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How Dimitrij Ovtcharov Solved The Lin Yun-Ju Problem At WTT Doha

A guide to all of Edges and Nets’ coverage of WTT Doha (also known as World Table Tennis (WTT) Middle East Hub and formerly known as ITTF Qatar Open) can be found here.

Dimitrij Ovtcharov appeared to have a Lin Yun-Ju problem. Going into WTT Doha, Lin had won their previous four match-ups in international competition dating back to the 2018 Austrian Open and appeared to have virtually no problem attacking Ovtcharov’s famous serves or dominating Ovtcharov in the rallies.

However, with several key adjustments Ovtcharov actually came quite close to beating Lin in the ITTF Grand Finals in November 2020, but he fell just short, losing deuce in the sixth game. After adding in a few extra wrinkles to his game, Ovtcharov was finally able to snap his losing streak against Lin in the WTT Contender finals at WTT Doha witha 4-1 victory. We take a look at what adjustments Ovtcharov made to finally solve the Lin Yun-Ju problem on his fifth try.

Unfortunately, the video of the full match appears to have been removed from Youtube and to the best of our knowledge is currently publicly unavailable.

The Lin Yun-Ju Problem

We note two key reasons for Lin’s dominance over Ovtcharov in their previous matches. First is that although Ovtcharov’s serves are typically seen as one of his strengths, Lin has virtually no problem receiving Ovtcharov’s serves with very aggressive chiquitas that allow Lin to take the initiative on the attack. Second, Lin appears to be physically faster than Ovtcharov by a comfortable margin, allowing him to dominate in fast-paced counter-attack rallies as shown in the point below from their match in 2020.

Thus, Ovtcharov will almost certainly lose to Lin if he plays the traditional approach that most young kids are taught of trying to land the first opening attack and using the advantage gained from taking the initiative to dominate the ensuing rally. Ovtcharov cannot compete with Lin’s chiquita to open up more often than Lin. Even if Ovtcharov were able to open up first more often than Lin, Lin’s physical speed advantage could effectively neutralize the advantage Ovtcharov may gain in the rally from being the first to open.

The Solution: Ceding the Opening Attack

After losing quite handily in the 2019 Czech Open, one of Ovtcharov’s central and incredibly daring and innovative adjustments both in the 2020 ITTF Grand Finals and in WTT Doha was to almost completely cede the opening attack to Lin.

To get an idea of how willing Ovtcharov was to allow Lin to attack first, consider the following numbers. In their 2019 match-up, Ovtcharov attempted 36% of the opening attacks (whether make or miss) from either player. While Lin attempted a healthy majority of the opening attacks, this is still quite a reasonable number given his dominance in the chiquita.

In the 2020 Grand Finals, Ovtcharov attempted only 20% of the opening attacks, allowing Lin to open up a staggering four times more often than Ovtcharov did. Ovtcharov returned over half of Lin’s long or half-long serves with a push or defensive shot, a decision that would earn most young children a healthy punishment from their coach. For comparison, in their 2019 match-up, in which Ovtcharov played a more conventional approach, Ovtcharov attacked nine of Lin’s eleven long serves.

Ovtcharov continued this approach of pushing long serves in their match at WTT Doha, even doing so at game point and deuce as shown below.

Overall, in Ovtcharov’s victory at WTT Doha, he attempted a more reasonable 30% of the opening attacks. The uptick in attempted opening attacks can be explained by several factors. First is the statistical noise present in any sample size of roughly 100. Second, as we will see later, Ovtcharov appeared to intentionally mix in more attacks to catch Lin off guard more often.

Third is that Lin also made the observation that Ovtcharov was perfectly happy to let him attack first and adjusted his game accordingly. This could most clearly be seen in that he pushed several of Ovtcharov’s serves as opposed to rushing in for the chiquita. Lin virtually never made such a move in their matches in the 2019 Czech Open and the 2020 Grand Finals. This adjustment in turn allowed Ovtcharov to reveal just how happy he was to let Lin attack first; Ovtcharov simply pushed back Lin’s pushes and did not seem to mind if his own push ended up being long or even slightly high.

Why Cede the Opening Attack?

