As the Tokyo Olympics rapidly approach, Mima Ito and Kasumi Ishikawa have made several comments to Japanese media. Furthermore, Ishikawa is allegedly in talks to be the vice-captain for the host country Japan (across all sports) at the Tokyo Olympics. We have aggregated and translated several of their comments and interviews below.
After Chinese media reported that Ito allegedly claimed that she had figured out how to beat Chen Meng and Sun Yingsha in May, Ito’s confidence remains high: “This time is different from the Rio Olympics, because this Olympics are in Japan. It feels unbelievable, but I am very confident and hope I can prepare coolly and calmly as usual. Even if tomorrow is the Olympics, it’s no problem. I will aggressively prepare with the mindset “in order to get the three golds [women’s singles, women’s team, mixed doubles], I must win.””
Ito also reportedly explicitly stated, “I will do my best to bring back three gold medals.”
Ito had an interesting comment regarding playing mixed doubles: “When I’m playing doubles, my body and legs move. It also makes my head spin and I get very tired, but it’s a very fun event.”
Kasumi Ishikawa Interview with “Big Kasumi” Creators
Ishikawa did an interview with the creators of the “Big Kasumi” statue. This interview was published on June 25.
There is roughly one month until the opening of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Please give us your goals and level of enthusiasm. With only one month left, I’m feeling more nervous, and I’m getting more and more excited.
What are your thoughts on seeing “Big Kasumi”? I was very surprised.
It’s real, and I’m very happy to see the completion because I had many cameras shoot it when I asked them to make it.
What kind of adjustments and preparations have you made for the Olympics so far? And where will you prepare for the your final sprint? Unlike the previous Olympic Games, I think that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will be held without any international competition beforehand, so I want to make adjustments so that I leave no regrets. I’m also in really good physical condition. I also want to be careful and stand on the court [presumably, Ishikawa is concerned about her lower back injury that caused her to withdraw from an internal Japanese tournament several months ago].
You said that you will be participating in the [Japanese] league from June 24th. Please tell us the purpose of participating in the match before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Being in the league from June 24th, just before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, is a very valuable opportunity for me. So I will play each game and execute what I have done and what I have practiced. I wish I could start the battle.
How is your current condition out of 100? I think it’s about 70 percent. I’d like to raise it a little more by the time I go to the game and get to about 90 percent until I get on the court, so I’d like to make adjustments for another month.
Lastly, please share your enthusiasm. I want to play at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics without regrets. I think the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will be in a difficult situation, but I want to play without regrets for myself. I want to stand on the court, and I want to make the remaining one month a fulfilling one.
Kasumi Ishikawa Interview Reported By Yahoo Sports
On June 27, Yahoo Sports posted an interview (in Japanese) with Kasumi Ishikawa. We have translated select questions and answers from this interview.
In some interviews, you said, “Recently, I’ve become able to speak with my true intentions.” What is your feeling about that?
After all, there were no matches due to the pandemic, and it was the first time in my life as a table tennis player that I hadn’t had such a match, and I think I was able to become a natural person in a good way.
For over 20 years since you started playing table tennis, you’ve been practicing hard at the top level.
If I didn’t have to do it, I wouldn’t do it at all (laughs). I think it’s difficult to maintain your level even with the minimum practice. Of course, it’s difficult to raise the level no matter how many years you’ve been doing it. If I try to do it at this level, I know that I can’t do it unless I practice hard, so I wonder if I’ll do it.
On the other hand, after winning the All Japan Championship, there was a comment that “I have been enjoying practicing recently.”
I’ve had a time when I couldn’t play a match this year due to the pandemic, and now I feel like I have to have fun. Of course, there are some tough and painful exercises, but I think it’s a waste not to enjoy this time now, whether it’s a match or practice.
Have you made any specific changes in your daily practice with that idea?
You’re doing more and more of the practice you want to do. The practice you have to do and the practice you want to do are probably a little different. There are other exercises I want to do, but I don’t think I have to do this, I’ll do more and more exercises I want to do. I haven’t done so much until now, but if I enjoy myself, I will continue to do what I want to do. Then, new exercises and things I want to do will come out, and I’m wondering if it will be fun again.
After all, I think it will be the first and last time to participate in the Tokyo Olympics once every four years, so rather than just looking at the feelings and results of enjoying it on the special stage of the Tokyo Olympics. I want to have fun, cherish the process, and feel that there is a result after that. I want to enjoy the situation I am in now, both in practice and in games.
Have you ever felt that you like table tennis again recently?
After all, I think I like table tennis because it’s fun to feel the joy of being able to do things after practice that I previously couldn’t do. The joy of being able to do something that didn’t work is the same as when I started playing table tennis.
Does the process of mastering a technique that you previously couldn’t do feel like you can just suddenly do it at one point?
There are various things. Sometimes you can do it suddenly, and sometimes you just have to do it. But after all that, I forget what I remembered. So, in the end, I think that people who can remember it often forget it, so if I try to remember it, I think it’s impossible if I don’t do it.
Do you sometimes suddenly become able to do it during a match?
Oh, that’s right. When you suddenly feel like “let’s try”, I think it’s a time when you feel positive, so that’s a good time. Whether it works or not. It feels like it doesn’t have to be included, so I was able to do that in the past, so now I’m thinking of doing it while cherishing it.
Do you feel a gap between the image of Ishikawa in society and yourself?
Well, I don’t really know what society thinks about me, so I don’t know (laughs)
Sure. I’m sorry…
Ah, but I really speak a lot, but I wonder if I think I don’t speak much. Someone I met for the first time said “I speak more than I expected” about 5 times, recently (laughs).
Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule!
Thank you very much.
Kasumi Ishikawa on the Japanese League
In this section, Edges and Nets has aggregated several of Ishikawa’s post-game remarks on the Japanese league. Sources: here, here, here.
“It’s a rare opportunity for a real battle, so I’d like to actively show what I’ve been practicing and find out what was good and what was bad. Today, the serve is very good and the opponent disliked it.”
