Ma Long – Fan Zhendong: road to the WTTC

The 2017 World Table Tennis Championships will take place in Düsseldorf starting on the 29th of May. The best players in the world will compete in the most prestigious event of the year. However, the road to Germany is not easy.

Qualification for the WTTC

Each National Association decides which players to choose, and it is totally up to them to determine who deserves the right to compete at the WTTC. The regulation only states: Only an Association which is not in arrears ( and has taken part with at least one player or team (an entry) in its preceding Continental Championships, including qualification tournaments, or Continental Games shall be eligible to enter teams or individual players in the Championships. Each Association shall be entitled to enter 3 men and 3 women players in each singles events, with one additional player ranked in the top 100 and one additional player ranked in the top 20 of the ITTF world ranking list issued in January of the year of the Championships to a maximum of 5 men and 5 women. The maximum entry for each Association is 2 men’s doubles, 2 women’s doubles and 2 mixed doubles; all players may be different. The host Association may enter up to 6 men and 6 women in each singles event, 3 men’s doubles, 3 women’s doubles and 3 mixed doubles regardless of ranking.

So, in practice, considering the ranking to be applied (January’s), this results in the following allowances:

  • 6 male players: Germany
  • 5 male players: Austria, Belarus, Brazil, China, France, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Portugal, Chinese Taipei
  • 4 male players: Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, England, Finland, Greece, Hungary, India, Iran, Nigeria, Poland, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Singapore, Slovenia, Serbia, Slovakia, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, USA
  • 3 male players: rest of associations
  • 6 female players: Germany
  • 5 female players: Austria, China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Romania, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Turkey
  • 4 female players: Belarus, Canada, Czech Republic, Spain, Hungary, India, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, Thailand, Ukraine, USA
  • 3 female players: rest of associations

China Trials

The most powerful National Association has, as stated before, five slots for both men and women. As usual, the Chinese Association has organized a long and complex competition to test their players.

The format

Starting in January, some of the second-class players like Yu Ziyang, Zhou Qihao or Xu Chenhao had to compete earlier in order to advance and increase their chances of reaching the final stages. Ma Long and Zhang Jike were exempt from playing February’s matches, while the rest of the top players, including Fan Zhendong and Xu Xin, had to start on their road to Germany.

On the 3rd of March, the final stage took place. This year, a huge marketing campaign branded the candidates as The Marvellous 12:


The competition had the following rules:

  • First round: all players played against each other once, best of 3 games. The standings leader at the end of this stage got one direct slot for the WTTC.
  • Second round: the remaining 11 players (plus Shang Kun and Che Xiao Xi) played on three separate draws, starting from semi-finals. Three winners were chosen from each draw.
  • Third round: the three previous winners played against each other, until one of them had 2 wins in a row. Those players got the second direct slot for the WTTC.
  • 3 remaining slots: they are chosen by the Chinese National Table Tennis Association.

The results

The first stage of the competition had Fan Zhendong and Liu Shiwen as the players who qualified for the WTTC. On one hand, Liu Shiwen had 11 victories and no lost matches. On the other hand, Fan Zhendong finished tied with Ma Long, both with 9 victories and 2 losses. The match between them decided the winner.

The second stage finished with Xu Xin, Lin Gaoyuan and Zhou Yu as the draw winners in the men’s competition. The female players who qualified for the third stage were Ding Ning, Chen Meng and Feng Ya Lan. Two important upsets up to this moment: Zhang Jike withdrew at the first stage after suffering from an ankle injury, Ma Long did not play his match against Zhou Yu because of back pain, and Zhu Yuling, second world ranked, lost against  Feng Ya Lan.

The third stage winners were Lin Gaoyuan and Ding Ning, getting the last slots for the WTTC. Regarding the remaining three tickets, there is still no decision on them.

The match

As mentioned before, the first men’s direct slot for the WTTC was decided after a tie between Ma Long and Fan Zhendong. The latter managed to defeat the first one, and this is the match we are going to analyze to get some insights into its development.


An unusual playing format, best of 3, with the following result: 1-2 (6-11,  11-5, 12-14) for Fan Zhendong after 34 minutes. Let’s see some stats on the match:


Classifying winners and mistakes depending on the kind of stroke, we can discover the main flaws that affected the players during the match. Regarding the winning shots, we have:


If we dismiss the difference between the number of shots between them, as Fan Zhendong has more than twice the number of winners, we can notice something interesting: Ma Long has no backhand winners, while Fan Zhendong has 4 out of his 11 shots (36 %). This confirms Fan’s superiority on the backhand rallies.