What does Ovtcharov gain from ceding the opening attack? After all, it often ends up with Lin immediately winning the point with a clean third-ball kill.

First is the obvious advantage that pushing is less error prone than attacking. In their two match-ups at the 2020 Grand Finals and WTT Doha 2021, Lin totaled 22 opening errors, while Ovtcharov only had 7. Over the course of 11 games, this comes out to just over one extra error a game for Lin. However, as Ovtcharov won two games in deuce in his 4-1 victory in Doha, this small advantage ends up mattering greatly.

However, Ovtcharov cannot just hope for Lin to miss 11 openings a game. The central advantage of ceding the attack appears to be that it counter-intuitively allows Ovtcharov to better dictate the pace and rhythm of the game. We can see this in a couple of Ovtcharov’s favorite go-to plays against Lin.

Go-To Play #1: Backhand or Elbow Pin-down Against the Chiquita

As shown in the two points in the video below, one of Ovtcharov’s favorite plays is to either serve or push short or half-long to Lin’s forehand and allow Lin to take a chiquita from the forehand. Ovtcharov then blocks down the line to Lin’s backhand or elbow, and Lin either misses the backhand or returns an extremely weak shot that gives Ovtcharov a massive advantage in the ensuing rally.

From this play, we see one big advantage of letting Lin attack first. Provided that Ovtcharov can to a certain degree anticipate the location of Lin’s first attack and avoid immediately getting killed, he is often firmly waiting in the position he wants to be at while Lin has to move his body further out both in the left-right direction and the shallow-deep direction in order to initiate the attack.

Thus, even if Lin knows that the ball is likely to go deep to his backhand on the next shot (which is not a guarantee if Ovtcharov plays with enough variation and keeps Lin guessing), he has a significant distance to cover and not much time (recall Ovtcharov is typically blocking down the line) to recover from his opening chiquita, neutralizing his physical speed advantage over Ovtcharov.

While Ovtcharov most clearly leveraged this positional advantage in the backhand pin-down against Lin’s chiquita from the forehand corner, it can also be seen in other points in the match, such as in the point below where Lin steps around for the hard forehand kill, but Ovtcharov correctly anticipates the location of the kill and blocks it wide to Lin’s forehand.

Go-To Play #2: Change In Pace

While Ovtcharov may have difficulty keeping up with Lin in terms of raw speed, he is able to throw Lin off rhythm by either going from a slow block to a fast counter or sometimes even a fast counter to a slower block as seen in the point below.

If Ovtcharov’s goal is to maximize change of pace, Ovtcharov may thus prefer to start from a position of blocking instead of a moderately fast opening attack as it allows him to switch gears more drastically. We can also see more clearly how Ovtcharov’s defensive approach actually makes his attacks more effective in several points where Ovtcharov performs a standard opening but appears to catch Lin off guard and win the point immediately.

Ovtcharov faces the standard trade-off where if he attacks too much, then his attacks are no longer surprising and he is unnecessarily playing into Lin’s game. This appears to have been the case in the 2019 Czech Open. However, attack too little and he is failing to exploit a quick and easy source of points. This appears to have been the case in the 2020 ITTF Grand Finals. Ovtcharov seems to have struck a nice balance of initiating the attack just under 30% of the time and pushing a little less than half of Lin’s long serves at WTT Doha. Of course, Lin may force a change in that number in their next match-up.

Extending The Bag of Tricks

One critical difference between Ovtcharov’s loss in the 2020 Grand Finals and his victory in WTT Doha is that in the 2020 Grand Finals, Ovtcharov lost a game 11-9 and a game in deuce, while in Doha, Ovtcharov won both the deuce games.

The change in results can arguably be attributed to luck or Lin playing slightly worse or Ovtcharov playing slightly better. However, Ovtcharov also helped himself in Doha by introducing new subtle tricks that allowed him to eke out the extra two games that he needed.

Perhaps the most clear addition to Ovtcharov’s bag of tricks was a new simple dead serve (Kong Linghui is another notable player to have used this serve) that was completely non-existent in his 2019 match with Lin. Ovtcharov was also hesitant to use this serve in their 2020 match until down 9-5 in the sixth game. The serve was effective enough for him to force the game to deuce.

