Tag Archives: usa table tennis

Olympics Day 3 Results: Lily Zhang Slow Spins Past Offiong Edem

USA’s Lily Zhang received a brief scare as she failed to adjust to Nigeria’s Offiong Edem’s tricky serves and deceptively slow pace and lost the first game of their round of 64 match-up in the women’s singles table tennis event at the Tokyo Olympics, but Zhang was able to quickly adjust with some reliable slow spins to cruise to a comfortable 4-1 victory.

One statistic to illustrate Zhang’s adjustments is to count her number of missed openings into the net. In the first game, Zhang missed three backhand openings into the net and another opening that caught the net and went out. In the four games that she won, Zhang did not miss a single opening into the net, as her high-arcing slow spinny loops tended to land more often and miss out when they did miss.

We present a full recap below. Unfortuntately, video hilights are limited due to difficulties obtaining recordings of the Olympics.

Game 1

Zhang struggled with the unusually slow rhythm of Edem’s serve and pushing game early on in the match as Zhang missed three openings and popped up another serve return to fall into a 4-1 hole. However, Edem herself missed an opening forehand loop, and Zhang was able to get into a better rhythm for the next several points as she won four out of the next six rallies, resulting in a 6-6 tie.

Edem then tricked Zhang on a long fast serve and a spinny short serve, but Edem missed a follow up against a high-ball, keeping the score tied at 7-7. Zhang was able to get in two solid openings on her own serve to take a 9-7 lead. Zhang then missed three of her next four openings, resulting in a deuce score of 10-10 with Edem to serve.

Zhang took game point at 11-10 after winning a slow backhand-backhand exchange. Edem saved the game point with a nice wide forehand flick and wide counter to follow, and she then proceeded to beat Zhang on all three of her next serves. Zhang was able to save two game points but missed her backhand opening on the third one to give Edem the first game 15-13.

Game 2

Zhang appeared to embrace the slow pace of the match in game 2, as she responded to nearly all of Edem’s pushes with slow spinny forehand loops targeted to Edem’s backhand and elbow. After several missed fast backhand openings into the net in game 1, the more forgiving forehand topspin allowed Zhang to only miss one opening (that went out of the table) the whole game. After Edem scored the first point of the game with a pretty down-the-line punch on a short serve to her backhand, Zhang won nine straight points before cruising to a 11-2 victory.

Game 3

Zhang continued her absolute dominance in game 3, landing in slow spins from both the forehand and backhand side this time. Edem appeared to handle the spins slightly better in game 3, but the significantly faster Zhang was able to easily win every one of the quick rallies once the point reached past the opening. The only two points that Zhang lost were due to popping up a serve return on the push and missing a slow spin out of the table when up 6-1.

Game 4

Zhang had trouble reading Edem’s serves again early in the game, but Zhang was able to win all her points on her own serve to take a commanding 8-2 lead. However, Edem was again able to take both the points on her own serve to narrow the gap to 8-4, and then she won a rare victory on a fast backhand-backhand rally, a play that Zhang had so far absolutely dominated in the match, to cut the lead to 8-5. 

Edem missed a short flick and a high ball to give Zhang the 10-5 lead, but then Zhang hit the edge of her racquet on a forehand half-long opening as she again failed to read Edem’s serve properly, making it 10-6. Edem was finally able to pressure Zhang with a slow spin of her own to cut the lead to 10-7, and then Zhang missed another forehand counter to make it 10-8, as USA’s coach Gao Jun called time-out.

Down 10-8 with serve, Edem had a chance to put some heavy mental pressure onto Zhang, but when an unsure Zhang pushed Edem’s serve half-long to the middle, Edem opened the ball into the net, giving Zhang the fourth game 11-8.

Game 5

Zhang caught an edge to open game 5 and after taking a quick 2-0 lead Edem called time-out. Edem was able to win two straight points with a surprise chiquita to Zhang’s elbow on the serve return to level it at 2-2, but Zhang was able to get back into rhythm and won seven straight points to go up 9-2. Zhang appeared to rush a high kill and miss a shot to cut the lead to 9-3, and Zhang could be seen motioning at herself to calm down after the miss.

