Robert Ho's Table Tennis Tidbits #2

By Robert Ho | July 19, 2017, 2:16 p.m. (ET)

Waldner Sweden Table Tennis ITTF


Table Tennis Tidbits #2 By Robert Ho


Offense and Defense: The Influence of Rubber on Tactics

In the abstract one might idealize purely defensive table tennis as returning every ball sent by the opponent until the opponent makes an error to lose the point.  Also in the abstract purely offensive table tennis could be construed as hitting the ball so hard or placed so well that the opponent is unable to reach the ball to make a return or errs attempting a return.  In reality each competitor uses varying proportions of both elements  in a given match depending on his/her abilities in relation to those of the opponent.

The technically simplest defensive return against topspin is “the block”.  The equivalent response against downspin is “the push”.  Away from the table defensive returns against topspin can be “the chop” or counter topspin or a block.  For some players and spectators, a chopping defense is “fun” and challenging to execute and exciting and sometimes beautiful to watch.  Topspin defense away from the table can also be exciting and fun to execute or watch especially lobbing.

If the focus is on winning and aesthetics is secondary, what historical and technical factors might influence one’s choices in practice and competing?

Before Satoh of Japan introduced sponge rubber in the early ‘50s chopping play was very common and important in winning championships as evident on Bobby Gusikoff’s DVD on “classic table tennis”.  The ball did not travel as far or as fast when attacking with pips without sponge compared to the effects with sponge rubber.  As a result longer exchanges between players were more frequent in the pre-sponge era.

In the past 6 decades or more the men’s world championship was won by choppers only twice:  Bergmann over Vana in ‘50;  Leach over Andreadis in ’51.  Otherwise the top performances by choppers were: Scholer lost to Itoh in the final in ’69; Takashima lost in a semi- to Stipancic in ’75; Chen lost in a semi- to Jiang in ’87; Ding lost in a semi- to Kong in ’95; Joo lost in the final to Schlager in ’03.  In his semi Scholer beat penhold chopper Chang in 5 in expedite; in the final he won the first 2 games and was leading in the 3rd but lost to Itoh.  Chen’s mode of play was lackadaisical suggesting Chinese politics promoted Jiang’s winning the world title for the 3rd time in ‘87.

During the same decades women choppers won the world title in ’71 (Lin over Zheng—also a chopper; ’73 Hu; ’81 Tong.  Runner Ups: ’93 Chen; ‘01: Lin.

Defensive strokes are technically easier to execute than attacking strokes early in one’s development which is why they can be very effective at lower levels of competition.  However, attacking skills can be honed to dominate defensive responses.  Hence the importance of strategic practice including the use of robots, “multi ball drills” against every tactical situation, physical training, and psychological preparation.

Using pimpled sponge rubber, the penhold grip, forehand attack and backhand block at the table, Chinese players dominated table tennis for several decades.  In the ‘60s the Hungarians’ (Jonyer, Klampar, Gergeley) “slow loop” and Hasegawa’s topspin lob defense were effective in countering the fast attack of the Chinese.  Then in ’89 the Chinese were overpowered by the Swedes using the fast loop on both the backhand and forehand at and away from the table.  Quick to learn, the Chinese began using the Swedish approach; their remaining penholders introduced the backhand loop using the “reverse penhold backhand”.  Currently Xu Xin is the only penhold player among the top 6 Chinese men.  Currently among the top Chinese women there are no penholders.  Except for Mu Zi and Wu Yang ( a chopper) who use short pips on the backhand,  inverted rubber prevails with 2 winged looping.

In the ‘70s Huang Liang of China used long pips on one side of his blade and inverted rubber on the other side.  At that time the rule requiring different colors for the 2 sides of the blade had not come into being.  Huang befuddled his opponents in the European championships because they were not acquainted with the properties of long pips and could not tell which rubber was being used for each stroke by Huang.  The low friction of the flexible long pips not only slowed the return of the long pips, but the spin was the reverse of what would be expected if the return were made with conventional inverted rubber.  Weber of France produced similar havoc with “antispin” rubber which was very low friction inverted rubber.  The use of uncovered wood of the blade produced effects similar effects to those of long pips and “antispin” rubber.  These factors led to the rule requiring the rubber on each side of the same blade to be of different colors, and the use of bare wood was prohibited.

Inverted rubber enables the greatest versatility in play, but also demands rigorous training to exploit its advantages.  Pimpled rubber, short or long, and antispin rubber are advantageous in more limited situations, but can become a handicap against well trained opponents using inverted rubber.  Chopping defense away from the table, especially using pips (long or short) or antispin rubber may make it easier to return topspin, but counterattack with such rubbers is not feasible away from the table. Thus such a defense is rendered more predictable reducing the threat to the attacker at the table.  On the other hand inverted sponge enables attack both at and away from the table.

The foregoing considerations probably account for Joo’s increased use of 3 and even 2 ball attacks and more frequent looping away from the table and backhand (long pip) attacks at the table.  At his best, Takashima, with inverted on both sides, exemplified the chopper with a 2 winged threat of counterattack but he has no current successors.