Ma Long has withdrawn from the men’s singles event from the China National Games due to the tight schedule following the Tokyo Olympics and mandatory 21 day quarantine. He will still play the team and doubles events.
Ma won the previous two China National Games in 2013 and 2017, and by withdrawing he will forgo a chance to win a record-setting three titles.
Beijing time on September 12, according to “Beijing Daily” report, Ma Long, who has won the Olympic champion, will withdraw from the singles competition in the National Games and focus on the men’s team and men’s doubles.
The Beijing team’s head coach Zhang Lei said: “After returning from isolation, Ma Long actively engaged in recovery and preparations for the National Games, but the entire time was too short. Considering the next National Games, the schedule will be intense, with team, doubles and singles three. After comprehensive discussions between our coaching team, medical insurance team and Ma Long, Ma Long will focus on the men’s team and men’s doubles in this game.”
At the Tokyo Olympics that ended in August, the 32-year-old Ma Long defended his singles and team doubles, becoming another Olympic “five crown” in China’s sports world.
In an interview after the game, Ma Long said: “I think I can still play, I can persist, and I can work hard to compete with young players. This is the mental strength I need most when I go down.”
But just after the Olympic schedule + 21 days of isolation, there is too little time left for Ma Long to prepare for the National Games, so Ma Long gave up the National Games single men’s competition and focused on the men’s team and men’s doubles.
But even if Ma Long did not represent the Beijing team in the men’s singles, the team is still strong. New and old national players such as Wang Chuqin, Xu Chenhao, Yan An and Zeng Beixun are all in the team. Among them, 21-year-old Wang Chuqin is the most promising. During the Tokyo Olympics cycle, Wang Chuqin beat Lin Gaoyuan, Liang Jingkun and other players to get the Olympic reserve spot, becoming one of the key players of the national team preparing for the Paris Olympics.
It is worth mentioning that in the last National Games [in 2017], Wang Chuqin, who was only 17 years old, lost to Ma Long in the men’s singles semifinals and finally won the third place, while Malone defeated Fan Zhendong in the final to win the championship. At the same time, the men’s singles championship at the 2013 National Games was also won by Malone.
This also means that this year’s National Games Ma Long will not be able to create a record of three consecutive National Games men’s singles.
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The Ma Long vs Fan Zhendong rivalry stands as perhaps the most compelling narrative in professional table tennis right now as the rest of the world struggles to keep up with them when it matters. Since the pandemic, Ma and Fan have both played in the 2020 China National Games, the 2020 World Cup, the 2020 ITTF Grand Tour Finals, and the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, and they have reached the finals in all four events (granted, no other Chinese players played the World Cup or Olympics).
Fan and Ma will both play the China National Games later this month and the World Championships in November. Although the Chinese Olympic Scrimmages saw Fan and Ma fall to someyoungerplayers, given their established dominance in high-stakes matches, there is a solid chance that Ma and Fan both make it to the finals in at least one of the two events.
Since the pandemic the two players have gone 2-2 against each other, with Ma winning by far the most important match in the Olympic finals. In this post we take a look at how a difference in armpit space between the two players’ strokes influences the game dynamics.
Comparing the Elbow
In the short clip below of Ma and Fan warming up together, you can see a slight difference in how high they raise their elbows when executing a standard backhand counter. Fan opens up his armpit more and raises his elbow slightly higher, while Ma tends to tuck his elbow a little bit lower in.
This difference in principle should give Fan the advantage when transitioning between forehands and backhands as his racquet is already where it needs to be with a slight turn of the body. On the other hand, Ma carries the slight advantage when stepping around as he requires slightly less space to pull off a forehand. We see an exaggeration of Ma’s preference for the middle and Fan’s preference for the corner in the two points shown blow.
This dynamic results in several tactical consequences.
Ma Targets Fan’s Elbow
Based on Fan’s weakest point, the middle, Ma’s placement strategy is quite straightforward: Ma overwhelmingly targets Fan’s elbow in the rallies, both in the opening and the follow-up shots. In the clip video, Ma wins four straight points targeting Fan’s elbow on every single shot.
How Ma Escapes the Backhand-Backhand Battles
Fan’s placement strategy to Ma is a little more involved. Both Ma and Fan know that, even if Ma places the ball well, Fan is favored to win pure backhand-backhand rallies between the two players due to several factors including stylistic difference brought about by the difference in armpit space in their neutral position. Hence, the burden is on Ma to step around and get out of the backhand-backhand battles to take his signature big forehand.
Stepping Around In the Flow of the Rally
Some variation of backhand-backhand battle ends up occurring in most of the points between Fan and Ma, so one of the key tug-a-wars in their matches is to see how often Ma can step around in the rally, and how often Fan is able to burn him for stepping around too early.
In their World Cup match-up, Coach Deng Yaping commented that although Ma clearly must hunt the forehand, he psychologically must also have confidence to engage in backhand-backhand battles. If he does not have confidence in his backhand and only looks to step around all the time, then Fan will beat him even more badly at the backhand-backhand battle and burn him down-the-line for stepping around early. Instead, Ma is at his best when he engages in the backhand-backhand battles but takes the big forehands when the chance comes like in the point below.
Fan’s job is to not let Ma rip forehands on him all day, so if Ma telegraphs early that he is going to step around, then Fan can burn him with a down-the-line roll for a clean winner like in the point shown below. Hence, in every match between the two, Fan is almost always the first player to go down-the-line to the forehand in the rallies.