In Doha, Ovtcharov was happy to use this serve much more frequently, even at deuce. It played well into his defensive approach to the game, and Lin was unable to do much against it as there was no spin or power to borrow. As mentioned earlier in this post, Lin chose to push the serve back in both the points shown below, but Ovtcharov felt comfortable pushing the ball back again to give the opening to Lin. The extra couple points won from this serve throughout the match helped give Ovtcharov the slight edge that he needed to take the two close games in the match.

What’s next?

Lin is now the front-runner over Hugo Calderano to take the fourth seed at the Tokyo Olympics. If Lin holds on to the fourth seed, a Lin-Ovtcharov quarter-final draw has a 25% chance of happening, Of course, both players need to also avoid getting upset in order for the match to actually happen. There is also a decent chance that these two could meet in a bronze medal match if Ovtcharov can replicate his WTT Contender performance against Harimoto and China continues to dominate. It is hard to say who would be favored in a match-up in the Tokyo Olympics.

On the one hand, Lin is higher ranked, has a history of defeating Ovtcharov, and appears to have a raw physical advantage in the fast rallies. Moreover, if Ovtcharov is really so eager to let Lin attack first, nothing is stopping Lin from just pushing the ball back more often. At the end of the day, as the one who initiates the attack, Lin in principle should have more control over the pace and rhythm of the game. Moreover, Ovtcharov’s tricks will lose effectiveness as their novelty wears off, and Lin is almost certainly training against the simple dead serve.

On the other hand, Ovtcharov almost certainly has more tricks saved up just for the Olympics, and he is likely to innovate more tricks and tactics over the next few months. Moreover, playing in the round of 16 in the ITTF Grand Finals or the finals of WTT Contender is a completely different animal from playing in a bronze-medal match at the Olympics.

Liu Shiwen has mentioned how critical the mental aspect of table tennis is and how her previous World Championship finals experience gave her the edge over Chen Meng in 2019. Lin is only 19 and has never played in any match as nearly as high stakes as an Olympic bronze-medal match. He may be the “silent assassin” when playing in a T2 or world tour event that, despite the prize money, in the grand scheme of things is quite meaningless, but we have yet to see him in such a big spotlight. On the other hand, this will be Ovtcharov’s third Olympics and he has already won a bronze medal in 2012, which may give him just enough of a mental edge to eke out a tight win.

We apologize for the delay in releasing this post as it took longer than anticipated to write. The next post is scheduled for Wednesday, April 7.

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Lin Yun-Ju Staves Off Quadri Aruna Comeback On Path To WTT Contender Finals

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.

After blowing four match points while up 2-0, Lin regrouped and closed out game 4 to win his quarter-final match-up against Quadri Aruna 11-8,11-9, 15-17, 11-9 en route to the WTT Contender finals. Lin would go on to defeat Simon Gauzy 4-1 in the semi-finals to book a ticket to the finals against Dimitrij Ovtcharov.

Game 1

Lin jumped to a 6-0 lead thanks to a missed serve and weak service return game from Aruna. Aruna was able to land his first pair of points with a long fast serve to Lin’s forehand and then a step around kill against a chiquita from Lin. However, despite winning a couple more rallies, Aruna was unable to narrow the gap further as he made all sorts of short game errors up until 10-6. Lin went for a long fast serve and completely caught Aruna off guard but then missed the easy follow up loop. However, Lin was able to close out the game 11-8 after blocking several hard loops from Aruna.

Game 2

Aruna’s early-point struggles continued in game 2 as he missed a serve and a serve return that put him in a 3-0 hole. Lin then had his own series of missed openings and blocks as Aruna took a 4-3 lead. The game then progressed quite evenly as Lin generally tried to land his openings into Aruna’s elbow in order to take advantage of the next shot, while Aruna tried to force Lin to step to his forehand to take a chiquita against the half-long before hitting a hard and wide counter to the backhand of forehand. With Lin’s serve at 9-9, he was able to take the game with a wide chiquita winner to the forehand after a short push from Aruna followed by a soft wide opening to Aruna’s backhand against which an overly ambitious Aruna missed a hard step-around forehand counterloop, giving the game to Lin 11-9.