Regarding the number of failed shots, it is revealed that Ma Long has a significantly small number: 20% less. Let’s see the source of those mistakes:


The most eye-catching fact is that more than half of Ma Long’s mistakes come from backhand blocks. And its not a coincidence that Fan Zhendong has 16 mistakes on his backhand: the backhand-to-backhand rallies were the most repeated sequence by far.

One interesting insight: 5 out of 10 backhand block mistakes that Ma Long made were trying to return a backhand flick. The next video shows all of them:

The bloody battle

The aforementioned rules for the Chinese trials did not mention one exceptional case which was not reached in the end. In the last stage, there were 3 men and 3 women playing against each other trying to achieve 2 victories. If it had happened that none of them won both their matches, they would have had to play against each other again.

However, then the game would have been only to the best of one. And, in the unlikely case that nobody won both their games again, they would have kept playing, but starting with 10-10 on the score. This was the so-called Bloody Battle by Liu Guoliang – Chinese National Association trainer and organizer of the event.

Although in the end the battle did not take place, the last points of the match between Ma Long and Fan Zhendong, which decided the first ticket winner, could definitely be called a bloody battle too, based on their quality and importance. Let’s analyze the chronology, starting with 7-7 on the scoreboard:


Ma Long’s short serve is returned with a typical backhand flick. This time, Ma Long performs a forehand pivot to the center of the table. Fan reacts too late for a counter and the ball goes out.


Same thing again: Fan’s flick is returned aggressively by Ma Long, this time with a backhand-to-backhand topspin. And the result is the same: too strong for Fan Zhendong to control it. Second point in a row with his serve for Ma Long.


The same play once more, however, Fan Zhendong is the attacker this time. He keeps stricking Ma Long’s backhand as he did in the rest of the match. The second topspin is enough to win the point.


Short play this time. Neither of them takes the initiative to try a flick. After six consecutive centred shots close to the net, Ma Long makes the magic happen. A forehand flick, more of a smash actually, slaps Fan Zhendong. He could not believe it. Two match points for Ma Long and both of them with his serve.


Being under pressure did not affect Fan Zhendong. One flick first, a soft topspin later and finally a strong one to achieve the point. All of them, again, towards Ma Long’s backhand. The backhand battle kept giving him good outcomes.


Second match point in a row, and the same strategy: pushing against Ma Long’s backhand. However, this time an outrageous parallel active block totally upset Ma Long. Probably, the shot of the match.


Fan Zhendong made a silly mistake in the worst moment of the match. A drop shot straight to the net, and one more match point chance for Ma Long.


Fan trusted his most-used strategy again. Twice to the backhand and a parallel forehand topspin that Ma Long could not catch. It seems that Ma Long was too focused on not leaving his backhand uncovered, which considering the number of shots ending around that area during the match, seemed reasonable.


Short play this time. However, Fan Zhendong did not want to end up like the last time, so he raised the ball with a flick. An unstoppable parallel backhand topspin did not even get a reaction from Ma Long. It was too fast, even for the best player of the world. First match point for Fan Zhendong.


It is not the same play again. Especially because of Fan’s mistake with his backhand. A bad moment to fail with the shot that had given him so many points before. Tie on the score again.


After a couple of short balls, Ma Long is the one flicking the ball. However, Fan sought a forehand pivot which resulted in a winning shot. Ma Long failed to block it so that was one more match point for his opponent.


Last point of the match, and the same play as the previous ones. This time, Ma Long fails to return the ball with another backhand mistake, his 12th in the whole match.

Hasta la vista, Baby

The exciting match we have just commented on ended up deciding who got the first ticket for the 2017 World Table Tennis Championships to be held in Düsseldorf, Germany. Fan Zhendong, against the odds, beat Ma Long, who had won 9 of their last 10 matches at ITTF events.

However, world number 1 and current Grand Slam champion, Ma Long, will not miss the biggest table tennis event. He will definitely be chosen by Liu Guoliang to become the #1 seed of the tournament. Will he clash with Fan Zhendong in the Finals? Place your bets!

* Cover photo: ITTF

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