Stepping Around in Anticipation
It is quite obvious that Ma needs to step around after he sees the ball come to his elbow or that Fan needs to go down-the-line if he sees Ma telegraphing that he will step around. However, both players also tend to try to squeeze a few extra points by anticipating their opponent’s actions and acting early. This can occur as early as the opening, before the rally has gotten into a rhythm.
While this yields great dividends if the player anticipates correctly, it also results in getting burned quite badly if he guesses wrong. In the point below, Ma serves half-long side-spin wide to the backhand and anticipates that Fan will go cross to the backhand. However, Ma guesses wrong as Fan burns him with a down-the-line opening for a clean winner.
Similarly, Fan does not appear to always go down-the-line in response to what he sees from Ma. If he anticipates that Ma is looking to step around, he may go down-the-line as early as the opening. However, if he guesses wrong like in the two points below, then Ma is perfectly in position for a big forehand kill.
While it looks embarrassing when they guess wrong, both players are betting on the fact that they can anticipate their opponent often enough that in the aggregate they come out on top from acting early. Furthermore, for Fan his down-the-line openings also serve as a deterrent for Ma to step around early all the time.
Ma’s Famous Chop Blocks
Another way that Ma mixes things up and escapes the fast-paced backhand rallies is with his signature chop-block.
Of course, the chop block is a difficult shot that requires an insane amount of touch, but his tucked in elbow also makes it easier for him to get his racquet onto the left-side of the ball and chop the ball forward. The chop block is just anothhe difference in how high Ma and Fan raise their elbows likely ends up affecting almost every shot in the game in one way or another.
However, Ovtcharov gave China a brief scare when he took a 2-1 lead against Fan Zhendong, but Fan was able to stay calm and come back. As Liu Guoliang later remarked, if Ovtcharov had won that, then it would have been 1-1, which would have put China in an uncomfortable position. Based on Liu’s remarks, Fan will almost certainly be back in 2024 as a veteran presence.
Liu Guoliang already has his eyes set towards the 2024 and 2028 Olympics. He stated that while the women’s team is in a position of dominance given the youth of Sun Yingsha and Wang Manyu, the men’s team will need to make some adjustments heading into the next Olympic cycle as Ma Long and Xu Xin age into retirement.
Liu in particular praised Sun Yingsha as an idol and role model for the next generation not just in table tennis but all of Chinese athletics. He also praised Chen Meng’s dominance in winning two gold at this Olympic Games, hinting that she may be back for the 2024 Olympics at the age of 31.
Liu also acknowledged the veteran presence of Liu Shiwen and Ding Ning and the impact they have had on the National Team culture. He praised Liu for the journey she took recovering from elbow surgery last Fall, and said although they obviously would rather have won gold in mixed doubles, there is not much to regret since she came out, performed, and gave it her all.
Liu also reflected on his own journey in table tennis, noting that it was his seventh Olympic games. He quipped that when he was a player, he felt that being a player was the most stressful job. Then he became a coach and realized being a coach was the most stressful job. Then he became head coach and then director of the Chinese National Team, and each time he realized that the job was even more stressful.
Ma Long defeated Fan Zhendong 4-2 (11-4, 10-12, 11-8, 11-9, 3-11, 11-7) to become the first male table tennis player to win two Olympic singles gold medals.
Before the match, Ma noted that Fan was the favorite, so he had no pressure and just to go out and fight. Ma also commented that he indeed showed more initiative and agressiveness in the match; this may have been reflected in the early 6-0 lead that Ma jumped to in the first game of the match
Post-game Fan Zhendong did not appear completely satisfied with the result, saying, “I felt like Ma Long controlled the situation today. I had chances to take control of the situation, especially in the third and fourth game, but I wasn’t able to…I wasn’t able to find my game today. Winning the second game was a miracle, but in the third game I wasn’t still relaxed or positive enough, so in the end I wasn’t able to take advantage of the opportunity.”
When asked if Ma Long was the greatest of all time, Fan replied that it’s hard to compare across eras, but at least in this generation, Ma Long is the greatest.
Dimitrij Ovtcharov defeated Lin Yun-Ju 4-3 to win the bronze medal.
Unfortunately, we will not be providing a recap for this match. Should we get access to a high-quality recording, we look forward to taking a closer look at what happened in this match.In the meantime, check out our recap of the women’s singles final.
Ma Long recently sat down with WTT (World Table Tennis) to discuss various aspects of his preparation for the Olympics, what the Olympics mean to him, and what motivates him. The original interview (in Mandarin) can be found on the WTT Weibo account. We have provided a translation below.
How does it feel to prepare for your third Olympic games [Ma played the team event in 2012 and singles and teams in 2016]?
Normal, I guess. Anyway, certainly before the competition, you feel that your mentality and technical condition are not fully prepared, but sometimes that’s how competition is. For the high-pressure tournaments you may give yourself the highest possible standards, and during training you may never reach those standards, but come competition time you might find that you actually play to those standards.
The Olympics won’t happen twice in my life, and it’s the tournament of everyone’s dreams, so I need to give it my all and chase after it. I feel like if I don’t approach it this way then it will leave me with regret.
I think my experience may help me, but it may also hurt me as well; because I may approach this Olympics like it’s my first Olympics or my second, but your playing condition including your age, current developments in the world table tennis stage, and your opponent’s playing condition are all not the same, so it will not be completely the same as my rhythm last time. I still need to try to cooperate with my teammates to make some adjustments.
However, I think the most important thing is that my mental preparation needs to be even better than before, because previously I had nothing, so I can only go all out. After playing to a certain mental state, you may know that when you really want it, you actually end up not being able to hit your shots. Only when you are extremely relaxed and until the competition can you really find your best playing condition. You cannot find that during training. So sometimes during training, I still aim for perfection, but not for that unachievable perfection.
