Modern Women Defenders: The Way Forward

Rowden Fullen (2010)

Over the last few years it has been obvious to most coaches that, with the bigger ball and games to only eleven-up, the pure defender is not just a dying breed but no longer a force in the modern game. Good women defenders will still be in the lower world ranking positions but it will be harder and harder for them to reach the top 15 to 20 in the world. Many of the older choppers are still around, the Koreans and Russians for example, but as they age they will drop down through the rankings and they will find it difficult if not impossible to upgrade their game to cope with today’s play. Most younger defenders now attack more.

The bigger ball loses spin rapidly through the air and gives the attacker more advantages. The maximum revolutions with the 38mm ball as tested by the Chinese National Team were 150 revs per second. With the 40mm ball this drops to about 133 revs per second, but the bigger ball loses spin much more rapidly through the air because of its larger surface area. If the chopper stays back her opponent has time and a more predictable ball to deal with: it is also very easy to hit one and drop one and wear down even the really fit defender over a period of time. In the old days up to twenty-one and with the small ball, it was in fact often the other way round and the stubborn defender who wore down the attacker. But now we have come full circle.

We must also bear in mind the differences between the men’s and women’s defence game. Because male attackers hit the ball much harder, there is much more return spin on the ball, especially off a long pimple rubber and even with the big ball. Choppers like Chen Weixing have so much spin off the long-pimple backhand, that it’s difficult for even the top men to maintain a topspin attack. Also the men chop with much better length on the ball and usually in the last six inches of the table. As a result there are more long balls in attack versus defence in the men’s game and less short play.

Women choppers on the other hand face less power and less spin and most top women, especially the Asians, adopt a different tactical approach to playing defenders. They will often play not with power but with a high, slow loop to the backhand side, interspersed with short drop-shots, until they get a ball they can flat hit. Because of the lesser power and spin and the slower balls, short play comes much more into the women’s defensive game and close-to-table tactics are therefore much more important to the female defender.

In the final analysis of course women defenders now have to attack, but when, from where and how are the crucial questions. Basically it is necessary to be able to ‘change the form of the rally’ both close to the table and at a distance and to be able to assess the various possibilities and ways of doing this, then to evaluate which are the best alternatives for your individual game. What you are aiming to do by ‘changing the form of the rally’ is to give the opponent an unpredictable and different ball, something she doesn’t expect and doesn’t train against. This will often turn the rally round and create an advantage or an attacking opportunity for the defender.

So just what alternatives are available close-to-table as the defensive player comes in to deal with the shorter ball? If you are late and meet a falling ball then obviously topspin or slow roll would be viable possibilities, at the top of the bounce drive/topspin with pimples or reverse could be easily executed, while an early ball position would bring in all the block or push options with either rubber but from an early timing point.

From a deeper position (which would not entail much movement) the defender should also look at which alternatives are available. Many defenders do counter-hit, especially on the forehand side and this is particularly effective when changing defence into attack. What you should be looking at is taking a step in to take the ball at an earlier timing point and try to drive flat and hard. This gives the opponent a return, which is fast and flat through the air and slower after the bounce, very different from the chop and float balls. Players using a slightly thicker sponge under the pimples (1.2 to 1.5) should look to hitting hard from back with the pimples too as this is usually a winning stroke.

The fast topspin is not such a viable alternative as this is something most attackers face every day and are quite used to handling. They will probably block you soft and short and this may well place you at a disadvantage. Slower topspin and slow roll shots as well as ‘fishing’ strokes are all useful options when back from the table. Players should really work at least with two alternatives most suitable to their style (say hard drive and ‘fishing’), until they are quite proficient with both.

This of course does not mean that you should neglect your chopping skills. It is important that defenders can both chop heavy and ‘float’ to confuse the opponent. Players should really work more at float with the reverse on the forehand, most don’t use this enough. ‘Twiddling’ is also another crucial skill: if defenders chop with reverse against the fast topspin shots and then use the pimples against the really heavy, slower spin balls, they will more often than not cause real problems for the opposition.

It is essential too that the defensive player is consistent and safe and does not make too many ‘unforced’ errors. This particularly applies when pushing over the table even with the pimples and even when varying the timing and spin to try and catch out the opponent. Many choppers in fact use the reverse rubber when pushing over the table, thus keeping more control in the rally and by creating more backspin making it harder for the opponent to attack.

It is crucial too for the defensive player to have differing options to deal with the serve, especially the longer, faster serves which will often be a prelude to the ‘big attack’. The defender should not only be able to step back and chop or float but also have the capability to take the fast serve early and play it back slow, with either a soft, short return or chop-block. This will give the server the type of return she would not normally expect, particularly from what she sees as a back-from-the-table player.

Serve and third ball attack is of course nowadays a vital weapon in any defender’s armoury and one which should be used at vital points in the game, when the opponent least expects a change of tactics. I consider most defenders’ serves inadequate and ineffective and think they can do much more in this area. I would like to see them work much more on long, very fast serves, with heavy chop/sidespin and topspin/sidespin (with both backhand and forehand). Recent research at the Worlds shows that even the top women miss or make mistakes against 20 to 25% of long serves. Defensive players often tend to serve short or half-long most of the time and don’t really get much advantage from this.