Material

Long Pimple Stroke Play

Rowden Fullen (2005)

Technical Areas

Attacking with pimples v chop and block – hit one v backspin ball using spin (already topspin on the ball), block one v block. Block early or at top of the bounce, block return often almost float ball.

Sidespin hit at the top of the bounce, use wrist and forearm with slight elbow lift (or hit early with less pace). If the opponent chops he gets topspin back, if he blocks then he receives a float ball, if he topspins he will get a backspin return.

Hit at the top of the bounce (through) with a short stroke and quite hard. Short movement of the wrist and forearm v chop or block. If v chop the opponent gets topspin if v block he gets float.

Drawback block v topspin, with a little twisting of the racket. Try to use earlier timing, (but you can also take late) with a short, slower movement back. More spin reversal and shorter length return with this stroke. Very much backspin on the return.

Stop-block at early or peak timing. If v topspin, chop back – if v chop, topspin back.
Chop with a longer stroke v topspin, heavy chop back to the opponent.
Slow counter attack roll at an early timing v topspin. Return ball has backspin.
Punch (care with position of feet and technique) with upward and forward movement. If v topspin opponent gets backspin return, if v chop, topspin return.
Players using long pimples should practise twiddling and pushing /opening with the normal rubber.

N.B. The amount of effect achieved will vary from one long pimple rubber to another.

Generally speaking the most return spin will be achieved by long pimples without sponge and on a fast blade — because the ‘surface’ is hard, the ball rebounds very quickly and is not gripped by the rubber, therefore the spin already on it is returned without alteration or only little change. Where there is sponge, especially if this is a bit thicker 1.0mm. or above some of the return spin will be lost as there will be a slower rebound off the blade and the ball will be returned more often as ‘float’ (without spin). After the bounce on your side of the table of course, the ball will ‘acquire’ a little topspin.

Women Individual Development: Pimples on BH

Rowden Fullen (2003)

1) Flexible and adaptable, not rigid in play.

2) Ready to consider new ideas, methods, not rigid in thinking.

3)Understanding that development means change, no change means stagnation.

4) Women’s game requires expertise in the following areas –

  • Control of speed.
  • Opening.
  • Converting ( from spin to drive).
  • Short play.
  • Serve and receive.
  • Variation.
  • Use of table and equipment.
  • Backhand.
  • Positive attitude.
  • Winning weapon.
  • Not afraid to be different.

5) Understand your own style

  • Playing distance from the table.
  • F.H./B.H. split and table coverage.
  • Movement patterns.
  • How you win points, what is effective.
  • Train in the right way for your own style.

6) Be aware of the advanced techniques of the women’s game –

  • Short play.
  • Use of angles.
  • Change of speed.
  • Stance and movement patterns.
  • Killing through loop.
  • Early ball push.
  • Early ball smash.
  • Early ball topspin.
  • Slow loop (long/short).
  • Sidespin loop.
  • Dummy loop.
  • Chop/stop blocks.
  • Sidespin push/block.
  • Late timed push/block.
  • Loop to drive play.
  • Loop and block play.
  • Block play (especially on the forehand).
  • Short drop balls (especially v defence players).

Backhand pimple development

  1. Drive at the top of the bounce and push/block early v push and block.
  2. Push late (spin), push early (float or spin), push (sidespin?) Prioritize early timing. (Vital with pimples).
  3. Drive top of bounce (short stroke little back-swing) v drive or block or chop.
  4. Sidespin hit v chop or block. (Especially v little slower ball).
  5. Drawback block v topspin loop.
  6. Chop block – forward (float), down at an early timing point (chop) v drive.
  7. Chop (or float) v drive, topspin. (At times train a little back from the table, so that you can control and get back in when forced back).
  8. Slow roll early v spin or drive.
  9. Varied block, soft, stop, forced.
  10. Early ball shovel push (especially v serve).
  11. Twiddling (heavy push and loop with normal rubber).
  12. Train variation, hard and soft, short and long, angles and placement.

With pimples note particularly the value of the block (puts the spin back) and also of the push (variation in the spin on the return). If you only hit and usually play power with the pimples then you are much more predictable and you are not using the pimples to maximum effect or indeed for the purpose they were intended.

N.B. Very important v good players that you can hold the ball short on the table with the long pimples against long serves and topspin shots.

Forehand development (with pimples on the backhand)

  1. Can’t play deep on the F.H. and close on the B.H.
  2. Work at drive play closer to the table, especially in a moving situation.
  3. Train much block play v topspin (varied block, topspin, sidespin, soft, forcing).
  4. Important that you can hit through topspin.
  5. Early ball shovel push (especially v serve) and good short play.
  6. Early ball topspin v drive, block or topspin.
  7. Slow topspin against chop but care with length.
  8. Occasional sidespin especially v the slower ball. (Very effective against defenders or when played straight down the line to left-handed players).
  9. Much spin into drive (slow spin, hit hard).
  10. Care with crossover (F.H. generally but the pimples against some styles of play). Find the point of change.
  11. Twiddling (serve receive and hit/smash with pimples).
  12. Train a little at varied distances from the table, topspin and drive with reverse and chop with pimples.
  13. Train variation, hard and soft, short and long, angles and placement.

N.B. Particularly important that you start to use the F.H. more from the middle of the table and that you work to make it stronger and more reliable.

