Monday, May 5, 2014

Losses and near losses by the Chinese table tennis teams

Chinese table tennis teams, men or women, don't lose often, so it is a big deal when they did or nearly so.

The 2014 World Team Championship could have been one such loss for the men's team.  The final score is 3:1, but if going to 2:2, high chance Germany would have won.  The key is that Zhang Jike being used as the second single was a baffling choice.

Zhang Jike is miles ahead of any active players in terms of winning major titles, except for the semi-retired Wang Hao, but he may also have the dubious title of the most lucky overachiever (previous blog "Table Tennis and Tennis, all in one Paris, 2013").  Regardless of the past, he hasn't been that good for a year or in this tournament.  He almost lost a point against Austria, and lost a game to Taipei's third, pretty weak single in the semi-final.  The same lineup against Taipei would have been non-controversial in the final against Germany, but changing that and playing Zhang in such a form for two potential matches can't be a good decision on the part of Liu Guoliang, the Chinese coach, win or lose.

Form aside, Zhang Jike has the worst records against Ovtcharov and Boll compared to Ma Long and Xu Xin, for a reason: his style of playing.  Zhang is a counter-puncher, control player, a stronger version of Kong Linghui, backhand-oriented.  As a result, it is not that he can't beat a power hitter like Ovtcharov or a skillful, left-handed Boll: he just has to work really harder.  Unlike Ma Long, whose only real question is whether he can maintain his quickness in the next match.

Ma Long must have been penciled in early on against Germany by Liu Guoliang, so the question is why Xu Xin, who was clearly playing much better than Zhang in previous rounds and played the first point in the semi, was the third single in the final?  A worry might be that Xu Xin's backhand be exploited by the Germans.  This worry is valid for most penholders, but not necessarily for Xu Xin.  For Xu Xin is a left-hander, likes to rally, and runs very well.  His only problem is to use his backhand more to save his knees.  The German players are used to Zhang Jike and Ma Long's styles, but not to Xu Xin's.  Franziska, the third single who won a point against Japan yesterday, was clueless against Xu's top spins, swinging and missing a lot. 

As the match went, first was Ma against Boll, a replay of 2013 Worlds Singles quarterfinal.  Boll was much slower this time, losing 0:3.  Maybe Boll is no longer young, and his two points against Japan yesterday was too much for the body.  The second was Zhang against Ovtcharov.  Can't say Ovtcharov was playing over his head: he was probably on the good, bronze-medal form of 2012 London.  Zhang was content to block from his backhand side much of the match, but Ovtcharov didn't miss, winning 3:0.  After Xu's easy win, the crucial point is Ma against Ovtcharov.  Ovtcharov lost a close first game and quickly the next two, ending the championship.  It was almost funny that Ma had so many net and edge points against him in the six sets he played, but he won all six. 

A variable is Ma vs Boll.  Boll served too many long balls to Ma's forehand, with disastrous results.  If Boll had had worked Ma Long well like in 2013, extending to 2:3, after the next, two quick matches, Ma could have been a bit tired against Ovtcharov, then Ovtcharov would have had a better chance of an upset.  If Zhang vs Boll in the fifth match, you can bet Boll would be hell bent to beat Zhang, as he did in 2012 London.  Then China would lose the championship, for using Zhang, not Xu, as the second single.  Ma Long saved the day, but Liu Guoliang knew that he dodged a bullet.

An analogous example is 2001 Worlds China vs South Korea in the semi.  China's first single, Kong Linghui, lost to two Korean power hitters, people he always had trouble playing, and it took Liu Guozheng and miracles for China to go through.  China should have used Ma Lin or Wang Liqin as the second single.

There were still quite a few other 3:1 and 3:2 wins by China, yet not every one deserved a second guess.  Sometimes you used your best lineup but your opponents just played excellent.  But there are indeed real losses in recent years, the 2000 men's team and 2010 women's team.

The 2000 men's 2:3 loss to Sweden had a few excuses.  The first is that they shouldn't even be playing in 2000.  The original schedule was in 1999, and Liu Guoliang actually won the singles title in that Worlds.  It instead played in early 2000, a time in the year Chinese not in peaks due to the traditional Spring Festival.  But the more pertinent were that Liu Guoliang had to experiment with a new rubber in 2000 and at the time also was under a cloud of drug suspicion, not a public information then.  Cai Zhenhua, the Chinese coach had to use Liu for his name, even though he likely knew Liu was no longer the player he was in 1999.  Liu lost both his matches, and Kong Linghui lost one point in that final.

The 2010 women's loss is an entirely different matter, due to a strategic blunder by the Chinese team to promote two young players, Ding Ning and Liu Shiwen, too quickly.  And one has to acknowledge that Wang Yuegu played the best match of her career in that final.  And Feng Tianwei.  After that loss, an older player Li Xiaoxia was "re-discovered", and she is now the only active player with all the major titles.

One underlying issue in these matches is the argument between veteran-safe vs young-risky selections. The coaches largely adopt the veteran-safe option, with the up-and-coming as the third single.  It gave more dramas but most of the time worked out OK.  The only time the young-risky option was deployed, the outcome was poor (2010 women).  Thus, Liu Guoliang explained after the match that Xu Xin was the third single because he had never played in the final before.  This thinking, however, has holes beyond the ones explained above, for it betrays your lineup completely before the final.  Xu Xin was fully capable in the semi and not known for losing under pressure, while Zhang Jike had lost in teams finals before.  Anyway you see it, Liu Guoliang is getting too conservative and too predictable.  It is good he has a strong team.  If it were in the 1980s China vs Sweden, Sweden would have won more. The last point to note is that the 2010 women's final still featured the best, albeit very young, Chinese players at the time.  The mistake was made before that championship, not during.

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