Friday, August 17, 2012

Two interesting matches in the Olympics

A previous post "Two countries, three sports" pondered the future of badminton, table tennis, and tennis and suggested that badminton and table tennis might go like tennis as far as competiveness is concerned.  Currently China is dominant in badminton and table tennis, having won all 9 golds in the two events in London (and all world championships prior).  But the dominance will wane.  A critical factor is that nobody can keep a secret of the techniques Chinese use or develop, and Chinese coaches will train other athletes in China or overseas.  So players from other countries will master the same techniques and are not at any disadvantage facing Chinese players.  The only, main advantage Chinese players have is that their teammates are overall better training partners, but if it is the world vs China, the advantage is minimized.  Just like professional tennis.

If there is, ideally, little difference among countries, how about individual players?  Obviously, how well an athlete learns and uses various techniques depends on his physical and mental abilities.  People are innately stronger in some aspects and weaker in others, and their playing styles are molded by their development and natural strength.  Often we see close matches in which the two sides fight as hard as they can, with the outcome seemingly determined by who has the better stamina or will power.  But strategies play an often under-appreciated role, at least to lay people, as shown in one badminton match and one table tennis match in London 2012.

The badmonton match is the QF between Wang Xin and Ratchanok Intanon, truly the most notable match along with the WS and MS finals.  As an overview, WX led by 14:9 in the first set and lost, RI led by 16:9 in the second and lost.  In the third, RI was spent and lost.

This match featured the two most offense-oriented female players in the world and packed more firepower than any MS badminton matches.  WX and RI are not tall players, but they try to overpower their opponents like no one cares.  Players of the old attacking style do not have as many weapons and do not have the hit-a-straight-winner-every-point mindset, while Li Xuerui is a more complete player varying with opponents.  So WX and RI are similar to Lin Dan in 2004 or before, while Li Xuerui is like Lin Dan of 2012.  In the first two sets of the QF, WX and RI went punches to punches immediately after serves and didn't even bother with hitting to the four corners of the courts.  RI applied the same attacking strategy throughout the match, while WX was in a more rallying mode in the third, less entertaining but sensible when your rival was tired.    

RI got the upper hand until the second set at 16:9, because she defended better, and WX had the habit of simple errors when leading, which likely contributed to her unlucky fall in the later bronze medal match.  But how did WX come back at this late in the game?  WX had been serving long all day, while RI had varied with long and short serves.  At 10:16, WX suddenly served short and pounded on RI's returns right away.  RI was not prepared for that at all and lost consecutive points rather quickly in a similar fashion to 15:16.   This allowed WX right back into the game, and she continued to serve short to win the second set.  There were no typical, long rallies that ended when one side made an error or was out of breathe.  RI was in no position to win the third set.

I don't know how this WX's move from the left field came about.  Was it a game plan before the match, advised by her coach during the interval, or did WX come up with it all by herself or simply learn from RI?  It worked magic for her. 

The other is the men's doubles match during table tennis team SF between China and Germany, which essentially determined who would win the Gold.  China won the first singles' match, Germany's Boll beat Zhang Jike for the second, so it was 1:1.  If China won the double, Ma Long was expected to win the next singles.  If Germany won it, we might see the fifth and deciding match involving Wang Hao.  If he lost, we would have the image of 2004 Athens MSF all over again.  So the stake was very high for both teams.

The match featured Wang Hao and Zhang Jike vs Boll and Steger.  Chinese double alreay lost to Russia in team competition, so it was suspect.  The German pair were left and right handed, a combination better than the all right-handed Chinese.

Zhang Jike's forehand always has holes, but in his previous match against Boll, his forehand often swung and missed, and even when it made contact, he hit it wildly into the net or over the table too many times.  I think the problem is that his reflex was a tad slow on that day.  A deeper reason is perhaps he was nervous or not excited enough.  A telling point is at one set apiece, 8:8.  Zhang served, Boll popped up the return, but Zhang was slow to the ball and made such a half-hearted attack that Boll recovered in plenty of time.  That was perhaps the turning point of the match as well. 

Zhang Jike's form continued, although better covered by Wang Hao in the doubles.  Boll was prepared and motivated; Steger is not as famous as the other three, but he is very steady with dependable techniques and does not give away many free points.  Germany won the first set, a consecutive win of four sets by Germany, a sense of momentum.  China won the next two and was ahead by one or two points in the middle of the fourth set.  But a Chinese win was not sure thing as Boll and Steger fought hard.  A Chinese mishit or a German successful counterattack could turn the tide. 

A characteristic move by both Wang Hao and Zhang Jike is backhand loop-returning serves.  This has the advantage of initiating attacks and being aggressive.  But once you do it too many times, your opponent will expect and back off the table more, and he can better defend or even counterloop it.  That is why while Wang/Zhang always seemed to be the first to attack, they were not winning by a wide margin.  Then perhaps by a stoke of a genius, they returned serve with a short push near the net at 4:3 and won the point outright when Boll couldn't move forward fast enough.  Coach Liu Guoliang asked for a timeout at 6:4.  Don't know what he said or whether he was inspired by the service return he saw earlier.  Chinese looped the next German serve like old and lost the point.  Then at 6:5, short push, won, to 7:5.  Germany served again at 9:5, drop shot return, won.  Next serve, drop shot again, won again to 11:5.  In modern table tennis where every point necessitates high rpm loops or wide angle shots, I have never seen an outcome of a match of this magnitude decided by a simple change of service returns at so many points.   

A lesson from these two matches is that you don't have to use all your athletic ability to win every point, or even the most crucial points.  No heavy lifting, a clearer mind or better vision will go a long way.  This is perhaps how the best individual players win.  Have a good coach and game plan, still remember the plan in the heat of the competition, and change and adapt.


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