Theory

  1. Less effect and less possibilities back from the table (especially with the bigger ball because of the lesser spin).
  2. Less spin with the bigger ball means less control (less on-the-table control).
  3. Less spin with the bigger ball means it is easier to block and to open for the opponent.
  4. It is harder to win points from back.
  5. Use the unpredictability of the slower topspin ball (Magnus effect), especially when opening. Bear in mind that slow spin on one wing and flat hit on the other is very effective.
  6. More possibilities close to the table, varied block, spin, drive, sidespin etc.
  7. Timing is critical in drive play (narrow window).
  8. Long serves more effective in the women’s game, (especially side and float or side and topspin). Many opponents try to return with too much power and because they achieve less topspin with the bigger ball, they have less on–the-table control.
  9. Don’t return long serves with power. (Deny the server the chance to use the return speed).
  10. Focus on the serve/receive, the first 4/5 balls and active play over the table. Try to impose your game on the opponent but always remember that blocks and even pushes can be positive when used in the right way.
  11. There is a basic fallacy in the thinking that persists in trying to train more and more girls to play a man’s topspin game. Women just don’t get as much topspin as men. Because they don’t get as much topspin they have less on-the-table control (less topspin means the ball doesn’t dip down so much on the other side of the table). This problem is accentuated with the bigger ball. Very rarely do women have the same strength as men, therefore they are unable to play the same power input into the stroke with the same closed bat angle. The vast majority of women as a result have major problems in hitting the ball really hard from below table level.

Women Individual Development: Reverse Rubber on BH

Rowden Fullen (2003)

1) Flexible and adaptable, not rigid in play.

2) Ready to consider new ideas, methods, not rigid in thinking.

3) Understand that development means change, no change means stagnation.

4) Women’s game requires expertise in the following areas –

  • Control of speed.
  • Opening.
  • Converting ( from spin to drive).
  • Short play.
  • Serve and receive.
  • Variation.
  • Use of table and equipment.
  • Backhand.
  • Positive attitude.
  • Winning weapon.
  • Not afraid to be different.

5) Understand your own style –

  • Playing distance from the table.
  • F.H./B.H. split and table coverage.
  • Movement patterns.
  • How you win points, what is effective.
  • Train in the right way for your own style.

6) Be aware of the advanced techniques of the women’s game –

  • Short play.
  • Use of angles.
  • Change of speed.
  • Stance and movement patterns.
  • Killing through loop.
  • Early ball push.
  • Early ball smash.
  • Early ball topspin.
  • Slow loop (long/short).
  • Sidespin loop.
  • Dummy loop.
  • Chop/stop blocks.
  • Sidespin push/block.
  • Late timed push/block.
  • Loop to drive play.
  • Loop and block play.
  • Block play (especially on the forehand).
  • Short drop balls (especially v defence players).

Backhand reverse development

  1. Drive at the top of the bounce or just before but spin at differing timing points from early to later (depends on incoming ball).
  2. Drive (short stroke little backswing) v drive or block or chop.
  3. Train to accelerate from block/drive into spin.
  4. Train soft block and topspin block v loop.
  5. Chop block – forward (float), down at an early timing point (chop) v drive.
  6. Slow roll early v spin or drive.
  7. Varied block, soft, stop, forced, sidespin, topspin.
  8. Early ball shovel push (especially v serve) and good short play.
  9. Train a little back from the table so that you can control and get back in when forced back.
  10. Train variation in pace, hard and soft, short and long.
  11. Train angles and placement.

(Even with reverse rubber note particularly the value of the block (put the spin back) and also of the push, (variation in the spin on the return). If you only hit hard and usually play power then you are much more predictable. At a higher level you must think of variation in all its aspects, (spin, speed, placement, angles etc.)

Forehand development (with reverse on the backhand) –

  1. Can’t play deep on the F.H. and close on the B.H.
  2. Work at drive play closer to the table, especially in a moving situation.
  3. Train much block play v topspin (varied block, topspin, sidespin, soft, forcing).
  4. Important that you can hit through topspin.
  5. Early ball shovel push (especially v serve) and good short play.
  6. Slow topspin against chop but care with length.
  7. Occasional sidespin especially v the slower ball. (Very effective v defenders or when played straight down the line v left-handed players).
  8. Much spin into drive (slow spin, hit hard).
  9. Care with crossover (F.H. generally but the B.H. against some styles of play). Find the point of change.
  10. Train to change pace, loop or drive long, block short.
  11. Train angles and placement.

Theory

  1. Less effect and less possibilities back from the table (especially with the bigger ball because of the lesser spin).
  2. Less spin with the bigger ball means less control (less on-the-table control).
  3. Less spin with the bigger ball means it is easier to block and to open for the opponent.
  4. It is harder to win points from back.
  5. Use the unpredictability of the slower topspin ball (Magnus effect), especially when opening. Bear in mind that slow spin on one wing and flat hit on the other can be very effective.
  6. More possibilities close to the table, varied block, spin, drive, sidespin etc.
  7. Timing is critical in drive play (narrow window).
  8. Long serves more effective in the women’s game, (especially side and float or side and topspin). Many opponents try to return with too much power and because they achieve less topspin with the bigger ball, they have less on–the-table control.
  9. Don’t return long serves with power. (Deny the server the chance to use the return speed).
  10. Focus on the serve/receive, the first 4/5 balls and active play over the table. Try to impose your game on the opponent but always remember that blocks and even pushes can be positive when used in the right way.
  11. There is a basic fallacy in the thinking that persists in trying to train more and more girls to play a man’s topspin game. Women just don’t get as much topspin as men. Because they don’t get as much topspin they have less on-the-table control (less topspin means the ball doesn’t dip down so much on the other side of the table). This problem is accentuated with the bigger ball. Very rarely do women have the same strength as men, therefore they are unable to play the same power input into the stroke with the same closed bat angle. The vast majority of women as a result have major problems in hitting the ball really hard from below table level.

Rather than training women to loop 4 or 5 balls in succession it makes rather more sense to loop 1 or 2 then to come in and drive to win the point. Training to ‘convert’ from spin to drive or hit assumes rather more importance. Generally women don't spin to win, rather they spin to make openings.

Material and the Womens Game

Rowden Fullen (2004)

In Sweden I encounter immediate resistance from most clubs when I mention material and girls’ play. I know that there are clubs which develop pimple players, clubs such as Lyckeby, Tyresö and Lindome for example, but far too often when I am at tournaments I hear coaches and parents only complaining about material and condemning the clubs and coaches who promote such rubbers and playing styles. This is unfortunately an attitude which their players pick up and which will only hinder their future development.

