Chinese Views on European Play

Rowden Fullen (2000)

After many years of trial and error and a certain amount of exploration, European players have gradually established their own techniques and styles and have arrived at a plateau where they combine speed and spin in the same stroke. Their technical areas of superiority are a powerful forehand loop drive with fast speed and strong spin, an extensive and sustainable range of successive topspin drives which it is difficult to find any defence against, the capability to play quality loop drives from both wings and a noticeable improvement in the speed of the backhand wing which adds further to their weaponry.

The top Europeans have good fast flick attack over the table, fast switch between defence and attack and excellent rallying capabilities. Most also have an instinctive counter-loop which allows them to shift into direct attack at the slightest trace of hesitancy in the opponent’s play, whether this be a little lesser speed or spin or just bad placement. Usually they are in favour of the short or half-long serve with sidespin, no-spin or topspin so that they pressure the opponent into a touch or push return, which is vulnerable to their fast flick attack.

If the Europeans have weaknesses these are more in positional play. Often they use the long channels to the corners with the occasional centre line stroke and usually there is not enough variation in length. Many balls land in the same areas between 12 – 20 centimetres from the table edge and even top players seem to pay little attention to opening very short or very long. With the forehand topspin as their main stroke in opening against a long backspin ball, they are much more likely to be counter-looped hard by the opponent if their length is too predictable.

With the fast technical development in world table tennis the weak points of our classical fast penhold attack game have become more apparent. However there is no reason why we shouldn’t produce outstanding shakehands grip players too, provided only that we think of innovative approaches and tailor specialist techniques to suit each player — our work with players such as Kong Linghui and Wang Liqin indicate that we are moving in the right direction.

The decisive power of the forehand loop drive is a major factor in today’s game. However over the past three decades, fast attack has been the theme in our table tennis and has governed all the training systems and the principles of training, which require stroke movements to be short, compact and quick (with unfortunately little attention being paid to use of the waist and the legs and coordination between these). As a result our players are more suited to close-to-table combat and better against the first one or two loop drives. Once the rally has progressed to a medium or long-range control situation, then our players lack the required power!

What we must look to first is to raise the level of awareness of smooth movement and coordination of arms, waist and legs in all our training programmes. Also as the key to power release we must stress forearm speed and fast forearm fold. Above all as with any system of movement we must avoid the extremes, relying too much on the arm without the coordination of waist and legs or too much on the coordination without the fast arm movement which leads to poor or uncontrolled power release.

The counter-loop technique plays a decisive role in matches. It has a major effect on the first three balls and in the switch from defence to attack. If at any time you open with a marginally weaker ball, you are liable to find this counter-looped past you! Yet even though it is in fact a key technique in today’s play, it is by no means an easy technique to master. Except for a few of our top players many of our provincial and regional level performers have not really mastered this and are limited to close or medium range counter-play. We also tend to lack the confidence and ability in our service play to encourage the opponent to loop the 2nd ball by serving the half long serve (second bounce on the white line), then counter-looping his opening ball. Even in the first few balls (2nd, 3rd and 4th) we often lack the awareness and ability to counter-loop after playing one or two control strokes. These deficiencies tend to lead us more into serving short and safe and have restricted our long serving.

Basically we have to bring the training for counter-loop into the spotlight at all levels throughout our playing system. The most important is the counter-loop against the opponent’s first loop drive initiated from a backspin ball. This specific technique holds the key to all counter-looping techniques. The mastery and awareness of counter-loop techniques have to be brought to the attention of and fostered among young players from an early age.

Because of the heightened levels of receive among the top Europeans the need for stronger backhand play becomes imperative. Backhand block and push will only offer the opponent direct attacking opportunities to obtain the upper hand immediately. Most Europeans now adopt the step around forehand receive, which makes it easier for them to control the table with the forehand side of the racket and makes variation of placement simpler. Often the server is restricted and it’s hard to follow up with a forehand attack or with a strong enough forehand attack.

Most penholders in the national team have adopted the reverse side of racket play. However this reverse side loop cannot be played with much force and because of grip restriction it’s difficult to loop drive to the centre line. Though European players are inconvenienced the threat is not as dangerous as it might appear, for block is after all a passive play and during a tight rally, it’s hard to switch on to a real offensive unless the player actually steps around.

The marriage of block and fast backhand loop drive is innovative. It becomes even more effective when you target the opponent’s backhand immediately after a hard attack to his forehand side. But just what strokes do you include in this backhand arsenal (stop-block, drive, topspin, loop) and how is the change from one to the other to be executed and which switches are most effective? What is your finishing stroke, a fast drive or a topspin?

Our shakehands players have difficulty in coping on the backhand side with rallies at medium to long range. Due to the lack of strength and power players find it very hard to switch on to the offensive when they have been forced back into a defensive position on this wing. This has to do in fact with our own training where we often spend a great deal of time on strengthening the forehand rally play back from the table and have tended to neglect the backhand area at a similar depth. We must re-think out training priorities.

In the case of development of ‘shakehands’ techniques we must not be afraid to learn from the European players. They have in fact developed in a number of individual ways and we should admire them for this. The Swedish players with Waldner as the spearhead have successfully combined speed and spin in loop play from a rather closer-to-table position with a variety of strong backhand strokes. Gatien has close-to-table attacking techniques with a very fast forehand similar to our own play, only he is much stronger with his counter-loop initiatives against topspin balls. Saive specializes in fast loop forehand initiative over almost the whole table and is particularly skilful at topspinning ‘second-bounce’ balls or the half-long service. It’s not difficult to come to an understanding that the Europeans are not only working rather more to develop individual styles of play but that they are also prepared to ‘borrow’ techniques from other styles and integrate these into their own game where applicable. What we must also realize in China is that world table tennis has now advanced to a new era where all styles and techniques tend to mix with and inter-relate one with another.

First and foremost we must work to restore our traditional advantage in the ‘first three balls’. We have let this slip away so that now we are on level terms or even a little behind with the serve and handling the 2nd and 3rd balls. Also we have to reinforce control and counter-control measures in the 4th, 5th and 6th balls so we maintain an offensive initiative and do not let the play drift into a stalemate situation. We must give rather more thought to being flexible, positive and aggressive in the mind with the first 5/6 balls, to achieve mastery in the three decisive areas, quick transition to attack, quick tactical switches and our traditional fast speed on the opening ball. Also of course we must overcome our weaknesses in loop and counter-loop play so that we are not at a disadvantage against the Europeans.

Above all however the principle for our shakehands development, the theme if you like for the future, must be one that emphasizes ‘all-round skills with no apparent weaknesses’ and a personalized specialty. We should of course be self-reliant and confident in our own methods and strong enough in our own play that we can dominate and impose our game on the opponent. However we should not ignore that other styles and cultures have techniques to offer and we should never be afraid to ‘borrow’ and build on the ideas and concepts of others.

One of the main themes of Chinese coaching tradition over the years has been to try and make each player different, to develop the individual strengths, to give players an unusual specialty. It is then of course much harder for the opponent to adapt to a new and different technique. Perhaps we have the Europeans and particularly the Swedish players with their innovative styles, to thank for redirecting our attention to the fact that the individual emphasis is of paramount importance when developing players