This post is the fourth 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 seeds 5 through 8 in the women’s singles event: Jeon Jihee, Feng Tianwei, Miu Hirano, and Kasumi Ishikawa. 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 men’s singles event (Jeoung Youngsik, Dimitrij Ovtcharov, Jang Woojin, and Mattias Falck) 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:
Eight out of these thirteen players will also play WTT Contender. The five who will not play are Jang Woojin, Jeoung Youngsik, Patrick Franziska, Koki Niwa, and Jun Mizutani. Let us now take a closer look at seeds five through eight.
8th Seed Jeoung Youngsik
Feb 21 Update: Jeoung Youngsik has been selected for the Olympic Team event. This decision was made before the start of WTT Doha. Analysis in this section may be out of date.
Jeoung Youngsik played decently well in the post-pandemic World Cup last November. He upset Hugo Calderano before losing to national teammate Jang Woojin 4-2 in the quarterfinals. However, things have gone downhill since. He lost badly to Fan Zhendong at the ITTF Grand Finals. In the Korean Olympic Trials earlier this month, he went a winless 0-4 against Lee Sangsu and An Jaehyun, failing to qualify for the Olympic singles event.
However, at the time of this post, the Korean national team does not appear to have announced who will join Lee Sangsu and Jang Woojin in representing Korea in the Olympic team event, meaning Jeoung still has a chance to go to Tokyo. The coach’s selection appears to largely be a two-way race between Jeoung and An Jaehyun.
There are certain factors working in Jeoung’s favor despite his poor performance at the Korean Olympic Trials. First, Jeoung has a higher world rank. Second, he and Lee are a familiar doubles pair who won their doubles match against Xu Xin and Liang Jingkun at the 2019 World Team Cup.
Coaches may also be willing to show Jeoung some grace considering that WTT Doha will mark the end of Jeoung’s roughly year and a half long mandatory military service for Korea, during which he has had to do a non-trivial amount of duty and training. Between the conclusion of WTT Doha and Tokyo, Jeoung will be able to devote himself 100 percent to table tennis without worrying about military duties.
While more focus and hours at the table for the next few months does not necessarily translate directly to better success in the competition, there is reason to be optimistic. Jeoung’s game is not as explosive and does not rely on extremely fast footspeed as much as some of his younger Korean teammates like An or Jang do. He instead relies more on keeping a stable position and anticipating the position of his opponent and the ball (like in the point shown below). Intuitively speaking, one may expect that such a style would benefit more from increased training time compared to a style that relies more on raw physical athleticism.
That being said, An and Jeoung both get the chance to strengthen their cases to the coaches in Doha. For Jeoung, this means that at minimum he must avoid early upsets, especially to German rival Patrick Franziska and Japanese rivals Jun Mizutani and Koki Nowa.
After taking care of business in the earlier rounds, if Jeoung is able to pull off a big upset against Harimoto or Xu Xin, that may be enough to sway the coaches to pick Jeoung to represent Korea at the Olympic team event. In particular, one of An’s arguments for making the team may be that he has beaten Harimoto recently. Jeoung can neutralize that argument by defeating Harimoto himself. Hence, Edges and Nets would pick Harimoto to be the most interesting quarterfinal match-up for Jeoung.
7th Seed Dimitrij Ovtcharov
Since the restart after the pandemic, Dimitrij Ovtcharov posted a 4-3 win against Liam Pitchford in the World Cup before losing in the quarterfinals of the World Cup to Ma Long and to Lin Yun-Ju in the first round of the ITTF Grand Finals.
Lin has now won the last four meetings between the two in international competition dating back to 2018. In their match-up at the 2020 Grand Finals, Lin was quite clearly faster than Ovtcharov and won virtually all the longer rallies. Lin and Ovtcharov are actually teammates (and will soon be joined by Hugo Calderano) at the Russian club Fakel Gazprom Orenburg and are thus deeply familiar with each other’s game. This familiarity may be why Lin seemed to have almost no problem handling Ovtcharov’s serves. He confidently landed chiquita after chiquita to Ovtcharov’s elbow to set up an ensuing fast rally even when the serve was wide to Lin’s forehand.
Although Ovtcharov is most well known for his spinny backhand and tomahawk serves, one serve that he has found quite useful even against Ma Long is a short dead serve with his backhand that looks like something any noob at the local club could serve. He doesn’t use the serve often, but it has its uses when his opponent is not in rhythm or may be emotionally tight. The sudden lack of spin doesn’t give the opponent anything to borrow, and the opponent may be hesitant or unable to land powerful shots as seen in these two match points that Ovtcharov saved against Lin last November (shown below).
Although Ovtcharov and Lin most likely exchange wins against each other during training, the lopsided record in international competition towards Lin would give Lin a mental edge should these two meet in the quarterfinals in Tokyo. Ovtcharov can break this edge by scoring a victory, even if only in a three out of five, against his club teammate at WTT Doha. Hence, Edges and Nets would consider Lin to be the most interesting quarterfinal match-up for Ovtcharov.