Zhang then  took match point with another slow spin to Edem’s forehand. Edem was able to save three match points with a pretty block, yet another chiquita to the elbow, and a net ball, but Zhang ultimately proved too much as she landed a cross-court winner, let out a cholae, and took the game 10-6 and the match 4-1.

Notes and Other Results

Zhang will play Taiwan’s Chen Szu-Yu in the round of 32. Zhang lost in the round of 32 in the 2016 Olympics to Korea’s Suh Hyowon.

The rest of the women’s singles brackets and results can be found here. One notable upset was Canada’s Mo Zhang over Germany’s Petrissa Solja in the round of 32. Zhang will face China’s Chen Meng in the round of 16.

The men’s singles brackets and results can be found here. In the round of 64, Lily Zhang’s male teammate Kanak Jha lost 4-2 to Russia’s Kirill Skachkov despite winning one game 11-0.

In the round of 32, one notable result was Slovenia’s Darko Jorgic’s upset over England’s Liam Pitchford. The match went six games, with the final four games all being decided by a margin of two (the final score was 11-8, 7-11, 12-10, 11-13, 11-9, 12-10). It’s a heart-breaking loss for Pitchford, although Jorgic himself also avoided many sleepless nights by pulling out the win: in Game 4, Jorgic missed his own serve at 9-9, and then lost the game off a net-ball by Pitchford.

Jorgic will play Japan’s Tomokazu Harimoto in the next round. With a possible draw of Pitchford/Harimoto/Lin Yun-Ju/Fan Zhendong/Ma Long, Jorgic has perhaps the most difficult draw in the men’s singles event.

In mixed doubles, Japan’s Mima Ito and Jun Mizutani stunned China’s Liu Shiwen and Xu Xin with a 4-3 win to take the first non-Chinese gold medal since Ryu Seungmin in 2004.

If you liked this post, please share it with your friends and follow Edges and Nets on Facebook Instagram, and Twitter to stay updated. Check out the rest of our Olympic coverage.

If you are based in the United States, be sure to also check out our exclusive interview with Kanak Jha and a tournament that Edges and Nets will participate in hosting in San Diego in mid-August.

Olympic Table Tennis Men’s Singles Day 2 Results: Anton Källberg Defeats Nikhil Kumar 4-0

After USA’s Nikhil Kumar was the only player to win two matches on day 1 (due to every other player having a bye) in the men’s singles table tennis event at the Tokyo Olympics, Sweden’s Anton Källberg squashed any hopes of a cinderella run for Kumar with a decisive 4-0 victory in the round of 64. We present a recap as well as a brief summary of other notable Day 2 results below.

Game 1

Källberg won the opening point of the match with a strong half-long serve return to go up 2-0 with serve. Nikhil Kumar struggled mightily with Källberg’s famous serves early in the game as he made four service return errors to fall into an 8-3 deficit. After a pretty block and slow spinny loops from Kumar coupled with two errors by Källberg, Kumar was able to cut the lead to 8-7. However, Kumar then yielded three straight solid openings to Källberg, giving Källberg the first game 11-7.

Game 2

Källberg landed several pretty counters early in game 2, which combined with a slight edge on serve return and consistency on the openings, gave Källberg a comfortable 9-3 lead. Kumar was able to score two nice counters himself, but Kumar then missed his own serve and a counter following a strong half-long opening from Källberg to comfortably give Källberg the second game 11-5.

Game 3

Källberg won game three 11-6, but the game felt like much more of a bloodbath than the score reflects. Källberg was far more solid on both the opening and the rally as he built a 6-0 lead, including a nasty chiquita at 1-0 that left Kumar confused. Kumar let out an audible groan when he pushed a serve return in to the net, and he then proceeded to miss another opening to give Källberg an absolutely commanding 10-2 lead. Although Kumar was able to catch Källberg off guard with an impressive block and two nice pushes on the serve return to close the gap to 10-6, Källberg’s lead never felt truly threatened as he won the next point off a chiquita on the serve return to take the game 11-6.

