Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Table Tennis and Tennis, all in one Paris, 2013

First of all, the 2013 World Table Tennis Championship was held in Paris, France, in May 2013.  The biggest news is perhaps that Zhang Jike repeated as the world champion in men’s single.  In mere 3 years, he has won two world championships, one world cup, and one Olympic Gold, equaling Waldner’s major hauls.  It seems silly to ask if Zhang is as good as Waldner, but this is not so inconceivable.  A big praise for Waldner is his longevity, but one can argue that Zhang’s star burns brighter, because he wins so many so quickly.

On closer inspections, though, Zhang may owe his titles to more luck than Waldner.  What would you think if Waldner had won all the big ones by beating the same Jean-Philippe Gatien in the finals four times?  In Zhang’s case, it did happen with Wang Hao instead.

Zhang’s playing style can be summed up as control with power/spin, same as Wang Hao’s.  For comparisons, Waldner and Ma Lin’s style is control with variations, Wang Liqin’s power with control, while Ma Long’s motto is faster and faster.  A big advantage of Zhang over Wang Hao is that Wang Hao’s peak is in 2006-2009, so beating a slowly declining Wang Hao is not easy but still not the biggest deal.  Wang Hao tried hard in Paris, 2013, but at this stage, his movement is only slightly better than Ma Lin’s, which is, sadly, like a flag pole.  Zhang won the final (and previous encounters) by getting to better forehand positions faster.

Yet, if Wang Hao is so “weak”, how come he was in the final, not others, like Ma Long?

In Zhang Jike’s four majors, Ma Long played in only the two world championships due to quotas, and he lost both times to Wang Hao in the semis.

Ma Long historically has had problem with Wang Hao, owing to their playing styles.  Ma Long has balanced forehand and backhand, but he looks to win points faster, so he uses and trusts his forehand more.  In the old days (<2010), Wang Hao would initiate attacks with his penhold backhand over the table, pin down Ma Long at his backhand corner,  then out-rally Ma Long with forehands when Ma Long was younger with less power.  Zhang Jike can’t win like this because both he and Ma use shakehand, Ma Long can go toe-to-toe in backhand, and Ma Long’s forehand is faster and less predictable than Zhang’s.  Zhang can beat nowadays’ Wang Hao because when it comes to finishing points with a forehand, Wang Hao simply can’t get to as many balls as Zhang Jike.

But how about Ma Long vs a now-weaker Wang Hao, especially, why didn’t Ma Long win the semi-finals in 2011 and 2013?  The explanation is that, in 2011, perhaps just a coin toss, in 2013, Timo Boll.

In 2011, the semi between Wang and Ma was close.  Ma Long was leading 2:1, and it was not apparent who would win until the end.  But in 2013, it was clear from the very beginning that Wang played much better.  Ma long made a ton of mistakes, and more tellingly, when Wang Hao attacked his forehand down the line, Ma Long didn’t even move.  Wang raced to a 3:0 lead before Ma Long responding bravely with two sets and then running out of gas in the sixth set.

What happened in the semis, including the other semi that Zhang Jike beat Xu Xin even more badly?  Well, much can be attributed to the fact they played two matches on the same day.  Wang Hao beat a teammate, a less stressful situation,  Zhang Jike beat the weakest opponent of all, Baum, but Xu Xin and Ma Long used most of their energy beating their earlier opponents.  Thus, Xu and Ma can be excused for being both physically and mentally drained in the semis.  This is a reason I wrote this post, as I found few people had pointed out this obvious, at least in the print media.

Anyone who watched Xu Xin beating MATSUDAIRA truly appreciated how much running and energy Xu spent.  The 4:2 score does not tell the full story.  How many times did Xu Xin run around his backhand to play forehand loops to win just a point?  Xu Xin always has a hard time against Zhang Jike attacking his backhand, but Xu Xin’s performance at the semi was way below his usual.