Game 3

Service and service return problems seemed to vanish in the third game as both players appeared to land solid pushes and openings to where they wanted them. Lin appeared to hold the slight edge in these counterlooping and third ball attack battles, taking a 10-8 lead. However, whether because Lin was nervous or Aruna changed his serve or by random chance, Lin suddenly missed a serve return at 10-8, and then gave two weak chiquitas at 10-9 and (and despite calling time-out just before the point) 11-10 that Aruna easily disposed of. 

Aruna missed a service return push of his own at 12-12 and 13-13 to give Lin his fourth and fifth match point, but both times Aruna saved it by killing Lin’s weak opening against Aruna’s long serve. A couple misses by Lin and hard winners by Aruna later, Aruna took the third game 17-15.

Game 4

Lin regrouped for game four as he started putting in much stronger openings, particularly his loops against Aruna’s half long serve and chiquitas against Aruna’s short serves to the forehand, than he did at the end of game 3. Aruna was able to build a 6-4 lead, but a couple hard chiquitas from Lin allowed him to go on a three point run, prompting Aruna to call time-out down 6-7. Lin won the next point off the time-out, but Aruna then caught a break with a net ball and then won a long rally on the next point to level it at 8-8.

Aruna served two half-long serves wide to Lin’s forehand, and Lin took both with a chiquita back to Aruna’s backhand and managed to split the points. Serving at 9-9, Lin landed a hard opening to Aruna’s elbow to take match point number 5, and then Aruna whiffed a backhand opening to give Lin the match 3-1.

Notes

Our tournament preview pegged Lin as an interesting match-up for Ovtcharov due to the familiarity between the two players and Lin’s recent dominance over Ovtcharov in international competition. If Lin can get in another comfortable win in the finals, he will certainly have a significant mental edge should the two meet in the Tokyo Olympics.

Lin’s quarter-final match against Aruna was the only match involving either Lin or Ovtcharov that was not broadcast on Table 1. Edges and Nets is working on finding a reliable method to cover Table 1 matches.

In the women’s singles event, Hina Hayata will play Mima Ito in the finals.

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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.

Winners and Losers of China’s Withdrawal From WTT Doha

This post is the sixth 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 4 and 4 Liu Shiwen (who after the post was published has withdrawn) and Cheng I-Ching. A summary of all of Edges and Nets’ coverage of WTT Doha can be found here.

By far the biggest storyline hanging over WTT Doha will be China’s last-minute withdrawal from the event and all future international events between now and the Tokyo Olympics due to coronavirus concerns. This does not necessarily mean we will not see the Chinese players in action before Tokyo as the China Open may still happen.

We take a look (mainly from a seeding perspective) at who benefits and who suffers from the sudden withdrawal.

Winner: Mima Ito

Barring an epic collapse in the first few rounds of both events, with Sun Yingsha not able to gain ranking points from WTT Doha, Mima Ito will be world ranked number two after the completion of WTT Doha and in full control of the second seed at the Tokyo Olympics. Assuming ITTF continues its current drawing system of treating the third and fourth seed as equals, that would give Ito a 50 percent chance that the two Chinese players meet in the semi-finals, meaning Ito has a clear path to the Olympic finals without having to beat a Chinese star.

That being said, even if Ito does not need to play a Chinese player on the way to the finals in the Olympics, she still needs to take care of business against the likes of Cheng I-Ching and Kasumi Ishikawa, who recently beat Ito at the Japan National Championships. We will see in WTT Doha whether she is ready to take advantage of the golden opportunity that the withdrawal has presented her.

Winner: Hugo Calderano

Barring a major collapse from Tomokazu Harimoto or an epic run from Mattias Falck, which although unlikely are both possibilities, there is effectively a two-way race between Calderano and Lin Yun-Ju (who along with Dimitrij Ovtcharov are actually club teammates now that Calderano has joined Fakel Gazprom Orenburg) for the fourth seed at the Tokyo Olympics. The fourth seed is incredibly valuable as it ensures that one does not have to play either of the two Chinese stars until at least the semi-finals, so there is a path to an Olympic medal without beating a Chinese player.

The two are so close on the world rankings, that essentially whoever performs better at WTT Doha will be in position for the fourth seed (Calderano keeps the fourth seed if they perform exactly the same at WTT Doha).

