all of Edges and Nets’ coverage of WTT Doha (also known as World Table Tennis (WTT) Middle East Hub and formerly known as ITTF Qatar Open) can be found here.

Check out our finals preview as well: 6 Ruwen Filus Shots to Watch Out For In the WTT Doha Finals.

After falling into an 8-1 hole in game 3, Tomokazu Harimoto won 9 consecutive points to take a 10-8 lead for a chance to take a commanding 3-0 lead in the WTT Star Contender finals against Ruwen Filus before a couple of errors from Harimoto and smart play from Filus cost Harimoto the game. Nevertheless, an unfazed Harimoto came back and played the next several games extremely confidently and aggressively to win the match 11-9, 11-9, 13-15, 11-5, 7-11, 11-8.

With the win, Harimoto takes the WTT Star Contender title at WTT Doha and the 600 world ranking points that come along with it. Combined with his previous lead and disappointing performances by Lin Yun-Ju and Hugo Calderano, Harimoto now appears to be in complete control of the third seed at the Tokyo Olympics. It was a great day for Team Japan as Mima Ito also defeated Feng Tianwei 4-1 to win the WTT Star Contender women’s singles title and cap off an undefeated run at WTT Doha.

It is a disappointing end for Ruwen Filus, but the final result does not take away from his amazing run at this tournament that included upsets over Jang Woojin (WR 12), Jun Mizutani (WR 18), Lin Yun-Ju (WR 6), and Darko Jorgic (WR 31). Filus’ run gave many fans hope that a defensive player could finally win a major men’s singles event again, but he fell just short.

Final results for all World Table Tennis events are available on their website.

Game 1

Harimoto opened the match putting a lot of pressure on Filus as Filus was unable to get many offensive shots in to start the game. As a result, Harimoto jumped to a 9-4 lead. However, Filus then busted out all the tricks in his toolkit: a floater, a step around forehand, a shovel, and twiddle and backhand loop to narrow it to 9-8. Filus landed in a floater wide to Harimoto’s forehand when down 10-9, but Harimoto was able to reach it for a hard forehand winner to take game 1 11-9.

Game 2

Filus started with an early 4-2 lead, but Harimoto leveled it to 4-4 thanks to some help from the net. Filus responded with an edge ball of his own, which sparked a 4-0 run as he landed two amazing attacks and fooled Harimoto with a serve. Down 8-4, Harimoto was the able to stem the bleeding by catching Filus out of position at the elbow. This sparked a 6-0 run from Harimoto as Filus seemed to have no answers. Down 10-8, Filus was able to take one more point to close it to 10-9, but then missed a floater to lose the second game 11-9 as well.

Game 3

Filus seemed to rattle Harimoto’s confidence to read his shots to start game 3 as Harimoto opened the game very push-happy. Filus was able to take advantage and built up a large 8-1 lead. However, a beautiful rally at 8-2 by Harimoto helped spark a 4-0 run, prompting Filus to call time-out up 8-5. Harimoto then got a net ball immediately coming out of the time-out, and then Filus missed a pair of forehand loops to level it at 8-8. Harimoto was able to win a couple of chopping exchanges to put himself up 10-8, but then missed two of his own loops to make it deuce. A lucky ball, a floater, and two nice chopping exchanges were enough for Filus to take game 3 15-13.

Game 4

After three consecutive two-point games, an aggressive Harimoto was able to force Filus into three early lobbing rallies en route to an early 6-3 lead. Harimoto never looked back as he extended his lead and cruised to a comfortable 11-5 victory.

Game 5

Game 5 was Filus’ turn to win comfortably as errors from Harimoto allowed Filus to build a 7-2 lead. However, Harimoto never got as push-happy as he did in Game 3, and a confident Harimoto was able to land in some nice shots to close the gap to 8-6. However, a couple more looping errors from Harimoto gave Filus some breathing room as he took game 5 11-7.

Game 6

Despite his many errors in the previous game, a confident Harimoto opened game 6 aggressively to build a 6-3 lead in spite of a lucky net ball from Filus. However, Harimoto then made two critical looping errors to narrow it to 6-5 and then called time-out. Filus didn’t even need to attack to reclaim the lead as Harimoto made two more errors coming out of the time-out, making it 7-6 in favor of Filus. However, Harimoto then got a lucky net ball himself to level it to 7-7. After winning two out of three chopping exchanges to take a 9-8 lead, Harimoto appeared to have the momentum. Filus then looped another ball out to give Harimoto double match point at 10-8. Harimoto only needed one as he won the next chopping exchange to take the sixth game 11-8 and along with it the match and title.