Ma Long played Timo Boll, no doubt the biggest non-Chinese challenge in men’s singles.  The match is arguably of the highest quality in the whole event, with numerous fast attacks and counterattacks.  Both players gave their best.  A number of times I was impressed with Boll even bothering a long run to cover his wide forehand in a hopeless cause.  Ma Long played fast and furious out of the box and managed to maintain the high gear through six sets, the last five in close contests.  The focus of Ma long, likely of the Chinese team as well, was to stop Boll.  Once he achieved that, Ma Long was just out of focus, out of goal, and out of gas.

To illustrate the point, this scenario can happen to everybody.  Remember Zhang Jike in 2012, fresh off his London singles’ Gold, lost to Boll in the teams?  It is not that Zhang can’t lose to Boll, but in that match, Boll completely dominated the latter half of the match.  And that was already quite a few days after the singles.

In other words, Wang Hao won the semi against a tired Ma Long.  Zhang Jike was lucky in a sense that he has never played Ma Long for his four major titles.  It is not a given Ma Long would beat Zhang, of course, because Zhang Jike seems to play better and better into the events.  But it is always a regret in sports fans’ mind to not see arguably the best two players meeting in the majors.  And as Ma Long gets older, one wonders how long he can still maintain his quickness.  For Zhang Jike, his style is more geared up for longevity.

Now turn to the 2013 French Open tennis.

Nadal won his 8th title (see post "2012 French Open men's final"), with an epic, semi-final win over Djokovic.  Nadal is returning from an injury and long absence, has been winning a few tournaments already, but not without question marks, since he had to come back a number of times, including in Paris, in early rounds.  But he started to play better in later rounds.  In the meantime, Djokovic looked eager for the title, 3:0 beating Dimitrov and Haas, who beat him earlier in the year.  Dimitrov basically forgot how to play tennis in Paris.  Haas missed a few put-away forehands, but Djokovic ran hard and retrieved a lot of balls to overcome Haas.

Nadal was in a winning situation for most of the semi-final.  He went ahead first in the second set, and ahead, twice, in the fourth set, but lost both sets.  Nadal did come back from the fifth set, when Djokovic got tired at the end.  One has to wonder if his tired legs had anything to do with his failing to stop during the famous net play at a crucial time.  Sort of surprising, since their 2012 AO final was an hour longer, in favor of Djokovic.  Watching the match, Nadal’s backhand stood its ground better than before, and this allowed him to cover his forehand, with many straight forehand down the line winners (for more analysis see post "Sports news before 2012 Olympics").  But Nadal’s serves were poor, and fell apart when he got ahead in the second and fourth sets.  How many second, 90 mph serves did he do in those games?  If he wants to have any chance in All-England, Nadal needs to improve his first serve percentage.

Serena Williams won her 16th GS titles.  She is by far the strongest, and smartest woman player right now (see "Sports news before 2012 Olympics").  Next stop is 18 GS titles, then she has a chance at Graf’s record of 22 titles.  An earnest question is, is she the greatest ever?

In the objective criterion department (see post "Is Lin Dan the best badminton player ever?"), forgetting the GS titles for a moment, Serena has a winning H:H record against everybody, and has dominated the upcoming generation(s) of players for sure.  But there are caveats.

One is that Serena didn’t really dominate the older generation, most of who just faded away.  That is, the overlap was too brief to be a guide.  Her sister, Venus, may be counted as one.  Venus may be better than Serena on grass at their peak, but Venus hasn’t been a factor in years.  The same generation, the closest rival is Henin, with Serena leading by a close 8:6.  Hingis was also close, but Hingis is long gone. 

Serena has an even bigger advantage against her younger, major rivals, so one also has to wonder about the quality of the younger female players, so dominated by Serana at an “old” age.  Since 2012, at over 30, Serena seems to have a second (or third) spring in her career.  It is almost like Federer dominating his generation and tennis, but Federer did that in his mid-20s. 

In short, it is hard to judge at this point.  Serena faces fewer rivals.  Maybe she is just too good (like Federer, but at an older age).  Is this natural, or a sign that her younger opponents are just too weak?

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