Let’s look at a few facts. Just what is the prime skill of table tennis? It is to be able to adapt quickly in an ever changing situation. Table tennis is all about being able to adjust to and cope with different situations, situations such as players using different tactics, defence and material. And in fact in the women’s game there are many more different paths to the top level than there are in the men’s. Do we really think that any player can reach the heights if they can’t play against pimples, defenders or penholders for example?

I have even had National Coaches in Sweden tell me that some of our best women players do very well in Europe against normal rubbers but ‘have a major problem against material’. This is of course a problem that goes back to early training, to parental attitudes and to the trainers and clubs which introduce the young girl to our sport. There is nothing illegal or underhand about playing with material. We have just had a young girl reach the final of the SOC and knock out several top Chinese on the way, playing with pimples. Her racket was examined every step of the way by referees and umpires – perfectly legal.

Almost every country in Europe has material players in their girls’ and women’s teams right from cadet level, there are many material players amongst the top hundred ranked women in the world and we have even had women world champions playing with pimples. Some of the best young girls in the world, Fukuhara from Japan for instance, play with pimples. If we in Sweden deny our young girls the opportunity to train with and against material at an early age, we are in fact limiting and restricting their future development and placing them at a big disadvantage when competing at European and world level.

I leave you with some rather interesting statistics. In the National rankings for 12 and 13 year olds there are very few pimple players among the girls. This is of course an age where the players are under the control of parents and clubs and don’t have the chance to think for themselves. In the ranking for women’s 20 where the players have escaped from their restrictions and control their own development we have around 50% who play with pimples! The players themselves come to understand eventually what works for them in the women’s game. It’s just a pity they don’t have the opportunity to do this at an earlier age when the learning process would be much more effective.

Why use Pimples

Rowden Fullen (2004)

Many coaches and players seem to think that it’s some form of legalized cheating to use pimples or at best that that it’s only to win matches cheaply or to cover a weakness. Of course at top-level pimples are rarely used in the men’s game but are quite normal in the women’s game even at the very highest levels. Many coaches unfortunately have little understanding of the real differences between men’s and women’s play and why pimples are a necessary tool in the women’s game. The players themselves however begin to understand when they get a little older.

For example in girls’ 13 classes in Sweden you have hardly any girls playing with material, not because they don’t want to or wouldn’t benefit by using pimples, but solely because their clubs or trainers totally reject this alternative. If however you look at the National Swedish Rankings for girls’ 20 a large number of our girls are by this age using material – from nothing the percentage has leapt to around 50%. Why? Either because the players have come into contact with more enlightened coaching or because as they have become older and more experienced they have also become aware that without material they are not going to reach the higher levels in women’s table tennis. Women begin to understand that there are many more paths to the top level in the women’s game than there are in the men’s. By not allowing our younger girls to explore the various alternatives in the women’s game at an early age we often deny them the opportunity of reaching their full potential.

Take a look at the SOC in Malmö — at the very best women in the world rankings — players from Asian countries with material, from Europe and the Americas with pimples. Most countries competing had pimpled players in their teams. A girl from Hongkong only ranked 5 in her country and 46 in the world, reaching the final – pimples. Shouldn’t we perhaps be learning something from this? Many top women play with material for a good reason – quite simply because such rubbers complement the women’s game and tactics. And over the years we have had a considerable number of female world champions playing with pimples. All this makes the total rejection of material by many coaches in Swedish clubs rather ludicrous.

What do we mean by ‘complement the women’s game and tactics’? Just what is the difference between the sexes in the way they play? If we compare top men and women we immediately notice the contrast in power. Quite simply men hit the ball harder. Usually too they give themselves more time and room to use their strength and play from further back and with much more topspin. Women on the other hand play closer to the table and block and counter much more. Even those women who topspin can’t be compared to the men. A strong woman such as Boros just doesn’t hit the ball anywhere near as hard as a man.

Power and spin are important in the men’s game, placement and change of and control of speed in the women’s. You rarely if ever see the loop-to-loop rallies of the men’s game in women’s play — almost always the return is a block, counter or defence stroke. Not only does the ability to loop several balls in a row against topspin require strength that most women don’t have (and in the long term often leads to injury) but also tactically it’s not a prime requirement in women’s play. Because women loop with less spin and power than men their topspin is much easier to control and contain and there are far more good blockers and counter-hitters in the ranks of the women than in those of the men.

Pimples are ideal for changing spin and speed and for returning unpredictable balls to the opponent. They are particularly good for controlling topspin, especially the lesser level of spin and power you get in the women’s game. With pimples you also have the capability of taking the ball very early and denying the opponent time to play her next stroke so this material is in fact ideal for controlling the opponent’s speed and allowing you to be on level terms with much faster players. The higher level of unpredictability in ball behaviour especially after the bounce means that it is very difficult for topspin players (and particularly those with a long stroke) to adapt. They are often committed too early to a certain stroke path and are unable to change this. When you compare Asian loop players they usually have a much shorter stroke and don’t therefore suffer so much against material (also of course they train against all different playing styles and from an early age).

Of course there are so many different pimples on the market that the whole area is now something of a minefield – should you play with short pimples with no friction, a little or much friction or should you play with medium or long? Which would suit your style of play? Don’t despair if you don’t know. Up to a couple of years ago the rubber manufacturers didn’t know either. Generations of Asian women players have used a variety of sponges under the rubber for the last 30 years because they knew something the manufacturers didn’t. That the softness of the sponge is of vital importance in getting maximum effect particularly in the case of short and medium pimples – there’s little point in using 45 or 50, you really want at least a 35 or even a 30. It’s only recently in Sweden that we have started to get the full range of sponge sheets in different thicknesses and hardness and have had access to the same advantages as the Asians (for further information contact Lars Borg at Japsko).