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How Korean Teenager Shin Yubin (WR 94) Upset Japanese Star Miu Hirano (WR 12) At WTT Doha

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Shin Yubin (WR 94) continued her sensational run at WTT Star Contender in WTT Doha as she defeated Miu Hirano (WR 12) 11-4, 13-11, 4-11, 11-7 in the round of 16 in a preview of a potential Olympic team semi-final match-up. Shin will play national teammate Jeon Jihee in the quarter-finals.

It is yet another disappointing loss for Hirano in 2021. After a loss to a lower-ranked (granted, Shin is massively underraetd) potential Olympic rival, Hirano’s continued slump has to be raising alarm bells for Japanese team coaches.

The most alarming aspect of this loss for Hirano is that Shin just felt better. Shin dictated the pace of the game and relentlessly attacked Hirano’s elbow, and there seemed little that Hirano could do about it. Shin also appeared to dominate the rallies, and the match ended up being as close as it was largely due to some tricky play by Hirano and what felt like Shin being a bit predictable in game 3.

To get a feel for how concentrated Shin’s attacks to the elbow were, Edges and Nets found that 18 out of 28 (64%) of Shin’s attempted openings were directed at Hirano’s elbow, while only 9 out of 33 (27%) of Hirano’s attempted openings were directed at Shin’s elbow (Hirano mainly attacked both wings). Shin’s mid-rally shots and long serves also targeted Hirano’s elbow.

While the numbers may make it look like Hirano was more aggressive than Shin, they belie the fact that Shin served long roughly twice as often (ten times to five times) than Hirano did in anticipation of a soft opening, which may have reflected her confidence in winning the longer rallies.

Hirano did not help herself in the first game by missing a total of five serve returns and giving a couple of sloppy serves that Shin was able to kill for winners. This included the four early missed serve returns shown below that allowed Shin to build a 7-2 lead and then cruise to a 11-4 victory. In contrast, Shin did not miss a single serve return this game.

The serve return disparity slightly evened out in the second game, and Shin was able to build a 10-7 lead thanks to aggressive play to the elbow like in the clip shown below.

However, Hirano almost stole game two by reaching into her bag of tricks on the serve return: a strawberry to the elbow at 8-10, her first deep push to the backhand of the match at 9-10, and a weird soft floater at 10-11.

After getting her fifth game point at 12-11, Shin apparently had enough with Hirano’s tricks, served a fast long serve to and converted the game point by dominating the ensuing rally.

In the third game, Hirano appeared to better anticipate Shin’s attacks to the elbow as she handled it with a combination of hard step-around forehands and concentrated well-placed blocking. Combined with some additional surprise plays such as another long deep push to Shin’s backhand at 5-3, Hirano was able to build a 8-3 lead and then cruise to a 11-4 victory.

Shin opened up game four with two wide openings to the backhand that Hirano was not expecting. In particular, in the first point shown below, you can see that Hirano’s hand and feet appear to be cheating early towards a step around forehand and she’s completely caught off guard by Shin’s decision.

By diversifying her openings a bit, Shin was able to neutralize Hirano’s anticipation advantage, and in a raw rally, Shin appeared to have the advantage as she walked her way into an 11-7 victory to take the match 3-1. She will face Jeon Jihee in the next round, where she will get the opportunity to stamp herself as the face and future of Korean women’s table tennis.

Shin Yubin dominates the rally en route to her game 4 victory.

The full match is available on WTT/ITTF’s Youtube channel. Full tournament results are available on the WTT website.

Here is an Instagram summary of this post:

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How Mima Ito Defeated Hina Hayata At WTT Doha: A Statistical Analysis Revisited

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Mima Ito defeated Hina Hayata in the finals 4-2 to win the WTT Contender title at WTT Doha. Before the finals started, Edges and Nets wrote a preview that incorporated rudimentary statistical analysis to verify and draw further insights regarding some of our qualitative observations of Ito and Hayata’s match-up at the All Japan National Championships in January.

In this post we revisit the trends we observed in our preview and discuss whether these trends continued to hold in the WTT Contender finals. For a (non-statistical) summary of the finals, please read our recap here. The statistical trends in this match turned out to vary wildly from the All Japan National Championships match. Although this disparity can be partially attributed to uninformative noise present in small sample sizes, we believe that it also partially reflects the dynamic nature of table tennis and how adjustments between matches and even games can wildly swing the nature of a match.

Disentangling these two factors of variation (statistical noise and change in strategy) is an open problem that Edges and Nets is actively exploring. Any suggestions or feedback is welcome.

Ito Dominates On The Third Ball

In our previous post, we noted that Ito had a massive edge in the long rallies, winning a staggering 71% of rallies in which she attempted four or more shots including all six rallies where she attempted five or more shots in the All Japan National Championships match.