Everyone is using you as a role model. How do you feel about it?
This is a responsibility and it’s also a source of motivation. I hope that I can do an even better job and continue to maintain it. At the same time, over the last few years, their aggressiveness, including their yearning, to a certain extent has also given me a lot of motivation. I hope that when I’m tired and see these young teammates next to me and how they still have energy, this atmosphere can drive me further. So I think we can help motivate each other.
What do the Olympics mean to you?
I think the Olympics are the most important battle of an athlete’s life. After you win it, you think that winning the Olympics is a very important achievements. It is like graduating from a top university. Sometimes you also feel that the Olympics truly can bring you glory to last a lifetime and allow you to perform on the biggest stage. After you win the Olympics, you feel like you will remember it for a lifetime, so all athletes would like to play on this stage.
What motivated you to play in your third Olympic games?
On the one hand, the mentality and desire to win is still there. It may also be that although I haven’t won any [major] championships in the last year, I have still had some victories during this entire process, and these victories give me confidence. I think that [the confidence from winning] is very important for athletes.
Of course it also has something to do with passion. Passion is what regularly motivates me during training, but the desire for victory is also what motivates me. When you hold these two together, then you get my current level of persistence. If you only have passion but no victory, then your confidence may be affected. If you only like the game but have no love, and you only rely on the competition, then you have no guarantees and may not be able to persist. I think if both of these are present, I can maintain my persistence for the Olympics.
In anticipation of the Tokyo Olympics, we are re-watching some key matches over the past year between top gold medal contenders. In this post we take a look at how Tomokazu Harimoto built a 3-1 lead against Ma Long at the 2020 World Cup before Ma called a pivotal time-out in Game 5 to come back and take the 4-3 win.
The 2020 World Cup was a weird tournament that likely makes its results a poor predictor of what will happen in the Olympics. First of all, it was right after the break from the pandemic, so players were still getting into competition state both mentally and physically. Second, players who integrated new elements into their game during the pandemic break were debuting them against the top competition often for the first time, possibly resulting in some more experimental play. Third, non-Chinese players had to go through onerous quarantine before entering China during which they were not allowed to train.
Nevertheless, there is still some signal to be gleaned from this tournament. We take a look at what happened in this match, what trends we can expect to persist at the Olympics, and what we can expect to be different. At the time of this posting, the full match can be viewed on Youtube.
We first take a look at the general way in which Harimoto and Ma scored points in this match. As is common practice by top Chinese-speaking players, we divide the point into two distinct phases: the first three shots and the ensuing rally.
First Three Shots
Fighting for the Half-Long
Ma Long’s most desirable outcome coming out of the first three shots of the point was for him to take a forehand opening against the long and especially the half-long ball. He won 68% of the points where he attempted (points in which he missed his opening are also counted) such an opening against a serve or push. On all other points, he was only able to win 47% of the points.
As shown in the clip below, one way that Harimoto, aware of the advantage that yielding the half-long gave to Ma Long, responded to some of Ma’s slower half-long openings was to go for a counter-kill and end the point immediately. Harimoto ended up landing four counter-kills and missing six counter-kills/blocks. This is still a losing situation but less so than when he let Ma control the point following the half-long and slowly carve him up.
The Flicking Game
After Ma was able to take six long forehand openings in game 1, Harimoto, unable to beat Ma in the short-pushing game, was more aggressive in attempting to flick against the short ball in the next game in order to deny Ma the half-long opening. In game 2, Harimoto took 9 short flicks as he cruised to an 11-3 victory. Harimoto would continue to be far more aggressive than Ma in attempting short flicks: Harimoto attempted 50 flicks in the match, while Ma only attempted 12.
Not only was Harimoto more aggressive in attempting to flick against the short ball, but his flicks themselves were also of a more aggressive nature. Harimoto landed 10 flicks that were instant winners while Ma only landed 4 such winners (and unlike Harimoto’s hard flicks, Ma’s “winners” were more controlled well-placed slow shots). However, Harimoto’s aggressiveness came at a cost: he also missed 7 short flicks while Ma did not miss a single flick.
We define an unforced error as a missed serve, serve return, or third ball opening against a push. The disparity in unforced errors was quite large as Harimoto missed five serve returns and four third balls while Ma only missed one serve return and one third ball against a push. That amounts to a seven-point difference for an average of one per game. Unforced errors didn’t end up being a difference-maker in any individual match, but the disparity is something to pay attention to should these two players meet in the Olympics.
Was the gap in unforced errors mostly due to extrinsic forces such as Harimoto’s onerous quarantine that Harimoto can easily take care of at Tokyo? Or was it mostly due to something intrinsic to their games such as Ma’s better serves and Harimoto’s natural inclination to take riskier openings?
Once the point got past the first three shots, Ma homed in on steadily attacking Harimoto’s elbow, often with a step-around forehand loop, as shown in the clip below.
Meanwhile, Harimoto played at a more frantic pace, going for fast wide kill-shots to Ma’s forehand, which was often extra vulnerable due to Ma’s tendency to step around. The most potent way in which Harimoto attacked Ma’s forehand was with a quick down-the-line backhand punch—either from the wing or from the elbow—with sidespin that curved the ball even wider to Ma’s forehand.
