China defeated Japan 3-0 in the women’s table tennis team event at the Tokyo Olympics to win gold. China breezed through the competition, never dropping even a single individual match during their championship run.
Chen Meng takes her second gold medal of the Olympics, and she noted that the joy she felt for this gold medal was completely different since it was a team medal.
Sun Yingsha again defeated Mima Ito, although this time Ito was at least able to win a game as she lost 3-1. Post-game, Sun remarked, “Every time I compete with her, I can get a lot from it. I also fully prepared for the challenges of the competition. Today, playing against each other again is a brand new challenge!”
After Japan lost, a tearful Ito said, “The final match is over and I am very happy until the end. Of course, if you win it’s better, you will not be satisfied if you lose, but it is still a very happy competition.” Ito walks away from the Olympics with one gold, one silver, and one bronze medal to complete a colorful collection.
Ishikawa added that she was not satisfied either but acknowledged the strength of the Chinese National Team.
Hong Kong defeated Germany to win the bronze medal.
The Olympic table tennis team finals are now set: China will face Japan in the women’s team event and Germany in the men’s team event. China was the top seed in both events, and Japan and Germany were the second seed in their respective events.
China Ready for Japan in the Women’s Finals
The women’s finals match-up is no surprise as China and Japan were heavy favorites to make the finals, and neither country dropped a single individual match en route to the finals. However, the gap between China and Japan may be just as big as the gap between Japan and the rest of the world.
Following her 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Sun Yingsha in the women’s singles semi-finals, Mima Ito said, “What I was doing was not bad, but the results showed that we are not even close.”
“There’s a gulf in class.”
China appears equally confident. Chen Meng dismissed concerns about line-up match-ups, stating that regardless of whichever two of Chen, Sun, and Wang Manyu face Ito, it’s fine either way. Sun added, “I think the competitive state and mental outlook of the three of us are good. The finals are united and we must be confident while preparing for difficulties.”
However, Japan may still steal a victory in the event of a mental collapse by China. Coach Li Sun cautioned, “The key is to see which of the two teams can fight, and who can do it.”
Ovtcharov Makes History As Germany Readies for China
Germany ran the same line-up they did against Taiwan to defeat Japan in the semi-finals. The strategy was clear: have the superior Boll/Franziska team win doubles, have Timo Boll and Dimitrij Ovtcharov beat up on the other country’s two weaker players, and live with losses to Lin Yun-Ju or Harimoto. The strategy worked perfectly, as Germany is now in the finals despite losing all their matches to Lin and Harimoto.
Ovtcharov has now secured his record sixth Olympic table tennis medal (singles bronze in 2012 and 2020 and team medals in 2008, 2012, 2016, and 2020). Although Germany’s line-up strategy has been straightforward, the road to the finals has not been easy. Following the win against Japan, Ovtcharov said, “I’m feeling really empty right now, physically and emotionally. It was really, really tough days here.”
While the Japanese women have often been viewed as the biggest threat to Chinese supremacy, the German team believes they have a shot against China. Boll remarked, “If we can be on our peak, all three of us have the skills and the will to win the match. We will definitely go no limits to prove that this is our time.”
Ovtcharov reiterated his belief in the German team on Twitter.
Japan slides Harimoto into doubles, Korea’s young women can’t get it done, and Dimitrij Ovtcharov continues to break Taiwan’s heart. We take a look at the key results from the quarter-final team matchups at the Tokyo Olympics so far. Full bracket and results can be viewed here.
Japanese Men Defeat Sweden 3-1
Japan defeated Sweden 3-1 after making the interesting line-up decision to have Tomokazu Harimoto play doubles with Koki Niwa and have Jun Mizutani at the ace position that plays two singles. Normally, the strongest player, in this case Tomokazu Harimoto, plays the ace position.
Japan has been understandably tight-lipped about the reason for the line-up change. It appears to be somewhat related to lack of confidence in the Mizutani/Niwa double-lefty pairing and trust in Mizutani to take care of singles. It may be possible that Japan for some reason does not have confidence in Harimoto as the ace player or that Japan did not want Harimoto to play Falck, but Japan clearly would not be inclined to reveal such reasons.
Regarding his participation in the doubles, Harimoto gave a response that can be interpreted as vanilla or cryptic: “When I think about my current condition and the team, that is the best [for me to play doubles], so I did my best with the feeling that I would take two games together with the singles.”
