The First Four Balls

Rowden Fullen (2004)

If you watch the world’s best men playing table tennis there are several aspects of the play which will strike you almost immediately. First will be the power and unpredictability of the first opening ball and perhaps some surprise at how quickly many of the rallies are over. Then will come an appreciation of just how tight most of the serves are and how it is almost impossible to open and attack these serves. Finally there is an understanding of the necessity of some direct attack from the receive, impossible or not — without this you cannot win.

At top level the importance of the first four balls is crucial. If your serve is not good enough and the opponent can open with enough spin and power, you lose. If on the other hand your opponent’s serve is so good that you can only push back, you lose again.

The first step is to work on your own serve — to make it short enough or tight enough or with enough spin or deception that it is difficult for the opponent to open hard. You will note we say difficult not impossible. If he can be persuaded to open with a weaker stroke, then you have the advantage, you are the one who can initiate and respond with power. The first player at this level to introduce real spin or power, especially with good length and placement, will usually win the point.

The next stage is to explore different methods of coping with the short or half-long serve and to train on these. Can you attack, flick, spin over the table and fade and can you do this in such a way that you gain an advantage and have a better than even chance of winning the point. Often the higher the level, the more there must be a certain amount of risk taking. Do you have a better than 60% chance if you are positive? It may well be worth the risk.

Another alternative is to drop the ball back so short that the server can do little or nothing with it, thus neutralizing his service advantage. This too requires much training for if you misread the heavy spin and float you lose. At high level it is important to take this short return on a very early timing point so that the opponent’s time to react is severely limited.

Unfortunately many players at the highest level, especially in the men’s game, serve just long enough to make life very difficult — the half-long serve with the second bounce on the white line or just off. If you open with a weaker stroke, you lose, equally if you push long, you give the initiative in opening and placement to the server. If the serve is so good that you must push long, then how and where you play is vital.

  • Firstly variation, it is crucial to be able to push long with differing effects, with and against the spin, with float, sidespin and backspin.
  • Secondly timing, the earlier you can play the ball the less time the opponent has to read the stroke, work out the spin and react.
  • Thirdly unpredictability in placement. If the opponent is never quite sure where you will play, he has less chance to be really positive.

The third important stage and one essential to the development of any good player, is how he copes with the first opening ball. It is not enough at high level just to control the first drive or topspin — the other player retains the initiative and will accelerate spin and power until he wins the point. Being just safe is a loser’s tactic, here too you must look at responding positively — force the return with either power or spin or both and put the opponent under pressure. Another alternative is to change pace and length as dramatically as possible, the stop-block or slow roll have their place at the highest level. And of course always consider where to play, the variety of choices in placement, straight, body or angles.

Finally each player must have a point winning weapon or tactic. It is particularly important that you can follow up on your own serve and put the opponent under real pressure directly. To this end serve and third ball should form a major part of every training session. You should know where the ball is usually returned and practise third ball attack until your response is automatic. Also you should know how the ball is returned — the opponent may return some or all of your own spin, or impose his own. You should of course train with your practice partner returning to unexpected areas, playing at times with and at times against the spin. In this way you become more at ease dealing with the unusual and unexpected situations you will face against the best players.

You should also be aware that as you improve it is necessary for your technical and tactical levels to advance. A serve which a regional player can only push, may well be easily killed by a world class star. As you move up the ladder so the levels of expertise in serve and receive change, as do the skill levels in taking advantage of the next ball.

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