European and Asian Women’s Game

Rowden Fullen (1990’s)

With one or two rare exceptions European women are rather far below the level of the Asian female players. The last European country to win a women’s team event in the Worlds was Russia in 1969 with Z. Rudnova and S. Grinberg, who also won the women’s doubles. The last European woman in a singles final was Alicia Grofova from Czechoslovakia in 1973. Since this date there have been no Europeans in any singles finals or any team finals.

Over the last 20 years women’s table tennis has developed with many various styles and techniques, much more than the men’s game. We have in fact styles that exist in the women’s game which are not seen in men’s play or only rarely, we have styles that can be successful at top level with the women which would in no way have the same success in the men’s elite, (Ni Xialan). There are many more defence and pimple players even at the highest levels.

The Asian players generally have an active game and will open at the earliest opportunity. The hard attack ball is important in their table tennis philosophy. Over the years speed has been the dominant factor in their play and even now when direct attack with a strong spin ball is their usual method of opening, if they have to choose between speed and spin it will almost always be the former. They open as early as possible, directly after the serve for example and if they are compelled to play an intermediate stroke, they try to control the play so as to play positively on the next ball. Serve and the third ball hit are fundamental in their armoury and they spend much training time on this. They tend to take the ball at an earlier timing point than the European players.

The European game tends to consist of a variety of styles from defenders to fast attackers, players who prefer to open with spin and primarily on the forehand and fast tempo two wing attack players. The majority tend to fall nowadays into the latter category and it’s quite important in Europe to have enough strength on the backhand wing to keep pressure on the opponent. In the 60’s and 70’s the Asian fast attack overwhelmed the European spin game but in the 1980’s the men reversed this, culminating in team wins for Sweden 1989 — 93 and all-European men’s singles finals in the same years. If the men were successful with the two wing topspin type of game, why weren’t the European women?

To find the answer to this question perhaps we must look at the variety of different styles used in the women’s game and the various uses of techniques to create different specialties. The Asian coaches but especially the Chinese are always on the lookout for unusual even extraordinary techniques and styles of play. Trainers, coaches and administrators are always open in the mind to new ideas and possibilities. Players are also encouraged from an early age to be flexible in the mind and totally aggressive in play — ‘do it to the opponent before she does it to you’ is the usual maxim, in other words get in and attack first. The Asians are always aware that European players have great difficulty in getting to grips with their stop/start fast tempo game, especially as they take the ball at such an early timing point. If it’s absolutely impossible to open directly, they will control the play with an intermediate stroke to create the opening and then attack hard. The Asians also consider footwork training of high importance so they have a better opportunity to reach the ball with time to play a strong shot. They train much more intensively too on serve and the third ball and on receive and fourth ball — this and match play form a major part of every training session.

However rarely if ever are the Chinese afraid of the European serves and follow up ball. They consider that the Europeans have too few serves, are predictable in the way they use them and therefore usually limited with what they can do with the first attack ball. Often at the highest level against the Asians, European players aren’t allowed the opportunity to get their strengths in and are not able to use their strong spin early enough in the rally. With their serve and third ball and receive and fourth, the Asians deny them the time. Not enough European women are able to impose their game on the Asians.

Even if you watch top level matches between the best European women it’s often a matter of flowing, ‘nice-to-look-at’ rallies, the game looks like it’s being played at a high level. Examine the strokes in a little more detail however and you see it’s all so one pace and predictable, pre-planned and leisurely. By the way they play it looks as if many Europeans train far too much control play, loop to loop or loop to block, they don’t train to win the point! The result is that against the top Asians they just don’t have the time or the opportunity to utilize the stronger technical aspects of their game. Instead of playing further back from the table, perhaps the European women’s development should be directed more towards the importance of serve, receive and the first four balls and also towards methods of more effective and active play over the table. In this way they will have rather more opportunities to create attacking positions and earlier in the rally.