The line-up change paid off for Japan as they won the doubles match, which in principle should have been bolstered by Harimoto’s presence. Japan then selected Harimoto to play the third match (i.e. Japan purposely chose Niwa and not Harimoto to play Falck) against Anton Kaellberg. Harimoto won 3-1, giving Japan the 2-1 lead in matches.
Niwa then defeated Falck 3-0 to give Japan the 3-1 victory. Mizutani, who played Falck in the second match, told Niwa that Falck’s forehand was not in good condition, which Niwa said he exploited.
Going into the semi-finals, Niwa said, “I was able to beat the top-ten player in the world ranking. I’m confident.”
Japan will face Germany in the semi-finals in a rematch of the 2016 semi-finals.
Korean Women’s Youth Falter In 3-2 Loss to Germany
Germany defeated Korea 3-2 in the quarter-finals of the women’s team event. Korea opted to place their weakest player, Choi Hyojoo, at the ace position, due to the strength of the Shin Yubin/Jeon Jihee pairing. Korea, like the Japanese men, opted to have their strongest player, Jeon Jihee, avoid the ace position.
After Korea won the doubles 3-2 and Han Ying defeated Choi Hyojoo 3-0, Jeon defeated Petrissa Solja 3-0 to give Korea the 2-1 lead. Han Ying defeated Shin 3-1 to level it at 2-2, and then Shan Xiaona defeated Choi 3-0 to give Germany the 3-2 victory.
Afterwards, a disappointed Shin said, “I should have won the 4th singles team event, but I couldn’t. I’m sorry that I couldn’t finish the game that my sisters had all caught up with.”
“I played a difficult game with difficult players. I will use the Tokyo Olympics as an experience and train to compete better in the future.”
Korean leadership, while surely disappointed, was also optimistic about the future of their young squad. Korean table tennis secretary general (don’t ask what that position means) stated, “Han Ying is a very strong player. She did very well, adapting quickly against an experienced player. We will grow even more with this tournament as an opportunity.”
Dimitrij Ovtcharov Continues to Break Taiwan’s Heart
Germany opened the team match against Taiwan with a good start after winning the first doubles game 11-0 before going on to win 3-1. While Lin Yun-Ju was able to get his revenge against Dimtrij Ovtcharov and win both his singles matches as the ace player, Germany was ultimately able to pull out a win with Ovtcharov defeating Chuang Chih-Yuan 3-0 in the deciding fifth match.
Ovtcharov continues to be a thorn in the side for Taiwanese table tennis. After Ovtcharov sent defeated in the London 2012 bronze-medal match and Lin in this years bronze-medal match, Ovtcharov again denied Taiwan a chance at a medal with a 3-0 victory over Chuang in the deciding fifth match.
After losing to Japan in the semi-finals at the Rio Olympics, Germany is hungry for revenge in their semi-final match-up this year.
“We lost to Japan five years ago in Rio, and we want to make it better this time,” Ovtcharov said.
“For Japan, it’s the most important match in their home Olympics. We’re also a little bit happy that the hall is not completely full,” Boll joked.
“But yeah, we will prepare like we always did, we give it our best and try everything.”
Sun Yingsha crushed Mima Ito 4-0 (11-3, 11-9, 11-6, 11-4) in the semi-finals in the table tennis women’s singles event at the Tokyo Olympics. Although this match-up was very hyped by this blog and Ito was widely seen as the biggest threat to China at the Olympics, Sun made sure tthat he match was nowhere near competitive. Other than a brief scare in game 2 that Sun was able to take care of with eight straight points, the outcome of the other three games never seemed in doubt once the game passed the half-way point.
Sun’s relentless spins were too much for Ito to handle as Ito missed backhand punch after backhand punch. Ito of course tried to balance the match with her short pips magic tricks, but Sun seemed to be ready for almost all of Ito’s tricks, and when Ito did catch Sun off guard, Sun was able to recover defensively to get back into a spin-to-smack rally that heavily favored Sun.
Sun advances to the finals, where she will play top seed Chen Meng, without even having dropped a single game in this tournament so far.
Sun had her absolute way with Ito throughout the first game. Ito was up 2-1, lost eight points in a row to go down 9-2, and then Sun cruised to an 11-3 victory. Sun was appeared to target Ito’s backhand as Ito did not attempt a forehand smash until she was down 9-3. The strategy clearly worked as Ito missed her backhand punches in every way possible: out, into the net, missed cross-court backhands, missed down-the line-backhands, etc.