Neubauer of course has done his own exhaustive testing on long pimpled rubbers and the effect of rubber colour and blade weight and speed on return spin. As a result his long pimpled rubbers were originally only manufactured in red because the same rubber in black produces considerably less effect. He has also proved that pimples have most effect when used on a fast and even heavier blade. Of course it is now possible to have double-sided blades, fast on one side and slower on the other to suit the style of the individual player, so having just one fast side is no longer a problem.

From a young age it is vital that girl players learn to cope with all types of playing styles. There is little point in getting up to the level of the National team at 18 – 20 years only for the trainers to discover that you can’t play against defence players or pimples. Your further development is going to be severely restricted. However if you have played with and against material at a young age your long-term development is liable to be much more comprehensive.

And let us remember too that playing with pimples can be a stage in the development of a young player, it doesn’t have to be permanent. Using material can even be a way of refining technique as with many pimples, short and medium for example, you have to play the ball rather than just placing the racket in the way. Quite a number of players turn to pimples in their early teens only to go back to normal rubbers later, but almost always with a much better understanding of how to play against material.

As we said earlier in this article in the women’s game there are many more ways to the top than there are in the men’s. I would appeal to coaches and trainers at club level to understand this and to give their girl players a fair chance of success from the start. You have a big responsibility to do the very best for your players and to put them on the right road for them.

The Chinese have a saying – ‘When a fool sees himself as he is, he is a fool no longer. When the wise man becomes sure of his wisdom, then he is a fool.’ — If you as a coach have stopped listening, then you are no longer prepared to look at other possibilities. Perhaps it is true to say — only in absolute certainty is there danger. Certainty is the enemy of progress, we stop thinking and further development is not possible.

Girls: Long Pimple Development (attack)

Rowden Fullen (2005)

The first hurdle for the player to get over is the amount of ill-feeling she will encounter from opponents, their parents and other coaches. ‘You wouldn’t win if you played with a normal racket’ is the standard accusation. What many of these accusers fail to appreciate is that a large number of the world’s best women have played and play now with material of one kind or another. Women play with material for a reason – ‘funny rubbers’ are a means of controlling speed and spin but particularly speed. If you can’t control speed then you can’t play women’s table tennis. Over the years women have found a number of differing methods of doing this – the use of material is only one.

There is another important aspect to consider too. Table tennis is all about being able to adjust to and cope with different situations, situations such as players using differing tactics, defence and material. And in fact in the women’s game there are many more different paths to the top level than there are in the men’s. Do we really think that any player can reach the heights if they can’t play against pimples, defenders or penholders for example?

Some national coaches say to me – ‘But the top six/seven Chinese women in the world at the moment don’t play with pimples’. True but these things go in cycles and if you talk to the top Chinese coaches they are as keen as ever to produce another Deng Yaping, and have many pimple players training both at National and Regional Levels. Look at the younger Asian players in world rankings for 18 and 21 — the top Chinese pimpled racket player (defensive) Fan Ying is currently ranked 3 in the world U21 rankings (after 2 other Chinese) and 2 in the U18 ranking (after Guo Yue). Ai Fukuhara the famous Japanese girl (medium pimples on BH) is ranked 5 in 18’s and 8 in 21’s. If you are thinking –no future in pimples – then perhaps you should think again!

It is true however that with pimples, as with normal rubbers, there must be a path of development and players must continue to grow and progress. You cannot just stick a long pimpled rubber on a young girl’s backhand side, tell her to block and push with it and stop there. The player must learn to use the rubber, do different things with it, know when to ‘twiddle’ and use the normal side, how to get the biggest advantage out of serve, receive and the third ball etc.

Let us first look at what one should look for when considering switching to long pimples, which is the most deceptive of the pimpled rubbers. The first aspect which the player must experiment with is effect versus control – this is always a major point for discussion with long pimple users. In most cases it is a question of whether to try sponge or not and if so how thick. In the final analysis it is often a matter of feeling and ‘what works for me’. Long pimple players all play differently even with the same rubbers and selection of the best playing materials is a highly individual matter and usually one for some experimentation.

When we consider control we must look at how the player is using the rubber. Long pimple without sponge may have good control when you go back and play defensively, but the same rubber can have control problems when you try and block close to the table. Against a fast loop the ball just springs off the racket too quickly. A layer of sponge will help with blocking control as the ball is held longer on the bat, but you will of course lose effect.

Most spin reversal occurs when you have a red, long pimpled rubber, with thin, hard, widely spaced, plastic type pimples and on a fast blade. The ball kicks off very quickly and there is no time for it to be affected by the rubber. The plastic type pimples have absolutely no grip and when thinner and widely spaced have minimum contact with the ball. Because they are hard they don’t bend as much as normal pimples and therefore the ball is not held on the surface.

Many players don’t understand that what is happening is that they are in effect getting their own spin back. If they for example put heavy backspin on the ball and the opponent pushes the ball back with the pimples, the return will not have backspin (even though his or her stroke is down and forward) but an element of topspin. The most important consideration when playing against long pimples is not what the opponent is doing with his or her racket, but what you did with your last stroke. The majority of players don’t in fact think what they are doing when they meet pimpled rubber opponents. Instead of trying to understand what is happening and working to combat this, they take the easy option and just complain.

Let us now look at the techniques and tactics of using long pimples. Good players who understand the principles of playing against long pimples will more often than not hit one ball and push the next. They understand that if they loop hard they get a lot of spin back and that it’s difficult to loop two or three balls in a row with any power (in fact the more power you put in the more spin you get back). As a result the ‘bread and butter’ tactics of the long pimpled attacker/blocker must be to control the hit and to hold the ball as short as possible on the opponent’s side of the table. The push ball should then be taken very early and either dropped short or pushed very long and very fast. This gives the opponent only limited time to react against a fast push which can have considerable topspin.

But the long pimpled player should not stop here. The next step is to train on a variety of ‘stop’ and sidespin actions together with changes of timing to confuse the opponent. Don’t think either that these just have a ‘confusion’ value, they can have real effect too. For example a ‘stop-block’ where the racket is pulled back at the contact can return a very short ball to the opponent with very much backspin. Or a fast sidespin action played to the alternate corner against heavy backspin can return a fast topspin ball with a sidespin kick. Even a push taken at a late timing point can be effective – it gives the opponent too much time to think and she sees the ball moving in the air and becomes hesitant.