Although Ito’s share of total points won rose from 48% to 54%, this time around, Ito only won fifty percent of the long rallies. However, we believe that this discrepancy from Japan can be mainly attributed to the tiny sample size. The number of long rallies dropped by a fair amount; in Japan 14% of the points (for a total of 17 long points) were long rallies and in Qatar that number dropped to 9% (for a total of 10 long points). Hence, if just one or two points had swung the other way (and a couple of the “long rallies” had a fair amount of pushing), the numbers would look more consistent with their Japan match-up.

Unless Hayata suddenly got better at long rallies or Ito suddenly got worse (which is possible if she had a bad night of sleep or something), it is likely that the odds of Ito’s winning a long rally will have stayed relatively similar between January and now. Combining the results of the two recent match-ups, Ito has won 63% of her 27 long rallies against Hayata over the last two months. Our sample size is still quite small and this number may change even more in the future; however, we still feel that Mima Ito is a stronger player in the rallies from watching them play, and physically her lower body looks quite clearly stronger than Hayata’s.

While the change in percentage of long points won by Ito can be attributed to noise and it is possible that the drop in the number of long rallies can as well, we believe that the drop in number of long rallies is due to change in tactics by the players. First, the sample size is larger and thus more robust as the match had 113 points in total. Second, the number of 5-shot, 4-shot, 3-shot, and 2-shot points all decreased and the average rally length (as measured in Mima Ito shot attempts) dropped from 2.3 to 2. As a result the percentage of “one-shot” points that ended in serve, serve return, or third-ball winner by either player rose from 41% to 50%.

Although we previously stated that it may be in Hayata’s interests to lower the length of the rallies, when watching the match it actually felt like Ito was the main one responsible for shortening the rallies as she attempted difficult and aggressive shots with wide angles. This may be reflected in the change in percentage of “one-shot” points won by each player: in their previous match-up in Japan, Ito only won 47% of such points; this time that number jumped to 59%, indicating that she benefited from the shortened points.

Hayata’s Long Serve Management

In an interesting twist, Ito only won 48% of the points in which she served but Hayata only won 40%(!) of the points in which she served. We are not sure what caused this counter-intuitive result.

In our previous post we speculated that Hayata would consider serving more long serves since she actually performed better on her long serves compared to her short serves. It appears Hayata agreed as her percentage of long serves rose from one third to 46%. Her long serves, of which she won 42%, performed slightly better (albeit within the margin of statistical error) than her short serves, of which she only won 39%. Hence, although our judgement must be taken with a massive grain of salt due to small sample size, it appears that Hayata made the correct choice by serving long more often.

We raised the question if it was beneficial for Ito to step around and take Hayata’s serves with her forehand. Ito took 61% (16 out of 26) of Hayata’s long serves with her forehand and won 56% of those point. In comparison, she won six out of the ten long serves she received with her backhand. Hence, with our limited amount of data there is still no evidence that taking the long serve with her forehand or backhand is better.

Did Hayata choke?

We now present a possible explanation for Hayata’s poor performance on her own serve. Did Hayata choke? Meaning, did Hayata play worse than normal because she was nervous? Serves are one of the first things to degrade in quality when a player gets nervous, and she had more than enough reason to be nervous. Although Hayata has played on the big stage before such as in her 2020 All Japan National Championship title run, to the best of our knowledge this is the closest she has ever gotten to winning a major international event.

We know that body-language reading is mostly pseudo-science, but we are going to call upon our resident body language expert anyway to analyze the following clip. This is at the end of game 4 after Ito had narrowed the lead from 10-7 to 10-9 and then called a “covid time-out” where she asked the umpire to wipe the table. Hayata’s face looks frozen in fear and she is completely stiff while Mima Ito is jumping around when the camera pans out (note that Hayata would call time-out and go on to win the game 11-9). This is completely different from when Ito called a covid time-out at 5-3 in the same game (not shown), during which Hayata was also jumping around and keeping herself loose.

Of course, body-language and facial-expression reading is a completely subjective exercise that largely confirms everyone’s own beliefs, and in our recap we already came to the conclusion that Ito was more clutch than Hayata in game 5. It will be interesting to see if we can find a method to quantify clutchness or other soft skills like anticipation. This is largely an open problem across all sports, but we would argue it is particularly important in table tennis, where even a slight change in timing can completely ruin someone’s game.

At the moment, due to the small sample size and the fact that this is a completely new exercise for us, interpreting the limited data appears to be somewhat akin to reading tea leaves, but we hope that the statistics shared in this post provided some additional insight to Mima Ito’s finals victory over Hina Hayata at WTT Contender. Although some people prefer watching many different match-ups, here’s to hoping for another Ito vs Hayata finals in WTT Star Contender so we can do another round of this type of analysis.

