(This article is translated from a Sporting News article.)
The ITTF Pro-Tour Grand Finals ended on December 15. The Chinese team won all the womens events and the mens doubles event, but did not place any player in the mens final match. This again highlights the troubles the team has faced since the 11-point format was adopted last year. On December 17, the team came back to Beijing, and we interviewed Yin Xiao, coaching team leader.
Reporter: In the just concluded Grand Finals, we did not make it to the mens singles finals. Are we still adversely affected by the 11-point format?
Yin Xiao: Among the various rule changes, the 11-point format has had the biggest impact on us. We are still not executing consistently. There are major differences in tactics and strategies between the two formats. As an analogy, the 21-point game is like a mid to long distance run, and the 11-point game is a sprint.
R: This time Wang Hao made it to the final 4, while Wang Liqin and Kong did not have good results. Why?
Y: The new format requires a different approach. The younger players adapt more quickly. They are bolder, and accept new things more easily. Thats one of the reasons Wang Hao was able to get into the semi-finals. Adapting is more difficult for Kong and for Wang Liqin. Ma Lin actually has the best fit with the new format: he is ferocious, highly skillful, with outstanding specialties. But he lost to Wang Hao in the semifinals.
R: Kreanga, who has not been a top player until now, made it to the finals. Is this a result of the new format?
Y: There is some luck involved, but Kreanga seems to play left-handers well. In the Qin Zhijian-Kreanga match, Qin was called for service violations a few times. Kreanga beat Boll, another lefthander, in the semifinals.
R: How about Chuan Chih-Yuan?
Y: Chuan is a strong player, and his results have been steady. He was in the finals 4 times this year, and he has special skills. I feel that his style is a good fit to the 11-point game, and it could start a new trend.
R: What are Chuans specialties?
Y: His specialties are speed, aggressiveness, and all-round 3rd ball and rallying skills. He does not have any "blind spot" in his attacks. He has balanced techniques over the table and away from the table. Also, he is good with adaptation, and that is one of the requirements of the new format. We need to quickly adapt to changes. In addition, Chuan integrates his various skills well: he has what we call a "tight" game.
R: Do you think that our major challenges will be coming from Chuan and Boll?
Y: Chuan and Boll are the biggest threats that have developed in the last year. Against Kreanga, we think we have an approach, but Chuan and Boll have played us a lot and have winning records. Those two players will be our strongest opponents at the Worlds and the next Olympics.
R: How big is this challenge?
Y: The emergence of Boll and Chuan is a major challenge to our mens team. I would say that they are at the same level as us, and we cannot say with any certainty that we can beat them at the present time.
I feel that these two players are a bigger threat to us than Waldner was in the past. Waldner has a great specialty: his serves. Chuan and Boll are stronger overall, with advanced styles and well-integrated tactics. To beat them, we have to have superior tactics as well as a strong will.
R: What are the changes caused by the new format?
Y: The new format is a paradigm shift. It requires a new approach and places a higher requirement on the players. Although we still need to stay with "speed, accuracy, ferocity, spin and change", the five major specialties of the Chinese team, we need to ask more from our players. They need to change the way they think.
R: What are the changes at the top?
Y: We are seeing rapid changes. The older players like Samsonov, Saive, Primorac, Waldner, etc., are declining. Partially the changes are due to the new format. Fundamentally the 21-game format is deeply ingrained in these players. In contrast, the younger players are rising fast.
R: Who are the benefactors of the 11-point format?
Y: The new format is not beneficial to any particular player or style. Overall I think the younger players are at a relative advantage, because they can accept new things more quickly, and their minds have not been firmly made up yet. They adapt quickly to changes and embrace changes. They want to blaze a new trail.
R: How about older players like Samsonov and Primorac?
Y: Their game is less suited to the 11-point format, and they need to improve. This is also true with Kong. The 21-point era is now over.
R: There is a viewpoint that we are more affected by the new format.
Y: I said earlier that the biggest change caused by the 11-point format is a break from the established system of strategies and tactics. We used to have a unique way of playing the 21-point game, and it is firmly entrenched in the minds of our older players. The way we apply tactics and strategies is different now.