Game 4

Kumar built a small early 4-2 lead in Game 4, but Källberg ripped a half-long as he landed a series of agressive openings and went on an absolute tear, which despite a time-out from Kumar when down 5-4, resulted in a 9-1 run from Källberg to close out the game 11-5 and the match 4-0.

Notes

Källberg will play Taiwan’s Lin Yun-Ju in the round of 32. Lin is only the fifth seed in this tournament, but many (including apparently the Chinese National Team) consider him to be the second-biggest threat to the Chinese in the men’s singles event behind Japan’s Tomokazu Harimoto.

Full brackets and results for the men’s singles can be found here. One of the more notable Day 2 results is Paul Drinkhall qualifying for the round of 32 despite only making the Olympics at the last minute as a replacement for the injured (and now retired) Vladimir Samsonov.

Full brackets and results for the women’s singles can be found here. One notable Day 2 result is 17-year-old Shin Yubin (who despite her low rank is a potent threat as she swept through the Korean Olympic trials and defeated Miu Hirano at WTT Doha in March) survived a seven-game scare against 58-year old pen-hold pips blocker Ni Xialian.

In the mixed doubles events, Japan’s Mima Ito and Jun Mizutani, who saved eight match points against Germany’s Patrick Franziska and Petrissa Solja in a seven-game win, booked a finals spot alongside China’s Liu Shiwen and Xu Xin. WTT’s further summary of Day 2 scores and results can be found here.

The remaining round of 64 matches will conclude on Day 3 (July 26, local time).

If you liked this post, please share it with your friends and follow Edges and Nets on Facebook Instagram, and Twitter to stay updated. Check out the rest of our Olympic coverage.

If you are based in the United States, be sure to also check out our exclusive interview with Kanak Jha and a tournament that Edges and Nets will participate in hosting in San Diego in mid-August.

Kanak Jha Discusses Olympic Preparations, New Club, and More

Kanak Jha serves against Liam Pitchford at the 2020 World Cup.

Edges and Nets is honored and excited to present our first exclusive interview with Kanak Jha. Jha is a household name in American table tennis, having won every single men’s singles national championship since 2016 for a record four consecutive titles.

On the international stage, Jha is the first American male in the modern era to break into the world’s table tennis elite. He is ranked in the top 30, and at age 21 is one of the game’s biggest rising stars. Since 2018, notable wins for Jha on the ITTF Pro Tour include (in order of recency) 2020 Japanese National Champion Uda Yukiya, 2021 Chinese Olympic Scrimmage Winner Zhou Qihao, Anton Källberg, Kristian Karlsson, Quadri Aruna, Wong Chun Ting, 2019 World Championship Bronze-Medalist An Jaehyun, and Lin Yun-Ju (whom the Chinese have identified as a top-two threat alongside Harimoto at the Tokyo Olympics).

In this interview, we discuss his new international training center in California, how training in the United States compares to training in Europe, competing with China, the Tokyo Olympics, mentally preparing for big tournaments, getting in competitive matches during the pandemic, and playing against stars he watched growing up.

On His New Club in San Francisco

The 2021 US Olympic Team (from left to right: Zhou Xin, Kanak Jha, Nikhil Kumar) wins first place at 888 Table Tennis Center’s grand opening team tournament. Source: 888tabletennis

This is your final sprint before the Olympics, and you’ve been in the United States for several months now. Where have you been training?

I’ve been in California [where Jha grew up and calls home] for the past three weeks, training at 888 Table Tennis Center. For those who don’t know, it’s a really amazing new center next to San Francisco Airport. It’s a great facility with great coaching staff including my personal coach for the last two years Jörg Bitzigeio, who is running it. It’s a really great international center—well, we hope to be an international center in the future—and I’ve been training with my other Olympic teammates there. So it’s been a really nice period for me, getting to be at home.

Have you primarily been training with Zhou Xin and Nikhil Kumar [the other two members of Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics], or are there other people?

