Tag Archives: korea table tennis

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.

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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An Jaehyun Avenges WTTC Semi-Final Loss With 3-0 Win Over Mattias Falck

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Mattias Falck (WR 8) forced An Jaehyun back from the table and out of view of WTT’s beloved new camera angle, but An still managed to take the point with a pair of hard forehand counter-loops from deep to go up 10-7 and 2-0 in games for triple match point. He only needed one as an aggressive An Jaehyun avenged his 2019 World Championship semi-final loss to Mattias Falck with a comfortable 3-0 (11-8, 11-9, 11-7) victory in the round of 32 in WTT Star Contender at WTT Doha.

It was a stellar performance from An as his national teammates struggled: Lee Sangsu (WR 22) was upset 3-1 by Anton Kallberg (WR 58), Jang Woojin (WR 11) was upset by Ruwen Filus (WR 42), and Jeoung Youngsik (WR 13) squeaked by deuce in the fifth against Kirill Gerassimenko (WR 46). Falck is the highest ranked player that a Korean player of either gender has beaten so far at WTT Doha.

The full match can be watched on WTT/ITTF’s Youtube channel.

Game 1

Falck started the first point of the match with a strategy he would rely on throughout the game: a wide push or block to An’s forehand would force a step-around-happy An to put up a weak forehand opening, and then Falck would quickly roll it back wide to An’s backhand. Falck was able to build an early 3-0 lead, but An was able to pull off seven points in a row off very aggressive forehand loops to take a 7-3 lead. A pair of points when An lead 9-7 provided a perfect summary of the game: Falck won a point with a wide push to the forehand followed by a wide crosscourt backhand roll to cut it to 9-8, and then An won a point with a hard step-around forehand to bring it back up to 10-8. Down 10-8 Falck tried to mix things up with a serve from the forehand side, but he missed a block against An’s soft opening after a brief short-push exchange, giving An the game 11-8.

Game 2

Falck won the first two points with a pair of smart serves, but then again lost four points in a row to go down 4-2. He won the next two points to level it to 4-4, prompting An to ask for a COVID timeout, (i.e. where a player effectively gets an extra mini-break by asking the umpire to “wipe down” the table). At 5-5, An then served a long fast serve and took the ensuing backhand-backhand rally, and then Falck missed a short backhand opening to go down 7-5. Falck was able to kill a weak push from An on the next point, but then missed two consecutive half-long backhand openings to go down 9-6, prompting him to wipe the table in frustration.

An missed an attempt at a step-around forehand kill, and then Falck won two more points off of smart service play, including a risky long fast serve to An’s forehand, to level it at 9-9. However, An would take the last two points to take the second game 11-9 as Falck threw his paddle in disgust after missing another backhand opening.

Game 3

An Jaehyun stole the first point with a down the line long fast serve to Falck’s forehand, but Falck hit several nice rallies and wide shots to take a 5-2 lead. An then took a couple of rallies to level it to 6-6. An then whiffed a backhand loop against a slower than expected block from Falck, putting Falck up 7-6. Falck then missed a short push and a block, causing him to call a time-out down 8-7. The time-out was of no avail as An won the next three points to complete a 5-0 winning streak and take the match 11-8, 11-9, 11-7.

Notes

  • Falck appears not to be a fan of the COVID time-out as he wiped the table himself several times. The umpire did not give him a yellow card, a decision that Edges and Nets agrees with given our “let them play” attitude and skepticism over the effectiveness of banning table-touching from preventing coronavirus spread (you’re just calling a socially distant umpire to walk up right next to you to touch the table for you!). However, others may have wished to see existing COVID restrictions enforced more strictly.
  • An will get the chance to avenge Lee Sangsu in a round of 16 match-up with Anton Kallberg
  • Despite his great performances recently, An will not be participating in the Tokyo Olympics after losing out in the Korean Olympic Trials on what essentially was a technicality, giving his fans a massive case of second lead syndrome.

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Officiating Controversy Plagues Cho Daesong’s 3-2 Win Over Andreas Levenko

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A brief summary of all Day 2 action and preview of Day 3 can be found here.

“Your eyes are so bad,” remarked Andreas Levenko (WR 144) to the umpire in reference to perceived lopsidedness over the umpire’s service call faults after losing 11-6, 13-11, 9-11, 4-11, 11-8 to Cho Daesong (WR 141) in the round of 16. It was an unfortunate conclusion as questionable sportsmanship from Levenko and officiating decisions from the umpire marred what should have been an exciting match between two young and up-and-coming players.

