Robert Ho's Table Tennis Tidbits #1

By Robert Ho | July 17, 2017, 8:37 p.m. (ET)

Joo Se Hyuk


Table Tennis Tidbits #1 By Robert Ho


Perhaps the usual way one learns table tennis skills is by imitation based on watching someone else perform.  The more skilled the performer being observed, the greater the chance the observer has of increasing his proficiency.  When expert coaching is available, the opportunity for the neophyte to advance is greatly increased.  A visual analysis of technique based on kinesiology (the scientific study of joint motion) can also be helpful.  It involves identifying the movements of the chain of joints of the body involved in executing a stroke “from head to toe”.  The complete kinesiological analysis of a stroke is beyond the scope of this article.  Instead it will focus on a few elements of looping and one feature in particular that is characteristic of forehand looping by players from mainland China.  I remember it being cited some years ago by former Italian player Massimo Constantini who coached in California in the recent past.

Constantini noted that a Chinese player’s optimal forehand looping stroke, as far as the upper extremity was concerned, started with the elbow minimally flexed (almost “straight”).  Ma Long, Fan Zhen Dong, Xu Xin, Zhang Ji Ke, the top 4 men in the world at present all exhibit this trait as well as the women: Ding Ning, Li Shi Wen, Li Xiao Xia, and Zhu Yu Ling.  Miu Hirano from Japan exhibits the same technique as the Chinese women.

On the other hand Timo Boll of Germany, and 3 Japanese men: Jun Mizutani, Niwa Koki, and Kenji Matsudaira of Japan elect to start the stroke with about 90 degrees flexion of the elbow.  Why is the elbow position important at the start of the FH loop?

When the elbow is flexed 90 degrees (“bent” to a right angle position) at the start of the FH loop, the looper’s forearm will impinge the looper’s head after a swing of about 90-100 degrees.  When the stroke starts with the elbow almost fully extended (“straight”) and is maintained in that position for a maximal swing, the hand (and therefore the bat) will travel through about 180 degrees with much greater momentum than the shorter stroke.  Theoretically the shorter stroke might require (minimally) less time, but the longer stroke would impart significantly more momentum to the ball.  If in a given situation, the time factor is critical, the “Chinese looper” moves away from the table as necessary.  Point winning loops away from the table are Chinese “staples”.

An example of the effect of this technique was displayed in the match between “chopper” Joo Se Hyuk of South Korea and “attacker” Ma Long of China in the round of 16 at the 2015 World Table Tennis Championships in China.  Joo, currently the world’s best male defensive player, lost in 5 games to Ma, who was to become World Champion. In the first 3 games Ma hit the ball so hard and quickly, and placed the ball so well that Joo had much difficulty making contact soon and appropriately enough to make a successful return.  In the 4th and only game Joo won, many of his points were won by attacking with his forehand and even with his long pips backhand which he used several times.  More frequent, if still selective attacking by Joo, made him a little more competitive against Ma.

3 other matches Joo played against other attackers reveal some interesting comparisons.  Jung Young Sik, Joo’s young compatriot from South Korea beat Joo 4-1 in the Korean Open Final in 2015.  Jung approaches the performance level of Ma.  The forehand attack stroke is made with less than 15 degrees flexion at the elbow and very strenuous and full body rotation in following through—Ma’s torso often approaches a horizontal position on the follow through on a forehand loop from his forehand corner to the opposite corner of the table; the velocity of the ball is such that Joo is often not fully in position to make a complete chopping stroke if at all.  Jung’s bodily rotation (actually pivoting at the feet and rotation at the hips from a kinesiological standpoint) with the forehand loop approaches but is not as frequently as vigorous or as extensive as Ma’s.

Kenji Matsudaira’s forehand loop starts with the elbow flexed 90 degrees and sometimes less (as visible in round 1 of the 2015 Japan Open); Koki Niwa starts his stroke with elbow flexed 90 degrees and uses far less body rotation than Ma, Jung, and Kenji (as observed in the semifinal in the 2015 Korea Open) and Koki’s forehand loop is visibly the least forceful and effective against the mobile and technically proficient defense of Joo; as a result Joo’s attack/counterattack is most effective against Koki. Timo Boll habitually forehand loops with the elbow near 90 degrees and is often at the short end of looping duels with Chinese opponents. 

The backhand loop starts with the shoulder joint in approximately 10-20 flexion and adduction (depending on the forward inclination of the torso) and marked internal rotation (approximately 90 degrees).  The forward movement to contact the ball consists of marked external rotation of the shoulder.  Lesser movements of varying degrees of the elbow and wrist are associated.  The arc of shoulder rotation is in the range of 110 degrees which is an expression of the lesser power potential of the backhand loop compared to the forehand loop related to anatomical factors.

Verbally analyzing stroke technique in terms of kinesiology and biomechanics is clumsy compared to imitation on a visual basis, but such analysis facilitates deliberate, retrospective review and visualization of one’s efforts and that of others to facilitate psychocybernetic learning.