“It was a great experience to be able to play a lot of games with strong players before the Olympics, and it was great to be able to play at this timing. One month left until the Olympics. I want to be well prepared so that I won’t regret it and do my best to play the best.”
“I’m very happy because it’s been a long time since I entered the Japan League, so I’m very happy. There were a lot of games. I think the backhand was good this time. There was a part that led to scoring, and I was able to put out a lot of what I had practiced in the games, so I was very confident. It was a good experience to be able to play against a strong player in a tense atmosphere. I will do my best to play the best at the Olympics by preparing well so that I will not regret the remaining one month.”
Coach Deng Yaping recently made several statements to Chinese media regarding the Chinese women’s team’s Olympic preparations and their most serious threat, Mima Ito.A translation of the linked article is provided below.
There are only a little more than 30 days left before the Tokyo Olympics. For the last few days, the Chinese National Team has been preparing for the final stage in Chengdu. As the “first generation big devil” of Chinese and World Women’s Table Tennis, Deng Yaping accepted an interview with Titan [the outlet that wrote the article] reporters. She believes that during this time the players most need to control the rhythm, and the number one opponent Mima Ito does not pose a real threat.
The closed training camp of the national table tennis has come to the final sprint stage. In the last month or so, what should be paid attention to? Deng Yaping, who has rich experience in competitions, especially the Olympics, said that the players should slowly enter the mental game state. After all, the Olympics are still more than a month. They can’t adjust their emotional excitement instantly but instead need to adjust, strengthen and improve it according to the results of the warm-up matches, and gradually deepen it.
“Different from preparing for the previous Olympic Games, there has virtually never been a situation of training without competition. How do we transition slowly from warm-up matches to Olympic competitions? Because the timeline of the Olympic table tennis matches is longer than the usual World Championships, World Cup and Pro Tour events, so we need to control the rhythm, because the competitive state is a very delicate thing. You can’t come out too early, and you can’t come out too late.”
The veteran players are more experienced to deal with this point, so Deng Yaping also said that this is the function of experience: “The veteran players have better experience and control over their nerves. They know that they need to be fully invested in the mental game and a bit excited, but before the game they need to control own excitement and know how much effort to use against the opponent. But at this point, one of our national team’s strong points is the coach’s control of the athletes, so we don’t need to worry about it.”
Speaking of veterans, the two veterans of the women’s table tennis players, between Ding Ning and Liu Shiwen, who participated in the last Olympic Games and won gold [in the team event], Ding withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics competition early, and Liu was passed over for Olympic women’s singles qualification. For Deng Yaping, this is a normal thing. As veteran players, they should have been able to understand and accept such a process very early.
“Any athlete has a peak period and a decline period. Competitive sports will always have a cycle. There will always be someone who will retire. Young people will always come up. The national table tennis team has always had a tradition of passing on help. I believe this arrangement must be approved by the coaching staff. As a result of many deliberations, everyone has their own career, and everyone must stick to their position.”
Therefore, the women’s singles representing the Chinese women’s table tennis team in the Tokyo Olympics will be Chen Meng and Sun Yingsha, who have never experienced Olympic experience. However, Deng Yaping is not worried about their performance: “They have played in world competitions, and they all showed their level. Being able to stand out from the top players in the national table tennis team fully demonstrates their due strength. Although the Olympics is different from other competitions, their competition experience is still rich.”
For their first Olympic journey, Deng Yaping said that the most important thing is their mentality: “Their technical and tactical abilities are definitely not problematic. The main thing is how they think. Don’t think it’s the Olympics, then they will be burdened with the pressure they shouldn’t bear. They cannot think too much about winning or that the two of us must win the championship. We should focus on every opponent and every match.”
With the two Olympic novices and Liu Shiwen, an experienced veteran, Deng Yaping believes that such a female table tennis trio is a very stable and comprehensive lineup for the Olympics: “The three of them happen to be the three generations of the old, middle and youth in the team. Experience, stability, impact, lineup changes can make various changes to opponents, and I look forward to their performance.”
In Tokyo, the biggest opponent of Chinese women’s table tennis is the Japanese team, or Mima Ito, whose face and name are also printed largely on the wall of the national table tennis training hall. Many people say that Mima Ito is small and mobile and fights hard, resembling Deng Yaping. So can she break through the wall that is the Chinese National Team?
Deng Yaping said: “The Chinese Women’s table tennis indeed has very few rivals. Ito is certainly a threat, but how strong is she? I don’t think so. She is indeed unique, but the strength is not strong enough, so we don’t respect her strategically. If we pay attention to her tactically and prepare carefully, I think it is enough. Although she has a good storyline [e.g. homecourt in Tokyo], there is no need to make her so mythical. Our Chinese players have the advantage and confidence to defeat her.”
Fan Zhendong recovered from a 3-1 in games and 8-4 deficit against Xu Xin to win the men’s singles finals and Wang Manyu handed Chen Meng her first major loss since the pandemic to win the women’s singles finals at the second leg of the Chinese Olympic Scrimmages.
It is an encouraging sign for Fan, who was upset by dark horse champion Zhou Qihao in the finals of the first leg of the China Olympic Scrimmages. Fan will represent China in the men’s singles event at the Tokyo Olympic alongside Ma Long. Ma was upset by Xu Chenhao in the quarter-finals, denying fans the chance to see a preview of the likely Ma vs Fan finals at the Tokyo Olympics. After suffering a series of bad losses earlier this year, Xu Xin finally put together a strong tournament performance as he rounds into form to represent China in the team event at the Olympics.
After his win, Fan noted that when losing, the most important thing to think about was not tactical adjustments per se, but to remind himself not to give up. After establishing a no-quit mentality was he able to think of tactical and technical adjustments to spark the comeback.