Alternatively, against Ma’s many shots to the elbow, Harimoto could also step around to deliver a quick forehand loop that was placed even wider and curved even harder than his backhand punch. These step-around shots from the elbow carried the advantage that Harimoto could generate his own power with a quick backstroke and not have to rely on borrowing Ma’s pace. However, the downside was that the extra backstroke made the shot harder to pull off in a faster rally, in which case the quick backhand would be preferred.
Ma typically waited until he had the opportunity to step around for a big forehand before going to Harimoto’s forehand. However, Ma would leave his forehand extremely exposed in such instances, which Harimoto took advantage of with wide quick blocks off the bounce.
Ma Long’s Magical Time-Out
Harimoto looked on his way to a 4-1 victory as he had just scored three straight points and was up 5-4 and 3-1 in games until Ma called a time-out and completely reversed the course of the match.
Ma’s Magical High-Toss Serve
Prior to the time-out, Ma served a high-toss serve only twice. After the time-out, every single one of Ma’s serves was a high-toss serve. Ma’s high-toss serve was absolutely devastating for Harimoto. After the time-out, Harimoto held his own on his own serves through the second half of game 5 and game 6, going 7-7. However, he went an abysmal 2-11 on Ma’s serves.
Harimoto appeared to struggle mightily with pushing short against the high-toss serve, presumably due to an inability to read how much spin was on the ball. As a result, one major effect of Ma’s high-toss serve was that it opened up far more opportunities for him on the half-long opening. In Games 2-4 and the first half of game five, in which Harimoto was largely in control, Ma attempted a long forehand opening on 14% of the points. After the time-out, Ma nearly doubled that number to 26% over the next game and a half.
One way Harimoto managed to deny Ma the half-long was to flick the serve. However, against the high toss-serve, due to difficulties reading the spin and the inherent challenges of giving quality flicks against no-spin or light-spin balls, Harimoto’s flicks likely packed just a bit less speed and spin than earlier in the match. The slow-down appeared to be enough for Ma to wait in anticipation for the hard counter from the backhand or elbow and continue to dominate these points.
Taming Harimoto’s Fast Wide Shots to the Forehand
One of Ma’s key adjustments after the time-out was taking away the fast wide shots to the forehand from Harimoto. Both Harimoto’s number of attempted fast wide shots to the forehand and their effectiveness vanished following Ma’s time-out in Game 5. Before the time-out, Harimoto was able to land a fast wide shot to the forehand on 36% of all points and convert 89% of those into a win. However, after the time-out, Harimoto was only able to land a fast wide shot on 21% of all points and convert a measly 44% into wins.
The lower number of attempts is likely a consequence of Ma better controlling the rhythm of the point thanks to his high-toss serve. The lower conversion rate was likely due to Ma better anticipating the fast wide shot to the forehand so that he could get in position more reliably like in the clip shown below. In the first point of the clip, even though Harimoto misses the shot, we can see that Ma was already waiting for the shot to the forehand.
What to Expect In Tokyo
Should Ma and Harimoto meet in Tokyo, the aesthetic of the match will likely be similar, with Ma hunting half-longs and attacks to the elbow and Harimoto more aggressively flicking short balls and trying to win the rallies with quick wide shots to the forehand.
Harimoto will clearly be looking to make certain adjustments. Most importantly, he needs to find a way to better read Ma’s high-toss serve and develop a better contingency plan in case he has trouble reading the high-toss serve (or a new serve) again. Harimoto will also likely look to clean up some of the errors he made at the World Cup by virtue of better shot selection and being in better game-shape come Tokyo.
At age 33, Ma has likely been coasting through most of the major events since the 2019 World Championships, and we can expect to see an all-around better version of Ma in Tokyo. While Ma cannot count on his high-toss serve to bail him out again at the Olympics, he also still has more tools in his bag of tricks (such as his backhand serve) to give him an extra advantage should he need it again against Harimoto.
This post is the first in a series of previews on the Tokyo Olympics.Read all our Olympic coverage here.
With the conclusion of the Chinese Olympic Scrimmages and less than fifty days to go, Olympic season is in full swing. While the Bundesliga finals, which will feature the likes of Timo Boll and Patrick Franziska, are scheduled to happen this weekend, there are arguably no more remaining high-profile events involving major Olympic gold medal contenders. This brings us to the question, exactly who can be classified as a gold medal contender?
In this post, we take a look at who is a contender and who is a pretender for the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. We then rank the contenders of both genders in order of likelihood of winning gold in Tokyo. The rankings contain a certain amount of subjectivity, but hopefully they are at least more consistent and meaningful than ITTF’s FIFA-style “player ratings“.
Sorting Out Contenders and Pretenders
The road to gold runs through China, so to begin let us take a look at how the top seeds have fared against the Chinese National Team (CNT) over the last couple of years.
The table below shows the record of the top eleven seeds in the men’s singles events. The first column indicates the name of the player, the second column indicates his seed at the Olympics, the third column indicates his record against Ma Long (the second seed), the third column indicates his record against Fan Zhendong (the top seed), the fourth column indicates his/her record against the other four highest-ranked players on the CNT (Xu Xin, Lin Gaoyuan, Liang Jingkun, and Wang Chuqin), and the fifth column indicates the total number of wins he has recorded against any of these six members of the CNT.
We only consider four out-of-seven ITTF-sanctioned matches (unfortunately, WTT is looking to make three-out-of-fives the new normal) that happened since 2018 at the earliest. Moreover, we do not consider T2 results, as the rules are an absolute gimmick, and the top Chinese players of both genders possibly underperformed as a result. While this misses out on some key matches like Timo Boll’s 2017 renaissance, matches from four years ago arguably have very little predictive value for matches today. After all, Ding Ning was World Champion in 2017, and now she is retiring.