Pimpled players should of course also train to ‘twiddle’ so that they can push and open with both sides. It’s very easy for example to open hard against the backspin ball, even with the pimples, when the opponent is in the hit and push mode. It’s equally easy to train to take the short balls/serves with the pimples on the forehand side so that you are not pulled too far out of position by trying to use the backhand over the whole table. And if you are able to ‘twiddle’ and smash the high balls with the pimples, they will rarely if ever come back.

One must also consider the other side of the racket which usually has a normal reverse rubber. It’s a good idea if this is as ‘tacky’ as possible, for then there is a very big difference between the spins from either wing. Of course the girl using long pimples on the backhand must also work to develop the forehand side. Too many girls using pimples have weaknesses on the other wing which let them down. It is expedient that girls with long pimples on the backhand have good topspin on the forehand, can vary this, either slow or fast and can kill at the first opportunity. It is also important that they can block with good control and variation on this wing so that they can contain the women loop players and then pick the right ball to hit and win the point.

Serve and receive is another vital area for the long pimpled player and efficiency here is crucial. Good players may well just serve long and fast to the pimples and then kill the next ball. It is vital that the pimpled player has alternatives to the block receive – slow spin roll with the reverse rubber or step back and chop with the pimples for example. Many players however, even very good players, don’t think to change their game and serve their usual heavy spin serves which get them into all sorts of trouble.

Long pimple players can get a great deal of advantage from their service if they go about it in the right way. Sidespin is of particular use to the long pimple player as it allows them to give their opponent difficult fourth ball returns. For example a vicious sidespin serve (with the 'tacky' rubber), which is also very short, will encourage most female opponents to push the second ball. A fast early ball push with the long pimples will give the adversary a topspin ball with a sidespin kick (the ball still retains the sidespin from the service). As players and coaches will appreciate there are a number of different possibilities based on this same theme. The fast flat serve with the long pimples also causes problems to many players as does the long fast backspin (without any spin).

Of course the ideal eventually is if the long pimple player can play with both rubbers as and when she chooses. This can take a little time as she will have twice the number of alternatives as the normal player and to be effective will require both training and application. The one aspect that is of some importance is the timing when she twiddles the racket. A bad ‘twiddler’ will often get caught out and have to play with the side of the racket she doesn’t want to use at that particular time. The experienced ‘twiddler’ plays with intention and only turns the racket after her opponent has contacted the ball and is always playing with the ‘right’ rubber to suit the occasion.

Girls in the World’s Elite and their Playing Styles

Lars Borg (2008)

How do the top women in the world play today? We have examined a little more closely the women players who were at the Swedish Open Championships and also looked at the Protour results in the European tournaments in the autumn.

Approximately half of the players who reached the quarter-finals or further either had a different playing style or a different type of rubber and didn’t attack with topspin on BH or FH. The two most common styles other than topspin attack with reverse rubbers were attacking drive-play with short pimples on the BH or defensive play with long pimples on the same wing. Additionally we had attacking players with short pimples on the FH and defenders with short or half-long pimples on the BH. An interesting point is the distinct lack of pen-hold players among the top placed contenders. They are there but they are not reaching the final stages.

