Europe: Are we aiming to produce only 2nd class women players?

Rowden Fullen (2009)

Generally what are our aims in Europe in terms of women’s style development? Is it really our intention to produce world-beaters, women who can match the Asian players or are we content to aim at a lower level, content to be 2nd class? It is obvious that there are fewer styles of play in the women’s game in Europe; even in National Centres women have less variety and our girls who train in Asia almost always return with enthusiastic tales of the vast variety of sparring partners, both penhold and shakehands grip. Is it however also perhaps obvious that many European countries have given up on the possibility of trying to match the Asians and that their input in the case of girl players is ‘token’ at the very best?

When one talks for instance to the top Asian coaches regarding our penchant in a number of European countries for producing women who play a man’s game and topspin back from the table, their reply is always the same – ‘Long may you continue to do this, with the bigger ball the superiority of the Asian players will be even more pronounced. If you continue in the West to work with this style of play you will only ever produce top 100 players at best, you will never succeed in getting women in the top 25 in the world.’ Does this mean that certain styles in the women’s game are perhaps more effective at ‘world’ level?

I think in general we can say that this does apply and that almost certainly the traditional European girls’ topspin game is never going to be a worldbeater in the current climate. Good women defenders on the other hand for example are often very high in the world rankings and have been for a number of years — it doesn’t matter whether they are Asian or European. Also material players figure highly in the top ranks of the women. There are many more ways of playing in the women’s game — we only need to look at world champions over the last twenty years to see the variety of styles. It is also noticeable much more than in the men’s game that the top women have their own ‘specialties’ in playing styles, materials and tactics.

Coaches should examine in some detail the sort of strokes that European and Asian women produce. Asian women will for example often drive through the opponent’s topspin on the bounce at an early timing point. European women use this stroke very rarely as in most cases they have the bat-arm foot too far back and can’t get in quickly enough.

So what is the most popular style among the world’s best women, those winning Olympics and World Class events or even those at the top in the younger age groups? Many of these players stay much closer to the table than the Europeans, cope with the speed inherent in the women’s game rather better and always aim to reduce the time available to the opponent. Zhang Yining, Wang Nan and Ai Fukuhara are prime examples as is Liu Jia now in Austria. Rather than backing away all these players move in to take the ball earlier on the FH side and use close-to-table footwork and BH techniques. They play square or even over-square and are able to execute early-ball strokes more easily because of their stance and movement patterns. They also of course retain a larger range of alternatives, which are lost to players who back away from the table. Two European-born seniors who understand these principles and have used them effectively are Mihaela Steff and Georgina Pota.

It is however noticeable in the case of the younger girls from Europe (and especially from the Eastern-bloc countries) that squareness is the in thing and that some coaches in Europe understand what is successful at present in the top level women’s game. Players such as Szocs, Kusinska, Kolodyazhnaya, Noskova, Matelova, Xiao all play very square and in some cases pronouncedly over-square. This is obviously not accidental as countries such as Romania and Russia have a long history of producing high-level female players and their top coaches would not countenance obsolete or ineffective techniques. It seems obvious they have been looking at the world’s best women players and have decided that traditional European ‘direction’ is perhaps outdated. Of course rather than playing ‘catch-up’ it is better to initiate new ideas, but certainly anything is better than clinging on desperately to the past.

Unfortunately however in Europe there seems to be little thought and fewer ideas as to where we are going with our women and indeed how to get there. Many coaches even seem to ignore the fact that there are many more playing styles in the women’s game than in the men’s and that it can be a very useful exercise to explore the varied alternatives. Any top-level training group of women players should normally consist of many more varied styles than you would find in an equivalent men’s group. If European women only spar against one or two styles of play how are they expected to progress into the higher echelons of women’s table tennis?

Techniques are and should be different too with players who are closer to the table, but again in Europe we don’t seem to set much credence in aspects such as this. A number of top coaches stress the point that table tennis is faster and faster every year but we don’t seem to take this to the logical conclusion – if our sport is faster then it follows logically that better close-to-table technique is crucial simply because we have less time!

It is however not only the increasing speed factor which we must evaluate but another element which, although of crucial importance, is often overlooked. This is the fact, that of all the racket sports, table tennis is the one where the ball slows most dramatically through the air and where spin most affects the trajectory of the ball.

We must therefore consider time and the implications of the time element in men’s and women’s table tennis. Men more often than not play from further back, with more spin and a more pronounced arc. Because of these factors although they hit the ball harder it takes fractionally longer to reach the opponent on the other side of the table. Women take the ball earlier and play flatter with less spin. There is a big time difference between attacking close to the table and executing similar strokes say three metres back.

Just what are the implications of this difference in the time element? It has for a start a direct influence on technique. When you have less time technical considerations such as stroke length and playing the FH across the face assume rather more importance – or for example playing the BH with the right foot or right shoulder a little forward. If the technique is sloppy you deny yourself recovery time for the next ball.

Equally movement patterns are vital – it is critical that women have the correct patterns for their style of play and can execute them with good balance. Above all retained squareness is vital – because they are closer to the table, women need to be ready at all times to play either FH or BH without a moment’s hesitation. If you watch female Asian players who topspin (Guo Yan and Wang Nan for example), they loop from a much squarer position so as to retain the initiative on the next ball. The position of the feet for topspin can be very different depending on whether you are initiating power or using the speed on the incoming ball. Sound technique is rather more vital in the women’s game than in the men’s.

Tactical considerations also become crucial. Not only do almost all women stand closer to the table, they also stand squarer, use more BH serves, receive more with the BH from the middle and play more BH shots from the middle. Nor are these tactics accidental as almost all the top women both Asian and European utilize them and many women so doing, such as Boros and Guo Yan, have in fact extremely strong FH strokes. These tactics are used because they work and because they save time.

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