Wang Manyu was selected as a reserve for the Chinese Olympic team, but she defeated both of China’s women’s singles representatives at the Olympics, Chen Meng and Sun Yingsha, and clearly outperformed Liu Shiwen, who will be providing a veteran presence in the women’s team event.
Wang finally put a dent on Chen’s dominant run over the past year or so. Chen was up to this point undefeated in 2021 in the first leg of the Chinese Olympic Scrimmage and won the post-pandemic World Tour Finals, World Cup, and All China National Championships in 2020. This tournament result is not necessarily a cause for alarm for Chen and Sun, as the purpose of the scrimmages is precisely for them to work out the kinks in their game.
After her win, Wang remarked that she is very happy with the results and actually did not go into the tournament with any championship expectations or thoughts and was mainly focused on playing well in preparation for the Olympics.
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Mima Ito appears to have recently created a stir among Chinese media by declaring to Japanese media that she has figured out how to beat potential Olympic opponents Chen Meng and Sun Yingsha. The timing comes right after China’s National Games Qualifier tournament. However, Chen did not participate in the event, and Sun only played doubles. Chinese fans are left guessing whether Ito is really onto something, or whether she is participating in so-called psychological warfare.
Note: we were unable to obtain the original source of the Japanese interview and are only relaying the reaction by Chinese media. If someone could share the original interview, it would be greatly appreciated.
Ito seems to be guessing that China will send Chen and Sun to play the singles event in Tokyo, but China has not yet released its roster. Based on recent comments made by coach Li Sun, there is speculation that China will instead send Chen and reigning World Champion Liu Shiwen, who appears to have fully recovered from the elbow injury that sidelined her during the second half of 2020, to play in the singles event.
At this point, interpreting Ito’s statement is like reading tea leaves, but is it possible that she is trying to bait China into not sending Sun, who is 6-1 against Ito since 2018?
In WTT Doha in March, I won the single’s champion in two events (i.e. WTT Contender and WTT Star Contender). This tournament is different from previous ones, as the matches were only best three out of five until the quarter-finals. Because I don’t know what would happen under this format, I was very cautious throughout the tournament. Once I reached the stage where it was best four out of seven, I instantly felt relieved and could play comfortably.
Even though I wasn’t immediately playing my best starting from my first match (Ito squeaked by Britt Eerland 3-2 in her first match), my goal every day was simply to play to the level that I know I am capable of, and I slowly began to enjoy it. I feel that whether it is in table tennis technique or my mental game, I have become stronger in many aspects.
Different from last year’s world tour, WTT uses many different types of lighting, so the whole arena feels like a movie theatre. It made me feel very glamorous. Also different from the usual tournaments is that the barriers were very low, so it’s really easy to hit the ball outside of the playing area. The athletes also had to pick up the balls. Whenever I did this, I would start thinking, “if I take this path and walk around this way, I can get to the ball faster.” I would think about these things while playing the tournament.
Throughout these two competitions, I felt that winning the point during the first three shots was my main playing style (shameless plug: check out a similar observation Edges and Nets made in our finals analysis). When I win points through the serve and receive, I play with more excitement (unsure if this is the correct term. The original Japanese word appears to be ノリノリ).
I started gaining confidence in my serve when I won the German Open in March 2015, where I beat very high-ranked players (Ito beat Feng Tianwei, who was ranked number four at the time). I felt that my serves were very good, which made it difficult for my opponents to play aggressively.
At the time, I felt that as long as I could get the two points on my serves, it was enough. However, as I started playing these players more often, even if I won both my points on the serve, I would just return two points back to them on the serve return. Hence, I think both my serve and serve return need improvement.
I need to think carefully and come to a decision on whether to play international tournaments before the Olympics. Before WTT Doha, I did a lot of practice matches with many other players. I think this format is good as it gives the feeling of competition, but at the same time I can get some training in. I hope I can continue to use this method to prepare for the Olympics.
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As a medal contender at the Tokyo Olympics, Jeon Jihee has a chance to make Korean Olympic table tennis history this summer. The most recent Olympic singles medals for South Korea are Kim Kyung-ah’s bronze medal in the 2004 women’s singles event and Ryu Seungmin’s famous gold medal in the 2004 men’s singles event. No woman from South Korea has ever reached the finals in the singles event. Similarly, the last time South Korea won a medal in the women’s team event was in 2008, and South Korea has never reached the finals in the team event.
Jeon Jihee has a puncher’s chance at accomplishing all of these things, but there is one player who consistently stands in her way to Olympic glory: Mima Ito.
Jeon’s Path To Olympic Glory
The Path to a Singles Medal
In the women’s singles event, there are roughly three tiers of medal contenders. In the first tier are the two yet-to-be-named Chinese women, who will be heavy favorites regardless of their seedings (although both will likely be top three seeds). In the second tier is second seed Mima Ito, who is quite widely acknowledged as the single most dominant threat to Chinese supremacy in the women’s events. In the third tier are seeds four through eight, which in order of projected Olympic seeding are Cheng I-Ching, Feng Tianwei, Kasumi Ishikawa, Jeon Jihee, and Doo Hoi Kem.
Let us first make the somewhat reasonable assumption that nobody in the third tier is able to pull off what would be a historically unprecedented upset against either of the Chinese women (although a historic upset is always possible and Jeon has beaten Chen Meng before in T2). Jeon’s viable path to an Olympic singles medal without having to defeat a Chinese player is as follows.
As a top-eight seed, Jeon is guaranteed not to play anybody higher ranked than her until at least the quarter-finals. In order for her to have the best chance to medal, she has to hope that she can avoid the Chinese players in the quarter-finals by drawing either Ito or the fourth seed. If Jeon is able to upset both the fourth seed and Mima Ito in some order, then she wins at least a bronze medal.
While it is unclear how the Olympic seeding rules work out this year, there is a chance that the two Chinese players may end up on the same half of the draw, in which case if Jeon defeats the fourth seed and Ito, then she will reach the Olympic finals.