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Mima Ito Wins WTT Doha Event With 4-2 Finals Win Over Hina Hayata

Not the post you were looking for? A guide to all of Edges and Nets’ coverage of WTT Doha (also known as WTT Middle East Hub and formerly known as ITTF Qatar Open) can be found here.

For more coverage of the WTT Contender women’s singles finals, check out our preview and our post-game analysis.

Tied 2-2 in games, Mima Ito (WR 3) and Hina Hayata (WR 29) both reached into their bag of tricks as Ito eked out a gutsy 11-9 win in a pivotal game 5 en route to a 11-9, 11-8, 6-11, 9-11, 11-9, 11-6 finals victory over Hayata. With the win Ito, has captured the first ever World Table Tennis (i.e. rebranded ITTF) Title in the WTT Contender Event at WTT Doha. The qualification draw of WTT Star Contender, the second and more prestigious event at WTT Doha, is already underway and will be ongoing throughout the week.

The victory is slightly dimmed due to the withdrawal of Sun Yingsha and Liu Shiwen and general lack of star-power among Ito’s opponents (none of her opponents were in the top 20 although Hayata likely deserves to be in it). However, Ito was still able to make a small statement; while all the other top seeds in the event were getting upset left and right, Ito was able to stay steady take care of business. If everyone has similar showings in WTT Star Contender event, Ito can make the case for why she is arguably the ONLY serious threat to Chinese supremacy at the Tokyo Olympics.

Game 1

Ito opened the match very aggressively, which initially cost her as she missed several aggressive forehand smashes to go down 7-3. However, her shots suddenly started landing and went on a 8-2 run to take the game 11-9. Save for a net ball when down 7-4 (which itself was in the middle of an offensive rally), all of Ito’s last eight points were won off of aggressive wide openings or ambitious forehand smashes. Both the points she lost were a result of her missing her own forehand smash.

Game 2

Ito’s aggressive style carried into game 2, but thanks to a couple early service and return errors and a missed smash, Hayata was able to open up an early 5-3 lead that could have been larger if not for a couple of her own easier backhand errors.

Ito then won four points in a row to take a 7-5 lead. Two of these points followed the same strategy of allowing Hayata to open with her backhand against a short ball to the center and then smashing the ball back hard for the winner after anticipating its location.

Ito would use the same play again at 8-7 to maintain a 9-7 lead. Ito then surprised Hayata with a short push; Hayata rushed when stepping in and flicked the ball into the net, giving Ito three game points at 10-7. Ito missed a forehand smash to cut it to 10-8, but Hayata then missed a forehand flick on the serve return to lose the game 11-8.

Game 3

Similar to game 1, Ito continued to be aggressive and go for hard and wide forehand smashes, but missed several of them. Hayata also added some extra twists to her short game including a half-long push at 3-2 and a surprise forehand flick at 6-3 that, combined with Ito’s errors, were enough for Hayata to go up 9-3.

Ito was able to win two points on her own serve to cut it to 9-5. Hayata then served long to Ito’s elbow but missed the block when Ito stepped around to smash it to her backhand. On the very next point, Hayata trusted her long serve and anticipation again as she served a long serve again to Ito’s elbow, but this time a little further to the backhand, and when Ito stepped around and hit it to Hayata’s backhand, Hayata was ready for a wide block to Ito’s forehand for the winner.

Ito was able to catch Hayata with a long serve on the next point, but Hayata’s surprised return carried some weird spin and neither player seemed to know what was on the ball for a couple shots before Ito went for the smash and hit it out the table, giving game 3 to Hayata 11-6.

Game 4

Hayata showed some great anticipation and killed several of Ito’s openings as she built a 6-3 lead. However, Hayata then missed her own serve, lost a weird point after a net ball, and then lost a great rally to level it at 6-6. However, Hayata was unfazed as she continued to show great anticipation and smack down many of Ito’s openings and fool Ito with her long serves to cruise to an 10-7 lead.

However, a winning serve return from Ito and a missed serve return by Hayata cut the lead to 10-9. Ito calmly asked for her second “covid timeout” of a game (i.e. where a player effectively gets an extra mini-break by asking the umpire to “wipe down” the table), and what appeared to be a rattled Hayata then called a real timeout.

Hayata then opened with a chiquita to Ito’s wide backhand and then hit a hard wide backhand winner against the soft return to take the game 11-9.

Game 5

Neither player was able to take control the pace of the game like Ito in games 1 and 2 or Hayata in games 3 and 4. Ito had the slight edge in rallies, allowing her to build 8-6 lead. It was around at this point that both players appeared to bust out their bags of tricks.

Hayata won a point off a tricky half-long serve, and Ito took the next point with a short, high, and very strange chop block that Hayata hit into the net. Hayata then won the next point with a strawberry flick to cut the lead to 9-8. Each player then won a point off the third ball following great anticipation, resulting in a 10-9 lead for Ito with Hayata to serve. Ito then opted for a short push instead of the backhand flick that Hayata was expecting on the serve return, and Hayata missed the following push as Ito eked out a clutch 11-9 win in a pivotal game 5.