Ito appeared to come into game 2 with a solid serve and receive plan as she landed two fast backhand punches against Sun’s long fast serve (that Sun returned into the net) to go up 2-0. Sun then pushed two of Ito’s short serves to the forehand out to give Ito a 4-0 lead. Ito then caught Sun off guard with a deep push to the backhand on the serve return to go up 5-0. Ito then missed a backhand punch to make it 5-1.
Ito then served two half-long to Sun’s forehands. Sun looped the first one cross, and a ready Ito smashed it back even wider cross for the winner. Sun looped the next one down-the-line, and a waiting Ito punched the ball back and won the point with some help from a net-ball to go up 7-1. Ito then missed two serve returns (one flick and one deep push) to cut the lead to 7-3.
Sun then missed a backhand opening on the next point, and Ito was able to execute a pretty chop block-forehand smash sequence on the next point to go up 9-3.
Ito then missed two backhand punches and another chop block to cut the lead to 9-6. Ito served a short serve to Sun’s forehand, and ready for Sun’s forehand slider to the backhand, stepped around for a forehand opening, but Sun was able to catch a net-ball on rhw block and win the point to cut it to 9-7.
Ito called time-out and came out of the time-out with a slow and heavy side-spin banana flick on the serve return to Sun’s elbow. Sun was caught off guard, but was able to defensively recover and eventually hit a wide arcing shot to Ito’s forehand that Ito hit into the net. Sun was able to take control of the offense on the next two points to take a 10-9 lead, and then Ito nearly whiffed a backhand punch on the next point to give Sun eight straight points and the second game 11-9.
Mentally, it seemed that Ito was not as eager to cho in game 3 after the heartbreaking ending to game 2 for her.
Ito opened game 3 with a new long serve to the middle and was able to punch Sun down after she stepped around for a forehand opening. Ito then missed three backhand openings over the next several points, but Sun also missed a backhand block and another long fast serve to the elbow to keep the score tied at 3-3.
Sun then served two straight (i.e. no sidespin) serves, and Ito flicked one out and pushed another one into the net to make it 5-3 Sun. Ito then served two high-toss serves and was able to get a forehand winner on the first one, but Sun was able to counter-spin Ito’s opening on the second to keep the lead at 6-4.
Ito was able to win another quick point with a pretty drop shot on the serve return to cut it to 6-5, but went 1-2 on the next two critical rallies to make it 8-6 Sun. Ito appeared to try her hand at some tricks, but she missed her first attempt at a deep push to make it 9-6, and Sun had no problems with Ito’s funky banana flick on the next point to make it 10-6. Ito tried what appeared to be a new serve on the next point, but Sun had no problem spinning it up, and Ito smashed the ball out to give Sun the third game comfortably 11-6
Between Sun’s 3-0 lead and a potentially still lingering aftertaste from Game 2, Ito was unable to figure out a way to disrupt Sun’s rhythm as she spun Ito’s backhand down to dust on point after point to jump to an 8-3 lead. Ito won a point with a down-the-line backhand open to make it 8-4, and Sun immediately called time-out. Ito missed another two smacks to make it 10-4, and then she missed her own serve to give Sun the game 11-4 and the match 4-0.
Other Game Notes
The crowd was significantly fuller (of Chinese athletes from other sports) in today’s matches than in yesterday’s morning matches.
A very sad-looking Liu Shiwen was shown watching the match by herself in the audience.
The British commentator, which we have memed in this space, doubled down on relentlessly explaining why it is important to wipe sweat off the table.
After pulling off at the time arguably the biggest upset of the table tennis men’s singles event at the Tokyo Olympics in his round of 32 match against England’s Liam Pitchford, Slovenia’s Darko Jorgic struck gold again as he pulled off what is indisputably the biggest upset of the tournament so far with a 4-3 (10-12, 11-9, 11-3, 10-12, 8-11, 11-7, 11-7) win over Japan’s third-seeded Tomokazu Harimoto.
Jorgic will play Taiwan’s Lin Yun-Ju in the quarter-finals at 16:00 local Tokyo time. The full men’s singles bracket and results can be viewed here.
Jorgic’s bread and butter play throughout the match was his backhand serve from his forehand corner (primarily wide to Harimoto’s short forehand) followed by a huge backhand third-ball rip. Harimoto appeared to have figured out how to handle this play in games 4 and 5, but Jorgic was able to adjust appropriately and work in his backhand third-ball attack to take game 6 and work in some additional smart play to take game 7.
In the rallies, Jorgic preferred to take a step back and overpower Harimoto as Harimoto’s speed did not appear to bother him that much.
We present a full recap below.