Record vs Ma Long
Record vs Fan Zhendong
Record vs Rest of CNT
Total Wins vs CNT
Record of top seeds in Men’s Singles against CNT
As expected, we see that the Chinese National Team is heads and shoulders above the international competition. No international player has anything close to a winning record against the CNT, and Ma and Fan have by far the most wins against the CNT despite having the handicap of not being able to play against themselves.
We look at the total number of wins that a player has against the CNT as opposed to the win percentage. The idea is that players like Harimoto should not be penalized for making it far enough in a tournament to frequently face off against a Chinese player and lose.
We classify anyone who has not recorded more than two wins over a Chinese player over the last two years as a pretender. After all, if a player could only beat a Chinese player twice over three years, possibly when said Chinese player may have been nursing an injury, out of focus, or experimenting, what are the odds that he can beat them twice in the same tournament at which the Chinese will be at peak performance?
Thus, we label Calderano, Falck, Ovtcharov, Boll, Jeoung, Pitchford, and all the even lower seeds (no lower seed has more than one win against the CNT) as pretenders. While they are strong contenders for bronze and may even make the finals, which Falck achieved in the 2019 World Championships, they will really need all the stars to align and to have the tournament of their lives to win gold.
Let’s now take a look at a similar table for the top ten seeds of the women’s singles event. The fourth column in this table will refer to a player’s record against Liu Shiwen, Ding Ning, Wang Manyu, and Zhu Yuling over the last three years.
Record vs Sun Yingsha
Record vs Chen Meng
Record vs Rest of CNT
Total Wins vs CNT
Doo Hoi Kem
Record of top seeds in Women’s Singles against CNT
When looking at how many wins each player has scored against the CNT over the last three years, it is quite clear that Chen Meng, Sun Yingsha, and Mima Ito are all contenders and the rest of the field consists of pretenders. Although someone like Kasumi Ishikawa or Jeon Jihee may hope to steal a match from Ito and claim bronze, it is difficult to envision anyone outside of Chen, Sun, or Ito taking gold.
Power Ranking the Contenders
Now that we’ve sorted out the pretenders from the contenders using our rough proxy of wins against the CNT, it’s time to rank the contenders in order of likelihood of winning gold.
A common saying among coaches is that there are four pillars of table tennis: technical, physical, tactical, and psychological. While the initial reaction of many people is to focus on the technical aspect of table tennis, players like Liu Shiwen have emphasized the importance of the psychological aspect of table tennis. While we will look at more technical details in future posts, in this ranking we will lean more heavily into the role of amateur psychologist.
8) Lin Yun-Ju
The table shown above undersells Lin a bit, as they don’t count T2 matches, in which Lin beat Lin Gaoyuan, Ma Long and Fan Zhendong. The rules were clearly designed to increase the variance in outcomes and make it easier to pull off upsets, but at the end of the day, Lin has shown the ability to defeat Ma Long and Fan Zhendong in the same (watered-down) tournament, which makes him a gold medal contender.
Lin’s chiquita is arguably the best in the game, giving him the ability to play an aggressive style and launch the opening attack in the point, even when the opponent serves. However, his relative lack of strength and power makes his attacks less intimidating, as Ovtcharov was all too happy to concede the opening attack in his win over Lin at WTT Doha last March.
Lin spent the last Fall training in China with the Chinese National Team. There are two ways to read this. On the one hand, training with the top players and coaches in the world in principle should make him an even bigger threat to China.
On the other hand, China is notoriously secretive and competitive and won’t even share its rubbers with the world. The chances that they shared novel and meaningful insights with Lin are slim. Moreover, in 2017, China allegedly banned Hirano and Ishikawa from playing in the super league because they were such a big threat. If China really feared Lin as a serious contender, would they let him in to train with them right before the Olympics? Lin may surprise us all and pull off the two upsets that he needs, but from the looks of it, China is fairly confident that will not be the case.
7) Jang Woojin
Due to his disappointing first-round loss to Ruwen Filus at WTT Doha, Jang failed to break into the top eight seeds for the Tokyo Olympics. As a result, Jang can potentially run into a top seed as early as the round of 16.
Harimoto will certainly not want to see Jang in the round of 16, as the two exchanged narrow wins in a pair of seven-game thrillers in the ITTF Finals and World Cup last Fall. As Jang is tied with Harimoto on the leaderboard for most wins against the Chinese National Team over the last three years (granted, Harimoto and Lin both have more wins than Jang if you include three-out-of-five and T2 matches), Fan and Ma would likely prefer to see Jang deeper into the tournament as well.
Intuitively speaking, Jang’s willingness to step around and go for big forehands, even if it means risking getting burned on the wide-open forehand, can make his game more high-variance. This opens him up to a potential early-round exit, but it also tilts the odds further in his favor when playing against someone stronger than him such as Fan or Ma.
Jang’s low seed may end up being a blessing in disguise, as it may be easier to play the Chinese players earlier in the event as they may still be shaking off the Olympic jitters and getting used to the environment. Furthermore, a round-of-16 exit is far more stressful and disappointing for a Chinese player than a semi-final exit. If Jang can build an early 2-1 lead against Fan, can his aggressive play and the situational pressure get into Fan’s head?
Korea has consistently challenged China in the men’s singles event over the last several decades, and Korean national team coaches Ryu Seungmin and Kim Taeksoo won’t be intimidated by China. Jang has the surrounding coaching and training infrastructure to beat China. If he gets hot at the tournament, he may very well end up pulling off the two upsets that he needs to win gold.