Game 6

Game 6 got off to a strange start. Hayata first won a beautiful rally before missing her own serve to level it at 1-1. Ito then caught a net ball and a pretty wide block to take a 3-1 lead. Hayata then proceeded to serve long on all four of her next four serves and lost all four points. However, Ito returned the favor by losing four straight of her own serves, including a missed serve.

Hayata was able to get narrow the lead one more point to 7-6 with a deep push to Ito’s backhand before dropping the next point to g o down 8-6. Hayta then missed a serve return and then lost the next point after Ito got a net ball, giving Ito quadruple match point at 10-6. Hayata’s shoulders slumped in frustration, and although it looked like she had gathered herself together for the next point, her serve was a bit high, and Ito killed the serve with a wide punch to Hayata’s forehand.

This sequence capped off a 5-0 streak for Ito in what was otherwise a close and unpredictable game. She thus took the match 4-2, and with it, the first ever WTT title (WTT Macau does not count because the rules were a complete gimmick).

Notes

On the men’s singles side, Dimitrij Ovtcharov captured the title with a 4-1 win over Lin Yun-Ju.

Ito missed three of her own serves and Hayata missed two. It’s unclear why whether the large number of missed serves was due to nervousness, rustiness, or a change in routine due to covid restrictions (e.g. no touching the table).

Either Ito sweats a lot or she really likes making use of the so-called covid timeout.

Edges and Net previously released a rudimentary statistical analysis of the Hayata vs Ito match-up. We will shortly follow up on how these trends held at WTT Doha in an upcoming post. Stay tuned!

The outfits this time were significantly better than whatever they were wearing at the All Japan National Championships in January, which can be seen in our Instagram post below. Between these National Championship outfits and Harimoto’s tendency to dress like a fruit with his monochromatic color schemes, Edges and Nets is not a huge fan of Team Japan’s fashion choice.

If you liked this article, please follow Edges and Nets on Facebook or Instagram to stay updated.

Mima Ito vs Hina Hayata Finals Preview: A Statistical Approach

Not the post you were looking for? A guide to all of Edges and Nets’ coverage of WTT Doha (also known as WTT Middle East Hub and formerly known as ITTF Qatar Open) can be found here.

Mima Ito and Hina Hayata will be facing off in the finals of WTT Contender at WTT Doha shortly. To get ready for the finals match-up, Edges and Nets re-watched their seven game thriller at the All Japan National Championships this January.

We took a new approach of first qualitatively looking for trends and then performing a brief quantitative analysis to confirm our intuition based on manually labeled data. The game went a full seven games for a total of 129 points, giving us a decent sample size. Overall, Ito won 48% of the points despite winning 4-3; this is because she lost a couple games by a wide margin and won all her own games narrowly.

We present two conclusions below. The first conclusion we verify is pretty obvious from watching the tape, but the second insight may be non-obvious without actually looking at the numbers. Although the analysis is primitive, we hope that this post provides a glimpse of a future with more automatically labeled data, from which we may be able to quickly draw further insights from particular match-ups without having to watch too much film.

Longer Rallies Favor Mima Ito

One trend that jumps out when you watch the National Championships matches is that Hina Hayata commonly wins points by exploiting Ito’s height and putting Ito out of position within the first shot or two, and then finishing the point one shot later. However, once Ito is able to get in position in the rally, she is able to return pretty much anything Hayata throws at her.

Ito can handle longer rallies against Hayata very well. Source

To verify this idea, we manually labeled the shot-length and the winner of each rally. Shot length was measured by the number of shots Mima Ito attempted to make (e.g. if Ito misses her third-ball attack or wins the point on her third-ball attack, it is considered a 2-shot rally either way). The reason we count shot attempts and not made is that Ito makes an extra shot when she wins a point, thus biasing the results if we count made shots.

Due to limited sample size, we do not want to perform too fine grained analysis, we divide points into “short” points in which Ito attempted 3 or fewer shots (i.e. the total rally was at most five or six shots depending on who served) and “long” points in which Ito attempted 4 or more shots (i.e. the rallly was at least six or seven shots depending on who served).

87% of the points were considered short points, which makes sense since a lot of table tennis is executing your service and service returns well. In other words, on average there were two and a half long rallies each game. This can absolutely swing the match, as Ito won two games 11-9 and two games 11-8.

Ito only won 44% of the short points, but won a staggering 71% of long points, including all six rallies in which Ito attempted five or more shots. Obviously there is some noise due to small sample size and potential unknown source of bias in our approach, but the results are quite stark.