Jorgic opened up the match with his bread-and-butter play as he scored a big backhand winner on his third-ball attack against Harimoto’s short backhand flick to go up 1-0. Harimoto’s service return woes continued in the next service sequence as he pushed a serve return into a net for the first serve and yielded another big backhand opening to Jorgic on the second serve, giving Jorgic a 4-2 lead.
Harimoto and Jorgic continued to exchange rallies and big backhand winners/misses from Jorgic as they worked their way into a 6-6 deadlock.
On Jorgic’s next serve, Harimoto was able to step far enough to the right to get a fast flick going wide off the side of the table. Jorgic, who was likely hunting for the backhand rip, missed his forehand counter, giving Harimoto his first lead of the game at 7-6.
Jorgic was able to quickly reclaim a 9-7 lead with several big backhands again, but a lucky ball from Harimoto helped him break Jorgic’s serve twice to level it at 9-9.
Harimoto’s backhand punch landed out in a backhand-backhand rally to give Jorgic game point, but Jorgic looped Harimoto’s half-long serve out on the very next point as Harimoto leveld the score to 10-10 and let out his first big scream of the match.
Harimoto was able to win the next backhand-backhand rally and landed a down-the-line forehand winner on the next point to take game 1 12-10.
Game 2 was largely the same story as game 1: Jorgic landed in big backhand winners on the third ball, missed a few, and Harimoto’s slight advantage on the rallies and his own serve-and-attack helped keep the score tight. Jorgic continued to trust his backhand serve from the forehand corner and did not deviate from this serve even once. A common pattern was for Jorgic to win both points on his two serves, and then Harimoto to win those two points back on his own two serves.
This trend largely continued until Harimoto had serve down 7-9 with a chance to tie it up at 9-9. Harimoto was able to land one big winner to make it 9-8, but when Jorgic popped up his push on the next point, Harimoto missed his attempted winner, giving Jorgic a 10-8 advantage with serve.
Harimoto was able to save one game point after his excellent blocking kept him alive against an onslaught of Jorgic’s powerful loops. However, on the next point, Jorgic served a rare half-long to Harimoto’s wide forehand, and when Harimoto gave a hesitant down-the-line loop, Jorgic was able to land in his patented big backhand winner to take the second game 11-9.
Harimoto had no answer for Jorgic and his signature backhand in game 3 as Jorgic won the game trivially 11-3. One of Harimoto’s points was off a lucky net ball, and the other two were nothing remarkable either. Harimoto visibly slumped his shoulders when he pushed a ball into the net to go down 9-3 as Jorgic appeared to dominate him both on the table and in the mind.
Harimoto split a pair of points on his own serve to open game 4 at 1-1. Jorgic then landed in two big third-ball backhand rips to go up 3-1. After Harimoto missed another bachkand roll to go down 4-1, his coach called time-out.
Coming out of the tmie-out, Harimoto landed a nice forehand winner on the serve-and-attack, and Jorgic missed his own serve on the next point to put Harimoto right back in the game down 4-3.
However, Jorgic was able to extend his lead back up to 7-4 after Harimoto missed a forehand opening and an attempted wide flick to the forehand. Harimoto popped up a serve return on the next point, but he was able to hunker down and block Jorgic down to keep the lead to a more manageable 7-5.
Harimoto landed in his signature backhand punch winner but missed another, bringing it to 8-6 with Jorgic to serve. Harimoto was able to take a step back and block down Jorgic yet again to bring it to 8-7. Harimoto, who had previously been largely targeting the elbow, went for a down-the-line flick as far to Jorgic’s backhand as possible on the next serve return, and Jorgic missed the third-ball to level it at 8-8.
Harimoto took his first lead of the game after a missed serve return by Jorgic, but Jorgic won the next two points thanks to some solid backhand loops again, giving him a 10-9 lead and a chance to take a 3-1 lead. Harimoto then pulled off his down-the-line flick on the serve return far to Jorgic’s backhand at 9-10 and 11-10. Jorgic missed his third-ball follow-up both times, giving Harimoto the fourth game 12-10.
If Jorgic had lost the match, this game would likely have kept him up at night as he blew a 7-4 lead and missed a serve early in the game.
Harimoto looked like he had figured out Jorgic’s serve to start game 5 as a combination of down-the-line flicks to Jorgic’s backhand and his super wide flicks to Jorgic’s forehand prevented Jorgic from landing in his big backhand third-balls.