Let us look at a few varied examples –

  • Guo Yan (China) topspin attack with reverse rubber – 2nd in the SOC. A strong topspin player. The advantages with this playing style are strong speed and spin. Because the ball comes over the net with a pronounced arc it’s even possible to play hard against low balls. Other exponents of this style are Zhang Yining, Li Xiaoxia, Guo Yue (reigning world champion) all China, Aya Umemura and Sayaka Hirano (Japan) and Liu Jia (Austria).
  • Li Jia Wei (Singapore) attacking player with short pimple on the FH – Olympic Semi-finalist in Athens and 3rd in the SOC. An unusual playing style which as her coach Anthony Lee says gives her a number of plus points and is hard for opponents to adjust to. The advantages with short pimple are in quick attack and also that the FH is less susceptible against spin. It’s also easy to hit hard against heavy topspin or loop balls and the hits come through to the opponent with a fast, flat trajectory and often a good amount of backspin. Other exponents of this style are Wu Jiaduo (Germany) and Shen Yanfei (Spain).
  • Amelia Solja (Germany) attacking player with frictionless long pimples on the BH – second in European Youths, 2007. A style which has recently developed from attacking play with long pimples with friction. The difference is that it’s even easier to control spin and to block back very short over-the-table returns. The spin reversal is also very powerful and – this means that opponents get back almost all the spin they, themselves created. The disadvantages are the inability to create one’s own spin (unless one twiddles) and a measure of predictability in play with the pimples.
  • Li Jiao (Holland) Pen-hold topspin attack with reverse rubber – 14 in the world ranking. Strengths are play over the table and the possibilities of achieving good spin. The disadvantage is the lack of a strong BH. There has not been the same development among the women as with the men (such as Wang Hao) who use the reverse side of the pen-hold racket to loop against backspin.
  • Cao Zhen (China) Attacking play with short pimples on the BH – lost against world No. 2 Guo Yue in the quarters at the SOC but was runner-up in the German Protour. Quite many women players use short pimples on the BH for quick, early-ball attack either with block or counter-hit. This type of player relies more on speed and placement rather than on spin. Other examples are Ai Fujinuma (Japan), Zhang Xue Ling and Wang Yue Gu (Singapore) and Jiang Huajun (Hongkong).
  • Gao Jun (USA) pen-hold short pimple attack – 17 in the world and the highest ranked with this playing style. The greatest strengths are tempo, the ease of hitting, blocking and forcing against spin. The main weakness is the lack of a ‘dangerous’ attack from the BH side.
  • Daniela Dodean (Romania) Topspin attack with reverse rubbers and an imposing BH loop. Europe’s future hope with power on the BH side. Quarter-finalist in the French Protour. The advantage of a good BH loop is that you can win the point directly or create an opening as soon as the opponent blocks or gives you a weaker ball. Often for example you will have a high return which is easy to attack as the amount of spin on the BH loop stroke is more difficult to read. The main disadvantage is that against the really quick players who take the ball early on the rise you may not have sufficient time to play the stroke. This is often the case when European women meet Asian opponents. Another example of this playing style is Tamara Boros (Croatia).
  • Haruna Fukuoka (Japan) attacking play with long/half-long pimples on the BH – finalist in the doubles in the SOC. Here the player uses the pimples primarily to control the speed of the rallies and to create openings for the FH attack. Of course a classic example of this is the 4 times world and Olympic Champion, Deng Yaping from China. Other advantages are the ease of controlling spin serves and the ability to create spin variations which cause problems to the opponent. Ai Fukuharu the Japanese wonder-girl plays with half-long pimples on the BH.
  • Li Qian (Poland) defensive player with short/half-long pimples on the BH. She has half-long pimples on the BH and uses these primarily to chop but can also attack very effectively. She made her international breakthrough by winning the Polish Protour last year and came second in the SOC in the U21 event. One of the world’s best women defenders, Fan Ying (China) uses short pimples on the BH. With this style and these rubbers it can be more difficult to chop but the possibility is increased of varying one’s own spin (or lack of spin) and also of attacking effectively.
  • Kim Kyung Ah and Park Mi Young (South Korea) defensive players with long pimples on the BH – winners in doubles in the SOC. Classic defence players where the pimples primarily throw back the spin. Easier to defend with than short or half-long pimples but also less attacking power and possibilities. In the women’s game there are a great many players with this style. The FH side can vary from almost complete defensive chop to occasional smashing, to quite frequent topspin opening. Kim Kyung Ah is the prime exponent with bronze in the Olympics in Athens. Others are Viktoria Pavlovich (White Russia), Irina Kotikhina (Russia), Xian Yi Fang (France) and Tetyana Sorochinskaya (Ukraine).
  • Chen Qing (China) pen-hold, short pimple attack and long pimple block/defence – quarter-finalist in Russian Open. With this playing method it’s possible to practise two completely different styles of play, defence and control with the long pimples and hard attack with the short pimples. Often she is defensive on the receive and very positive on her own serves but also she is prepared to twiddle during the rallies (even though this is harder than with the ‘shake-hands’ grip). The former European Top 12 winner Ni Xialan (Luxembourg) had great success with this style of play.

Women’s Playing Styles: the Theory

Rowden Fullen (2008)

If we follow up on Lars’ article (previous page) two aspects will strike us immediately –

    Why so many varied styles in the women’s game?
    Why don’t the women just play more like the men with more topspin and power? It seems obvious they could be much more effective like this.

Let me first acquaint you with what I observed at the Top 10 in Sheffield where we were able to examine both the top juniors and cadets and gain some insight into just what techniques and tactics other countries in Europe (especially those from the Eastern bloc) are developing in their young girl players.

  • The ready position is generally very square (in a number of cases over-square). By this we mean square or over-square to the table – this of course is significant in that a shot played on the FH diagonal would be played in some cases from a completely square position and the power input would depend solely on the arm speed and the rotational value. Strokes played down the line would therefore be and are executed with the right foot forward (for a right-hander). This is more noticeable with the Eastern Europeans. (Szocs, Kusinska, Kolodyaznaya, Noskova, Matelova, Xiao.)
  • Many girls stand close to the table to receive, some even over the table. (P. Solja, Szocs, Kolodyaznaya, Xiao.)
  • Not only is the ready position square but the stance often quite central to cover both wings. (P. Solja, Szocs, Madarasz, Noskova, Xiao.) More of the Western Europeans play more like the boys off the BH corner. (M. Pettersson.)
  • The square (or near-square or even over-square) stance is used on close to table FH strokes and a squarer stance is retained even when the girls back away to play from a deeper position. (Szocs, Madarasz, Noskova, Hirici,
  • The BH receive of serve from the middle is a common tactic. (P. Solja, Noskova, Kolodyaznaya, Stahr.)
  • The BH serve is a common tactic. (Pettersson, Stahr, Kolodyaznaya.)
  • Almost all the girls on show, even the blockers and defenders played very positively all the time and most moved well – there were few if any weak shots.

Many of the countries competing and ending up among the top places with the girls (Romania, Hungary, Russia, Germany) have a great tradition in producing top women players. One area however that have in common, is that they train girls to play a women’s game. Unless girls are extremely fast, strong and athletic it is usually counter-productive to try and make them play like the boys, receive all the time with the FH and to have a ready position somewhere outside the BH corner. Certainly when I talk to Chinese coaches who have been involved with their National Junior Girls’ Teams and ask what they think of the European women who play a topspin game and back away from the table, their reply is as follows – ‘We love it and long may it continue. The last time you won a World title in women’s singles was in 1955, while you train like this you’ll never win another!’ So let us look at the reasoning behind these factors.

Men are stronger than women and play with much more spin and power. The men’s game is about control of spin – the topspin ball dips on to the table at the end of its flight and shoots forward very fast after the bounce. Almost all men tend therefore to take the ball later and the common tactic is counter-topspin against topspin. This never happens in the women’s game. The women stand closer and take the ball earlier, which is easier to do as there is less incoming spin and power. There are also many more top-level blockers and counter-hitters among the women which factor makes the traditional hard topspin male-oriented game rather less effective, particularly in an environment where there is less power input.

Women hit the ball flatter and with less spin (due to the lesser power input). Even in the case of high-level topspin players mentioned by Lars, such as Zhang Yining and Liu Jia, there is absolutely no comparison in terms of spin and power with a male player such as Kreanga. This means that the women’s game is much more a question of control of speed. The counter to the topspin is varied depending on the style of the player and can be a block, counter-hit or chop. In the case of top women playing against top men it is noticeable that they have major problems controlling the spin element.