Game 1

The first game opened quite even as both players got a feel for each other up to 5-5. Then the game turned into one of serve and receive as Levenko missed two service returns to go down 7-5. Cho then landed a wide chiquita on the service return to go up 8-5. Levenko switched to a tomahawk serve that Cho popped up, and Levenko killed the high ball to narrow it to 8-6. Levenko then pushed a serve from Cho off the table and then against the serve gave a weak push that Cho killed to go up 10-6. Levenko missed an opening on the next point to lose the first game 11-6.

Game 2

Cho was first to serve in game 2 and missed two openings to go down 0-2 but leveled the score to 2-2 off of two long rallies. They then split the next two points as Levenko landed a hard chiquita on the first serve return and pushed the second serve into the net.Levenko then got called for a service fault for hiding the ball with his body (or hand?) to put Cho up 4-3.

For the next few points the players appared to evenly exchange points on standard openings and blocks up until Cho led 9-7 with serve. Up until this point, Levenko was an extremely good sport, noting that the umpire had erroneously awarded a point to him instead of Cho.

Levenko then popped up a service return to make it 10-7 and then complained to the umpire that Cho was blocking the serve with his hand. Levenko landed a solid half-long opening on the next serve return to save the first game point.

Whether due to tactics or out of concern of being called for a service fault, Levenko switched to a tomahawk serve for the rest of the game. Cho missed both his service returns at 10-8 to make it to deuce. However, Cho would still end up taking the second game 13-11 to take a 2-0 lead after Levenko popped up a service return at 10-10 and pushed a serve into the net at 12-11. After losing the game, Levenko made a frustrated motion about Cho blocking the serve with his hand.

Game 3

Levenko opened the third game with two long fast serves that he converted into a 3-0 lead, which he was able to extend into a 4-1 lead. However, Levenko missed a block when he tried again for a long fast serve, and after Levenko gave a weak chiquita and pushed serve return in to the net, the score was tied 4-4.

Levenko switched to a tomahawk serve, but Cho was able to win the point following a soft opening. Having lost four straight points, Levenko called timeout. However, immediately after the time-out, Levenko was faulted for blocking his pendulum serve, prompting him to yell at the umpire, “come on, what the f****? you take my serve but he serves like this,” making a hand blocking motion to describe Cho’s serve. The umpire obviously gave Levenko a yellow card, which he sarcastically encouraged with a thumbs up. Levenko milked the most out of the yellow card with one last rage throw of the ball onto the floor.

Video of Levenko’s outburst

Levenko was able to calm himself down and land a hard counter-loop in on the next point, sparking a 5-0 run in which he exclusively used his tomahawk serve. Levenko would use a tomahawk serve for the rest of the game as he cruised to a 11-9 victory.

Game 4

Levenko started game 4 more fired up with a hard counter-loop as he started cho’ing louder whenever he won. He continued to use the tomahawk serve. Levenko was able to win his first two service points, but then lost the next to, resulting in a 4-4 score.

Levenko continued to hit agressive and hard openings and counterloops while Cho missed a couple easier openings as Levenko closed out the game on a 7-0 run to win 11-4.

Game 5

Levenko’s fiery nature carried into game 5 as he won the first point with a hard counterloop (many fans have complained about the camera angle already, but it has to be noted yet again that we were unable to watch a great point because Levenko was off-camera).

Cho was able to stop the 8-0 losing streak with a great counterloop rally of his own. Cho was unable to win either of his own service points and then missed a serve return against Levenko’s tomahawk, prompting him to call time-out down 4-1.

Cho came out of the time-out winning three points in a row, including another nice counterloop rally, to tie it up at 4-4. After losing his fourth point in a row to do gown 5-4, Levenko tried switching things up by using his regular pendulum serve (the one that the umpire faulted twice), but it was to no avail as he lost his fifth straight point to go down 6-4.

Levenko then popped up a service return and then pushed the next serve return off the table to go down 8-4. After the second return, he again yelled at the umpire to complain about Cho blocking the serve with his hand.

Levenko was able to take some extra time off to slow down the game as both he and Cho agreed that the ball was broken. The stoppage in play ended up breaking Cho’s 7-0 streak as he missed a serve return and then a high ball (although the high ball was following a net shot) to narrow the lead to 8-6.