The Path to Team Glory
With Jeon’s presence and the rise of teenager Shin Yubin, who notched impressive wins over Miu Hirano and Miyuu Kihara at WTT Doha and steamrolled the domestic competition at the Korean Olympic trials, Team Korea looks to be at the very least a bronze-medal contender and arguably the bronze-medal favorite in Tokyo. However, Korea appears to have loftier expectations.
In a press conference on March 15 (English translation on TTD), Korean table tennis legends Ryu Seungmin and Kim Taeksoo said that they believe that Korea has a solid chance at upsetting Japan and taking the silver medal (Kim also believes that only Japan can reasonably challenge China) at the Olympics. This is a bold proclamation as Japan’s lowest ranked player, Hirano, is higher ranked than Korea’s highest ranked player, Jeon. However, Korea has pointed to recent encouraging signs in their favor, particularly Shin’s win over Hirano and Shin/Jeon’s doubles win over Hirano/Ishikawa at WTT Doha.
Korea is likely closely monitoring the progress of Choi Hyojoo and Shin Yubin before making any final lineup decisions. However, from their remarks, Ryu and Kim seem to be signaling that Jeon and Shin will be playing the doubles match and that Shin will be playing singles against Hirano or Ishikawa.
If that is the case, then Choi will play a singles match against Ito, who Choi came close to beating at the 2019 World Team Cup, and Japan’s choice of Hirano or Ishikawa, and Jeon will play Ito in a critical singles match should the two countries meet in the semi-finals.
Given that Jeon’s finals aspirations in both the team event and singles event likely run through Mima Ito, should Jeon spend the next few months hyper-focused on Ito similar to the way that China appears to be?
What are Jeon Jihee’s chances of pulling off the wins that she needs?
Jeon appears to have reasonable chances of upsetting the fourth seed in the women’s singles event (who will likely be Cheng I-Ching, Feng Tianwei, or Kasumi Ishikawa). Since 2018, Jeon is 4-3 against Cheng, 2-3 against Feng, and has not played Ishikawa in international competition. As we saw in WTT Doha, there is also a sizable chance that the fourth seed is not even able to make it to the quarter-finals.
On the other hand, we also saw in WTT Doha that Mima Ito appears to arguably be heads and shoulders above the rest of the non-Chinese competition, including Jeon. Since 2018, Jeon is 0-4 against Ito, including two 4-1 losses since the pandemic. Jeon will almost certainly walk into Tokyo as an underdog against Ito.
Although Jeon has had an underwhelming history against Ito over the last couple of years, their last two matches have been closer than the 4-1 scores may indicate. Out of the eight games that Jeon has lost to Ito in the last several months, three have been heart-breaking deuces.
First, at the 2020 World Cup last November, Jeon was up 10-7 and then failed to convert on four game points in a row to lose 13-11. Then at WTT Doha in March, Jeon lost a deuce 17-15 after Ito got a critical net ball at 15-15 in the second game. In the fifth game, Jeon was again up 10-7 lead and lost six game points in a row, resulting in a 15-13 loss.
Given the closeness of some of these games, even marginal targeted adjustments against Ito may be enough for Jeon to tilt the game more in her favor and pull off the upset in Tokyo.
The Story of Jeon Jihee’s Service Strategy Against Mima Ito
Mima Ito’s Domination on the Serve Return
One adjustment to her game that Jeon has already made and may continue to make against Ito is in the service. Shown below are the last four game points that Jeon failed to convert in game five against Ito at WTT Doha as well as the only match point that Ito needed to win the match.
Over the course of five consecutive critical service returns, Ito manages to receive every serve with the short pips on her backhand and does whatever she wants to them to create an advantage for herself on the next shot. She lands three chiquitas of varying side spin, a fast straight backhand flick, and a strawberry flick.
Why is Ito able to so freely create whatever she wants when receiving the short ball? Part of the reason may be that she does not fully respect the threat of Jeon’s long fast serve to the backhand, which allows Ito to fully focus on being creative with the short receive. Can we quantify how concerned Ito is about the long serve to the backhand and by extension how little attention she can devote to the receive on the short forehand corner?
One rough proxy is the number of times she receives a long fast serve with her forehand. When Ito receives too many long fast serves to the backhand and feels like she is unable to create an advantage on them, she tends to step around and open using her forehand. If Ito has to plan to open her stance for a forehand loop and additionally move left if she’s stepping around, then in principle it should become more difficult for her to move into the table to the short forehand corner to receive a serve with the pips on her backhand.
In Ito’s 4-3 win against Hina Hayata at the All Japan National Championships in January, Ito attempted to receive 13 long serves with her forehand (note this number also includes Hayata’s long serves to Ito’s forehand). In her 4-2 win against Hayata at WTT Doha, that number was 16. In her 4-3 loss to Kasumi Ishikawa at the All Japan National Championships, that number was 5. What about in her 4-1 win over Jeon Jihee at the World Cup last November? Zero.
Jeon raised that number to three in Doha. Let us take a look at the adjustment she made to cause this change, and whether she should further adapt her service game specifically for Mima Ito like other top lefties appear to do.
How Other Left-Handed Stars Serve Against Mima Ito
Jeon may have already started to adapt her service pattern to be more in line with several other left-handed players who are strongly motivated to optimize their games against Ito: Hina Hayata, Kasumi Ishikawa, and Ding Ning. Hayata and Ishikawa should be deeply familiar with Ito since they compete with her for domestic as well as international titles. Ding Ning, along with the rest of China, is likely also hyper-focused on Ito as she is the single biggest threat to Chinese supremacy.
We show selected points in some of their matches against Ito in the past year. Note that these are all very important points in the match. For Hayata and Ishikawa, these are their last few serves in a seven-game thriller. For Ding, these are her last three serves in a 14-12 win during a pivotal third game.