Because the women’s game is about controlling speed, women have over the years devised differing means of doing this. If there weren’t different styles in women’s play, then the faster players would always win. Pimples are a means of controlling spin and speed and returning different balls to the opponent. This then gives the pimpled player more time to play her strokes. Generally the men play with so much more spin and power that pimples are less effective. They are used more often in the veteran’s game when the older men start to lose their speed and power.

Women play closer to the table and have less time to play their shots. As a result aspects such as square-ness of stance, shorter strokes and the relevant movement patterns are of critical importance. By relevant patterns we mean those which apply to the individual style of the player – a block player will not move in the same way as a loop player. Because men play further back, have more time and are faster in movement, these aspects are not so crucial. What is also of critical importance is what happens after the service and during the receive. As women often have less time on the 3rd and 4th ball it’s vital that they use women’s serve and receive tactics and not those of the men. Almost all top women for example use 2nd ball backhand on a fairly regular basis, even those with extremely strong forehands. The men on the other hand more often receive with the forehand as they want to play forehand on the next ball and are quick enough to do this.

Looking at the better girls (who are in some cases at a very young age) in the European Top 10, it is obvious that a number of countries are already grooming their players to develop a woman’s style of play. Such countries are not looking to male techniques and tactics to provide long-term answers to girls’ development. Perhaps in Western Europe we need to assess and evaluate a little more closely the aspects which make Asian women so much more effective and dominant if we are at any foreseeable time in the future to compete with them. European coaches certainly need to look more critically at how the top women in the world are playing and why, to evaluate the current tactics and to understand why a significant number of the world’s top female players use similar tactics.

If coaches are going to insist on developing girls in the same way as boys then they must equally focus on the right technical and tactical areas. Occupying the mid-ground (and a mid-ground which is suitable to the individual player) assumes vital importance as players back away from the table. Also in the case of women topspin players they will usually require the ‘assist’ of elastic energy in their attacking stroke play to achieve real power which denotes directly that they must complete the whole stroke sequence as rapidly as possible. These aspects should of course be worked on during the formative years before the style becomes ‘set’.

A young girl might ask her coach the 64 million dollar question – ‘How am I individually going to play and what is my development path?’ As we have hinted earlier there are many more ways to the top in the women’s game and women world champions over the years have had widely differing styles. Any young female player starting her career has a wide variety of choices – attacking with or without spin, block and hit, defence and any of these combined with material of one sort or another on backhand or forehand or both.

When looking at girls’ style development however two factors perhaps above all are relevant. How do I with my style, best control the speed factor which is inherent in the women’s game? What is my strongest weapon and how am I going to build on this?

Clubs and Material

Rowden Fullen (2005)

One or two clubs in Sweden have a number of players especially girls playing with material combinations. Clubs which have coaches ‘sympathetic’ to the pimple cause and which have had considerable success with material combinations are for example Lyckeby, Lindome and Tyresö. Unfortunately a great many other clubs are strongly resistant to any form of material especially for their younger players and appear too in many cases even strongly resistant to new ideas. This unfortunately often means that young players, especially girls do not have the advantage of having the opportunity to become proficient with and against such rubbers from an early age when they would pick up the relative techniques and tactics rather easily. Even National trainers complain that established junior and senior players often struggle in Europe against material combinations while performing more than adequately against normal rubbers.

This restrictive attitude at club level also means that quite often girl players only start using pimples when in their late teens, in other words when they are old enough to think for themselves and have cast off the shackles of the club environment. It is somewhat strange when you look at the National rankings in women’s 20 even in Sweden to find that over 50% play with pimples of one kind or another – they know what works for them and what works in the women’s game. The percentages however in girls’ 13 or 15 playing with material are almost negligible and this appears to be in almost every case due to lack of opportunity or informed guidance.

When you talk to coaches you understand immediately that there is little in-depth understanding of how players are effective with varying types of material and of how to play effectively against them. There appears too to be the attitude that to play with pimples is somehow a weakness, that the player is not good enough to use normal rubbers, or even that playing with such rubbers is a form of cheating (however within the rules). Such coaches seem to ignore the fact that some of the best women World Champions of all time have played with material (Deng Yaping).

Such thinking also begs the question as to why so many women players use pimples of one kind or another – many more for example than we have in the men’s game. A survey less than ten years ago showed that at that time around 60% of the world’s top women used a different rubber on one side of their racket. Even though at the moment the current crop of top Chinese women use reverse rubber there are still many high profile players in Asia who use pimples – Fukuhara from Japan and Fan Ying from China for example, plus many of the older Chinese women playing in Asia, Europe or elsewhere. The top Chinese coaches openly admit that they have many pimple players in the top provincial centres and that the next phase in the development of the women’s game may well be another material explosion.

Women use pimples quite simple for one main reason — because they complement the women’s game and tactics. What do we mean by ‘complement the women’s game and tactics’? Just what is the difference between the sexes in the way they play? If we compare top men and women we immediately notice the contrast in power. Quite simply men hit the ball harder. Usually too they give themselves more time and room to use their strength and play from further back and with much more topspin. Women on the other hand play closer to the table and block and counter much more and even those women who topspin can’t be compared with the men. A strong woman such as Boros just doesn’t hit the ball anywhere near as hard as a man.

Power and spin are important in the men’s game, placement and change of and control of speed in the women’s. You rarely if ever see the loop-to-loop rallies of the men’s game in women’s play — almost always the return is a block, counter or defence stroke. Not only does the ability to loop several balls in a row against topspin require strength that most women don’t have (and in the long term often leads to injury) but also tactically it’s not a prime requirement in women’s play. Because women loop with less spin and power than men their topspin is much easier to control and contain and there are far more good blockers and counter-hitters in the ranks of the women than in those of the men.