However, Levenko then popped up another serve and then pushed another serve into the net as he shook his head in visible frustration. Levenko was then able to win the next two points off his own serve, but then after landing a chiquita on the service return at 8-10, he lost the ensuing rally and the match 3-2.

Levenko let out a yell in frustration and afterwards told the umpire that, “your eyes are so bad.”

Edges and Nets generally takes a “let them play” approach and would not have called either of the serves as illegal, especially since from the umpire’s point of view (which happens to be the same as the new controversial camera angle), it is very difficult to make judgement calls on blocking vs non-blocking. In particular, Levenko’s second service fault (the one that caused the outburst) was particularly questionable as the umpire can pretty much only see his back. Perhaps ITTF/WTT should invest in service line judges, which are already present in North American amateur collegiate tournaments.

For what it’s worth. Edges and Nets conducted an informal poll on Instagram of whether Levenko’s serves were illegal, and the audience 53% of the audience said no. However, a couple other professional player at WTT Doha said that they believed that Levenko’s serves were illegal.

Despite the lopsided officiating, Levenko cannot completely blame outside forces as he lost seven straight points in game 5. Credit still has to be given to Cho as he still did play quite well throughout the match and as the controversy did seem to somewhat affect his mental state in the third and fourth game, but he was able to tune out the noise in game 5 and still perform.

Cho Daesong will play Tomokazu Harimoto in the quarterfinals.

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

Hugo Calderano Defeats An Jaehyun 3-1 In Dominant Fashion

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.

A brief summary of all Day 2 action and preview of Day 3 can be found here.

After dropping the first game 11-9, Hugo Calderano (WR 6) won the next three games in a row against An Jaehyun (WR 39) with dominant finishes in each game: a 5-0 run to close games 2 and 3 and a 6-0 run to close game 4.

The event was on WTT’s official website (subject to media restrictions) at 13:00 Greenwich time on March 4. So far, recordings of Table 1 matches have not been made available online.

Game 1

Calderano started the match with a strategy he would frequently rely on throughout the match: he served two half-long serves to An’s backhand and An gave two weak returns. However, Calderano missed an easy ball on the second point, making it 1-1. However, Calderano would go on to win all of the next five points in which he served.

However, An was able to keep things close by taking the initiative on his serve. After splitting his first two service points thanks to a pretty wide block from Calderano, An would also go on to win the next five points in which he served before rushing a forehand flick against a slightly high ball. Hence, after the first 16 points, the score was tied 8-8.

An was then able to steal two more points on Calderano’s serve with a hard chiquita wide to a forehand and a well-placed soft opening to Calderano’s elbow, giving him a 10-8 lead. Calderano was able to win a service return point back with a hard chiquita of his own to narrow the lead to 10-9. However, Calderano’s next chiquita was just a bit soft, and An was able to step around for a forehand down the line winner to take the first game 11-9.

Game 2

An jumped to a 5-3 lead to start game 2 thanks to some hard openings, a saved net ball, and a service warning against Calderano that made him miss the next serve. An cholaed anyway and clearly violated table tennis karma as Calderano won the next three points off some sloppy short play from An to take a 6-5 lead.

An reclaimed a 7-6 lead with a deep push to Calderano’s forehand and a wide block against Calderano’s chiquita. However, in a preview of the next two games, Calderano won five straight points to win the game 11-7 off a combination of an edge ball, two nice exchanges by Calderano, a missed high short flick by An, and a popped up serve return by An.

Game 3

Game 3 started out similar to Game 1: Calderano continued to attack An’s backhand with half-long serves to take his first five service points before a lucky net at 6-3. An split his first pair of serves due to some crips exchanges by Calderano, but won the next three of his own serves off hard step around forehands and an aggressive push to Calderano’s elbow. When all the dust settled, Calderano held a narrow lead of 6-5.

Calderano then hit a hard chiquita against An to take a 7-5 lead, and then An appeared to yield the initiative to Calderano as he dropped four more straight points, all off of missed blocks against Calderano’s loops. Altogether, Calderano again finished the game on a 5-0 run to take the game 11-5 and a commanding 2-1 lead.

Game 4

Calderano was able to continue taking the initiative to start game 4 and jumped to a 5-2 lead. He then missed a forehand loop, and it looked like that momentum was shifting to An’s side after he narrowed the lead to 5-4 with a beautiful counter-looping rally.

