Table Tennis Tidbits #15

By Robert Ho | Jan. 03, 2018, 1:50 a.m. (ET)

TABLE TENNIS TIDBITS  # 15   By Robert Ho  3-28-16

Qatar Open ’16:  Genes and Memes—the Cream Rises to the Top

Compared to the number and skill level of Kuwaiti players in the Kuwait Open, players from Qatar in the Qatar Open exceeded that of their Kuwaiti brethren.

The winners in this tournament were the “usual suspects”, with one exception: Zhang Ji Ke thrice world champion from China lost 1-4 in a quarterfinal to Dimitri Ovtcharov, German and European champion.  Zhang won the first game handily and lost the deciding 5th after leading 10-6.  I was suspicious about the outcome of this match.  It appeared to me that Zhang’s lateral movement was not visibly up to his usual standard.  Near the end of the last game he bent forward a few times to stretch his back; at the German Open he was said to have played only after taking back injections.  He beat Ma Long in the final at the Kuwait Open. Ovtcharov ordinarily finds each of the top 4 Chinese men insurmountable: therefore I find his win over Zhang may have been against an impaired opponent.

I will spend minimal time over the winners of this event and focus more on inferences re the specifics of  “Chinese philosophy and methodology of winning play”.  The “usual suspects”:

Men’s:  Ma Long over Fan Zhen Dong 4-1.
Women’s:  Liu Shi Wen over Ding Ning 4-1.
Men’s Doubles:  Zhang Ji Ke-Fan Zhen Dong over Niwa Koki-Maharu Yoshimura 3-0.  The Japanese pair had upset (?) Ma Long-Xu Xin 3-2!
Women’s Doubles:  Ding Ning-Liu Shi Wen over Mima Ito-Ai Fukuhara 3-2.

My observations and inferences re the winning ways of mainland Chinese players with a caveat:  I have not discussed the philosophy and methodology with any contemporary mainland Chinese coaches or players.

Re the serve and reception of serve: the relatively frequent occurrence of “net serves”, sometimes more than one in succession, implies the endeavor and ability to keep the serves low to minimize the ease of an offensive return.  On the other hand the occasional fast, long serve intended to surprise the opponent implies competence and confidence in abrupt changes in serve technique.  Variation in serve technique between the pendulum, reverse pendulum, the tomahawk and reverse tomahawk exemplified by Ding Ning exploits visual ambiguity the receiver must deal with.  Because the forehand serve permits greater exploitation of visual ambiguity, the backhand serve is used much less frequently.  However choppers tend to use the backhand serve more often because the conclusion of the serve movement permits easier transition to a defensive position (Wu Yang).  This is not to say that choppers may not also elect the forehand serve for tactical reasons (Wu Yang, Hu Limei).

The penhold grip and pimpled sponge rubber (Chuang Tse Tung, Li Fu Jung, Li Zhen Shi, Henan Li Ai) were used to facilitate forehand attacking play close to the table (the “3 ball attack”) but was less effective away from the table partly because the backhand was anatomically limited to about 90 degrees external rotation of the shoulder thus limiting the power and versatility of the effort.   However the Hungarians and Swedes demonstrated that both forehand and backhand aggressive play near and far from the table was possible and more effective using inverted rubber on both sides of the blade with the shakehands grip.  The Chinese learned quickly and brought that mode of play to its present level of technical proficiency and effectiveness.

Paradoxically the push return of serve took on new importance.  Short service returns via low pushes, well placed, often to the middle made opening the attack by the server more difficult.  Counterattack response to the opening attack became more threatening.  As a consequence it is not unusual to see push returns of service followed by a counter pushing duel where the ball crosses the net 10 times before someone opens the attack  Much practice is necessary to develop a short low push, sometimes with a sidespin component, to move the opponent to his disadvantage and also to blunt the speed and depth of ball travel.  The use of “speed glue” (now illegal) and the resultant development of more resilient, faster rubbers, necessitated modification of stroke technique to control the height and depth of push returns.  The earlier emphasis on wrist movement to produce much spin was prone to lead to deeper pushes than desired.  A more subtle combination of shoulder movement and less wrist action became critical.

Expressive of the Yin-Yang understanding of reality, the new delicacy and importance of push returns of serve was followed by cultivation of the backhand loop to return serve, even from the forehand half of the receiver’s side of the table.  As a result the server no longer could assume that he had the initial advantage in playing a point.  But to gain the initiative required the receiver to anticipate quickly and accurately where the serve was likely to land and to move deftly to the appropriate to spot to make his return.

Whether server or receiver, Chinese players are always apparently attempting to make an attacking shot.  This effort may occur close to the table or away from the table sometimes even from a squatting position.  Lobbing is a default deviation from the usual attacking mode as is blocking or chopping.  Even when used by Chinese players it represents a transition to disturb the rhythm of the opponent before returning to the attacking mode.  The exceptions to this trend are the few choppers in China of which only one (Wu Yang) is a significant threat to her countrywomen.

Jun Mizutani of Japan, when playing Chinese opponents, has tended to quickly assume a lobbing mode and more often than not loses the point.  At the recent Kuwait Open, he apparently tried to change the dynamic.  Against Xu Xin, whom he had never beaten, he gallantly stayed at or closer to the table and looped more and lobbed far less.  He lost the 7th game and match 10-12 after leading 10-6 in the 7th.  In the following Qatar Open he lost again to Xu in 5 but it was apparent he was determined to be more aggressive closer to the table.

Because inverted rubber is the most versatile rubber to produce both speed and spin, the important elements in an offensive game, this is the preferred surface.  The infrequent exceptions are choppers’ choices to deal with attacking players: on the backhand: short pips (Wu Yang) and long pips (Hu Limei).  Against their sister Chinese, they, as well as players from other countries, are at a disadvantage because the Chinese players practice so much against every kind of rubber and style.

In China a large number of elementary school children become interested in the game,  begin training and may become members of provincial teams.  Besides the technical aspects of the sport, relevant physical and mental training enable the aspirants to perform in the manner expected by the coaches.  The most able candidates, both mentally and physically, are primed for international competition.  The top 4 of about the best 20 players at any given time are selected for international competition. Fan Zhen Dong, currently #2 in the world is 19 years of age and was playing at world class level by the time he was 16.

Even if mature American adults, because of their late start in the sport never become world class, much less state or national level performers, being aware of world class performance can be a guide in more modest efforts to improve their games and enhance enjoyment of the effort.  Verbal prescription for technical advancement is limited in effectiveness; coaching involving demonstration and the use visual materials such as slow motion cinematography from appropriate angles is indispensible along with multi-ball training, the use of robots, and of course drills with practice partners.  Match play facilitates psychological adaptation to the demands of competition.