However, Jorgic also adjusted, mixing in some long serves and anticipating a down-the-line flick from Harimoto on one point, as he level the score to 8-8. Whether due to standard tactical variation or concern that Harimoto had figured out the serve, Jorgic then served two standard forehand pendulum serves on the next service sequence. Harimoto won both points, and then followed it up with a down-the-line forehand winner against a slow chiquita from Jorgic, giving Harimoto the fifth game 11-8 and a 3-2 lead.
Harimoto made several big plays and rallies early on, but Jorgic was able to keep his backhand serve fresh, and Harimoto missed three early serve returns, keeping the score tied at 6-6. Harimoto was able to force Jorgic to back off from the table and fish on the next point, but Jorgic landed a nice forehand counter-loop to regain control of the point and take a 7-6 lead. However, on the very next point, it was Jorgic who appeared to have the offensive advantage, but Harimoto blocked him down to level it at 7-7.
Jorgic was then able to land a big backhand rip to go up 8-7, and then he served a heavy long serve down-the-line to Harimoto’s backhand that Harimoto opened straight into the net. Harimoto then gave two low-quality pushes following his own serve, and Jorgic was able to capitalize on both to take game 6 11-7 and force a deciding seventh game.
Jorgic hit some smart plays early in Game 7 to go up 4-1, including a a super wide backhand counter to Harimoto’s forehand and a deep push to Harimoto’s backhand that completely stunned Harimoto. However, Harimoto hit a couple nice rallies of his own, and after a pushed serve return into the net by Jorgic leveled the score at 4-4, Jorgic called time-out.
The time-out did not yield any immediate results as Harimoto went up 7-6. Harimoto then again went for his trusty down-the-line backhand flick to Jorgic’s backhand on the next serve return. However, instead of ripping the ball, this time Jorgic executed a soft roll wide to Harimoto’s backhand, and Harimoto was not able to get back in time and hit it back into the net.
Jorgic proceeded to control the points with his backhand for the next several points, and then Harimoto missed one last serve reeturn to give jorgic his fifth straight point and the game 11-6 and the match 4-3.
Jorgic raised his fist in the air, shook hands with Harimoto, and then let out a very delayed scream in celebration after executing the upset of the tournament so far.
Edges and Nets covered this event live, and our notes are posted below. Check back at this site for more live coverage throughout the Olympics.
Arguably the most interesting storyline across all Olympic table tennis events is whether Mima Ito can finally dethrone the Chinese women from their stronghold over Olympic table tennis. Ito has the biggest chance to do so in the single’s event, and if she receives some help from her teammates Kasumi Ishikawa and Miu Hirano, she has a chance to do so in the team event as well.
In the team event, a China vs Japan final is also highly likely. In such a match-up, Mima Ito would be the “ace” player who plays two singles matches, so China essentially gets to pick which two of Chen Meng, Sun Yingsha, and Liu Shiwen play Ito. Given Liu’s relatively weak head-to-head record against Ito, it is very likely that China will select Sun to play against Ito for perhaps the second time in the Olympics.
We take a look at what to expect from a Sun Yingsha vs Mima Ito match-up.
The Mima Ito vs Sun Yingsha Rivalry
Although Sun is the clear favorite over Ito, the two have somewhat of a budding rivalry as they are of similar age and world ranking. In an interview with WTT, Sun said that her favorite match is her 2019 World Team Cup win over Ito, in which Sun came back from 7-10 to win five straight points to take the deciding fifth game 12-10, and that she likes to re-watch that match starting from the player entrance until the very end.
Sun has the superior 4-1 head-to-head record against Ito in four out of sevens since 2018, including their most recent match-up at the 2020 World Cup. However, several extrinsic factors may tilt the scales slightly more towards Ito’s favor in the Olympics. While the World Cup was in China, the Olympics will be in Tokyo. This benefits Ito both in terms of crowd support and any potential lopsidedness in the quarantine process due to event-mandated or national government-mandated restrictions.
Of course, the biggest extrinsic X-factor hovering over the Tokyo Olympics is that the pandemic has completely disrupted day-to-day life and there has been no international competition since March. While China has had its highly publicized internal scrimmages and Japan has likely also had similar internal competitions, players like Kanak Jha have noted that there is still a significant difference in feeling between smaller internal competitions and bigger international events. A general sports maxim is that chaos and high variance help the underdog, which in this case is Ito.
Ito caused a stir among Chinese netizens when she allegedly claimed to have figured out a strategy to defeat Chen and Sun back in March before they were even selected to the team. On the other hand, Chinese table tennis legend and two-time Olympic singles gold medalist Deng Yaping recently claimed that Ito is not a serious threat to the Chinese women’s team.