The European men in the 80’s were as good as the Chinese over the table and better at a distance, they were also able to play hard spin balls from both wings. As a result it was the Chinese men who weren’t able to play to their strengths in the first four balls and were then forced back from the table. The obvious question arises: why don’t European women play in the same way. If however you have ever watched top women competing against top men they have problems coping with the power but more especially with the spin, they lack the strength, speed and balance to play the same measure of hard spin.

Also most women don’t go back and loop to loop like the men, they return in a variety of different ways, blocking, drive, topspin or defence and often using differing materials. They also play closer to the table and are therefore able to play the angles or vary length and speed more easily, especially as they almost always face less power. If the European women want to play a strong spin game from further back with the bigger 40mm. ball which of course takes less spin, then it would logically appear that their chances of defeating the Asians become even more remote. They give their oriental counterparts more time to play and they give up the chance to control the over-the-table and short play.

European women must come to terms too with all the possibilities in the women’s game, with the many differing playing styles, work out which is best for them and develop their own character within the style. There are available to women players many more possibilities for success, many more different paths to the top levels, than there are for men. They only have to be open-minded about this, ready to accept that they need not be limited in their choice. They must also of course train in the right direction for their way of playing. Too often players, coaches and selectors are ‘blinkered’ when they look at women’s styles in Europe. They only really want to see one or two styles of play, it’s almost as if they think that only these styles have a chance to succeed at world level. Perhaps in Europe we should take a closer look at just how the top women in the world have played over the last 10 years, think about the variety of styles and why these players have been successful. Perhaps also we should stop trying to force women to conform to men’s styles of play, even those which have been successful!

European women must also appreciate that it’s not enough only to be able to play well one way, often you must alter your style to beat others. You must have the capacity to have other ways of play and to be able to cope with all styles. Above all the player and trainer should get together and think of a specialty which can make the player unique.

In China players have the opportunity all the time to compete against all differing styles of play; from the national and provincial squads down, all training groups have all techniques, defenders, short-pimple pen-hold attackers, long-pimple blockers, left-handers etc. Where the women don’t have a style to spar against they will ‘borrow’ a man player or even create a player with this style. In comparison in Europe often players meet only one or two styles in training and don’t know how to cope with many others. It is very noticeable in the World Championships that often a good European player may win over one or two Asians but then comes up against a style she doesn’t understand, such as long pimple defence or pen-hold attack and then loses easily. If the Europeans are to compete on a level playing-field then it’s probably going to be necessary for the women from various countries to have joint training camps together and to be provided with different sparring styles. There are just not enough good women of a high enough level in most countries in Europe.

There is also a rather different mental attitude in Asia and Europe. Many Europeans seem to lack the real competitive edge when playing against oriental players, often give up and appear to be resigned to losing. In China there are always reserves waiting. It’s very hard to get into the team and very easy to lose your place, never to return. It’s absolutely vital to a Chinese player that she takes the one and only chance she may ever have and makes the best possible use of it. Too often in Europe there are only one or two good women in the team and they are going to stay there win or lose. As a result there is no real incentive to keep raising their levels, they are already the best in their country and they are going to stay in the team because there is nobody pushing for their place, no competition! In such circumstances it’s very easy for players to let their game stagnate and to cease working at continued growth and development.

Finally Asian women train much longer and more professionally than their European counterparts. Six hours or so is a normal daily minimum with coaches in constant attendance to monitor performance and keep training in the right direction for the player’s individual style. (Many top players fit in extra sessions over and above this!) In the case of the Olympics or the Worlds, for the Chinese players we are talking about training camps in the country away from family and friends, a Spartan environment free from all distractions, to which the players willingly submit in order to achieve success. In fact the European women with a lesser number of good players, a lesser variety of sparring styles to train against, generally less extensive advice and information on the direction of their individual style and how to achieve their goals and much less daily training time, face a long, uphill battle if they are ever to dominate and take over from the Asians.