Yes, exactly. So primarily with my teammates Zhou Xin and Nikhil. Lily Zhang is also here. And a couple of coaches around the [San Francisco] Bay Area are coming as well. Obviously, Jörg Bitzigeio is running the camp, and so like I said, it’s been a really nice training period and nice camp with my teammates. It’s not so often I’m home. I’m most of the time in Germany, in Europe, so it’s nice to be home, and yeah, it’s a good period.

Can you tell me about how the idea for this club came about, how you got involved, and what your role in the club is right now?

I’m not an expert in the details, but I think the club has been in the making for some time. And I always get updates about how the progress is going, and it’s really exciting now that it’s finished. There are not so many clubs in the US in general and the Bay Area, and this is definitely the largest one [in the Bay Area] and I want to say the largest in the country.

If you’re ever in the San Francisco area and play table tennis, I would definitely recommend for you to check it out. It’s such a great center, and I really think that it has the potential to be an international center, especially where it’s located, near San Francisco Airport. And this weekend we have a tournament here, in which all of my other Olympic teammates and I will be participating in, and it’s kind of like the grand opening of the center. So I’m a representative for this center, and I’m really proud to be a part of 888. And I just really hope it can become an international huge center in the future and have training opportunities for all levels when they come here.

On Training in the United States

Kanak Jha doing a 3-point forehand drill at 888 Table Tennis Center. Source: 888tabletennis

Do you see yourself training full-time in the US in the near future?

Next season I will be in Ochsenhausen, my [German Bundesliga] club from this season. It’s hard to see it [training full-time in the US], just because in Europe and Asia, table tennis is just such a sport that has been there for so long, it’s such a popular sport, and the Europeans and Asians are so strong in table tennis. Right now, to be a professional player, if you really want to reach a world class level, you kind of have to live there if you want to reach the top.

But it’s already great to have a high-level center here, and now definitely when I’m home and coming back time to time, I can train there. I would love in the future if it would be possible to train here full time, and hopefully, hopefully, that will be a possibility in the future.

So you’ve been here for a while, and I wanted to ask you about how it’s different from Europe.

Yeah, it’s a really huge difference to be honest between training in Europe and here in the US, where I’ve been training since I was a kid. [In the US] it’s primarily driven by private lessons if you want to practice table tennis and really want to improve [as a kid].

But it’s a different culture here in the US, because we don’t have full-time professional players. We don’t have so many full time clubs where you have a lot of other players to play with, so it’s mostly just private lessons and paying [a private coach] per hour and trying to improve with coaching. Meanwhile, in Europe, you’re really in a center in a club with many other professional players in a group setting.

So I think it definitely does have disadvantages and advantages. One of the advantages from being in the US is that we have a lot of young kids whose techniques are oftentimes more advanced than in Europe, because we get to train with high-level coaches, so our technical level, our techniques start out at a higher level than Europeans at a young age. But as you get older you definitely need to be playing with other professional players in a group setting. [In a group setting] you can always play matches, you can block for real-life table tennis settings that more closely resemble the match. There’s only so much you can play with a [private] coach.

So I do think you need a bit of both, but I think the biggest difference is there’s a group setting in general when you’re training in Europe, which is very helpful when you’re reaching a higher level. Because there’s really only so much you can train against on one side against a block or just practicing one way [with a coach], versus when you’re playing with someone on the other side of the table who also really wants to improve and also wants to win the point. And that pushes everyone forward together, just being in that atmosphere all the time.

But these days, you are training in a group right?

Yeah.

And is it just the four US men’s team members and Lily?

Yeah, and maybe one or two more. I don’t know if you know like Bob Chen. But yeah, mostly it’s just us.

Ok. Another thing I wanted to ask you about your training is that I think it’s fair to say that you’re the strongest in the group by a pretty undebatable margin.

Uh, you can say that I’m ranked the highest.

And in Germany, there are some players who are higher ranked than you. Do you see any advantages or disadvantages of training like this, where in my opinion, you are pretty obviously ahead of the pack.