6) Tomokazu Harimoto
5) Mima Ito
Tomokazu Harimoto and Mima Ito certainly have the respect and fear of the Chinese National Team. In an interview in 2019, Coach Liu Guoliang has remarked that what makes both of them dangerous is their fearlessness and willingness to try out new things.
Stylistically, both of them have zigged while the rest of the field has zagged. Partially due to his young age, Harimoto has opted to essentially never back off from the table or take a backstroke and to instead win points by out-pacing the Chinese with quick off-the-table bounces. Meanwhile, Mima Ito has developed arguably the most iconic serves in the game today (sorry Dima), and instead of attempting the hopeless task of defeating the Chinese in long rallies, she has directed her focus towards winning the point on her first three shots.
While it is still unclear how many fans will be able to attend the Olympics, the home crowd in Tokyo will surely give Harimoto and Ito at least some boost. As young underdogs, Harimoto and Ito will almost certainly face less pressure than their Chinese counterparts as well. Both players are clearly serious threats to beat the Chinese, but which one is more likely to win gold?
Ito probably has better chances of winning gold due to her lack of competition among non-Chinese women. While it’s possible that Ito is upset before she reaches the semi-finals, unlike Harimoto she does not need to worry about playing a Jang Woojin in the round of 16 or a Lin Yun-Ju in the quarter-finals. Virtually all the top non-Chinese stars played at WTT Doha in March, and Ito won both the Contender and Star Contender events quite handily. Meanwhile, Harimoto was upset by Ovtcharov in the Contender event before bouncing back to win the Star Contender event.
However, assuming both players reach the semi-finals, it is debatable who would fare better against the Chinese players. Ito has a significantly better record against the CNT than Harimoto does. She also apparently claimed that she has figured out how to beat Chen Meng and Sun Yingsha, but her prior record against them is even worse than Harimoto’s record against Ma Long and Fan Zhendong.
In fact, the table above also slightly sells Harimoto short. He has a three-out-of-five win against Fan under his belt, and he was a blown 3-1 lead from defeating Ma at the 2020 World Cup in China despite having to go through onerous quarantine during which he was not allowed to play.
If we assume both players have roughly similar chances against the Chinese, then Ito edges out Harimoto in our power rankings. Harimoto carries a significantly bigger risk than Ito of not making the semi-finals, which in turn dampens his chances at winning gold.
4) Sun Yingsha
As is usually the case, the heaviest favorites for gold are all Chinese. While Ma Long vs Fan Zhendong is one of the more interesting table tennis debates these days, Chen Meng has performed heads and shoulders above the competition over the last few years. Hence, Chen takes the number one spot in our power rankings and Ma and Fan take the next two spots.
Although Sun has a worse record against the CNT than Ito over the last several years, Sun has a 4-1 head-to-head record against Ito, which becomes 6-1 when considering T2 and three-out-of-fives. Sun would be the favorite in a match-up against Ito, giving her the number four spot in the power rankings.
3) Fan Zhendong
2) Ma Long
With Sun Yingsha slotted in at fourth and Chen Meng locked in at first, the second and third spot in the power rankings go to Fan Zhendong and Ma Long. The big debate is, who would you pick between Ma and Fan to win gold in Tokyo?
Fan Zhendong has a winning head-to-head record over Ma Long since 2018, a better record against the Chinese National Team, and a higher world rank. Fan looked better than Ma at the Chinese Olympic Scrimmage. Ma will turn 33 at the end of the year, while most Chinese players retire by the age of 30.
However, Ma is arguably the greatest player of all time. Ma has won the last three World Championships, including in 2019 when he was coming off an injury and playing as a lower seed, and the 2016 Olympics. Even if he doesn’t look his best during scrimmages, which are the epitome of unimportant low-stakes matches, he has earned the benefit of the doubt that he will get it together when the matches really matter.
Moreover, as a result of Ma’s dominance over the last half-decade, Fan has zero championship experience in top-tier events. Fan may look better physically and technically, but Ma undoubtedly has the mental edge going into Tokyo.
Father Time catches up with everyone eventually, and Ma may end up looking extremely vulnerable a la Zhang Jike in 2016. However, until Ma loses in a World Championship or Olympic match, betting against him in a top-tier event is a dangerous game. Hence, he lands just above Fan in the power rankings.
1) Chen Meng
Before her loss to Wang Manyu in the finals of the second leg of the Olympic Scrimmage, Chen Meng was virtually untouchable for more than a year. She won the first leg of the Olympic Scrimmage earlier in May and won all her matches (not counting exhibitions like WTT Macao) in 2020, sweeping through World Cup, Grand Finals, All China National Championships in the Fall and the German Open and Qatar Open before the pandemic. She has a favorable head-to-head record against Sun and Ito, and since 2018 she has recorded more wins against the Chinese National Team in international competition than Ito and Sun combined.
Chen walks into Tokyo as the clear-cut favorite to win gold in the women’s singles event over Sun, Ito, and arguably the entire field combined. Neither Ma Long nor Fan Zhendong can claim such odds, so Chen sits atop the power rankings at number 1.
Update: Photos from the Chinese National TeamTraining Hall have been released, including their signature posters of their key rivals divided into tiers:
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Xu Chenhao upset an out-of-sorts Ma Long 11-5, 11-9, 12-10, 5-11, 5-11, 11-8 in the quarter-finals of the second leg of the Chinese Olympic Scrimmage. Whether due to an undisclosed injury or personal mental issues, Ma played some of his worst table tennis in recent memory throughout the first three games as he committed countless unforced errors, exuded dejected and tired body language, and gave up on points before they were over.