However, the opposite actually happened as Calderano won a beautiful rally of his own to take a 6-4 lead. A popped up service return and a missed forehand flick from An further extended the lead to 8-4. Calderano launched a flurry of attacks to win the next three points in a row as well, capping off a 6-0 run to take the fourth game 11-4 and the match 3-1.

Notes

  • Hugo Calderano was rubbing some kind of ointment on his arm in between games. We are unsure if it is due to injury.
  • Calderano will play his former German Bundesliga teammate Simon Gauzy in the quarterfinals

After the match, Calderano provided the following post-game comments:

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.

This match was covered live. All live posts are shown below. Please wait a couple seconds for the live blogging software to load.

 

Yang Haeun Upsets Melanie Diaz 3-0 to Advance To Final Qualificaton Round

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.

Yang Haeun (WR 81) hit a down-the-line shot from her middle backhand wide to Melanie Diaz’s (WR 68) forehand to cap off a 26-shot (!!) rally, winning the point, set, and match, securing a 3-0 upset over. Yang advances to the final round of the qualification draw at WTT Contender in WTT Doha 2021.

Yang Haeun wins match point against Melanie Diaz off a 26-shot rally.
Game 1

Diaz opened up the match strong, and combined with three backhand errors from Yang was able to jump to a 5-0 lead. Yang then tried stepping around for a forehand, which went off the table too, extending Diaz’s lead to 6-0. Yang came back from the time-out down 6-0 and then scored her first point with a long fast serve that Diaz missed. After three nice rallies by Yang and a missed block and serve return Diaz, Yang was able to level the score to 6-6.

Diaz was able to stem the bleeding with a nice step-around forehand winner against Yang’s weak opening to the elbow, but Yang was able to respond with a couple of winners of her own to level the score to 8-8. Diaz missed a backhand from her elbow, giving Yang her first lead at 9-8. Yang missed a forehand opening that leveled it to 9-9, but then caught a net and an edge in the same shot to take a 10-9 lead. Diaz was able to level it to deuce, but Yang landed a reliable loop to Diaz’s elbow and a wide winner to Diaz’s backhand to take the first game 12-10.

Game 2

The two players exchanged missed serve return and quick winners to open the second game. Diaz won a pair of rallies at 4-4 to give her the 6-4 lead with serve. Yang saved a net mid-rally in the next point to cut the lead to 6-5, and Diaz then called time out. Coming out of the timeout, Diaz tried her less frequently used backhand serve, but it was to no avail as Yang returned it comfortably and then win the ensuing rally.

Diaz was able to take the next point thanks to a net ball, but Yang then unleashed a clinic of ball placement as she won five straight points off of wide blocks to both Diaz’s forehand and backhand corner, taking game 2 in a dominant 11-7 fashion.

Game 3

In game 3, Yang returned to attacking Diaz’s elbow with great effectiveness. Despite getting two early net balls, Diaz did not help herself by missing a high ball in the first point of the game and then hesitating to kill an easy ball when down 4-3. Yang was able to build a 7-4 lead in this manner, at which point she won two lucky balls in the next three points, putting her up 9-5.

After two missed openings and another trusty spinny ball to Diaz’s elbow that Diaz blocked off the table, Yang found herself up 10-7 for her second match point. Diaz and Yang then unleashed the point of the match with a 26-shot rally that ended with a down-the-line winner from Yang’s backhand to Diaz’s wide forehand, giving Yang the match 3-0.

With the upset over Diaz, Yang continues to outperform her world ranking in 2021. She previously beat WR 21 Suh Hyowon and WR 64 Choi Hyojoo (who was eventually selected for the team) at the Korean Olympic trials. Yang will face Choi again in the final round of the qualification draw.

Notes

ITTF’s COVID towel policy continues to confuse players. Diaz and Yang originally tried to switch towels after game 1, but were barred from doing so by the umpires. This resulted in an awkward situation where they had to cross paths during the towel break in game 2.

The match was streamed on ITTF’s Youtube Live Stream.

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 the ITTV channel or ITTF’s Youtube Channel.

This match was covered live. All live posts are shown below.