Several things stand out. First, all three of them are willing to challenge Ito on the long serve, even if it means letting Ito step around for a forehand opening. Second, Ito doesn’t do anything too fancy against them when they do serve short. Third, when serving they all stand inside close to the middle of the table (as opposed to the more common position of standing behind the corner), which appears to give them the flexibility to execute serves short to the wide forehand or long to the wide backhand.
Hayata and Ding can go full games serving entirely behind the corner, even at 9-9, but they do serve from inside the table throughout the match, and it says something that when they need points the most, they opt to serve from inside the table. Moreover, while Hayata likes to serve from inside the table against everyone, Ding and Ishikawa are quite clearly serving more often from inside the table specifically because they are playing Ito.
To get a rough idea of how heavily Ishikawa changed her service game for Ito in the All Japan National Championships, consider the following numbers. In Ishikawa’s 4-3 win over Ito in the finals, Ishikawa served from inside the table 85 percent of the time. However, in her 4-2 win over Miyuu Kihara in the semi-finals, Ishikawa served from inside the table only 21 percent of the time.
In Jeon’s loss to Ito at the World Cup, Jeon didn’t serve from the inside the table even once. This is in line with her and Ding Ning’s typical service pattern: almost always serve from behind the corner and possibly break out a different serve from inside the table to introduce some surprises during critical points.
However, at least Ding and Ishikawa have both apparently decided that such a service pattern is sub-optimal against Mima Ito. Jeon seems to have arrived at a similar conclusion as she heavily integrated more serves from inside the table at WTT Doha.
How Jeon Jihee Changed Her Serves At WTT Doha
Jeon Jihee notably started serving from inside the table against Mima Ito at WTT Doha in the second halves of Games 2, 3, and 5 after never doing so in the World Cup (she did, however, serve at least once from the center of the table in her 3-1 loss to Ito at T2 in 2019).
We caught glimpses of the potential advantages of using this serve. In the clip below, we see Jeon take a pair of points at 9-9 in the third game off two fast long serves to the backhand. Ito can only give a standard backhand flick return that is not particularly fast due to the short pips, which Jeon can take advantage of.
However, this serve is not a silver bullet to cure all of Jeon’s woes against Ito. Due to a combination of Ito’s brilliance and Jeon’s possible lack of familiarity with her own serve, some of Ito’s returns against this serve seemed to really catch Jeon by surprise. Jeon also may have signaled more information than she would like with her service stance; she was far more likely to serve fast and long to the backhand when standing inside the table. She can remedy this by serving to the short forehand from inside the table more often.
Jeon also almost certainly feels more comfortable with her usual serve from behind the corner. While she can surely execute her serve from inside the table perfectly during training, can she do it repeatedly when the pressure is on?
As seen in the first video clip in this post, to close out the match Jeon reverted to her normal serve from behind the corner even though Ito was having her way with them. Was this a tactical decision or was it because Jeon lost confidence in her ability to execute the serve well? Jeon did serve a long fast serve to the backhand from inside the table at 12-11, but Ito seemed to easily take advantage of it since the serve was predictable and/or not executed well.
It remains to be seen whether Jeon further integrates this serve into her matches against Ito in the future. At Doha, she only used this serve in the second half of a game and only if the score was within two or three points. This is roughly on par with (although possibly slightly less than) how often Hayata and Ding use this serve against Ito. Does Jeon want to fully adapt Ishikawa’s strategy in All Japan and essentially make this her default serve?
How Much Does Jeon Jihee Want Mima Ito To Step Around?
Counting the number of times Mima Ito receives a long serve with the forehand is always an interesting exercise. As mentioned earlier, the upside of Ito stepping around is that it means she can devote less attention to the short forehand corner. The downside is that it allows her to open with an aggressive shot.
However, a step around forehand from Ito may not be as scary as it sounds. Sure, if Ito knows exactly where the ball is going and has time to prepare, she can pretty much score an immediate winner with a fast wide smash to either corner. However, when she is on the move, not completely in position, and hitting it from a wide angle on her backhand corner, it is extremely difficult to go hard straight down the line to the left-handed server’s backhand.
The points shown below are quite illustrative of the risks and rewards of Mima Ito stepping around for the forehand opening on the serve return.
In the first point, Ito is only able to make a soft and somewhat predictable cross-court shot to Jeon’s forehand, and Jeon lands the strong counter-loop. In the second point, Ishikawa is waiting for the forehand counter, but Ito manages to get in position and land a smash to her elbow for the instant kill. In the third point, Ito prepares to step around, but Ishikawa serves short to the forehand, so Ito can only push with the forehand. Ishikawa loses the point, but she gets a desirable serve return from Ito.
No set formula exists for how often the opponent should want Ito to step around and take the forehand serve return opening. Even Ito probably does not know the optimal number. Hayata, Ding, Ishikawa, and Jeon (listed in order of willingness to challenge Ito’s long opening attack) have all tried various service strategies with varying degrees of success.
So far Ding has had the most success against Ito, but that can also be heavily attributed to the fact that she is Ding Ning. Meanwhile, Jeon has so far been the most conservative with the worst results (granted there are many other factors that account for her results), and it remains to be seen whether she will further adapt her strategy going forward.
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Unfortunately, ITTF has killed ITTV, meaning that past matches are no longer publicly available to watch. Hence, no blog posts are scheduled for the immediate future.You can check out past analysis posts here.
You can watch some full matches of Liu Shiwen and other players at the Chinese National Games on the 247TableTennis Youtube Channel. These matches may very well be the only glimpse we get of the Chinese National Team until the Olympics since they have withdrawn from all international events until then:
If you liked this post, please share it with your friends and follow Edges and Nets on Facebook , Instagram, and Twitter to stay updated.
Not the post you were looking for?A guide to all of Edges and Nets’ coverage of WTT Doha (also known as World Table Tennis (WTT) Middle East Hub and formerly known as ITTF Qatar Open) can be found here.
Mima Ito walked away from WTT Doha with 40,000 USD in prize money. Ruwen Filus walked away a fan favorite. Dimitrij Ovtcharov notched three signature wins under his belt. So who was Edges and Nets’ top pick for the biggest winner at WTT Doha? Feng Tianwei.