It’s always good in some ways to practice with players at a stronger level than you, so you can see what they’re doing better, what makes them such a top player. But at the same time, for me personally, the most important thing in training is you know what you’re working on. If you come to the table with a goal and you know what you need to practice, then in that regard you don’t really need the highest level of sparring partner or someone who’s much better than you if you know what you’re working on and what you’re doing.

So I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s always nice to play with players better than you, and you could say it’s more fun compared to if you play with someone at your own level, but at the same time the most important thing is that when you come to the table, you know what you’re working on, you have a goal of what you’re practicing in, and in that case, training will always be beneficial.

On Competing With China

Leaked (low-resolution) image of the poster of China’s tiers of rivals. This poster is in the training hall of the Chinese National Team leading up to the Tokyo Olympics. Kanak Jha (hilighted in red) is considered third-tier.

So some of the Japanese players, I’m thinking of Mima Ito in particular, they’re kind of famous for not wanting to train with the Chinese, and they want to stay in their own unit. Although she misses the chance to train with them and collaborate with them, I’m guessing her choice not to train with them gives her innovations a stronger competitive advantage. Can you talk more about this trade-off?

I think in general in table tennis, everyone’s goal is to beat the Chinese. I mean for those who themselves are not Chinese, obviously. So you see there are a lot of advantages like in the clubs in Europe, there are a lot of international players from different parts of the world. We can learn from each other and practice with each other, and see what you’ve done successfully, what your knowledge of the game may be more than mine that I can learn from.

I mean at the end of the day, the Chinese really are the best by a lot. Obviously, the Japanese are also very good, but to beat the Chinese is really the ultimate goal. I think the way we can improve, you see that the Chinese, they have these big centers with so many players on their national team for training, and we just don’t have that amount of players or those conditions in Europe or the rest of the world. So it definitely helps when we train together, that we can all improve and hopefully fight against them in the future.

I see. So you know China has that thing where they rank their rivals into tiers, you’re tier three right now.

I saw that. I saw that.

Do you agree with that assessment, and do you have a timeline for when you want to be tier one?

(laughs) Well first I need to say that it’s pretty cool that I’m there in general. I mean, growing up, I would never think that China, anyone on the national team, would know who I am. So just to know I’m there is pretty cool. I haven’t really put much thought into what tier I am. I’m kind of focused on myself and improving. But yeah, it’s pretty cool to know that I’m on their radar, and I hope in the future to keep improving and maybe challenge them hopefully. And I guess that’s the goal of myself, and of course, many other players.

On the Tokyo Olympics

Kanak Jha sets a record at the 2016 Rio Olympics as the first US Olympian (across all sports) born in the year 2000 or later. Source: Sports Illustrated

Do you have any specific goals for Tokyo in terms of where you finish?

For me personally, I really just want to take it round by round. I mean the Olympics are such a unique event. It’s only the best players in the world coming there, so I know how difficult it will be. I definitely feel like I’ve improved a lot every year actually since Rio, which was my first Olympics, and I was very young, so definitely there are a little more expectations than last time, but I just want to take it round by round. And like I said, it’s such a strong event, so it’s definitely going to be extremely challenging from the beginning.

Do you think you’re going to be more nervous this time compared to 2016 because of the expectations, or do you think maybe it’ll be easier this time mentally since it’s your second time?

It’s hard to say. It’s a little hard to compare, but the pressure will always be there regardless of how many Olympics you play. It’s impossible not to have pressure. The most important thing is how you deal with the pressure.

But really, I try to really not to think about it so much. I’m just more focused on myself and improving every day and getting into top shape. When I’m training well before a competition, like I am now, it helps me to gain confidence to feel good going into the event. So the most important thing for me is just to have a lot of confidence and feel good about myself going into the Games, and then not worry too much about how far I reach.

On His Mental Game

Kanak Jha pushes a ball en route to winning his record fourth consecutive national title in 2019.
Kanak Jha pushes a ball en route to winning his record fourth consecutive national title in 2019. Source: USATT

So when the Chinese talk about their preparation for a big event, it’s always just mental, mental, mental, mental, mental. Do you feel like it’s the same for you, or do you also worry about physical or technical stuff?