Ma was able to turn it around in the last three games as he played significantly better, albeit not quite at peak form. However, the 3-0 deficit that he had dug for himself was too much. High-quality play from Xu delivered him the sixth game as he pulled off the upset of the tournament so far.
In the semi-finals, Xu will play Xu Xin, who defeated Liang Jingkun 4-0. On the other side of the bracket, Fan Zhendong, who beat Lin Gaoyuan 4-1 in the quarter-finals, will play Wang Chuqin, who defeated champion of the first leg of the scrimmage Zhou Qihao 4-2 in the quarterfinals.
Ma and Fan are fresh off a selection to represent China in the men’s singles event at the Tokyo Olympics (they will be joined by Xu Xin in the team event, with Wang Chuqin as a reserve). If Ma shows up in Tokyo playing the way he did in the first three games against Xu, he may be in serious danger of failing to medal, which would be an unprecedented failure by the Chinese National Team. However, Ma still has roughly two months to gather himself physically and psychologically to peak for the Olympics.
Ma pushed the ball into the net for the very first point of the match and continued to make unforced errors in the form of missed counters, chop blocks, and short flicks. Ma was unable to establish any dominance in the rallies either as Xu cruised to an 11-5 victory. Three out of the five points that Ma won in the first game were also on easy errors from Xu, as Ma looked completely out of sorts in the first game.
Xu won the second game 11-9, but the score makes the game look closer than it felt. It initially looked like Ma was rounding into form as he opened the game with two pretty rallies to take a 2-1 lead. Xu leveled the score to 2-2 with a wide chiquita to Ma’s forehand, a shot that would bother Ma throughout the game. After Xu missed a short forehand flick, Ma proceeded to make three consecutive unforced errors. Xu again burned Ma with a wide chiquita to the forehand, taking a 6-3 lead. Ma displayed some alarming body language during this point as he did not even try to reach a wide ball.
Ma was able to take two points back but then pushed a serve return into the net. Xu opened wide to Ma’s forehand, and Ma again displayed the same dejected body language as he missed the return. A missed push and chop block from Ma allowed Xu to take a 10-6 lead. Although Ma was able to win three straight points to narrow the lead to 10-9, his play was nothing notable during these points, and he missed a short backhand opening at 9-10 to give Xu the second game 11-9.
Ma’s tricky serves and early 4-0 lead kept the score close, but otherwise it was a continuation of disastrous play from Ma, including a 6-0 run from Xu to take back an early 6-4 lead. In total, Xu missed three serve returns and popped up another four. Xu managed to split the points where he popped up Ma’s serve return 2-2, including a missed easy high ball from Ma at 10-9. Ma missed a half-long serve return at 10-10, and then Xu killed Ma’s half long serve at 11-10 to take the third game 12-10.
In game 4, Ma appeared to largely shake off whatever was plaguing him during the first three games. A series of nice counters helped him build an early 5-2 lead. Ma missed a flick and Xu won three consecutive rallies, despite a time-out from Ma after the second rally, to take a 6-5 lead. However, Ma landed a pretty chiquita to Xu’s middle for a winner and then took a risky step-around down-the-line forehand winner on the next point. Ma continued his dominance as he closed out the game on a 6-0 run to win the fourth game 11-5.
To start the fifth game, Xu let out a loud cholae after Ma missed the serve return on the first point as Xu appeared to realize that he could not rely on Ma playing terribly for the whole match. A combination of rushed openings from Xu, smart variation from Ma, and a return to form from Ma allowed Ma to take seven straight points and build a 7-1 lead. Ma cruised to a 10-3 lead to take complete control of the game, eventually taking the fifth game 11-5.
Ma and Xu exchanged pretty opening and rallies to start game 6 with an even 3-3 score. Xu then landed three huge forehand winners and won a pretty backhand-backhand rally to win four straight points to take a 7-3 lead. Ma stopped the bleeding with a pretty block, but Xu landed his go-to wide forehand opening that Ma was unable to reach, giving Xu an 8-4 lead.
Down 8-4, Ma broke out his backhand serve for the first time in the match. Xu popped up the first backhand serve and dumped the second into the net. Ma closed the lead to 8-7 with a hard backhand opening, but he missed a serve return of his own to give Xu a 9-7 lead. Xu then popped up yet another backhand serve from Ma to narrow the lead to 9-8, but he correctly read the next serve and landed a strong forehand flick and won the ensuing rally to take double match point at 10-8. Ma then missed yet another serve return, giving Xu the sixth game 11-8 and the match 4-2.
The full match is linked below:
A sample of some of Ma Long’s low-lights:
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After upsetting Liang Jingkun in the quarter-finals at the China Olympic Scrimmage, Zhou Qihao pulled off an even bigger upset in the semi-finals with an 11-5, 13-11, 9-11, 8-11, 14-12, 4-11, 11-8 victory over Ma Long. As the underdog, Zhou played extremely aggressively, and when he was hot, there was little that even Ma could do. However, when Ma seized control of the game flow, he was able to force Zhou into alternating between being too passive and letting Ma dominate the pace and being too aggressive and missing wild shots.
As a result, the match was extremely streaky, and even a six point lead never felt safe. In game 7, Zhou found himself trailing 8-4, turned up the aggression a notch, and was able to pull off seven straight points to take the game 11-8 and the match 4-3. After the match, Zhou said that it was better not to think too much when down 8-4 and that he just tried taking it one point at a time.
