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How Harimoto Built A 3-1 Lead And How Ma Long Came Back at the 2020 World Cup

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.

Game Plan

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.

Unforced Errors

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?

Rally Game

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.

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Power Ranking the Olympic Singles Gold Medal Contenders

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.

Men’s Singles

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.

NameSeedRecord vs Ma LongRecord vs Fan ZhendongRecord vs Rest of CNTTotal Wins vs CNT
Fan Zhendong14-3N/A13-517
Ma Long2N/A3-412-415
Tomokazu Harimoto32-20-32-114
Hugo Calderano40-11-51-42
Lin Yun-Ju51-10-52-73
Mattias Falck60-20-11-51
Dimitrij Ovtcharov70-41-00-51
Timo Boll80-30-60-30
Jang Woojin90-00-44-44
Jeoung Youngsik100-31-30-51
Liam Pitchford111-00-11-22
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.

Women’s Singles

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.

NameSeedRecord vs Sun YingshaRecord vs Chen MengRecord vs Rest of CNTTotal Wins vs CNT
Chen Meng13-1N/A24-827
Sun Yingsha2N/A1-36-107
Mima Ito31-40-38-89
Cheng I-Ching41-10-20-71
Kasumi Ishikawa51-61-20-82
Feng Tianwei60-11-20-61
Jeon Jihee70-30-10-20
Doo Hoi Kem80-20-20-20
Adriana Diaz90-10-00-10
Sofia Polcanova100-10-10-30
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 Team Training Hall have been released, including their signature posters of their key rivals divided into tiers:

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Out-of-Sorts Ma Long Upset By Xu Chenhao In Chinese Olympic Scrimmage Quarterfinals

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.

Game 1

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.

Game 2

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.

Game 3

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.

Game 4

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.

Game 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.

Game 6

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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Zhou Qihao Upsets Ma Long 4-3 In China Olympic Scrimmage Semi-Finals

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.

Game 1

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.

Game 2

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.

Game 3

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.

Game 4

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.

Game 5

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.

Game 6

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.

Game 7

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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Identifying The Magnus Effect In Table Tennis

As we all wait for the elite professional table tennis scene to return in early May, in today’s post we will look at one of the more fundamental physical phenomena in table tennis that not all viewers are aware of: the Magnus Effect.

The Magnus Effect is a physical phenomenon that explains how the spin of a ball modifies its trajectory while the ball is in the air. Unlike other aspects of table tennis mechanics, the Magnus Effect is not the result of gravity and friction, forces that we are familiar with and experience every day, but the result of fluid dynamics. This makes it difficult to visualize and form an intuitive understanding of the Magnus Effect.

However, although it is difficult to create an intuition for the cause of the Magnus Effect, once you understand its results (which are extremely simple), then you can see how the Magnus Effect is present in several common table tennis contexts.

What is the Magnus Effect?

A very non-rigorous explanation of the Magnus Effect (courtesy of Wikipedia) is as follows. When a spinning ball moves through a fluid (such as air), the ball “pushes” the air in one direction, and as a result of Newton’s Third Law (every action has an equal and opposite reaction), the air pushes back on the ball in the opposite direction. The visualization below shows a ball with topspin traveling to the right, which kicks up the air behinds it. As a result, the air exerts a reactive downward force on the ball.

If this is difficult to form an intuition around, that is fine; from a table tennis perspective what matters is not the cause but the effect of the Magnus Effect. The most important takeaway is that the Magnus Effect means that the spin of the ball affects its trajectory while the ball is still in the air and before it even hits the table.

Visualization of the airflow that causes the Magnus Effect

What makes the Magnus Effect counterintuitive is that for topspin and underspin, the direction of the force is opposite of what we usually associate for each spin. When the ball bounces on the table or off the raquet, we typically associate a topspin ball with jumping upward and forward (e.g. for a kicker serve) and an underspin ball will jump downward and backward (e.g. Ma Lin’s famous ghost serve).

However, by contrast, the Magnus Effect exerts a downward force (and a smaller backward force when the ball is falling) on topspin balls and an upward force (and a smaller forward force when the ball is falling) on underspin balls. We can better visualize both the direction of the Magnus Effect and how strongly it can influence the ball’s trajectory in the below video, where a basketball falling downward with backspin floats very far forward. If you tilt your neck sideways while watching the video, then you can see how a ball with backspin traveling horizontally across a table will feel an upward force due to the Magnus Effect (of course, in a table tennis scenario, this force is still weaker than gravity, so the ball still falls down onto the table).

Identifying the Magnus Effect in Table Tennis

At its essence, the Magnus Effect may be slightly counterintuitive but it is extremely simple: topspin is dragged down when the ball is in the air, and underspin is lifted up when the ball is in the air. We look at its consequences in two common scenarios: the fast topspin rally and the counter against a spinny opening loop.

The Magnus Effect In Fast Topspin Rallies

One of the biggest results of the Magnus Effect is that it is more desirable to add topspin to loops regardless of the speed. Spin vs speed is often viewed as a tradeoff where one must lose one to gain the other, which can be the case when the amount of spin/speed generated is limited by the player’s physical abilities. However, in the certain in-game contexts, increasing topspin may actually enable more speed. Watch the following winner by Ding Ning below.