If the Olympics were held today, Ovtcharov would be the ninth seed in the men’s singles event in the Tokyo Olympics behind the two Chinese players, Calderano, Lin, Mattias Falck, Jang Woojin, and Timo Boll. However, since Boll is not playing in Qatar at all and only leads Ovtcharov by a small margin, unless Ovtcharov suffers a pair of major upsets in both events, he has enough ranking points to comfortably pass Boll in the April world rankings and put himself in the position to be at least the eighth seed in Tokyo. Note that although Ovtcharov has been confirmed to play in the team event Tokyo Olympics, we have not been able to confirm whether he or Patrick Franziska will play in the singles event alongside Timo Boll.
Jang, who is ranked directly above Ovtcharov, will not be playing WTT Contender. Hence, if both players play to their seeding or even if Ovtcharov loses in the round of 16 in one event, Ovtcharov will pass Jang on the April world rankings. To maintain his lead over Ovtcharov in the world rankings, Jang must pull off more upsets than Ovtcharov does in the WTT Star Contender event. However, for the purposes of Olympic seeding there is minimal difference between being the eighth seed and the seventh seed.
6th Seed Jang Woojin
Jang Woojin arguably had the best post-pandemic performance out of all non-Chinese men. He split a pair of matches with Harimoto and upset Lin Gaoyuan. In both the Grand Finals and the World Cup, he lost to Fan Zhendong by a comfortable margin. However, visually the game felt closer than the score may have indicated. Jang lead in several games that he lost, and it would not be implausible for him to upset a player like Fan in the near future.
With Jang’s recent performances against Harimoto, Korea may now feel as comfortable as they are going to get about their chances of defeating Japan in the Tokyo Olympics. Although they may not dare to say it aloud, Korea may now be setting its eyes on slaying the giant that is China. There are glimpses of potential such as Jang’s win over Lin Gaoyuan and Lee Sangsu/Jeoung Youngsik’s win over Xu Xin and Liang Jingkun, and Jang could potentially add to that with a fresh upset over Xu in the quarterfinals in Qatar.
Stylistically, a match-up between Jang and a left-handed player like Xu is always interesting as it mixes up two of the key dynamics associated with their styles. First, Jang loves stepping around the corner for the forehand, even in situations where most other players would prefer to use the backhand (as shown below). Although Jang still steps around quite frequently even against left-handed players, the threat of a lefty’s cross-court backhand to his wide forehand may force him to adjust how he approaches his footwork.
Second, the ease with which left-handed players can serve to the wide forehand often disrupts players from executing the chiquita smoothly. However, possibly in order to stay in position to use his forehand for the next shot, Jang uses the chiquita relatively infrequently compared to others. He instead prefers to use a short forehand push, even if it means allowing the opponent to open more often than if he used the chiquita (as shown below).
Jang’s preference for the short forehand push over the chiquita thus mitigates one of the key adjustments players must make against left-handed players. These stylistic changes and a taste of a Korea vs China Olympic team match-up make Edges and Nets consider Xu to be the most interesting quarterfinal match-up for Jang.
Jang has also been confirmed to represent Korea in the men’s singles event at the Tokyo Olympics. Similar to Ovtcharov, barring a massive early round upset, Jang should be in a position to pass Timo Boll on the April world rankings and maintain his position to be a top-eight seed in Tokyo.
5th Seed Mattias Falck
Falck had decent results at the two major post-pandemic ITTF events last year. He took care of business against Simon Gauzy (WR 20) and Wong Chun Ting (WR 19) but lost 4-1 to Tomokazu Harimoto and 4-2 to Ma Long.
Edges and Nets has largely chosen to ignore the results at WTT Macau last Fall due to the weird rules (no deuce, three-out-of-five matches, brief coaching every six points, weird draws), the lack of stakes (WTT Macau did not appear to influence world rankings), and the lack of recorded full matches. However, Falck’s 3-1 upset over Xu Xin at WTT Macau (available on Youtube) was such big news that we had to mention it here. The 2019 World Championships finalist will be looking to extend his success to 2021 as he continues to entertain fans and frustrate opponents with his close-to-the-table flat hits from both the backhand and his infamous short pips on his forehand.
There is currently a four-way race between Falck, Lin, Calderano, and Harimoto for the third and fourth seed at the Tokyo Olympics, which provide a guaranteed path to an Olympic medal without having to defeat either of the Chinese top two seeds. In order to pass Lin and Calderano on the April world rankings, Falck needs to outperform Calderano by 372 ranking points and Lin by 273 ranking points in Qatar.
Similar to the case of Kasumi Ishikawa in the women’s singles event, Falck will need to reach the finals in both events in order to pass Lin. This is an extremely difficult task as it means beating either Lin or Calderano (or a player who upset them) twice and then beating Harimoto or Xu Xin (or a player who upset them) twice. If Calderano plays to his seeding and reaches the semi-finals in both events, then Falck would still be unable to catch Calderano even with two finals appearances.
However, if Falck and Calderano meet in the quarterfinals, then Falck will completely control his own Olympic seeding destiny, because a finals appearance by Falck would entail that Calderano lost in the quarterfinals and did not play up to his seeding. Hence, Edges and Nets would consider Calderano to be the most interesting quarterfinal match-up for Falck.
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:
- Jeoung Youngsik vs Tomokazu Harimoto
- Dimitrij Ovtcharov vs Lin Yun-Ju
- Jang Woojin vs Xu Xin
- Mattias Falck vs Hugo Calderano
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 seeds 3 and 4 in the women’s singles event. It will be posted on Monday, February 22 (North American timezone).