Ready position, serve and receive tactics. Are these changing?

Rowden Fullen 2002

If we look at the top men, women and juniors in the world do we notice any changes in the ready position and in the serve and receive tactics? Obviously there are individual style factors which affect the issue — some top stars such as Kreanga and Steff use the backhand side to open much more from the middle of the table and especially against the serve or on the third ball. What we are looking for however are more general trends either in the men’s, women’s or the junior game.

It would appear that the ready position in the men’s game is changing. Many of the top junior boys and the younger top men stand more square now so that they have more options in short play (the rear leg is not so far back as it used to be). Players such as Boll, Maze and Chuan Chih-Yuan fall into this category. If you look at the world’s best junior boys many have a relatively square stance – Zwickl, Süss and Asian players too such as Yang Xiaofu and Sakamoto. The main exception is with the Asian penhold players who want to play more forehands and receive with the right foot (for a right-hander) well back.

Even in the case of many players who do stand with the right foot back, often they come in with the right foot against the serve to use the forehand from the middle of the table. In this way they can keep control of the table with the forehand on the subsequent ball. The men used to take over 80% of the opponent’s serves with the forehand wing (however now there is an increasing tendency at top level to use the backhand receive). If top men can’t open against the serve, the main receive is the short push return with the forehand or nowadays more and more with the backhand even well over on to the forehand side.

In comparison with the top men over twice as many of the top women stand quite square – almost 60% as opposed to 25 – 30%. The women too use the backhand much more from the middle of the table on the service receives, both to push and to open. They in fact use the backhand receive almost 50% of the time. European players such as Steff and Struse and the junior Pota fall into this category and even Asian players use the tactic. Players such as Guo Yue, Zhang Yining, Niu Jianfeng (Ch), Lin Ling (H.K.), Jing Jun Hong , Li Jia Wei (Sin) and top world juniors such as Peng Luyang (Ch) and Fukuhara (J) all use the backhand from the middle.

In the service area we note a number of differences between the men’s and women’s game. The female players use the long serve more than the men, in a ratio of around 16 – 17% as opposed to 10%, but there is not such a great difference in the short and half-long serves at the very top level. Perhaps the most informative factor is in the difference between the junior and senior players of both sexes. Both the boys and girls use the half-long serve more than the senior players do and the girls use the long serve more than the women. At senior level the service game becomes noticeably tighter. The men almost exclusively use the forehand to serve, with one or two noticeable exceptions such as Primorac. Backhand service is however generally lower than 5% as opposed to nearly 20% in the case of the top women.

There is a noticeable difference in service tactics between the top Asian and the top European women. The Asian women serve more short serves, around 65% in comparison with 50% and significantly less long serves, 13% as opposed to almost 30%. The best girl in the world Guo Yue, number 15 in the women’s rankings at 14 years, serves around 97% short or half-long serves. The Asian women are generally better and much more confident in the ‘short’ game and at opening against a backspin ball even over the table. The European women usually serve longer as they wish to get their topspin game in at the earliest opportunity. However in many cases it is obvious that the Europeans have neither good enough serves nor a good enough first opening ball to obtain a real advantage.

If we look at statistics of rallies between top Asian and European women, the Europeans are struggling to hold their own in drive or counter-play but also they are not really dominant in spin play either. Unless their first opening topspin ball is of exceptionally high quality they almost always lose out when the game accelerates into fast counter-play. It is obvious too that counter-play is still the basic norm in the women’s game. We rarely if ever see the loop to loop rallies that we see in men’s play with both players well back from the table. Instead the first opening spin ball is blocked or hit and there is no time to spin again. Rather the top women come in so that they are in a better position to counter fast over or close to the table. After the first opening spin ball, the next is usually taken at an earlier timing point to pressure the opponent.

There seems to be little thought at top level to bring in any changes in the forehand service action or position to create a more positive advantage in respect of the new service law. Most top players just try to remove the free arm and serve as they did before. Few have thought to increase the rotation speed of the upper body so that the free arm automatically swings away, or to use a higher throw so as to have more time to rotate the body. Players don’t really seem to appreciate that without rotation the service action is often quite stiff and it can take up to three separate movements to get the body and feet in the right position to play the next ball. Few players too have thought to serve from a squarer stance so as to be more adaptable against the return ball. It is noticeable that the women particularly are sometimes a little slow now to get in the right place for the third ball, especially if this is played hard into the corners.