Deng also provided live commentary for Sun Yingsha’s 4-2 win over Mima Ito at last year’s World Cup. We take a second look at the match, and take a closer look at some of Deng’s comments on the Sun vs Ito match.
Please note that the Chinese commentators are sometimes loathe to speak critically or reveal information about their own players, so Deng’s comments were actually more heavily focused on Ito than Sun. This bias is reflected in this blog post.
Big Picture Strategies
Deng noted that the key battle in this match-up was to see whether they could make the point about spin or speed. Ito’s preferred manner of winning points was to go for speed and left-right placement.
On the other hand, Deng stated that Sun’s strategy should have been to give spinny (whether underspin or topspin) balls deep into Ito’s backhand, which would give Ito problems due to her short pips and close stance to the table. Sun could build an additional advantage by constantly changing the pace and playing the point to her own rhythm rather than at Ito’s frantic top-speed pace.
As Sun built a 3-0 lead in games, Deng remarked that two keys to Sun’s lead was her superior ability to control the rhythm during the match and Ito’s tendency to commit errors, including even on her own serve. Deng also felt that Ito was playing too rushed in trying to play the game at a fast speed.
Spin vs Speed
Let us take a closer look at how the spin vs speed tension embedded itself into the match. As noted above, Ito largely won rallies by leveraging speed and left-right placement to put winners past Sun on the wide wing (or at least make it so that Sun could barely touch the ball) or to jam Sun on the elbow as shown in the clip below.
Meanwhile, one way that we can see that Sun was prioritizing spin and arcing the ball over speed is that she rarely missed into the net. When she did miss into the net, it was on points like the one shown below where Ito caught her off guard wide on the wings, and Sun couldn’t execute a full stroke properly.
While Ito was trying to score fast winners and ending the point more quickly, Sun’s approach was to land deep spins onto the table mostly towards Ito’s backhand. Sun was also willing to grind out the point for an additional shot or two until Ito missed due to difficulties controlling deep, spinny balls when standing close to the table with her pips.
In the clip below, we can see thatS un tended to target Ito’s backhand and, unlike Sun, Ito frequently missed both into the net and out of the table as she had trouble handling Sun’s spin, depth, and control of the pace. In the slow-motion replay at 6-5 in the first game, we see that the ball lands near the white baseline before Ito punches it into the net.
Deng also noted that Ito made four relatively unforced forehand errors in game 2 as shown in the clip below, a problem that would plague Ito throughout the match.
It is imperative for Ito to clean up these errors in Tokyo. Not only does giving four points away in one game make it nearly impossible to win against a Chinese player, Deng further noted that as a result of Ito’s unreliable forehand, Ito’s only option to win points was to rely on her backhand punch, and Deng Sun would try to take advantage of this restriction.
Ito will undoubtedly be less error-prone in both the rallies and her serves (more on that later) in Tokyo, but there is a question of how intrinsic Ito’s errors are to her style of play. First, since high-arcing spinny loops like Sun’s almost never go into the net and topspin helps drag the ball down onto the table the harder the player spins, Sun’s loops are intrinsically more robust against errors than Ito’s flatter hits. Second, hypothetical longer rallies in which Sun is able to continuously volley in deep spins favor Sun, so it is in Ito’s interest to take riskier shots and end the point more quickly, whether as a winner or as an error, so Ito will appear to make more errors. Hence, while it may be easy to lament what the game would be like without “easy” errors on Ito’s side, it may be unrealistic to hope for her to play as error-free as the Chinese.
Mima Ito’s Experimental Serves
Liu Guoliang stated in 2019 that one of the reasons that Ito has been able to consistently challenge the Chinese National Team is that Ito is not scared to experiment with new plays and techniques. However, that experimentation always comes with growing pains. Deng noted that Ito introduced some new serves at the World Cup, and that while Ito may be able to land that serve in practice every time, executing that serve in a real match is another story. Ito missed three serves over the course of the second and third game, including a critical serve down 8-7 in the second game (the same game mentioned above in which she missed four forehands).
Ito’s service woes continued in WTT Doha this March, as she missed three serves against Hina Hayata in the WTT Contender Finals, and she had this infamous sequence against Yu Mengyu that WTT has absolutelyloved sharing.
However, Deng also noted that one of Ito’s unique characteristics is that even when she’s missing, she keeps trying. Indeed, these high-cost experiments come with a reward. We see in the clip below that when Ito was able to properly execute the experimental serves that she was missing, Sun actually appeared quite confused and gave very desirable returns to Ito (even though Ito loses some of these points in the end).