Zhou will play Fan Zhendong, who defeated Wang Chuqin in the semi-finals, in the finals. Zhou knows he will be an underdog against Fan as well and stated that he just has to go for it. In the women’s singles event, Chen Meng, who defeated Zhu Yuling in the semi-finals, will face off in the finals against Sun Yingsha, who defeated Wang Yidi in the semi-finals.
The schedule for May 7 is as follows: Zhu Yuling plays Wang Yidi for third place at 18:30, Wang Chuqin plays Ma Long for third place at 19:30, Chen Meng plays Sun Yingsha at 20:30, and Fan Zhendong plays Zhou Qihao at 21:30. Presumably at least the finals will be broadcast on CCTV-5.
From his hard and wide counter-loop on the first point of the match to an aggressive hard down the line counter from below the table to go up 9-5, Zhou set an extremely aggressive rhythm throughout the opening game. Ma seemed to be unable to get into an aggressive rhythm for himself as Zhou won the first game handily 11-5.
Zhou continued his aggressive and dominant ways heading into the second game. He took an early 3-1 lead,with the only lost point being due to a missed opening. However, Ma then executed a long fast serve that Zhou was only able to give a passive return against and then a short topspin serve to the forehand that Zhou misread and popped up. These two service sequences were enough to get Ma into an aggressive flow as he went on to win five straight points to go up 6-3.
Ma then missed several of what looked like some easier shots and openings, culminating in a push into the net to go down 9-6 as Zhou reeled off six straight points of his own. After Zhou missed a push and Ma won a pretty rally after Zhou misread his backhand serve, it looked like momentum was on Ma’s side. However, on the next point, Zhou pushed long to Ma’s backhand against Ma’s backhand serve, but Ma missed the step-around forehand opening, bringing the score to 10-8. Zhou then missed a half-long opening of his own and then called time-out up 10-9 with the serve.
Coming out of the time-out, the game took a turn into a short-game battle. Ma landed a chiquita on the serve return to Zhou’s elbow that Zhou missed, leveling the score to 10-10. Zhou then pulled off a nearly identical shot against Ma’s serve to take an 11-10 advantage. Ma then pushed short on the next serve return and prepared to step around early for the forehand. Zhou saw this and attempted a chiquita down the line but missed to make it 11-11. Ma tried a long fast serve to the backhand but missed the block to go down 12-11. A short push exchange at the next point ended with Ma pushing it into the net, giving Zhou the second game 13-11.
Ma appeared to seize control over the serve and return game as he went up 6-1 off a combination of clean openings and counters. A desperate Zhou attempted a wild backhand opening that went straight into the net, bringing Ma’s lead up to 7-1. Zhou then busted out a new backhand serve, won a point off the ensuing rally, and then missed his second attempt at a backhand serve to go down 8-2. Zhou was able to regather himself to win three straight points to narrow it to 8-5, but Ma landed a big forehand counter-loop to go up 9-5.
Zhou narrowed it to 9-6 with a nice chiquita to Ma’s forehand, but when he attempted the same move again on the next point, a prepared Ma landed a hard down-the-line counter to take a 10-6 lead. An aggressive Zhou landed in two straight winners and a fast and wide down-the-line backhand block to cut the lead to 10-9, prompting Ma to call time-out. Ma served a short serve to the forehand and Zhou pushed wide to the forehand off the side of the table, but Ma was able to land a pretty down-the-line loop that a late Zhou blocked into the net, giving Ma the third game 11-9.
Luck was on Ma’s side throughout game four. First, at 3-2 he hit a shot that looked very very much like a side-ball, but the umpire ruled it an edge ball. The ruling may have affected Zhou mentally as he made a series of errors to go down 9-4. After Zhou scored another point to cut it to 9-5, Ma then got another edge to go up 10-5. Zhou was able to cut the lead to 10-8, but Ma landed what appeared to be another net-ball on the short push. Zhou missed the return and threw his hands up in frustration as Ma took the fourth game 11-8.
Zhou started game five with another hot streak of pure aggression as he won five straight points to go up 6-2. However, he cooled off a bit after missing a forehand flick to make it to 6-3. Zhou appeared to alternate between being too passive and too aggressive as Ma went on a 7-1 run of his own to go up 9-7. However, a couple missed openings and pushes from Ma gave Zhou enough breathing room to save a game point and force it to deuce.
Ma got a lucky net ball to go up 11-10, but on the next point he then ripped his third ball forehand opening straight into the net. Ma landed an impressive down-the-line block to get his third straight game-point of the game, but Zhou overpowered Ma on the next rally to level it again to 12-12. Ma then gave a slightly weak and high push at 12-12 and a weak half-long opening at 12-13; Zhou killed both with a counter-loop winner to take the fifth game 14-12.
Ma was in complete control of game 6 as he again forced Zhou into alternating between too passive and too aggressive and missing high-risk shots. After Ma went up 8-1, Zhou was able to land in a couple of impressive points, but Ma squashed the comeback with an impressive pre-meditated step-around kill against the long serve to go up 9-3 and then an amazing highlight to go up 10-3. The two players then exchanged points as Ma comfortably took the sixth game 11-4.
Ma started game 7 on fire as he built an early 4-1 lead. Zhou, desperate to make some changes, started playing extremely aggressively as the next few points were almost all either Zhou killing himself or scoring huge winners early in the point. The gamble did not immediately pay off as Ma went up 8-4. After Ma missed a push to cut the lead to 8-5, all of Zhou’s risky shots suddenly started to land as he completed a 7-0 run to win the game 11-8 and the match 4-3.
You can watch the full match below:
A slideshow of relevant points can be found in the Instagram post below.
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