We thus highlight the importance it is for Hayata to be able to finish the point quickly, although that is obviously easier said than done.

How Should Hayata Manage Her Long Serves?

One of the key challenges in playing Mima Ito is managing long serves. Probably the worst serve one can make when playing Mima Ito is a short serve to her backhand, as that gives her free reign to do whatever combination of banana and strawberry flicks and short and deep pushes that she likes with her short pips. As a result, opponents typically avoid essentially completely avoiding this serve.

The two good serves to Ito are the short serve to the forehand, which prevents her from getting creative with the short pips without getting slightly out of position, and the long serve to the backhand, which forces her to give a predictable and softer return. However, the long serve carries risk, since when Ito anticipates it coming, she can step around for a hard forehand opening against the long serve. Serve too many times long to the backhand, and one may end up simply asking to be killed by her forehand.

It is not obvious just from watching the film which serve is more effective, and it likely varies by match-up and the opponent’s ability to execute each serve. However, we can draw some insight for Hayata by performing quantitative analysis on Hayata’s last match with Ito.

Ito won 52% of the points on her own serve and 44% of the points on serve return, which sounds about reasonable. Hayata served long on roughly one third of her serves, and we can assume that the remaining two-thirds were short and to Ito’s forehand.

The sample size is small as our splits are quite fine-grained, but the results are somewhat interesting. Hayata won 55% of the points in which she served short and to the forehand. On the other hand, she won 60% of the points in which she served long. At least in the previous match, it appears that serving long yielded better results for Hayata than serving short.

It may seem that Hayata should be serving long more often, but we have to consider that the more Hayata uses them then the more Ito will start stepping around, which would decrease the efficacy of the long serve to the backhand but increase the efficacy of the short serve to the forehand.

When looking at the splits between when Ito received the long serve with her forehand or her backhand, this tradeoff appears to emerge: Hayata won seven out of thirteen (54%) of the points that Ito took with her forehand but six out of the nine (67%) points that Ito returned with her backhand.

However, the sample size is tiny, so we cannot draw any strong statistical conclusions; all it would take is one edge ball from Ito to make the efficacy of a serve to the backhand to only be 55%. If the results do hold on larger data, it matches our intuition (and apparently Ito’s since she keeps stepping around) that Ito returns the long serve better with her forehand. If that is the case, left-handed opponents like Hayata may want to consider serving more often from the center of the table in order to land the wide serve to Ito’s backhand.

On the flip side, if after analyzing more data it appears that taking the serve with the forehand and backhand yield similar results, Ito may want to consider if she wants to step around less often, which would presumably allow her to focus more on the short forehand return. That would be a surprising and counter-intuitive result for many including Edges and Nets, but we have seen large-scale quantitative analysis upend common intuition in various other sports.

The data used in the analysis of this post was both primitive and small in scale, but we hope some of the conclusions that we drew offer a glimpse of what can happen in the future given enough well-labeled data. The length of rally, length of serve, and whether a player used forehand or backhand should actually all be pretty easily trackable based on modern AI techniques, and it will be exciting to see what the future holds for quantitative analysis in table tennis.

If you liked this article, please follow Edges and Nets on Facebook or Instagram to stay updated.

Unless stated otherwise, all images and footage in this post can respectively be found on ITTF’s Flickr page and ITTF’s Youtube Channel.

WTT Doha 2021 Preview Part 3: Women’s Singles seeds 5 THROUGH 8

This post is the third post in a series of posts previewing the 2021 World Table Tennis (WTT) Middle East Hub (also known as the Qatar Open or WTT Doha) coming March 3-13. Our previous post covered two X-factors in the tournament: Lily Zhang in the women’s singles and An Jaehyun in the men’s singles. An X-factor is a young, exciting but lower ranked player who has the potential to upset some higher ranked players in the tournament and make a deep run. A summary of all of Edges and Nets’ coverage of WTT Doha can be found here.

The full list of players set to play at WTT Doha appears to now be set in stone. In today’s post we take a closer look at seeds five through eight in the women’s singles event (Jeon Jihee, Feng Tianwei, Miu Hirano, and Kasumi Ishikawa) at WTT Doha, how they’ve played since the ITTF restart after the pandemic, what is at stake for them at Qatar, and their potential quarterfinal match-ups. The players in the top 20 of the world rankings who will participate in the WTT Star Contender event (the second one scheduled from March 8-13) are:

SeedNameWorld Rank
1Sun Yingsha2
2Mima Ito3
3Liu Shiwen7
4Cheng I-Ching8
5Kasumi Ishikawa9
6Miu Hirano11
7Feng Tianwei12
8Jeon Jihee15
9Sofia Polcanova16
10Adriana Diaz18
11Petrissa Solja19

Out of these eleven, everyone but Jeon Jihee, Sofia Polcanova, and Petrissa Solja will also play the WTT Contenders (the first one scheduled from March 3-6) tournament.