Why? In the grand scheme of things, WTT Contender and Star Contender events matter for basically two reasons only: amassing world ranking points to obtain better seeding at bigger events and using the competition to work out kinks in your game in order to peak at a bigger event. As it is still only March, we can’t take too much stock in how these performances will translate into the Tokyo Olympics in the summer, but the seeding implications are real and lasting.
Although WTT has been unpredictable regarding seeding practices so far, in general the higher your seed is entering the Olympics the better. At the time being, it appears safe to assume that the top eight seeds at the Olympics will be seeded appropriately as usual.
With that in mind, let us revisit the world ranking system, after which it will become apparent why Feng was the biggest winner from WTT Doha.
The World Ranking System
Each player wins a certain amount of ranking points at every tournament depending on how well they did and how prestigious the tournament was. For WTT Contender, the ranking point distribution is 400 points for the champion, 280 for the finalist, 140 for the semi-finalists, 70 for the quarter-finalists, 35 for losing in the round of 16, and 4 for losing in the round of 32. For WTT Star Contender, those numbers are 600, 420, 210, 105, 55, and 25 respectively. 5 points are also awarded for losing in the round of 64 in WTT Star Contender.
Under normal circumstances, a player’s world ranking point total is computed by summing up the points won over his or her best eight performances over the last twelve months. However, since there has been a hiatus in play due to the pandemic, the world ranking system is slightly different at the moment.
Each player has a certain number of world ranking points from 2020 that roll over into 2021. These world ranking points are slowly decaying until the end of the year, at which point they will completely expire. At the time of this writing (mid-March), they have decayed to 70% of their original value. By the Tokyo Olympics, they will have decayed to 40% of their original value. Your world ranking points are determined by adding up the points you have earned in 2021 with your decaying points from 2020.
For example, if you had 10,000 world ranking points in 2020 and earned 1,000 ranking points in 2021, then you would have 10,000*0.7 + 1,000 = 8,000 world ranking points now and 10,000*0.4+1,000=5,000 world ranking points by the time the Tokyo Olympics roll around.
Although Edges and Nets has previously emphasized the April world rankings in our previews, the ranking list that really matters is the one used at the Olympics. Thus, in all our world ranking lists today and in the future, unless otherwise specified we will decay the 2020 world ranking points down to a factor of 0.4. This makes our rankings slightly different from the official ones posted by ITTF/WTT, but our world rankings will be slightly more relevant.
With that in mind, let us look at the current state of the projected top ten seeds at the Tokyo Olympics, from which we can see who was a winner and who blew some major opportunities at WTT Doha.
Women’s Singles Winners and Losers
We look at the rankings of the projected top ten seeds at the women’s singles event in the Tokyo Olympics. Since China has not yet announced who will play, we will look at both Sun Yingsha and Liu Shiwen on our rankings list. Wang Manyu, Zhu Yuling, and Ding Ning will be in a situation between Sun and Liu. That being said, China could likely not care less about Olympic seeding.
Although Edges and Nets was unable to obtain formal verification of this rule, based on our understanding the Olympics guarantee that two players from the same country will not meet until the finals. (Update: A commenter has pointed out that this may not necessarily be the case this year). Hence, since almost everyone would favor a top Chinese player over even Mima Ito, even if Liu Shiwen drops to ninth in the world, she will still be the de facto second seed.
2020 Decayed Points
WTT Doha Contender Points
WTT Doha Star Contender Points
Doo Hoi Kem
Women’s Singles Projected World Rankings for Olympic seeding
Because China effectively has the top two seeds even though Ito is the second seed in name, the race for the top three seeds is not particularly interesting. However, the fourth seed is highly valuable as it guarantees a path to the semi-finals without having to play Ito or a Chinese player. The eighth seed is similarly coveted since it guarantees a spot in the quarter-finals without having to play Ito or a Chinese player.
Hence, Feng Tianwei is clearly the biggest winner coming out of WTT Doha. Going into Doha, Feng only had a puncher’s chance at the Olympic fourth seed. It looked like that chance had evaporated after Feng suffered a first-round exit in WTT Contender. However, Ishikawa and Cheng extended Feng a lifeline by each suffering early exits in both the WTT Contender and WTT Star Contender events.
Feng seized on this lifeline with a run to the WTT Star Contender finals that included a win over the massively underrated Hina Hayata, who also happened to help Feng out by defeating Ishikawa in WTT Contender and Cheng in WTT Star Contender. Feng has now passed Ishikawa outright on the projected Olympic seedings, and all Feng needs in the next WTT event (an event in China appears to be in the works) is either a major upset on her side or another collapse by Cheng in order for Feng to take complete control of the Olympic fourth seed.
As Feng is the biggest winner, by extension the biggest losers in the women’s singles events at WTT Doha are Ishikawa and Cheng. They each blew a chance to take full control of the fourth seed and allowed Feng to crash what should have been a two-way race.
Elsewhere in the ranking list, Jeon Jihee came out a minor winner and gave herself some breathing room to maintain a top-eight seed by for the most part playing to her seeding and avoiding losses to lower-ranked players. Although Adriana Diaz moved up on the rankings list following WTT Doha, it can be argued that she came out a minor loser at this tournament. Adriana Diaz had a chance to take advantage of Doo Hoi Kem’s absence and put herself in position to join the top eight seeds in Tokyo, but she squandered that chance by losing in the first round at WTT Contender.
Men’s Singles Winners and Losers
We now look at the top ten seeds in the Olympic men’s singles events. China has not yet announced who will play, but regardless of their selection the top two seeds at the Olympics are almost certainly going to be some combination of Ma Long, Fan Zhendong, and Xu Xin.
2020 Decayed Points
WTT Doha Contender Points
WTT Doha Star Contender Points
Men’s Singles Projected World Rankings for Olympic Seeding
Update: A previous version of this post had incorrect ranking points added to Falck and Jang. This error has been corrected.