Some of our players have reached the highest level of play. They need time to break from the old mold. Some of them may not be able to do so.
R: I remember you said a long time ago that the 11-point will bring major changes.
Y: Yes, we realized that a long time ago. The new format shortens the match, and increases the tempo. The 2-serve rotation does not allow us to use our established serve tactics. Also, we were the stronger players, but now there is more unpredictability in the results. Competition gets more difficult, and we now face the problem of how to adjust our mental states. These are the changes that affect us.
R: When we chat with the players, many of them said they still need to figure out how to play the 11-point games.
Y: I think this is mainly psychological. When we watched the matches, we found out that our players were mentally weaker playing the new format. We are under more pressure, and not as aggressive or as bold as our opponents. I have thought about why our players tend to be conservative at the critical points. This is related to the new format. The match is shorter, and there is more luck involved. At the same time, we expect more from ourselves, and give ourselves more pressure. Mentally we are often affected by the score changes. Compared to when we played 21-point games, we are making more mistakes at the critical points of the match. This causes our results to be inconsistent.
R: Some players also think that the 2-serve rotation has a bigger effect on us than on our opponents. In the past, our opponents did not have as good an understanding on how to integrate serves as we had.
Y: We have not yet found a better way to plan our serves. We realized that this needs to be looked at, and we need time to train our players to come up with better serve strategies.
R: The Europeans play more tournaments. Would that make it easier to adapt to the new format?
Y: There are not that many outstanding young European players. We know of Boll, Smirnov, and Maze; these are the younger players. The older ones are not adapting all that quickly. Like I said earlier, the younger players adapt better.
R: We have been successful for a long time because we understand the game. Have we now grasped the principles of the 11-point game?
Y: We have been studying the 11-point format for quite a long time, and I think we have a clear understanding now, based on our collective research, experiments and experiences.
R: What are the new principles?
Y: Strategically and tactically, we need to be aggressive and quick. We need to seize the initiative in the first-3-shots, and we need to increase our tempo of changing tactics. We have to be able to increase our ability to attack, especially close-table.
Mentally we need to be bold and yet careful. We have to withstand pressure, and be willing to attack. We need to have great fighting spirits.
Physically, we need to get into game conditions quickly. We have to increase our ability to change speed.
The new format actually requires more physically from the players, even though the matches are shorter. It is high intensity, high pressure, and requires a very high degree of focus from the players.
R: Now that we have grasped the principles, what are the next steps?
Y: We will break our old mold, and modify our training to realize what we have theorized. We will start with the mental approaches to the game; if we dont change that, we are still stuck in the old ways.
We need to change the ratio of training and matches. The training methods also need to be changed. We have to make sure that the training reflects actual game conditions.
R: How long will this take?
It will be different for different players. I think the younger players will learn more quickly, players like Ma, Wang Hao and Liu Guozheng are good examples. Kong and Wang Liqin will take longer.
R: Since we have won the mens team and singles titles at the Asian Games, doesnt it mean that we shall not be afraid of the new format?
Y: In the second half of the year, we are basically playing evenly against our international opponents. So things have not really changed, it is still China vs. the rest of the world. We need not be pessimistic about the new format.
But based on the many matches we played, there are indications that there is a losing trend. We are being severely challenged. We have to understand this, and work harder.
Ma Lin: "I feel that the 11-point format does not have a big impact on me. We need to get into game shape quickly, and adapt quickly to the changes on the court. "Quick" and "Change" are the two key concepts that our strategies and tactics evolve around."
Liu Guozheng: "The new format brings great changes. Not only is the game shorter, but the 2-serve rotation is very different than before. In the past we could integrate the 5 serves, and make changes in our serves. We have to adapt to the changes quickly, and get into game conditions quickly. Every game is tighter. I am still slowly adjusting. I had a tendency to lose focus during the 11-point game. We need to play more. Our international opponents play more matches, and they probably adjust a little quicker."
Yan Sen: "I feel that playing 11 point games, you have to get into the game fast, unlike with 21-point games when you could take some time to warm up. Now we need to get into that excited game state right away, and we need to be consistent and steady. We strive to perform at our best in the shortest time. There are more critical points, but we cannot tighten up. We have to play a tight game, and be mentally steady."
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