Science of the Women's Game

Rowden November 2018

Women have always played closer to the table than men and have always had less spin than men. With the best women players in the world (over the last 6 decades always from Asia) speed has invariably been prioritised over spin.

With the advent of the plastic ball not only is the trend set to continue but indeed to accelerate.

If we examine high-level tournaments over the last year or so, Asian girl/women players (particularly the Japanese) are taking speed, closeness to the table and early timing to completely new levels. Even the Chinese with all their resources and traditions are struggling. In the Asian Table Tennis Championships 2017, a young Japanese girl, Miu Hirano, beat the World Number 1, 2 and 6 to win. It was the first time in over 2 decades that the Chinese women had suffered defeat in this event. In the Swedish Open Protour barely a year later, another young Japanese girl, Mima Ito, beat not one but several world class Chinese and won the tournament with an emphatic 4 -- 0 win over the current World Number 1. At the Czech Open anothet Japanese woman, Kazumi Ishikawa, beat Wen Jia 4 -- 2 in the final. Both players were very square, did not retreat and took almost every ball early, even stepping into the FH corner to use the other player's speed off the bounce.

So just why are the Japanese girls coming through and why are the Chinese players less effective? One of the reasons I feel is age. Players like Hirano and Ito are 18 around 10 years younger than Ding Ning or Liu Shiwen and have taken more readily to the science of the plastic ball. The older Chinese players have spent longer with the celluloid, playing further off the table and using spin, which was relevant with the old ball. With the plastic ball you have not only dramatically reduced spin but a higher bounce, which makes early ball drive and block very effective. We even see with older male players like Boll, who has always been comfortable playing square, close and early, that he is holding his ranking in the top few players in the world.

The science of table tennis is changing dramatically and all women players and their coaches have to look to their coaching and training methods if they want success at the higher levels in our sport. So just what do we notice with the top girl/women players?

Players staying very square to the opponent, close to the table and taking the ball early
Players spraying the ball all over the table (especially with the BH wing), not allowing the opponent to settle and using very good length and angles
Players strengthening the BH and using this much more often to create openings/opportunities
Players using more BH strokes from the middle of the table at speed
Players not using the FH from the BH corner so much which enables more complete two-winged coverage of the table
When players step to the FH side, staying square and moving in to take the ball off the bounce, allowing no time to the opponent
Players keeping the racket up above table level using shorter strokes and driving through the ball rather than dropping the bat and spinning
Players who tried to spin more or who retreated from the table usually lost

Looking at the above there are logically other aspects that women will develop and focus on to cope with this increased speed and aggression.

All players expect a faster game so tempo variations will assume much more importance and there will be more attention to precise placement and in/out movement
More slower/softer balls with spin or float over the table as the plastic ball slows more in this situation
More long, fast pushes over the table and from a very early timing point with both spin/float
Short serves and receives will need more quality
More use of sidespin in serves and strokes
More long serves in the last 10 centimetres of the table and with speed

Coaches involved with girls/women would also do well to look at the latest Olympic research and testing into the relationship between eye dominance and reaction speed, especially with left-handed players.

Of course this does not mean there is only one way of playing at the highest levels and this is the only way to success. Women over the decades have found many more ways of coping with speed than the men and there have always been many more styles of play in the women's game, defenders, blockers, drive and material players. Everyone is not going to be able to take the ball off the bounce and it's therefore going to be important for each player to determine their best distance from the table and how to be effective from this area.

What players may need to bear in mind is that it will be more difficult to win points from too deep even for defenders, as what spin there is will dissipate quickly. Also as the plastic ball carries further and higher it will be necessary to keep the bat higher in stroke play and to play through the ball. It will be vital too for all players to master short play and tactics over the table as this will form a large part of modern strategy with the plastic ball.