7 Point Winning Weapons

Rowden October 2015

Many players play, but don't think. To be successful at the higher levels a player needs to know how he/she plays best, which are the best weapons and against which type of opponent.

What works against one opponent may play straight into the hands of the next. No player can play the same against all varied opposition. Each player needs alternatives, the capability to change when his/her usual tactics/strategies don't work. Players will have differing strengths and weaknesses in strokes, serve/receive, movement, will and mental powers etc, but tactics, techniques and strategies will be based on the seven point winning areas. Players need awareness of the areas in which they excel and the capability not only to utilise more than one area effectively, but also the instinct to switch in and out of differing areas as and when applicable.

Speed : This is the first and most important area in table tennis. If you are faster than the opponent in all areas of speed, thought, reactions, movement, stroke and timing and can cope with everything he/she throws at you, then his/her chances of beating you are slim. Unless the opponent changes something. So just what can you do when it's the opposition which is faster? Play short, slow the game down, take time with your serves, try to return the opponent's fast serve/ball with a slow return. Don't be predictable, vary pace, spin and placement, hard and soft, into the body and straight not diagonal, use the angles. A stop/start type of game is much more difficult to adjust to for any opponent. Also use your set pieces, serve and 3rd ball etc. Remember too that the plastic ball slows dramatically and even many top players have problems with the slower, dying ball.

Power: This is particularly important with the plastic ball. Players who have the ability to use real power effectively, rather than just keeping the ball on the table, will have a big advantage with the new ball. Of course this also means being able to keep the ball in play and selecting the right shot at the right time; shot selection assumes rather more importance. Players can still play off the table with topspin but now power comes into the equation more than spin. Playing with plastic, more balls are going to come back and it's important to realise this and to be really effective with the kill shots, both in power and placement. But also the short drop ball is equally very efficient, as the plastic ball dies quickly and this is another good tactic against opponents who want to back away and lob. Against players who are more powerful than you it will be necessary to limit their power or use this against them. You can play faster than them to limit their preparation, make them play more short or over the table, play stop/start or short/long to disrupt their play or return power with speed or lack of speed or more or less spin.

Placement: With placement it's vital to use all the table, short and long, straight and diagonal, to the body and crossover and also to the wide angles. Remember some short shots and extreme angles will need early timing and some feeling (soft hands). Early in the game look for areas where the opponent has problems; into the crossover, straight or wide to FH then back to BH. All players, whatever their level will be less effective and will be weaker against certain serves/strokes or in certain areas of the table or against certain combinations. It's just a matter of identifying these and using them, while avoiding the opponent's strengths. Players who place the ball well are the hardest of all categories to come to terms with. They are able to place the ball so well that often they limit your options to return or make you return to an area of the table where they are waiting. What you need to do is work out how to disrupt the pattern and return the ball where they don’t want it.

Spin: There will be less spin with the plastic ball. The Chinese National Team tested the 38 and 40mm celluloid balls and there was a reduction in spin of some 12% with the larger ball. The 40mm celluloid ball was manufactured within certain parameters between 39.5 and 40.5mm. The plastic ball is 40mm plus up to a maximum of 40.6mm but the polymers are very different and the spin noticeably less, resulting in a further reduction of some 24%. Obviously this impacts on a number of areas in the modern game. The topspin game off the table will be less effective and it's easier to counter with a block or hard hit/drive as the ball comes through slower and tends to ‘sit’ up after the bounce. However the slow spin can be quite effective as the ball drops quickly below table level. It's possible to serve with substantial spin but this is lost quite rapidly as the rally progresses. Against players whose spin causes you problems you have to limit their opportunities to create maximum spin or when they do, use this against them. Play faster and reduce their time frame, play short and over the table, play the stop/start type of game, or block soft (throwing their spin back) or force through the ball giving them little chance to continue spinning.

Control: There are often longer rallies with the plastic ball, due to less speed and spin and a higher bounce. Players will need to focus more on control and shot selection and those who like to finish points quickly in the rally may often try to force the play too early. Control overall will assume a higher priority, especially in the women's game and it will be necessary for players to be able to keep the ball in play while they look at using differing strategies to win points. Against players who have a high level of control, patience is important and the ability to make openings to use power, spin, or slow balls, or to disrupt the play with variations for example in placement, pace or spin. The stop/start type of game is the most difficult for good control players.

Slow Balls: It is a fact with the plastic ball that short returns, slow spins and drop shots over the table tend to slow down or ‘die’. This can be of advantage when slow spinning a backspin serve half-long or when dropping a lob short off the bounce, rolling a slow ball with short pimples or when playing defenders and should not be overlooked within your tactical and strategic planning.

Set Pieces: Serve and receive now have a different emphasis. It is more difficult to serve really short and tight to stop the opponent attacking. Many coaches and top players feel that the service is no longer such a big advantage, or that the balance is even swinging in favour of the good receivers. It is a fact that sidespin is now the most important spin in the server's armoury (often combined with either back or topspin) as this helps to keep the ball lower over the net and after the bounce. Service is also favouring half-long or longer serves as opposed to the very short variations.
Dropping very short from an early timing point is still an option against shorter serves and the flick is also more effective. It is therefore important both in the men's and women's games for all players to upgrade their short play and maintain this at a high level. Aspects such as playing against the sidespin to achieve extreme angles or fading the flick should also be researched.
Serves, in the women's game especially, have always been longer but this will now almost certainly increase as will the focus on third ball play in an attempt to win points earlier. Even against the fast long serves however there needs to be variation in receive, not only in spin but also in speed. Players who use pace on the long serve want pace on the return. The capability to return a slower or shorter ball against a fast serve is a viable option. Receivers must research varying methods of receive and the second and fourth balls will be of particular importance within the framework of the rally.

Summary: What becomes vital if you are to reach the higher levels of our sport is the ability to think strategically. Few players will be equally strong in all seven areas but most top players will be strong in at least four or five. You need to identify which are your best areas, then how and when to user them. Each opponent you face will be strong or stronger in some of the seven areas. You need to identify (and quickly) which are the opponents’ strengths, how to counteract these and then how to use your strengths against them.

Within all of the above it must be considered that at the moment the plastic balls are not uniform either in quality or behaviour. Differing brands of ball behave in different ways and breakages and strange bounces are common. Equally differing brands have different characteristics in terms of spin or control so for players even at quite a high standard we do not yet have a level playing field. The advice has to be, find out which ball will be used at your next event and train with this beforehand.