So for the Chinese, I think their technical skill is at a higher level than almost everyone else in the world, so they know mentally if they can be focused and just be able to play their normal game, that can already be enough to go far in a tournament.

Yeah, I think mental really is the biggest thing. At the end of the day, everyone can play at a high level, especially at the Olympics. Being in the top 100 versus top 30, the [technical] differences can oftentimes be small, so it’s a lot of mental, how well you can impose your game onto the [opposing] player, how good your tactics are coming into the match, and those things often make the difference between winning and losing when both players are already playing at a high level.

Mentally, do you feel like it’s different playing an international event versus at US Nationals, where you’re a heavy favorite, and I mean you’re basically like China at the US Nationals. Do you feel like preparing for Nationals is just completely mental at that point and is the mental preparation different from an international event?

Yeah, I think the Nationals in the last two or three years I’ve played, I’ve been the favorite. So it’s definitely a different kind of pressure in its way, because you kind of expect yourself to win, but at the same time, you have to realize that being the top seed versus actually winning are two very different things. Everyone is hungry to beat you. You’re the main guy to beat. It’s also easy to relax yourself, saying I’m the top seed, I should already be thinking of the semi-finals, and that’s really the wrong way to go at it.

Regardless of whether it’s a US Nationals or an international event, I always try to come in with the same mindset, which is just to be 100 percent prepared, 100 percent focused from the first round, and that’s how I always want to free myself into a tournament mentally.

To get into a good mental state right before a tournament, is there a certain preparation that you do? Like matches or something?

Yeah, it depends a lot on which tournament also. In general, I just try to make myself in good shape. As the days get closer to the tournament, it’s more like individual, I’d say how I feel, what I would like to do, what I would like to practice and work on.

And yeah, mentally, it’s more of just trying to adjust. If you’re feeling nervous, just try to relax. If you’re feeling too relaxed, then maybe pump yourself up the day before, maybe try to really get yourself motivated to play. You always want to try to find a balance between feeling really confident and positive but at the same time having a little bit of that pressure inside so that you know you’re going to have an edge.

On Getting Competitive Matchplay Leading Up to Tokyo

Kanak Jha's Bundesliga team at Ochsenhausen. From left to right: Samuel Kulczycki, Simon Gauzy, Hugo Calderano, Kanak Jha, Maciek Kubik
Kanak Jha’s German Bundesliga team at Ochsenhausen. From left to right: Samuel Kulczycki, Simon Gauzy, Hugo Calderano, Kanak Jha, Maciek Kubik. Source: TTF Ochsenhausen.

I’ve seen chatter that it’s hard to get in competitive matches these days due to COVID. The Europeans have ETTC going on, and the Asians have their own internal things going on. Do you feel like the team tournament this weekend [at 888 Table Tennis Club] is close to that?

Yeah. First, going into Tokyo, it’s a really different feeling compared to a normal event, just because there’s been no real international competition for such a long time. That’s something that’s not really normal in the table tennis scene. You’re used to playing a lot of international events, competing a lot, and now there’s really been no events for such a long period, so it’ll definitely be a little different feeling than a normal preparation.

That’s why I’m also really happy that we’re having an event this weekend where we can compete a bit and play some serious high-level matches and get yourself into the groove and see what is working, what is not working, and mentally try to get yourself into that competitive state and competitive feeling.

Given how few matches there are these days, is there a reason you chose not to play in Qatar [WTT Doha] in March?

During the Qatar Open, I was actually at home in California. It had been a long stretch for me in Germany, about ten or ten-and-a-half months that I hadn’t been able to come home. So my thought process was, at the time there was supposed to be a China Hub after Qatar, and I think there were supposed to be two events there. I think they originally planned four [including Qatar]. There would have been two events in China, and that was my original plan, to focus on the China Hub. They were also a little more important in terms of ranking.