Before Xu Xin withdrew from the event, Calderano and Lin entered WTT Doha on equal footing as third and fourth seeds. However, now that Xu Xin is out, Calderano has been upgraded to the second seed. This means that (assuming no upsets happen), Calderano’s semi-final will either be Lin or Mattias Falck while Lin’s semi-final will either be wth Calderano or Harimoto.

If Lin and Calderano play each other in the semi-finals, such a match-up would likely be a play-in for the fourth seed at the Tokyo Olympics. In such a situation, Calderano doesn’t benefit that much from Xu Xin’s withdrawal, as both Lin and Calderano would control their own destiny. Where Calderano would have an advantage would be if he plays Falck and Lin plays Harimoto, as many would consider Harimoto to be the more difficult opponent.

Although Lin and Calderano are club teammates, it is unclear how much familiarity they have with each other’s games. Based on their recent social media behavior, it seems that Calderano is still training Germany while Lin has been training in China over the last few months.

Losers: Sun Yingsha and Lin Yun-Ju

Ito’s and Calderano’s improved Olympic seeding prospects come at the expense of Sun Yingsha and Lin Yun-Ju. For Lin, it is not a huge disadvantage since it is just a slight change-up in the draws, and Lin should feel confident in his abilities to beat Harimoto anyway.

However, Sun’s inevitable fall to third in the world rankings really hurts her. First, if she plays the Olympic singles, there is a chance that she will have to play another Chinese player in the semi-finals. Even worse, one of Sun’s advantages in the Olympic selection process was that she was higher ranked than Ito and that selecting Sun and Chen Meng would thus ensure that China would hold the top two seeds. However, from an Olympics seeding perspective, Sun now carries no advantage over the likes of Ding Ning, Zhu Yuling, and Wang Manyu.

Winner: Kasumi Ishikawa

Ishikawa needs to do better than Cheng I-Ching in both the WTT Contender and WTT Star Contender event to pass her in the world rankings and put herself in position to take the fourth seed. This previously would have been an extremely difficult task as it likely would have involved beating two players out of Cheng, Ito, Liu Shiwen, or Sun Yingsha in the quarter-finals of each event without losing.

However, without Sun and Liu in the mix, Ishikawa is now a top four seed at WTT Doha. This means that if Ishikawa plays to her seeding, she will reach the semi-finals, where she can either face Cheng for what would almost be a play-in match for the Olympic fourth seed or face Ito, who she recently beat at the Japan National Championships in January. A win against Ito would send Ishikawa to the finals, in which case Ishikawa will have either already outperformed Cheng or will have the chance to outperform Cheng by beating her in the finals for what would also almost be a play-in match for the Olympic fourth seed. Thus, Ishikawa’s chances of stealing the Olympic fourth seed from Cheng have gone way up.

While Ishikawa gets a huge boost from the absence of Liu and Sun, things are also still looking solid for Cheng I-Ching. Cheng still completely fully controls her own seeding destiny and can widen the gap between her and Ishikawa with a pair of wins in the semi-finals/finals over Ishikawa in both WTT Contender and WTT Star Contender.

Loser: Liu Shiwen

After not getting to see Liu Shiwen in the Fall of 2020 due to her injury, fans will need to wait even longer to see Liu Shiwen in action. This prolonged absence will really hurt Liu in the world rankings as a good performance from Kasumi Ishikawa could drop Liu to number 9 in the world, which would put her as a fifth seed in the Olympic women’s singles behind Ito, Ishikawa, Cheng I-Ching, and the other Chinese player.

If Liu does not get the chance to pass Ishikawa again in the China Open, it is hard to see China selecting her to play at the women’s singles event. Such a low-seeded Chinese player at the Olympics would be unprecedented, and China could end up with a quarter-final China vs China match-up on their hands if that were to happen. That would give China a maximum of one medal, a result they almost certainly want to avoid.

Furthermore, Liu has lost her two most recent matches with Mima Ito. Granted they were in 2018, but coaches would likely want to see how she plays against Ito before selecting her for the Olympic team. Without the chance to prove her case at WTT Doha, Liu Shiwen’s Olympic hopes may now almost completely hinge on her performance at the China Open (which may or may not happen).

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