Pimples are ideal for changing spin and speed and for returning unpredictable balls to the opponent. They are particularly good for controlling topspin, especially the lesser level of spin and power you get in the women’s game. With pimples you also have the capability of taking the ball very early and denying the opponent time to play their next stroke so this material is in fact ideal for controlling the opponent’s speed and allowing you to be on level terms with much faster players. The higher level of unpredictability in ball behaviour especially after the bounce means that it is very difficult for topspin players (and particularly those with a long stroke) to adapt. They are often committed too early to a certain stroke pattern.

Return of the Defender

Ian Marshall (2010)

It is now almost 30 years since the last defensively minded player won a singles title at a World Championships; in 1981 in Novi Sad, China’s Tong Ling was crowned Women’s Singles Champion. In the intervening years the attacking player has dominated the scene but, more athletic than ever, it would now seem that the age of the defensive player is alive and well! Certainly that would seem to be the message with regards to the current state of female table tennis at the highest level. It is a fact which will delight many with spectacular table tennis increasingly on the menu.

China’s Wu Yang was secure, safe and impassable at the Volkswagen World Junior Championships in the Columbian city of Cartagena de Indias in December 2009 as she progressed to win the Girls’ Singles Final. Meanwhile at the recently completed Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, no less than four of the eight quarter finalists in the Girls’ Singles event were backspin players. Japan’s Ayuka Tanioka, North Korean Kim Song I, Moldovan Olga Bliznet and the host nation’s Isabelle Li were the young ladies in question with Isabelle Li exceeding all expectations to reach the final where Gu Yuting ended golden aspirations.

Similarly on the senior scene, the female defender is alive and well. The Korean duo of Kim Kyung Ah and Park Mi Young both appear in the top 10 of the ITTF Women’s World Rankings and both will be on duty at the forthcoming Volkswagen Women’s World Cup in Kuala Lumpur and at the UAE World Team Cup Classic in Dubai. Both are defenders but as opposed to the new teenage generation, they are much more in the traditional mode.

Notably the young Asian defensive players possess a forehand topspin. None are as dynamic as China’s Fan Ying at the art of service and the first forehand attack but all tend to be able to play forehand topspin in a controlled manner. It is an art that Kim Kyung Ah and Park Mi Young have tried to develop late in their careers; however they tend to employ more a forehand drive rather than a topspin, the amount of rotation imparted on the ball being somewhat less and they are not over dynamic with the first attack.

Nevertheless they are both prodigious adversaries, both own ITTF Protour Women’s Singles titles and in Kuala Lumpur and Dubai they will delight the crowds. Three decades after Tong Ling thrilled the world, the defender returns!

Women's Play and the Plastic Ball

Rowden December 2015

There have been and are many ways of winning points in our sport; speed, power, placement, spin, control, feeling and technical/tactical areas, such as serve and 3rd ball or receive and 4th ball. In the women’s game speed and control of speed have always been a priority, along with the ability to use the table and place the ball in different areas. Power and spin more the mainstays of the men’s game have always assumed less importance. But with the introduction of the plastic ball the priorities and methods in women’s play are changing.

When evaluating the women’s game we must always bear in mind that, at the highest levels we are looking at Asian or more specifically Chinese players. The last European woman to reach a world singles final was in 1973 and the last European winner was even further back in 1955. Over the decades European women have consistently tried to work with spin and a little more off the table than their Asian counterparts, but with consistently little or no success. They have lost out because there are many more good blockers, counter-hitters and material exponents in the women’s game than in the men’s. If European women try to continue with their ‘traditional’ type of game with the plastic ball their chances to dominate at world level will fade from extremely remote to totally impossible.
The plastic ball has less speed and considerably less spin so any form of play off the table will be less effective. The over-the-table play so long neglected by European women will assume more importance as will receive and the subsequent strokes, due to the lesser impact and advantage gained from the service. But above all with the plastic ball control will be a deciding factor. The ability to ‘hold’, to contain and keep the ball on the table, while probing for weaknesses and to select the right moment and the right stroke to change the form of the rally, will be key. Change of course can be effected in a variety of ways, by the use of power, speed or lack of speed, placement, timing or spin: but the use of any of these from too far away from the table will be counter-productive.
Points can still be won quickly as in serve and third ball, receive and 4th ball, but generally rallies will be longer and players will need to work their way from containment to measures aimed at creating openings. For example if every time you flick the shorter or half-long serve, the opponent responds with a hard counter, then it will be necessary to drop short or even push long, so that you get the opportunity yourself to get in the hard counter first. Equally if on every occasion the opponent serves long and you block or attack only to be outhit immediately, then it will be necessary for you to be able to return a long serve with a slow or shorter ball.
Players who like to back away from the table will not only face the usual problems of wider movement and bigger angles but also the differing plastic problems. Slower balls are effective with plastic as the ball tends to slow down or stop over the table or drop very sharply off the end causing difficulty for opponents.
The problem with making the transition from the celluloid to plastic is that we have been conditioned to using power or spin in certain situations and also pushed into the habit of winning points early. It therefore becomes difficult to force ourselves to wait longer for opportunities while controlling the play. This however is a mindset that we will almost certainly have to get used to and a tactical approach we will need to adopt. What must also be understood is the difference between the men’s and women’s games. The men will continue to use power with the plastic ball but for women this will be more difficult for two reasons; most women lack the upper body strength of men and the extreme power; there are many more good blockers, defenders and counter-hitters among the ranks of the women and much wider use of material of one kind or another.
Speed will still be important but speed with control while waiting for the moment or opportunity to change something. Equally shot selection will be of prime importance, which shot, when, how and where. And if the change is not successful then back to control and start again. It also goes without saying that it’s harder than ever to win points back from the table as not only do we have less spin and speed but a lesser number of alternatives to use from this position against the determined control player. The odds are stacked in favour of the control players, the only problem for them being shot selection or over enthusiasm, should they try to play with too much power before maneuvering the situation to their advantage.
In the case of two close-to-table players the one who can force the ball earlier, or spin off the bounce first, or has better placement will usually come out on top.