But unfortunately afterwards, that got cancelled due to COVID. So it’s a bit unfortunate. If I knew that ahead of time, I definitely would have competed [in Qatar], but we live in a time of uncertainty, so we have to live with it.

So you really haven’t played competitively since like February then?

Yeah, I want to say my last international tournament was maybe in October, the Men’s World Cup in China.

You had other stuff like the German Cup in early 2021 though, right?

Yeah, then I think I competed competitively last time in like March, maybe. It’s definitely been a while, and the international stage is different from even the [German] league. So it’s still nice to play a tournament now this weekend and compete a bit.

On Some of His Recent Matches Against Top Stars

Kanak Jha celebrates a point against Chaung Chih-Yuan at the Men's World Cup in October 2020
Kanak Jha celebrates a point against Chaung Chih-Yuan at the Men’s World Cup in October 2020. Source: ITTF.

So at the World Cup, you almost beat Chuang Chih-Yuan [Kanak lost deuce in the seventh]. Based on my understanding, he’s been your favorite player for a while now. How was that? Were you starstruck or anything? Did you talk to him about that?

Actually it’s my second time playing him. I also played him in the 2019 Omar Open, and he beat me really convincingly there, so I was kind of disappointed with my performance there. I played quite badly. Maybe I was a little bit excited in 2019 to play him, because I mean I never expected to play him growing up, you know.

But this time, honestly I treated it like a normal match. It’s a World Cup, and once you get on the table, you just want to win. That’s what my mindset was, so I really wasn’t thinking of anything else.

But definitely still, even after playing him, I have even more respect for him, how great he is, how great he still is at his age. He’s definitely a fantastic player, and it’s one of the reasons he’s my favorite player.

So shortly after that, you played the German Cup, where you played Timo Boll and Shang Kun. For those matches, you lost both of those 3-0, but in pretty much every game, you were pretty close until the end. And then they get you with like a serve or something. For you, is that a mental thing, or is that just something that happens when you play stronger players, or is it just a problem reading their serves, or what?

Yeah, in general, top players’ serve and receive game is really important. You not only have to receive the ball, you have to receive it with a lot of quality, so that they don’t attack you aggressively on the next shot.

It’s cool, it was my first time playing Timo. He beat me 3-0. As you said, the sets maybe were a little bit close, but still it was quite convincing. It’s always cool to play against top players, because you can really feel their balls and really see up close what you can really never see on video, what they’re doing so well. So it’s always great to play against them and kind of learn what they’re doing that makes them so special.

I see. And do you feel like they’re playing better at the end of the games compared to the beginning of the games, when you’re able to keep the score tighter?

I think in general for all levels when you’re playing someone at a higher technical level than you, the ending is where you can really feel that the most. Whether it’s just because they’re a little more confident in their abilities or a little more experienced, in decisive moments is what really separates higher-level players from players who are not at their level. And I think that holds for all stages of table tennis.

I guess nobody that you’re training with has serves as good as Timo Boll. How do you practice your serve return under such circumstances?

I train more by myself and not to receive a specific player’s serve, so I’m working on my receive in general and my shots in general. But when you lose to a player where you have a problem, a pretty obvious problem, like you can’t receive or you have problems with their receive, it’s always good to take a look at that and work on that. But most of the time, I’m training just for myself to work on my own shots and that will anyway apply in the match regardless of who I’m playing against.

If you liked this post, please share it with your friends and follow Edges and Nets on Facebook Instagram, and Twitter to stay updated. Check out our our coverage of other interviews from top players in the game and the rest of our Olympic coverage. You can also follow Kanak Jha on Instagram.

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

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

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

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

Women’s Singles: Lily Zhang

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

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

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

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

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

Men’s Singles: An Jaehyun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you liked this article, please follow Edges and Nets on Facebook or Instagram to stay updated. The next post in this series will go over the list of women who are ranked in the top 20 who have entered the tournament and will take a closer look at seeds five through eight in the Women’s Singles event. It will be posted on Saturday, February 13 (North American timezone).

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