A big question is whether Ito can clean up the exploration and fully exploit the new serves that she has at the Tokyo Olympics. While it’s tempting to assume that of course Ito will clean up her act for an event as important to her as the Olympics, Ito was likely also banking on being able to play in an international tournament between WTT Doha and now. Without that experience, will Ito have enough confidence to execute these experimental serves at critical moments?
Mima Ito’s Short Pips Serve Return Magic
The worst possible serve to give to Mima Ito is a short serve to her backhand against which she can work her wonders with the pips. Even against short serves to the forehand, Ito will sometimes step in and take the serve with her pips. We see in the clip below some examples of damage that Ito was able to do using her pips on the serve return against Sun.
Deng also mentioned the straight serve (i.e. no sidespin) as a possible method to keep Ito from wreaking havoc with her pips. After Ito missed a straight serve return against Sun in the point shown below, Deng offered praise for the straight serve, noting that, “Players with pips do not like straight serves [with no sidespin]. They actually like the sidespin, because they can borrow your sidespin and punch the ball.”
Sun mostly stuck with standard pendulum and shovel serves with sidespin, which are clearly her preferred serves, throughout the match, but it may be worth keeping an eye out for more straight serves from Sun against Ito.
Beware the Mima Ito Comeback
As Ito won Games 4 and 5, Deng was constantly bemoaning Sun’s wasted opportunity after blowing a 9-7 lead while up 3-0, declaring that the match should already be over with a 4-0 victory for Sun. However, Deng also acknowledged that Ito is extremely adept at making come-backs as she tends to go for broke and swing at everything when she is down, and those shots always seems to land.
An astute watcher may have also noticed that some of Ito’s more creative serves and serve returns shown above come when Ito is down big. Ito also tends to turn her creativity up another notch when she’s down as she loses fear over taking risky shots.
We see examples of Ito launching comebacks with crazy shots in the first game (in which Ito came back from 10-6 to force a deuce), second game (when Ito narrowed the gap from 10-3 to 10-6), and the fourth game (in which Ito came back from 9-7 while trailing 3-0 in games).
Sun is still the favorite over Ito, but we’ve seen that if enough things break right both technically and mentally for Ito, she has a very real chance of upsetting Sun and making her way into the finals.
As the Tokyo Olympics rapidly approach, Mima Ito and Kasumi Ishikawa have made several comments to Japanese media. Furthermore, Ishikawa is allegedly in talks to be the vice-captain for the host country Japan (across all sports) at the Tokyo Olympics. We have aggregated and translated several of their comments and interviews below.
After Chinese media reported that Ito allegedly claimed that she had figured out how to beat Chen Meng and Sun Yingsha in May, Ito’s confidence remains high: “This time is different from the Rio Olympics, because this Olympics are in Japan. It feels unbelievable, but I am very confident and hope I can prepare coolly and calmly as usual. Even if tomorrow is the Olympics, it’s no problem. I will aggressively prepare with the mindset “in order to get the three golds [women’s singles, women’s team, mixed doubles], I must win.””
Ito also reportedly explicitly stated, “I will do my best to bring back three gold medals.”
Ito had an interesting comment regarding playing mixed doubles: “When I’m playing doubles, my body and legs move. It also makes my head spin and I get very tired, but it’s a very fun event.”
Kasumi Ishikawa Interview with “Big Kasumi” Creators
Ishikawa did an interview with the creators of the “Big Kasumi” statue. This interview was published on June 25.
There is roughly one month until the opening of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Please give us your goals and level of enthusiasm. With only one month left, I’m feeling more nervous, and I’m getting more and more excited.
What are your thoughts on seeing “Big Kasumi”? I was very surprised.
It’s real, and I’m very happy to see the completion because I had many cameras shoot it when I asked them to make it.
What kind of adjustments and preparations have you made for the Olympics so far? And where will you prepare for the your final sprint? Unlike the previous Olympic Games, I think that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will be held without any international competition beforehand, so I want to make adjustments so that I leave no regrets. I’m also in really good physical condition. I also want to be careful and stand on the court [presumably, Ishikawa is concerned about her lower back injury that caused her to withdraw from an internal Japanese tournament several months ago].
You said that you will be participating in the [Japanese] league from June 24th. Please tell us the purpose of participating in the match before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Being in the league from June 24th, just before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, is a very valuable opportunity for me. So I will play each game and execute what I have done and what I have practiced. I wish I could start the battle.