 

WTT Doha 2021 Preview Part 4: Men’s Singles Seeds 5 Through 8

Jang Woojin WTT Macau

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:

SeedNameWorld Rank
1Xu Xin2
2Tomokazu Harimoto5
3Hugo Calderano6
4Lin Yun-Ju7
5Mattias Falck8
6Jang Woojin11
7Dimitrij Ovtcharov12
8Jeoung Youngsik13
9Liam Pitchford15
10Patrick Franziska16
11Koki Niwa17
12Jun Mizutani18
13Simon Gauzy20

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.

Although it does not look like Jeoung has lightning-quick footspeed, his stability and anticipation allow him to get to where he needs to be.

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).

Ovtcharov saves two match points with a short dead serve.

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.

Jang Woojin steps around very aggressively during rallies.

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 Woojin prefers the short forehand push over the chiquita. Even if it means that the opponent opens first, he can get the counterloop back in.

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.

Mattias Falck gets wins the point with his signature forehand smash on his way to a 3-1 victory over Xu Xin.

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).

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

WTT Doha 2021 Preview Part 2: X-Factors Lily Zhang and An Jaehyun

This post is the second post in a series of posts previewing the 2021 WTT Middle East Hub coming March 3-13. A summary of all of Edges and Nets’ coverage of WTT Doha can be found here.

Our previous post in our preview series of the upcoming 2021 WTT Middle East Hub (also known as the Qatar Open or WTT Doha) on March 3-13 covered the logistics and format of the event. Notably, the event will be split into two back to back tournaments named WTT Contender and WTT Star Contender, and all matches through the quarterfinals are expected to be three out of fives.

Today’s post goes over one X-factor in each of the Men’s Singles and Women’s Singles events. An X-factor is a young promising but lower ranked player (outside the top 20) who has an exciting playing style, has previously upset a higher seeded player before, and has high potential to upset one or more higher seeded players in the upcoming event. We note past high profile upsets by Lily Zhang and An Jaehyun, what part of their game to watch out for, and what is at stake for them in Qatar.

Women’s Singles: Lily Zhang

Lily Zhang (WR #30) will be playing the WTT Contender event as the 15th seed and the WTT Star Contender event as the 18th seed. Zhang has an exciting style of play characterized by her signature rapid backhand rallies and her aggressive short forehand flicks. She is 24 years old, but her professional career so far is shorter than one may expect from her age as she went to college in the United States, where she only played part time, for several years before committing to playing professional table tennis full time.

Zhang has a history of upsetting top players in ITTF events, most notably in her run to the 2019 World Cup semifinals in which she defeated Miu Hirano (WR #11) in the round of 16 and Sofia Polcanova (WR #16) in the quarterfinals. Since the world circuit restart after the pandemic, she has extended her string of upsets with a win over Feng Tianwei (WR #12) in the world cup and a (three-of-out-of-five) win over Petrissa Solja (WR #19) in WTT Macau. The final two points of Zhang’s 4-3 victory over Hirano in 2019 encapsulate what makes her so exciting and dangerous: an aggressive forehand flick for the winner on the serve return followed by a 12-shot rapid backhand rally.

Lily Zhang displays her signature forehand flick and rapid backhand counter in the final two points of her 4-3 win over Miu Hirano at the 2019 World Cup.

Zhang will be representing the United States in the women’s singles event at the Tokyo Olympics. Since ITTF caps the Olympics singles events to two players per country (affecting the Chinese and Japanese players ranked higher than Zhang) and WR #91 Shin Yubin rather than WR #21 Suh Hyowon will be representing Korea, Zhang would be at worst the seventeenth seed if the Tokyo Olympics were held today. Securing a top 16-seed would guarantee that Zhang does not have to play either of the Chinese stars, who continue to dominate the rest of the world, until at least the round of 16. Her chances of playing a Chinese player before the quarterfinals would also shrink from 37.5% to 25%.

The world ranking points amassed up to December will only be weighted 60 percent by early April (after Qatar but presumably before the next ITTF event), so Zhang will have 4050 world ranking points by then. The player directly ranked above her who is eligible to play in the Olympics is Minnie Soo (4158 points, WR #28), who fortunately for Zhang, will not be playing in Qatar. Zhang can pass Soo by pulling off two upsets in any combination of the two events, which would give Zhang a minimum of 4175 points. This would be enough for Zhang to be at least the 16th seed if the Olympics were held in April.

