by Dominique Plattner, ITTF High Performance Manager
One of the major third round casualties was Germany’s Dimitrij Ovtcharov, a major contender for honours, at the time listed at no.12 on the world rankings. He was beaten by Croatia’s Tomislav Pucar, named at no.58 in the global order
- Tomislav Pucar beat Dimitrij Ovtcharov 11-9, 8-11, 11-8, 8-11, 2-11, 11-5, 11-7
- Match duration: 51 minutes 42 seconds
The two protagonists had never previously met on the international stage; one of the most successful European players ever faced one on the rise, opponents whose heritage was very different.
Dimitrij Ovtcharov learnt his basic table tennis skills in a time when “gluing” was still allowed and the ball was made of celluloid. Conversely, Tomislav Pucar honed his skills in a generation that used the plastic ball from day one; opening the game quickly, not playing as much short-short but more “banana” flicks. Also he integrated those flicks from the forehand side, making an early contact with the ball and staying close to the table.
Throughout, the match was in the balance, reflected in the statistics, both players recorded exactly the same number of points; each 62 in total. Also, the overall points won on own serve and receive were the same. So what made the difference?’
Both players tried to read each other, especially the way the opponent reacted to the different variations of serves and placements.
Dimitrij and Tomislav started with the same tactic regarding their serves, short to the forehand or long to the backhand, the aim to avoid their opponent’s “banana” flick return as much as possible. Ovtcharov tried to open the game quickly, particularly with diagonal top spins to Pucar’s forehand; the Croatian maintained an aggressive policy from the very start despite making some unforced errors.
Additional to a few short receives to the forehand side, many backhand flicks from the forehand side were used when receiving service due to the fact that both players wanted to open play as soon as possible.
Therefore, both implemented long serves to the backhand to put pressure on the opponent. It became impossible to automatically step into the ball, because they had to be prepared for the long ball to the backhand. Pucar felt comfortable with his reverse pendulum serve, Ovtcharov changed from his backhand to a forehand serve in the middle of the game; first the pendulum and then even the tomahawk.
In rallies, Pucar’s forehand top spins down the line were very effective. Another crucial point to emphasise was the difference in the timing. Pucar made contact much earlier, because of his long arms he was able return the ball with speed.
At 10-9 Pucar served towards Ovtcharov’s forehand, no spin, the return was too high. Pucar was able to take the game by using one of his strengths, maybe his biggest, a powerful backhand topspin above the table.
Pucar maintained his tactic to spin the ball from the forehand down the line and to start the rally with the reverse pendulum serve. Also, Ovtcharov started to spin the ball more often down the line. He adapted very well to Pucar’s tactics and was no longer caught off guard.
At 9-8 for Ovtcharov his tactic was brilliant: he executed a heavy backspin stroke deep into the backhand of Pucar, the Croatian promptly missed.
Third and fourth games
At the beginning of the third, Ovtcharov started to feel more comfortable with his serves, especially the pendulum. He gained confidence, which was evident in the backhand to backhand high speed rallies; notably, his forehand timing was still not on its usual level.
If you compare Ovtcharov’s backhand from the first two games with third; the movement became longer, not just from the wrist. The result was he could play with both quality and safety. Ovtcharov recovered from 5-7 to 8-7 with clever serve variations but at the end he rushed his backhand; third game to Pucar.
In the fourth, Ovtcharov called a “time out” when trailing 1-3. At that stage his fighting capabilities came through, he recovered from 2-5 to win the game. Pucar panicked somewhat; just as in the second game, from a heavy backspin return, he erred with a backhand top spin.
Fifth game and sixth games
In the fifth, Ovtcharov controlled matters, he was consistent. Pucar’s body language deteriorated. He made rushed mistakes.
The sixth game started as the fifth had finished. Ovtcharov performed with a great deal of self-confidence. He played with power, especially making good use of the wrist with backhand flicks; in that department he was most effective. Pucar called “time-out” at 2-4. The Croatian slightly changed the tactics, he enjoyed some fortune but his returns were a better length; playing to the so-called indecision point, he gained success.
Undoubtedly, the time-out was game-changer.
At the beginning of the game both players performed at a very high level. Pucar found a rhythm, a flow to his play. He was in a situation which in sports psychology that can be termed “in the zone”. You feel good, everything runs smoothly. He won important points by directing his attacking strokes to the indecision point as in the previous game.
At 6-5 Pucar decided to serve with his backhand, as he had done in some crucial prior situations. He was rewarded. Ovtcharov wasn’t able to turn the tide. Pucar booked his place in round four.
You played a great tournament, you beat Germany’s Bastian Steger and India’s Sharath Kamal Achanta, before overcoming Dimitrij Ovtcharov. Great victories especially when you consider that at a World Championships world class players are well prepared. Now we are sitting here exactly one year later, have you come to terms with what you achieved and do you think besides the world ranking points you earned, the win was key for self-confidence that enabled later success?
The first match against Steger was a tough draw, when I beat him it was an early boost for me; when I had to play against Dima, I was already “in” the tournament, because I had played two good matches against Steger and Achanta. The victory against Dima was a self-confidence boost for my career. It proved to me and my coach that we had worked and prepared well. Afterwards I managed to have good results.
At the beginning Dimitrij and you tried to read each other, how you reacted to different tactics. Afterwards you raised the pressure on Dimitrij by taking the ball very early, using your long arms and in many cases playing down the line. How do you explain those tactics?
Before the match, my coach and myself were both aware we are very much backhand based players, especially when receiving. My tactic was to serve as deep as possible and sometimes long to avoid his backhand “banana”. Afterwards he read my long serve well, he adapted, that made it more difficult for me. In the end I risked more by serving long.
What are your thoughts regarding match deciding situations. It looked as though you were very determined from the float serve that secured success in the first game at 10-9. Was it spontaneous, planned or a combination? What do you consider the crucial situations?
I am not sure about the serve at 10-9. Maybe I made the choice because it was safer. It was important to keep the serve low and not half-long. Maybe I was stressed because it was the first game and an open game. A crucial moment happened in the sixth when I called the “time-out” at 2-4. In the following two rallies I was a bit lucky. I think that Dima would have won the match, if I he’d won those two points.
What about your feelings? How did you feel during the match?
I can’t say that I was under pressure, because Dima was the favourite. He had to win. After having won the match, I was very happy. It was a sign everything that I had worked for with my coach and parents had made the success possible. It gave me the boost to practise more and to try to improve more.