In the men’s event, there is no clear massive winner like Feng Tianwei. Instead, the biggest winner of the men’s singles event by default is Dimitrij Ovtcharov.
While Ovtcharov walked away with the WTT Contender title and appears to be quite happy that he has re-joined the top ten in the world rankings, from an Olympic seeding perspective not much has changed. In our tournament preview, we expected that a baseline level of play would be enough for Ovtcharov to take control of a top-eight seed in Tokyo and join the top ten in the world rankings list. Although Ovtcharov outperformed expectations and is now projected to pass a disappointing Mattias Falck, he is still firmly entrenched in the 5-8 spot in the Olympics as expected.
That being said, all Ovtcharov needs is for Lin and Calderano to pull a page out of Cheng and Ishikawa’s book in the next WTT event, and he may just be able to steal the fourth seed in Tokyo. However, Ovtcharov is still in a worse position than Feng was entering Doha since the next WTT event is likely to be in China. Even if only two Chinese players play, the odds of Ovtcharov pulling off a surprise finals run in China like Feng did in Doha drop astronomically.
Lin Yun-Ju is a minor winner considering that he passed Calderano for the Olympic fourth seed. However, Lin shouldn’t be feeling too victorious since with his losses to Ovtcharov and Filus, he blew a chance to really put some distance between him and Calderano.
The two major losers in the men’s singles events were Hugo Calderano and Jang Woojin. Calderano lost control of the Olympic fourth seed with a quarter-final loss to Simon Gauzy in WTT Contender and threw away his chance to take it back with a missed serve against Darko Jorgic at match point in the WTT Star Contender round of 16.
Going into the tournament, Jang appeared to be a slam dunk to pass Timo Boll in the world rankings and put himself in position to take the eighth seed in Tokyo. However, Jang was unable to notch even a single win and now finds himself still stuck as a projected ninth seed in Tokyo.
In summary, Edges and Nets’ final picks for winners and losers at WTT Doha are:
Major Winner: Feng Tianwei
Minor Winners: Dimitrij Ovtcharov, Lin Yun-Ju, and Jeon Jihee
Minor Loser: Adriana Diaz
Major Losers: Kasumi Ishikawa, Cheng I-Ching, Hugo Calderano and Jang Woojin
Our next blog post will be posted on Wednesday, March 24.Update: The release of the next post has been delayed by up to a couple days.
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Not the post you were looking for?A guide to all of Edges and Nets’ coverage of WTT Doha (also known as World Table Tennis (WTT) Middle East Hub and formerly known as ITTF Qatar Open) can be found here.
Shin Yubin (WR 94) continued her sensational run at WTT Star Contender in WTT Doha as she defeated Miu Hirano (WR 12) 11-4, 13-11, 4-11, 11-7 in the round of 16 in a preview of a potential Olympic team semi-final match-up. Shin will play national teammate Jeon Jihee in the quarter-finals.
It is yet another disappointing loss for Hirano in 2021. After a loss to a lower-ranked (granted, Shin is massively underraetd) potential Olympic rival, Hirano’s continued slump has to be raising alarm bells for Japanese team coaches.
The most alarming aspect of this loss for Hirano is that Shin just felt better. Shin dictated the pace of the game and relentlessly attacked Hirano’s elbow, and there seemed little that Hirano could do about it. Shin also appeared to dominate the rallies, and the match ended up being as close as it was largely due to some tricky play by Hirano and what felt like Shin being a bit predictable in game 3.
To get a feel for how concentrated Shin’s attacks to the elbow were, Edges and Nets found that 18 out of 28 (64%) of Shin’s attempted openings were directed at Hirano’s elbow, while only 9 out of 33 (27%) of Hirano’s attempted openings were directed at Shin’s elbow (Hirano mainly attacked both wings). Shin’s mid-rally shots and long serves also targeted Hirano’s elbow.
While the numbers may make it look like Hirano was more aggressive than Shin, they belie the fact that Shin served long roughly twice as often (ten times to five times) than Hirano did in anticipation of a soft opening, which may have reflected her confidence in winning the longer rallies.
Hirano did not help herself in the first game by missing a total of five serve returns and giving a couple of sloppy serves that Shin was able to kill for winners. This included the four early missed serve returns shown below that allowed Shin to build a 7-2 lead and then cruise to a 11-4 victory. In contrast, Shin did not miss a single serve return this game.
The serve return disparity slightly evened out in the second game, and Shin was able to build a 10-7 lead thanks to aggressive play to the elbow like in the clip shown below.
However, Hirano almost stole game two by reaching into her bag of tricks on the serve return: a strawberry to the elbow at 8-10, her first deep push to the backhand of the match at 9-10, and a weird soft floater at 10-11.
After getting her fifth game point at 12-11, Shin apparently had enough with Hirano’s tricks, served a fast long serve to and converted the game point by dominating the ensuing rally.
In the third game, Hirano appeared to better anticipate Shin’s attacks to the elbow as she handled it with a combination of hard step-around forehands and concentrated well-placed blocking. Combined with some additional surprise plays such as another long deep push to Shin’s backhand at 5-3, Hirano was able to build a 8-3 lead and then cruise to a 11-4 victory.
Shin opened up game four with two wide openings to the backhand that Hirano was not expecting. In particular, in the first point shown below, you can see that Hirano’s hand and feet appear to be cheating early towards a step around forehand and she’s completely caught off guard by Shin’s decision.
By diversifying her openings a bit, Shin was able to neutralize Hirano’s anticipation advantage, and in a raw rally, Shin appeared to have the advantage as she walked her way into an 11-7 victory to take the match 3-1. She will face Jeon Jihee in the next round, where she will get the opportunity to stamp herself as the face and future of Korean women’s table tennis.
Not the post you were looking for?A guide to all of Edges and Nets’ coverage of WTT Doha (also known as WTT Middle East Hub and formerly known as ITTF Qatar Open) can be found here.
