by Massimo Costantini, ITTF High Performance Elite Coach
Shaking off the rust
Undoubtedly, both Lily Zhang and Feng Tianwei were keen to show the world that they were the right fit for the quarter-finals spot up for grabs, so there was no lack of determination. Nevertheless, the match was characterised by a number errors, or more accurately “unforced errors”, dictated by several aspects. The most evident factor leading to such errors was the long period of time from the table prior to the event.
We all unfortunately know the reason behind the absence in action – both Zhang and Feng were still looking to shake off some pre-tournament rust, so both could be forgiven for not being at their peak. However, Zhang held a slight edge in this area, which we will take a closer look at later.
Feng’s usually reliable asset of maintaining high quality table tennis throughout the rallies also appeared to be impacted. In fact, the Singapore competitor struggled to cover the far corners of the table when Zhang upped the pace with her backhand – this proved particularly troublesome on the forehand corner, where Feng often failed to reach the ball. From Zhang’s point of view, she is a specialist when it comes to the wide game, handing her a distinct advantage.
Early momentum proves critical
Normally it’s clear which direction the momentum will fall right from the start of a match. In this case, Zhang led the first three games like it was but a gentle jog, whereas Feng looked closer to mountain climbing!
The strong opening provided Zhang with great confidence, always a great feeling for any player. Compared to last year’s match the American appeared much more competitive, whilst possessing the belief that she could really beat Feng this time around. Their previous meeting at the 2019 ITTF Women’s World Cup was their first, so Zhang’s initial aim was to improve upon her five-game defeat from last year – a feat she more than accomplished.
Technique over tactics
Game one mainly came down to the battle of the backhands, with Zhang complimenting her speed over the table with excellent placement. To add insult to injury, a couple of edge points handed the early lead to the American (11-7).
Zhang continued where she left off and before long had raced into a commanding 9-3 lead in game two. Feng took the following four points, but even when her fifth point in a row arrived, reducing the deficit to 9-8, it was Zhang, not Feng, who made the smart choice of opting for a rapid long serve, scoring the point directly. The ball game proved key in shaping confidence in one’s own technique. Feng set up the rally brilliantly, forcing Zhang to control her backhand, but in an attempt to up the pace on the ball, the resulting trajectory was too long, handing the game to Zhang (11-8). The same issue arose frequently throughout the course of the match, with Feng’s racket placement too low in respect to the height of the ball.
For someone who had just extended her lead to two games, Zhang actually started game three with a hint of nervousness, rushing through the motions with the intention of scoring quickly. However, after a few points she began to settle down again, recognising Feng’s issues with consistency on the forehand side and opting to double up her shot placement. At 9-8, Zhang benefitted from a kind net shot, and eventually took the game (11-9).
Table time the defining factor
Looking at game four, Zhang enjoyed another great opening and soon found herself 5-1 ahead, and maybe prematurely, she thought she had the match in her pocket. But never underestimate a Champion – never – especially this one from Singapore. Feng hit back by showing a Zen-like calmness, returning short to Zhang’s forehand and forcing her to commit errors. Point by point Feng closed the gap and eventually put her name on the scoreboard (11-8).
Feng continued to find her way back into the contest, and in game five she caught up to her American counterpart in terms of consistency. Even on the simplest of actions, Feng’s play was effective in forcing Zhang to risk more than she would like, opening up a possible path to victory. The Singapore icon successfully added the game to her collection (11-8). At this juncture, Zhang was understandably frustrated having squandered her chance to win, but here was where her advantage really began to flourish.
The previous day she went through three difficult matches, hovering on the brink of not even making it to the main draw. Meanwhile, this marked Feng’s opening World Cup match and her first contest for several months. That feeling is very important for a player because it gives a measure of how strong you can be. Zhang displayed her toughness and perseverance in pursuing success when she was down 7-10, just as it had happened the day before against Canada’s Zhang Mo. She didn’t miss her chance to succeed after the second match ball. The game finished in Lily Zhang’s favour (13-11), and with it the match followed.