How is your current condition out of 100? I think it’s about 70 percent. I’d like to raise it a little more by the time I go to the game and get to about 90 percent until I get on the court, so I’d like to make adjustments for another month.
Lastly, please share your enthusiasm. I want to play at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics without regrets. I think the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will be in a difficult situation, but I want to play without regrets for myself. I want to stand on the court, and I want to make the remaining one month a fulfilling one.
Kasumi Ishikawa Interview Reported By Yahoo Sports
On June 27, Yahoo Sports posted an interview (in Japanese) with Kasumi Ishikawa. We have translated select questions and answers from this interview.
In some interviews, you said, “Recently, I’ve become able to speak with my true intentions.” What is your feeling about that?
After all, there were no matches due to the pandemic, and it was the first time in my life as a table tennis player that I hadn’t had such a match, and I think I was able to become a natural person in a good way.
For over 20 years since you started playing table tennis, you’ve been practicing hard at the top level.
If I didn’t have to do it, I wouldn’t do it at all (laughs). I think it’s difficult to maintain your level even with the minimum practice. Of course, it’s difficult to raise the level no matter how many years you’ve been doing it. If I try to do it at this level, I know that I can’t do it unless I practice hard, so I wonder if I’ll do it.
On the other hand, after winning the All Japan Championship, there was a comment that “I have been enjoying practicing recently.”
I’ve had a time when I couldn’t play a match this year due to the pandemic, and now I feel like I have to have fun. Of course, there are some tough and painful exercises, but I think it’s a waste not to enjoy this time now, whether it’s a match or practice.
Have you made any specific changes in your daily practice with that idea?
You’re doing more and more of the practice you want to do. The practice you have to do and the practice you want to do are probably a little different. There are other exercises I want to do, but I don’t think I have to do this, I’ll do more and more exercises I want to do. I haven’t done so much until now, but if I enjoy myself, I will continue to do what I want to do. Then, new exercises and things I want to do will come out, and I’m wondering if it will be fun again.
After all, I think it will be the first and last time to participate in the Tokyo Olympics once every four years, so rather than just looking at the feelings and results of enjoying it on the special stage of the Tokyo Olympics. I want to have fun, cherish the process, and feel that there is a result after that. I want to enjoy the situation I am in now, both in practice and in games.
Have you ever felt that you like table tennis again recently?
After all, I think I like table tennis because it’s fun to feel the joy of being able to do things after practice that I previously couldn’t do. The joy of being able to do something that didn’t work is the same as when I started playing table tennis.
Does the process of mastering a technique that you previously couldn’t do feel like you can just suddenly do it at one point?
There are various things. Sometimes you can do it suddenly, and sometimes you just have to do it. But after all that, I forget what I remembered. So, in the end, I think that people who can remember it often forget it, so if I try to remember it, I think it’s impossible if I don’t do it.
Do you sometimes suddenly become able to do it during a match?
Oh, that’s right. When you suddenly feel like “let’s try”, I think it’s a time when you feel positive, so that’s a good time. Whether it works or not. It feels like it doesn’t have to be included, so I was able to do that in the past, so now I’m thinking of doing it while cherishing it.
Do you feel a gap between the image of Ishikawa in society and yourself?
Well, I don’t really know what society thinks about me, so I don’t know (laughs)
Sure. I’m sorry…
Ah, but I really speak a lot, but I wonder if I think I don’t speak much. Someone I met for the first time said “I speak more than I expected” about 5 times, recently (laughs).
Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule!
Thank you very much.
Kasumi Ishikawa on the Japanese League
In this section, Edges and Nets has aggregated several of Ishikawa’s post-game remarks on the Japanese league. Sources: here, here, here.
“It’s a rare opportunity for a real battle, so I’d like to actively show what I’ve been practicing and find out what was good and what was bad. Today, the serve is very good and the opponent disliked it.”
“It was a great experience to be able to play a lot of games with strong players before the Olympics, and it was great to be able to play at this timing. One month left until the Olympics. I want to be well prepared so that I won’t regret it and do my best to play the best.”
“I’m very happy because it’s been a long time since I entered the Japan League, so I’m very happy. There were a lot of games. I think the backhand was good this time. There was a part that led to scoring, and I was able to put out a lot of what I had practiced in the games, so I was very confident. It was a good experience to be able to play against a strong player in a tense atmosphere. I will do my best to play the best at the Olympics by preparing well so that I will not regret the remaining one month.”
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.