Mima Ito defeated Hina Hayata in the finals 4-2 to win the WTT Contender title at WTT Doha. Before the finals started, Edges and Nets wrote a preview that incorporated rudimentary statistical analysis to verify and draw further insights regarding some of our qualitative observations of Ito and Hayata’s match-up at the All Japan National Championships in January.
In this post we revisit the trends we observed in our preview and discuss whether these trends continued to hold in the WTT Contender finals. For a (non-statistical) summary of the finals, please read our recap here. The statistical trends in this match turned out to vary wildly from the All Japan National Championships match. Although this disparity can be partially attributed to uninformative noise present in small sample sizes, we believe that it also partially reflects the dynamic nature of table tennis and how adjustments between matches and even games can wildly swing the nature of a match.
Disentangling these two factors of variation (statistical noise and change in strategy) is an open problem that Edges and Nets is actively exploring. Any suggestions or feedback is welcome.
Ito Dominates On The Third Ball
In our previous post, we noted that Ito had a massive edge in the long rallies, winning a staggering 71% of rallies in which she attempted four or more shots including all six rallies where she attempted five or more shots in the All Japan National Championships match.
Although Ito’s share of total points won rose from 48% to 54%, this time around, Ito only won fifty percent of the long rallies. However, we believe that this discrepancy from Japan can be mainly attributed to the tiny sample size. The number of long rallies dropped by a fair amount; in Japan 14% of the points (for a total of 17 long points) were long rallies and in Qatar that number dropped to 9% (for a total of 10 long points). Hence, if just one or two points had swung the other way (and a couple of the “long rallies” had a fair amount of pushing), the numbers would look more consistent with their Japan match-up.
Unless Hayata suddenly got better at long rallies or Ito suddenly got worse (which is possible if she had a bad night of sleep or something), it is likely that the odds of Ito’s winning a long rally will have stayed relatively similar between January and now. Combining the results of the two recent match-ups, Ito has won 63% of her 27 long rallies against Hayata over the last two months. Our sample size is still quite small and this number may change even more in the future; however, we still feel that Mima Ito is a stronger player in the rallies from watching them play, and physically her lower body looks quite clearly stronger than Hayata’s.
While the change in percentage of long points won by Ito can be attributed to noise and it is possible that the drop in the number of long rallies can as well, we believe that the drop in number of long rallies is due to change in tactics by the players. First, the sample size is larger and thus more robust as the match had 113 points in total. Second, the number of 5-shot, 4-shot, 3-shot, and 2-shot points all decreased and the average rally length (as measured in Mima Ito shot attempts) dropped from 2.3 to 2. As a result the percentage of “one-shot” points that ended in serve, serve return, or third-ball winner by either player rose from 41% to 50%.
Although we previously stated that it may be in Hayata’s interests to lower the length of the rallies, when watching the match it actually felt like Ito was the main one responsible for shortening the rallies as she attempted difficult and aggressive shots with wide angles. This may be reflected in the change in percentage of “one-shot” points won by each player: in their previous match-up in Japan, Ito only won 47% of such points; this time that number jumped to 59%, indicating that she benefited from the shortened points.
Hayata’s Long Serve Management
In an interesting twist, Ito only won 48% of the points in which she served but Hayata only won 40%(!) of the points in which she served. We are not sure what caused this counter-intuitive result.
In our previous post we speculated that Hayata would consider serving more long serves since she actually performed better on her long serves compared to her short serves. It appears Hayata agreed as her percentage of long serves rose from one third to 46%. Her long serves, of which she won 42%, performed slightly better (albeit within the margin of statistical error) than her short serves, of which she only won 39%. Hence, although our judgement must be taken with a massive grain of salt due to small sample size, it appears that Hayata made the correct choice by serving long more often.
We raised the question if it was beneficial for Ito to step around and take Hayata’s serves with her forehand. Ito took 61% (16 out of 26) of Hayata’s long serves with her forehand and won 56% of those point. In comparison, she won six out of the ten long serves she received with her backhand. Hence, with our limited amount of data there is still no evidence that taking the long serve with her forehand or backhand is better.
Did Hayata choke?
We now present a possible explanation for Hayata’s poor performance on her own serve. Did Hayata choke? Meaning, did Hayata play worse than normal because she was nervous? Serves are one of the first things to degrade in quality when a player gets nervous, and she had more than enough reason to be nervous. Although Hayata has played on the big stage before such as in her 2020 All Japan National Championship title run, to the best of our knowledge this is the closest she has ever gotten to winning a major international event.
We know that body-language reading is mostly pseudo-science, but we are going to call upon our resident body language expert anyway to analyze the following clip. This is at the end of game 4 after Ito had narrowed the lead from 10-7 to 10-9 and then called a “covid time-out” where she asked the umpire to wipe the table. Hayata’s face looks frozen in fear and she is completely stiff while Mima Ito is jumping around when the camera pans out (note that Hayata would call time-out and go on to win the game 11-9). This is completely different from when Ito called a covid time-out at 5-3 in the same game (not shown), during which Hayata was also jumping around and keeping herself loose.
Of course, body-language and facial-expression reading is a completely subjective exercise that largely confirms everyone’s own beliefs, and in our recap we already came to the conclusion that Ito was more clutch than Hayata in game 5. It will be interesting to see if we can find a method to quantify clutchness or other soft skills like anticipation. This is largely an open problem across all sports, but we would argue it is particularly important in table tennis, where even a slight change in timing can completely ruin someone’s game.
At the moment, due to the small sample size and the fact that this is a completely new exercise for us, interpreting the limited data appears to be somewhat akin to reading tea leaves, but we hope that the statistics shared in this post provided some additional insight to Mima Ito’s finals victory over Hina Hayata at WTT Contender. Although some people prefer watching many different match-ups, here’s to hoping for another Ito vs Hayata finals in WTT Star Contender so we can do another round of this type of analysis.
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