8th Seed Jeon Jihee

As we will discuss shortly, Jeon’s quarterfinal match will likely have minimal seeding implications for Tokyo. However, this tournament will still be an important milestone in her campaign for an Olympic medal. If the Olympics were held today, Cheng, Ito, and (if selected to the Chinese team) Sun and Liu would also be among the top four seeds at the Tokyo Olympics, so Jeon’s quarterfinal match in Qatar will also be a potential Olympic quarterfinal preview.

Jeon has never played Cheng in ITTF competition, and winning a matchup in Qatar in what would likely be their only encounter in an ITTF event before the Olympics would give Jeon the mental edge in Tokyo. Jeon has lost to Sun all three times they have played in international competition, most recently at the 2020 World Finals. In their 2020 matchup, Sun largely dominated Jeon’s shots to Sun’s elbow with crisp blocks and hard step around forehand counters. In a future matchup with Sun, in order to have a chance Jeon likely needs to either figure out a way to bother Sun more at the elbow (which foreign players largely struggle to do against Chinese player) or more consistently hit in difficult wide-angle winners like in the point below.

Jeon has played Ito in two four out of sevens in international competition and lost both times, including a recent 4-1 loss post-pandemic at the 2020 World Cup. However, the match was closer than the score may indicate, especially when considering that Jeon struggled quite heavily with returning Ito’s serves. Jeon may be hoping to get another chance to figure out Ito’s serves before a potential quarterfinal match-up in Tokyo. Hence, Edges and Nets would consider Ito to be the most exciting quarterfinal opponent for Jeon.

Jeon is currently ranked #15 in the world, and if the Olympics were held today, she would be the eighth seed (behind the two unconfirmed Chinese players, Mima Ito, Cheng I-Ching, Kasumi Ishikawa, Feng Tianwei, and Doo Hoi Kem). Jeon can pass Doo in the world rankings by reaching the semi-finals, but for the purposes of Olympic seeding it would not make much of a difference as seeds five through eight are typically treated equivalently.

More important for Jeon is to avoid being passed by Sofia Polcanova and falling out of the top eight for Tokyo; this should be a low bar for Jeon to clear as even if she suffers a relatively big upset in the round of 32 and Polcanova outperforms her seeding and reaches the quarterfinals, Jeon will still maintain a slim lead in the world rankings come April. Even if Polcanova makes a deep run to the semifinals, a quarterfinal finish by Jeon, meaning that she played to her seeding, will be enough to keep her just ahead of Polcanova in the April rankings.

7th Seed Feng Tianwei

Feng Tianwei’s post-pandemic performance has been relatively disappointing so far, being upset by Lily Zhang (WR #30) in the world cup (whom Feng later beat at WTT Macau) and Petrissa Solja in the Grand Finals. At age 34, Feng has slowed down a bit even compared to a couple years ago and had trouble keeping up with Zhang in the faster and longer rallies at the world cup. However, as arguably the greatest non-Chinese player over the last decade, her mind still remains sharp as she can still win shorter points by hitting sharp angles to where the opponent is not expecting or able to reach.

Feng currently holds a world ranking of 12 and would be the sixth seed if the Tokyo Olympics were held today. The stakes for Feng are similar to those for Jeon: Feng is almost certainly locked into a fifth to eighth seed in Tokyo, but despite the lack of stakes with regards to seeding, WTT Doha will provide Feng with perhaps her final look at Sun, Ito, Liu, or Cheng before potentially facing one of them in the quarterfinals in what will likely be Feng’s final Olympic games. This would be particularly valuable for Feng since she did not get to play any of these top seeds in international competition since the post-pandemic restart due to her upsets against Zhang and Solja.

Feng’s upset over Liu Shiwen more than ten years ago at the 2010 World Team Championships remains arguably the most iconic moment of Feng’s career, and it would be fun to see a vintage rematch between Feng and Liu for old time’s sake. The two have not played each other since the Korean Open five years ago, which Liu won 4-1. Hence, Edges and Nets would consider Liu to be the most interesting quarterfinal opponent for Feng.

6th Seed Miu Hirano

Hirano has had a rough last couple of years, including losses to Hina Hayata (WR #29), Lily Zhang (WR #30), and Han Ying (WR #22). She did not participate in either the post-pandemic World Tour Finals or the World Cup in the Fall of 2020. Fans caught a brief glimpse of Hirano in the 2021 Japanese national championships this January, but she lost 4-0 to Miyuu Kihara (WR #49) in the round of 16.

