Plastic Ball and Connecting Areas of Strength

Rowden March 2016

An important aspect which many players even at a high level overlook or do not fully understand is the principle of connected areas of strength.

Basically there are up to three interconnecting areas in which players will generally operate:
● Close-to-table, where serve and receive is so important with the plastic ball. Most serves are short and the most common receive is the flick over the table, followed by the short drop shot. All players, male and female and regardless of style need to be efficient in this close area and within a distance of two feet or sixty centimetres from the playing surface. Many girls and women, especially the blockers and counter-hitters are most comfortable in this area.
● Medium distance, between say two and five feet or up to a hundred and fifty centimetres from the table. This is a good position from which to use strong counters with power and is an area used by both male and female players. Defensive players will also operate towards the rear of this zone as they will be able to return a faster, flatter ball which gives less time for the opponent to think and plan.
● The deep area from around a metre and a half up to three metres or more from the table. Usually this zone is the prerogative of the male players, as they have the upper body strength and the dynamic movement to both lob and counter-smash from this position and still even win the point. Very few women players have the power to do this against a dropping ball and bear in mind that the plastic ball can drop below table height very quickly when less force is fed into the stroke. In the women’s game too those who choose to retreat too far, face many more good blockers and counter-hitters.

What is crucial for players to fully understand is that all of us have a comfort zone within which we operate most effectively. Not only have we to identify exactly what this is, but we also have to be efficient in the adjoining zones and training time has to be spent here too. In other words there are overlapping areas of strength and each of us needs to evaluate not only where we are most effective but indeed how we are effective. Are the strokes and strategies we use at maximum efficiency, in relation to the areas and distances from which we operate? Or do we need to change things or work with new ideas regarding stroke usage and development?

The plastic ball has brought differing scientific factors into our game and we need to come to terms with these: a little less speed and much less spin, longer rallies, less advantage on the serve and more on the receive and rapidly slowing balls when there is less power input. It is easy to get more balls back when you retreat but much harder to win points from back due to less penetration with spin. When players are forced back the stronger, more athletic performers can more easily gain the upper hand. It is therefore much harder for the women with less upper body strength and less dynamic movement, to play an effective off-the-table style. For many players the physical side is going to require a rather increased emphasis.

So just how do we marry up the new techniques and strategies with the overlapping/connecting areas of strength. There are a number of questions the player has to now ask him/herself:
● Do I fully understand my most effective comfort zone in relation to the table and do I play the most appropriate strokes from here?
● Am I limited with what I can do or have I alternative strokes and strategies from this area?
● Do I spend between 60 – 80% of playing time in this area where I am most effective?
● If I have to move outside my comfort zone do I get back within one or two shots?
● Am I effective in the close-to-table zone which is so crucial in the modern game?
● Am I fit enough to cope with the increased physical demands of today’s game?
● Do I train not only in my comfort zone but in the areas either side so that I can cope with all situations and be as complete a player as I can?

One final aspect of importance to consider and bear in mind is symmetrical play. By this we mean the equal use of the Forehand and Backhand strokes in the fast modern game so as not to leave gaps which the opponent can exploit. The majority of players understand this fully in the close-to-table situation where time is at a premium and where it can be unwise to come round and play the Forehand from the Backhand corner, unless you are certain you can play a winner.

What must be understood now with the plastic ball is that less powerful players and especially girls and women, will not be capable of generating enough penetration with the ball from the deeper areas. This means that if they retreat too far, coming round to play forehands will still leave them at risk from a strong counter and particularly if the opponent adopts earlier timing and a closer position.