Female Loopers: the Dilemma

Rowden Fullen (2003)

We already know that with the modern racket the harder we can strike the ball with a closed angle, the more spin we are able to achieve. Also we are aware that women cannot achieve the same amount of spin as the men basically because they have less strength than men and use this less effectively. Particularly now with the bigger ball this means that women who play well back from the table have little chance of good penetration, because the further they are away, the less spin the ball will have by the time it reaches the opponent. The bigger ball loses spin more quickly through the air.

This therefore plays into the hands of the female blockers and counter-hitters (and there are many more of these in women’s table tennis). Because of the ball size and the limitations in women’s power it is much easier for such players to control the play, long and short for example and use the angles. Conversely the further the loop player retreats, the harder it will be for her to actually win the point and usually she in fact won’t do this by the use of power. More often than not it will be through variation.

It therefore becomes particularly important for those women who want to play a topspin game, that they are able to play the right tactics against faster players. If they are not able to achieve mastery of the blocker’s/counter-hitter’s speed and variation then it’s going to be extremely difficult to win points.

One of the most critical considerations for them must therefore be ‘just how far back’. Too far will be ineffective, too close and their reactions are probably not fast enough against the early-ball players. It is therefore crucial that such players find the optimum ‘window’ position for their own personal playing style, the window that gives them the maximum chance of winning the point. It’s also equally important that they can play a containing game when they are forced to play outside of their best playing position, either closer to or farther away from the table. It is interesting to note that even in the men’s game most players who formerly played away from the table with the small ball have adjusted to a closer position to be more effective.

There are however other important factors to consider. A topspin loop played well back from the table will lose a substantial part of its spin by the time it reaches the opponent, a loop played from much closer to the table will still retain much of the spin. If such a loop is played much more slowly then the opponent will also face a rather different bounce characteristic on her side of the table and it will be more difficult to feed power and speed into the return. Bear in mind the importance of the time element in the women’s game and that control of speed is vital, if you allow the fast hitters to get into their stride and play their own game then it’s difficult to stop them. They like to play fast so you must try and deny them this option.

Usually the automatic reaction of most women when facing a faster player is to retreat from the table which is more often than not fatal. This is just what the faster player expects to happen and it plays right into their hands. From an early age girls must train to cope with speed and to use the various alternative methods of doing this.

Short play is a particularly useful tactic and one we do not work on enough with girls in Europe – most Asian players are strong in this area. Not only should girls have good spin variation in short and half-long serves and returns and be able to open in a short-play situation, but they should also have the capability of changing the pace and playing shorter/slower balls in the rallies. This of course means the player must stay closer to the table at least early in the rally – retreating immediately after the serve or receive only reduces the number of options available to her.

It is especially important too that girls can control the long serve in such a way that they are not disadvantaged. European women serve more long serves than their Asian counterparts and usually to the backhand side – in Asia women come round very quickly and attack this type of serve with the forehand. It’s important that girls in Europe train both to be positive and to retain control of this type of serve. Bear in mind too that the player who serves long and fast is usually just waiting to hit the next ball. The capability to do something different against this serve, stop-block or slow roll for example, is a useful asset, as it denies the opponent the speed she desires.

Another area where women are often lacking is in variation of placement – at the higher levels it is vital to be unpredictable. However fast the other player may be, if she doesn’t know where the ball is coming she will usually be reduced to playing at a slower pace. From an early age girls should train to play straight, to the body and to use the wide angles and not just play the long diagonal. A key element in controlling the opponent’s speed is also not to play two balls to the same place – play backhand/middle, middle/forehand, forehand/backhand etc. in quick succession.

Variation in length is also of crucial importance – long and short and hard and soft play a more significant role in the women’s game than in the men’s. Girls are often slow to move in to the ‘stop’ ball and many stand too close to the table so the long ball right on the white line often creates openings or forces them back. The key factor concerning length in women’s play is to avoid playing shorter to the middle of the table (this is the area where the opponent finds it easiest to smash or to angle you) and to have the capability in an open game, whether with topspin, drive or block, to place the ball very long or very short. This also of course applies to the first topspin opening against a backspin or push ball.

Too many coaches throughout Europe seem to look towards the men’s game to give answers as to how girls should train and play. One must first consider the tactic of looping in the women’s game and what happens next. The return ball to a fast topspin is radically different from the way men counter – a block, counter or chop but rarely if ever counter-loop. There are many more reaction players in the women’s game and much more use of material and as a result women who loop face more unpredictable balls, have less time to play their strokes and are almost always limited to one or two topspin stokes. It is much more usual in women’s play to loop one and to hit or block the next ball. There is little or no point in girls training to loop several balls in a row, women rarely if ever play like this.

What girls should be looking at right from the early stages in their career is the ability to convert (to change from spin into drive and vice versa) and to be able to vary topspin, from slow to faster (even with sidespin). These are the tactics which will open up the table and create attacking opportunities. A further point to bear in mind is that counter-play almost always requires a closer table position than topspin, it is necessary to come in if you want to hit the next ball after the loop. What we are looking at in other words in the women’s game is not looping to win the point, but looping to create openings to put the ball away! This is rather a different philosophy, the nuances and implications of which many women have not fully come to terms with, especially those who train mostly with male players.