The radar on the net measures the speed of the winner to be a fast 70 km/hr, but notice how the ball actually does not bounce that deep on the table. It only bounces roughly at the halfway point between the edge and the net both on Ding’s game-winner and the shot immediately before that. This is because the ball is loaded with spin (watch the ball roll on the floor when the point ends), so a heavy Magnus force drags the ball down faster. Hence, Ding Ning could have hit even faster, and the ball would still have landed within the table.

In general, adding more topspin counterintuitively makes the ball land shallower due to the Magnus Effect. This gives players a wider margin of error to hit the ball hard and fast without having to worry about it going off the table. As long as the player brushes the ball sufficiently and adds enough spin, the player can hit as hard as he or she wants and the ball will still drop down onto the table because of the increased Magnus force.

Although it is usually desirable to land serves, pushes, and opening deep onto the table, in the fast rally the ball is so fast and the opponent has so little time to react that the shallow depth appears not to matter much anyway. Moreover, with the heavy amount of spin involved and high downward velocity due to the Magnus Effect, the ball gets a serious kick once it bounces off the table. Looking at the slow-motion replay you can see how much pressure Ding Ning applies to Mima Ito during that point. On the first block, the ball is already up to near her face-level (granted, Mima Ito is short and also bending down). On the second shot, Ito is a bit late, and the ball jumps over her paddle.

Leveraging the Magnus Effect Against Slow Spinny Loops

Many amateur players have had the experience where, even if an opening loop is slow, if it is spinny it can often be quite challenging to block because the spin causes the ball to bounce off the racquet so that it flies off the edge of the table. One solution is to close the racquet and essentially hit the ball downward in order to counter the heavy topspin..

Alternatively, a player can simply add his or her own topspin to the ball, so even if the ball bounces off the racquet at a higher angle than expected, the Magnus Effect will forgive minor errors and drag the ball down. In the clip below, Ma Long opens his angle and counters Fan Zhendong’s slow spinny opening with a heavy topspin counter in which his racquet goes almost straight up instead of down or even forward.

Bonus: Around-the-net Shots

The Magnus Effect carries the most in-game implication for top-spin balls and topspin is usually the heaviest spin in the match, but it also affects heavy underspin and sidespin balls. For underspin balls, the Magnus Effect gives heavy chops their floating effect. While the distances involved in table tennis are too small for us to see some of the extreme bends that we do in soccer/football on sidespin balls, the curve induced by the Magnus Effect can clearly be seen in some of the more ambitious around-the-net shots that Youtube stars like Adam Bobrow take.

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Unfortunately, ITTF has killed ITTV, meaning that past matches are no longer publicly available to watch. Hence, no analysis blog posts are scheduled for the immediate future. You can check out past analysis posts here.

Chinese National Team Shares Their Travel Preferences

We translate a recent group of quick interviews about travel that Table Tennis World did with various members of the Chinese National Team over the last several weeks regarding their travel preferences (sources: one, two, three).

What is the favorite place that you have competed in?

Ma Long: Suzhou

Xu Xin: Shanghai

Fan Zhendong: I have traveled to many places for competition, but the places that have left the biggest mark on me are my first singles World Championships in Paris and my first team World Championships in Tokyo.

Lin Gaoyuan: Japan and Korea

Liu Shiwen: Tokyo

Ding Ning: I don’t have a favorite

Chen Meng: Weihai

Sun Yingsha: I go to wherever there’s good food haha

Wang Manyu: My favorite foreign country is Morroco. My favorite domestic city is Shenzhen.

Zhu Yuling: Korea

Which country or city have you been to that you would recommend fans to travel to and why?

Ma Long: China, it has has everything

Xu Xin: Fiji. The weather is good, the sea is good, and it’s expensive (luxurious?).

Lin Gaoyuan: Japan, the grilled meat is delicious.

Liu Shiwen: United States. I feel like there are so many places to go. Although I’ve been there and planned a lot, I haven’t really been to the most fun places.

Chen Meng: Qingdao, my hometown. The scenery is beautiful and it’s warm in the winter and cool in the summer. There’s also delicious seafood and Tsingtao beer, which will be worth it for everyone.

Sun Yingsha: Everywhere is not bad. I don’t go out too much haha

Where is somewhere you would like to go at least once in your life?

Ma Long: Iceland

Xu Xin: My dream when I was young was to go to Australia, and now I have been there.

Lin Gaoyuan: Maldives

Liu Shiwen: Maldives

Chen Meng: In the sky in a hot air balloon hahaha

Sun Yingsha: Paris

Do you like to travel with a plan or do you do what your heart wants?

Ma Long: A mix of both

Xu Xin: I travel with friends

Fan Zhendong: When you travel, you must go wherever your heart wants

Lin Gaoyuan: When I go out I must travel with a plan.

Liu Shiwen: I travel with a plan.

Ding Ning: I actually prefer to plan the first part, but once I get there then I like the kind of people who just follow their heart.

Chen Meng: I travel with a plan.

Sun Yingsha: Do what my heart wants.

Wang Manyu: Do what my heart wants

Zhu Yuling: I travel with a plan

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