Men’s Singles: An Jaehyun

An Jaehyun (WR #39) enters the WTT Contender event as the 24th seed and the WTT Star Contender event as the 30th seed. The 21 year old is most well known for his 2019 World Championship run, in which he was a blown 7-2 lead from defeating Mattias Falck (WR #8) to advance to the finals. On his way to the semi-finals An defeated Wong Chun Ting (WR #19), Tomokazu Harimoto (WR #5), and Jang Woojin (WR #11). Due to his low world rank relative to other Korean men, An was not invited to any of the post-pandemic ITTF events in 2020. However, fans caught a glimpse of An in the Korean Olympic trials in early February, in which he defeated Jeoung Youngsik (WR # 13) and Lee Sangsu (WR #22) twice each.

An keeps the game exciting by taking high-risk high-reward step around forehand kills as seen in the first point of the video below. Even when An miscalculates and the ball is out of position but still near his backhand or center, his footwork is often quick enough to either recover and still get the instant kill or put up a softer loop and then get back in position to turn the rally into his advantage as shown in the second point of the video below.

An Jaehyun steps around twice in a row. The first point ends in an instant kill. The second point doesn’t start as well as he may have hoped, but he recovers his position to win the point in the ensuing rally.

However, since An often steps around before his opponent has even contacted the ball, a perceptive opponent can also sometimes put the ball to An’s forehand and leave him completely unable to touch the ball as seen in the video below.

An Jaehyun steps around early and Mattias Falck burns him with a backhand down the line.

Although An held an undefeated 4-0 record against top seeds Lee Sangsu and Jeoung Youngsik at the Korean Olympic trials, An’s 2-2 record against Lim Jonghoon and Cho Daesong and a quirk in Korean Table Tennis Association’s scoring rules resulted in Lee Sangsu winning the trials and qualifying for the second men’s singles spot alongside Jang Woojin, giving An’s fans all over Korea a massive case of Second Lead Syndrome. Since An will not play in the men’s singles event in Tokyo, there are no immediate seeding consequences for any major tournaments for An due to this tournament.

However, at the time of this writing Korea appears to not yet have made the coaches’ selection for the team event in the Tokyo Olympics. If An Jaehyun makes a deep run in either WTT Contender or WTT Star Contender or upsets Xu Xin or Harimoto (players from what are expected to be the top two seeds China and Japan), the coaches may be willing to overlook An’s low world rank and its seeding implications to pick him for the team event. A deep run from An is very much a possibility, since although An is only seeded 24th, there is a plausible draw (Lee in R32, Jeoung in R16, Jang in QF, Harimoto in SF) in which An makes it to the finals without having to upset a single player that he has not already beaten before in high-profile competition. A pair of finals runs for An, as unlikely as that would be, could potentially send him skyrocketing into the top 30 of the men’s world rankings.

Although Zhang and An carry the potential to pull off major upsets, their low world rank will also give them difficult paths to the finals, and they may be vulnerable to early exits. Edges and Nets will be covering their draws and some of their performances in the early stages of the tournament.

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 women 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 Women’s Singles event. It will be posted on Saturday, February 13 (North American timezone).

All images and footage in this post can respectively be found on ITTF’s Flickr page and the ITTV channel.

16-Year Old Shin Yubin Becomes Youngest Ever Korean Olympic Table Tennis Player

16-year old Shin Yubin (WR #94) won the qualification tournament to represent South Korea in the women’s singles table tennis event at the Tokyo Olympics. She is the youngest ever Korean Olympic table tennis player, breaking the record previously held by an 18-year old Ryu Seungmin in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. She will be 17 at the start of the Olympics. Despite only being the the fourth highest ranked player, Shin (WR #94) went undefeated in the second round robin and only dropped one match to lower ranked Lee Zion (WR #106) in the first round robin.

Shin will be representing Korea in the women’s singles even alongside Jeon Jihee (WR #15), who qualified directly via world rank. The third member to represent Korea in the woman’s team event will be selected by the national team coaches (most likely sooner rather than later). Suh Hyowon (WR #21) is the highest ranked remaining woman by far (the next highest would be WR #64 Choi Hyojoo), and is thus likely to be picked for seeding purposes, but she had an abysmal qualification tournament, finishing outside of the top three.

Feb 21 Update: Choi Hyojoo has been selected for the team event. Jang Woojin, Lee Sangsu, and Jeoung Youngsik will represent South Korean in the team event.

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