Hirano is the highest ranked player in this tournament who is confirmed to not play in the Olympic singles in Tokyo (although Liu Shiwen or Sun Yinghsa may eventually join this list). However, Hirano will be playing for Japan in the team event, in which China and Japan are expected to meet in the finals barring a herculean performance from a star from a third country.

If China sends the same squad to Tokyo that they did to the 2019 World Team Cup, a quarter-final between Hirano and Liu could be both a rematch of Liu’s dominant 3-0 win over Hirano at the 2019 World Team Cup and a potential preview of the Olympic team finals. Although Liu appeared to handle everything Hirano threw at her in their match at the 2019 World Team Cup, Hirano showed a brief flash of competitiveness in the second game and will likely hope to maintain that performance through five games in Qatar (recall quarterfinal matches will be three out of fives).

Another potentially more interesting quarterfinal match-up for Hirano would be with Sun Yingsha. This would also be a potential preview for the Olympic finals in the team event, and if Hirano plays the role of spoiler and defeats Sun in the quarterfinals, she may end up providing the difference needed for her national teammate Mima Ito to take the number two spot both in the world rankings and in Olympic seeding. Also keeping things interesting is that Sun and Hirano have never played each other in any international women’s event (though Sun has previously beaten Hirano in junior competition). Hence, Edges and Nets would consider Sun to be the most interesting quarterfinal opponent for Hirano.

If Hirano faces Cheng I-Ching in the quarterfinals and pulls off an upset, that would also help her teammate Kasumi Ishikawa in the race for the fourth seed in the Olympic women’s singles event. However, it would likely be more compelling both for the fans and for Ishikawa if Ishikawa herself gets the chance to face off against Cheng in the quarterfinals.

Even if Hirano is unable to pull off an upset in the quarterfinals, Qatar provides her with a chance to break her string of recent losses to lower ranked players, and if she avoids being upset and bows out in the quarterfinals in both events, she will still be able to reestablish herself as a top ten player in the April world rankings.

5th Seed Kasumi Ishikawa

Ishikawa had mediocre results in the Fall of 2020 after the pandemic restart. She split a pair of matches with Suh Hyowon (WR #21) in the world cup and grand finals and then was slaughtered by Sun Yingsha at the world cup. Similar to the case with Jeon, it looked like Ishikawa’s shots to the body barely bothered Sun, and she needed difficult wide angle winners to score points.

2021 has started better for Ishikawa as she defeated Mima Ito to win the Japanese National Championship for the first time in five years. Ito was actually leading 3-1, but Ishikawa played incredibly well to stage the comeback, countering many of Ito’s signature fast smashes back with good speed and placement as seen in the first two points of game 7 (shown below).

Ishikawa is within striking distance of Cheng I-Ching on the world rankings list; by April, the 2020 ranking points will be weighted such that Ishikawa will trail Cheng by 360 points. There are up to 1000 points up for grabs at WTT Doha. If she can pass Cheng then she will secure a top four seed at the Olympics, presenting her with a path to an Olympic medal without having to defeat a Chinese player.

The situation favors Cheng, because as a top four seed in Qatar, she has a guaranteed path to the semi-finals without playing any of the higher ranked Sun, Ito, or Liu. If both players play to their seeding, then Cheng will extend her world ranking lead over Ishikawa. In order to pass Cheng, Ishikawa likely needs to reach the finals in both WTT Contender and WTT Star Contender.

Despite Ishikawa’s recent win over Ito, she may be hoping for a quarterfinal match-up with Cheng in both events in Qatar, as such a draw would give Ishikawa the most control over her seeding at the Tokyo Olympics. Even if Cheng loses in the quarterfinals (whether to Ishikawa or someone else), Ishikawa will likely either need to make it to the finals or outperform Cheng in another tournament between now and Tokyo in order to secure the fourth seed in the Olympics; however, a Cheng vs Ishikawa quarterfinal may be as close to a play-in for the fourth seed as we can get. Hence, Edges and Nets would consider Cheng to be the most interesting quarterfinal opponent for Ishikawa.

The Most Interesting Quarterfinal Draw

Assuming everyone plays to their seeding up to the quarterfinals (which will likely not be the case), in summary here are Edges and Nets’ picks for what would be the most interesting draw:

  • Kasumi Ishikawa vs Cheng I-Ching
  • Miu Hirano vs Sun Yingsha
  • Feng Tianwei vs Liu Shiwen
  • Jeon Jihee vs Mima Ito

If you liked this article, please follow Edges and Nets on Facebook or Instagram to stay updated. The next post in this series will go over the list of men who are ranked in the top 20 who have entered the tournament and will take a closer look at seeds five through eight in the Men’s Singles event. It will be posted on Wednesday, February 17 (North American timezone).

Unless stated otherwise, all images and footage in this post can respectively be found on ITTF’s Flickr page and the ITTV channel.